This past June, we had the privilege of celebrating the beginning of our new adventures together - twice! Surrounded by adoring family and friends, we had the honor of tying the knot in a chapel in Las Vegas, Nevada (David’s hometown) and a Cambodian ceremony in Denver, Colorado (Vanessa’s hometown).
In the weeks preceding and following our wedding, we began to realize how constrained the traditional views on marriage are. From the invitation list, the procession order, the name changes, and incessant questions about kids, our happy union was being viewed through a lens of outdated practices. In Asian American families, weddings serve as a celebratory time for not just the couple, but also our communities. Oh and saving face.
But what happens when you come from a nontraditional Asian American family?
Nontraditional does not mean broken.
Vanessa’s father, who was caught between Asian American masculinity and misogylinity, filled their home with toxic patriarchy. He made them feel small, silenced, invisible. Realizing she was caught in a marriage that was only held together by societal expectations, Vanessa’s mom made the decision to file for divorce and raise three children on her own. Asian American women who choose to independently care and nurture themselves are shamed for being powerful. People from their own community called them broken. There would be whisperings of how terrible it was that her children would be raised without a father. That they would grow up to be “incomplete."
David’s parents divorced two months after he was born and he grew up with an absent mother and semi-present father. Instead, he was raised by his grandparents in a modest home in Las Vegas who provided what they could through a combination of welfare and food stamps, despite cultural barriers, health concerns and limited English abilities. You can read more about David’s experience here.
Nontraditional is not broken.
Many traditional Asian American cultures value family cohesion and structured gender roles. Women are tasked with raising the family and men bring in the income. Both are tasked with upholding the family reputation. Deviating from such often results in community stigma, leading to all sorts of internalized trauma and mental health issues. Maintaining familial harmony at the expense of one’s own personal mental, emotional and physical health can be a difficult line to straddle.
So again, we ask, what happens when you come from a nontraditional Asian American family?
1. Address stigma within the Asian American community
Stigma manifests in infinite ways within the Asian American community. Regardless of whether it is related to marriage, gender roles, sexuality, weight, limited standards of beauty, careers, and many more - the racial socialization of Asian Americans causes us to believe that we must fit into defined boxes. This stigma can prevent us from addressing mental health, domestic violence, immigration, and many other challenges within our community.
We must address the subtle and overt ways that stigma dictates how we navigate the world. For Asian Americans, this means shedding light on the model minority myth, challenging misogyny, and understanding how ableism, ageism and many other aspects of our identities affect our community.
2. Challenge the perception of what a healthy and functional Asian American family looks like.
There is no one-way to be a family. A cishetero (heterosexual person whose gender aligns with what they were assigned at birth) nuclear family is seen as perfection. It’s what we see in advertisements, in films, in our heads when we think family. Even the ways in which we speak about family often involve a mother and father figure. Any other narrative often involves deficit perspectives. Having Vanessa’s mother walk her down the aisle and David escorting his grandma were personal and powerful objections to traditional notions of what creates a unified family. Single parents, grandparents, other family members, adopted parents, community members, mentors and others who raise us are just as incredible. They help us thrive.
3. Marriage is still rooted in patriarchy and marriage is still about ownership. Marriage is not integral to creating a family.
First, it is important to recognize that although patriarchy and sexism are presented in unique ways in the Asian American community, they are not exclusive to just our community. In the process of our marriage, we had to confront multiple issues at the intersections of race and gender. Vanessa decided to take her mother’s last name after marriage and was often questioned as to why she would not take David’s last name. These questions were often interlaced with comments about her commitment and dedication. Assumptions about having children were also common. When confronted with this question, Vanessa was often filled with guilt when sharing that she did not yet want children. Asian American men and Asian American women are treated in vastly different ways when it comes to marriage and expectations in creating a family.
4. You just exist.
It would be irresponsible to provide a guidebook on how to be from a nontraditional family because to simply be a part of one is already enough. Being a nontraditional family does not necessarily mean actively protesting family norms. It does not have to mean creating new traditions - in fact, most of our traditions are the same. Instead, our attention is centered on who is there, rather than who is not. It means infusing even more love and care into all that we do.
For Asian Americans, marriage and family can be a blessing in our lives, but it is important to confront our own notions of what a family looks like. For those who are blessed with two loving parents, cherish them. For those who had others step in to raise us into the people we are today, honor them.
Nontraditional does not mean broken. Indeed for many, it means that we have been lucky enough to have been raised by a village.
Partners-in-life, Vanessa and David are critical higher education and social justice educators/scholars. They spend 99% of their time reading comics with people of color, watching videos of puppies and capybaras, and changing #datenights into #datelife.