Peter Tran, left, with his dad, right (Photo courtesy of Peter Tran)


Figuring out Dad: The influence of Confucianism in an Asian family

My dad is a paradox. He doesn’t say much, but has a big presence. He doesn’t smile at us or praise us much, but we know he loves us and would do anything for us. He seems stern and tough, and hisses in disapproval at our smallest errors, but he is also totally self-sacrificing and…
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Peter Tran

November 15, 2018

My dad is a paradox. He doesn’t say much, but has a big presence. He doesn’t smile at us or praise us much, but we know he loves us and would do anything for us. He seems stern and tough, and hisses in disapproval at our smallest errors, but he is also totally self-sacrificing and considerate.

How do you understand such a person? I interviewed my dad to find out how he was brought up, looking for clues. My dad was raised in a traditional Confucian family in a Chinese ghetto in South Vietnam. I discovered that although he never received formal instruction in it, Confucianism explains several of my dad’s most prominent character traits and explains the paradoxes.

Written in the Analects of Confucius is “Do not do to others what you would not want them to do to you.”

This is the Judeo-Christian Golden Rule in the negative. Confucius also advised against comparing yourselves with others.

“If you see someone superior, imitate him. If you see someone with inferior behavior, see to your own character,” Confucius wrote in the Analects.

That reminds me of Jesus’ admonition to “take the log out of your own eye” before you try to “take the speck out of your brother’s eye” (Matt 7:5). I have never heard my father boast nor say anything ill about another person. I have never seen him treat anyone disrespectfully or unkindly. Rather, we get inundated every Christmas and Chinese New Year with presents from Dad’s patients and employees who all love him.

Confucius taught, “Do not let your words but deeds be many.”

That describes Dad to a tee. He may not be a warm fuzzy, but he is always working hard to do things for us or other people. In fact, when one of us kids might be apt to feel hurt by his seemingly critical or displeased manner, Mom always advises us not to pay attention to what Dad says but what he does to see how much he loves us. Doing so always makes us feel better. I’m proud to have a father who lives the Confucian ideal of a benevolent, humble doer of good deeds.

Confucius also taught about balance and moderation. He did not invent this idea which is as old as the yin and yang concept of the legendary Chinese cultural hero Fuxi, who supposedly lived over 4,000 years ago (Confucius lived 551-479 BC). Confucius incorporated this idea; he himself claimed his work was not original, but a compilation of wisdom from centuries of Chinese culture.

Confucius advised moving toward the mean, to avoid excess, and to aim for balance, moderation, and harmony. My dad lives this way in big and small things. He doesn’t overeat, but eats just enough and no more. “I don’t believe in stuffing myself,” he is wont to say, something I feel is very hard not to do. He constantly tells me and my brothers not to go to bed too late and sends my little brother off to bed regardless of whether he’s  still up because of studying or playing video games.

For as long as I can remember, my dad has balanced family life with work really well. He stacks his patients so he works really hard on the days he goes to work, but creates open days to go to our events or take us places. He may remind us to turn off the TV and expects us to study hard, but also takes us on vacations where he relaxes and smiles a lot more. He balances work and family and practices moderation in his habits, trying to train us to learn to do the same.

Probably the biggest influence of Confucianism on my dad is the concept of the family. For Confucius, the family was the central priority, the basic unit of society that had to be gotten right for the whole society to function well. The father is responsible for taking care of his children, and they in turn have to respect and try to obey him. Family relationships are more important than friendships and business relationships, and you must respect and take care of your elders.

That explains why my dad gave up an academic appointment to provide for the family, and didn’t move us away from Nana and Yeye and the extended family when he could have done so to advance his career. That also explains why he seems strict and severe — our obedience because he’s earned it and deserves it by taking such good care of us.

I can also understand how when one of our relatives didn’t listen and got into trouble, my dad stood by her the whole time, but was probably more deeply painful than any of us American-born children could ever understand. Family comes first for my dad with Confucianism in his bones.

There are some things my dad does that have nothing to do with Confucianism, of course. I think he hisses when we make too much noise because of noise hypersensitivity. As my mom says, his senses are more finely tuned than ours, and his mind works more like a carefully calibrated and precise watch than the elastic coils that most of the rest of the family is endowed with.

That also is probably why he doesn’t smile a lot — with seven kids, we make a lot of noise and make a lot of mistakes. Despite all the stress, my dad displays all the qualities of decency, humility, industry, balance, moderation, and family priorities of a fine Confucian gentleman.

When I first read about Confucian values, I thought, “Oh my gosh! That explains Dad!” And Confucius never mentioned anything about having to smile. Of course, that might be a private matter. Everyone else in the family, not just the kids, but uncles, aunts, and cousins included, calls my dad “the general” or sometimes “the admiral.” My mom calls him “my Jedai knight.”