Domestic violence prevention advocates are working hard, but a lack of resources, misinformation and entrenched cultural taboos have undermined their efforts in the Asian American community.
V. Chen, who asked that her first name not be used, knows what it’s like to feel lonely, frightened and vulnerable. For 10 years the petite, shy Taiwanese American and her husband, also Taiwanese, lived a peaceful life in Flushing. But shortly after Sept. 11, 2001, the family’s Chinese restaurant went out of business and everything changed. Chen’s husband became bitter and threatening. He was prone to explosions of anger and screamed insults at his wife in the presence of their children, ages 2, 5 and 9.
Chen, who was unemployed at the time, feared the situation would escalate into violence. “I was so scared,” the 36 year old whispered in her small office at an after school day care program. “I didn’t know what to do. I just wanted to keep my children safe.”
She thought about leaving, but was too frightened. With no job and little English, she had no way to support her children. And with no relatives in the country, she had nowhere to go. Discouraged by her mother from leaving her husband, and too embarrassed to tell her friends, Chen felt powerless to escape the abuse.
Advocates believe she is one of hundreds of battered and abused Asian American women in Flushing who fear the consequences of speaking out about domestic violence.
Flushing is more than 50 percent Asian American. Police at the 109th Precinct, which covers the neighborhood, said domestic violence is Flushing’s most common crime for all nationalities and races. Yet only three organizations in the neighborhood cater specifically to battered and abused Asian American women.
Of the few studies that examine domestic violence among Asian Americans, most point to serious trends. According to a recent Ford Foundation report, Asian Americans have a particularly high rate of death from domestic assault compared with other ethnic groups. In study after study, experts find one thing in common: cultural stigmas prevent Asian American women from reporting domestic abuse.
“It’s not a community that wants people to know about their problems,” said Catherine Moore, who oversees the domestic violence unit in the Queens Borough President’s Office. “They don’t want to bring shame on their households. Culturally, they’re taught this can be worked out with the family. They think it will just go away. In many cases, it doesn’t.”
Jane Li, counseling director at Garden of Hope, the only organization in Flushing that caters specifically to abused Chinese Americans, agreed that most of the women feel ashamed about discussing domestic violence. Of more than 200 women she’s personally spoken to on the phone since she started at the center in 2004, only about 80 agreed to speak in person.
“Counseling is not popular in Chinese culture,” she said. “When they have problems they get support from family and friends.”
But in cases of domestic violence, Li added, friends and family often discourage victims from getting outside help. Chen’s situation is typical. When she called her mother in Taiwan and complained about her husband’s threats, her mother told her not to leave.
Many abuse victims must also contend with practical concerns, like language barriers. Chen, who now lives with her husband in a virtually peaceful home, said learning English was vital to ending her abuse. Once she mastered English, she found a job and became self sufficient. As she began to earn an income, Chen’s husband could no longer ignore her threats to leave.
Officer Kisoo Kim, a public affairs liaison for the 109th Precinct, estimated that 20 percent of the precintc’s 200 officers can speak an Asian language. That means that police responding to reports of domestic abuse have two options: They can rely on a telephone language line for translation—introduced in 1994—or they can depend on family members or friends with better English.
“It’s not that helpful,” said Tuhina De O’Connor, executive director of the Asian Women’s Center. “If translators aren’t trained in domestic violence, you don’t get the right translation. Sometimes these people have their own family values that they interject into their translation.”
Gender barriers can also prevent Asian American women from calling the police. Advocates said many of their clients have an aversion to speaking with male officers about sensitive issues. “Speaking with someone of the same gender matters,” Li said. “I have one client who felt so embarrassed because the police officer was male and she had to show him her bruises under her skirt.”
Many women who report domestic violence are recent illegal immigrants, many of whom depend on their husbands for support. They fear their husbands would be deported if they call authorities. For many of them, the prospect of being left alone and jobless in a foreign country is more frightening than the abuse.
Other Asian American women are worried that calling the police would compromise their own legal status. Although the NYPD has a policy not to inquire about a crime victim’s immigration status, it’s basically an unknown policy, according to Lydia Cho, a counselor at Flushing’s Korean Family Counseling and Research Center.
“There is a lot of threatening,” she said. “A husband will say ‘if you don’t listen to me, you’re not getting your green card.’”
Advocates are quick to point out that even illegal immigrants have protection under federal law. According to the 1994 Violence Against Women Act, illegal immigrants married to a U.S. citizen or legal permanent resident can apply for a green card if they can prove abuse.
Experts point to several obstacles. To successfully petition for a change of status, women must keep documents of the abuse, such as police reports or pictures of injuries. They must also find an attorney who knows the law well.
The city’s 42 shelter programs provide 2,000 beds for domestic violence victims. Only one shelter with 57 beds caters specifically to Asian American women and is in Manhattan. Those who cannot be admitted immediately are often referred to city shelters, where language translation and culturally sensitive services are rarely available, according to Cho and Li.
Cho said the Korean Family Counseling and Research Center is taking matters into its own hands. The organization is using recent grant money to create a handful of safe spaces for Korean Americans in danger of domestic violence.
The organization is moving into locations now, and the living spaces could be ready in a month.