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Refuge for Battered Asian Wives : Shelter Helps Overcome Language, Cultural Barriers

October 10, 1986|LILY ENG | Eng is a Times reporter-trainee. and

A wife and salted fish are alike. They have to be beaten once a day to keep them good.

--Old Korean saying

The 10 bedrooms at Every Women's Shelter are tiny and sparsely furnished. Most of the rooms hold only a bed and a chair. Not much more can fit in them. The wallpaper is faded and the curtains dusty. But the women who stay in these rooms do not mind. The shelter is a haven for Asian battered women.

Like women of all races, Pacific-Asian immigrants who are beaten by their husbands want to escape, but often do not.

For Asians, cultural barriers compound the difficulty in seeking help. To many traditional Asians, breaking up a marriage is a personal embarrassment, what one social-service worker likened to wearing "a scarlet letter." Then there are the bewilderment of a new language and culture, including a perplexing legal system. And, finally, they may have come from a society in which wife-beating is an accepted part of marriage.

Every Women's Shelter is a 5-year-old program that helps Pacific-Asian women, most of them immigrants, solve some of these problems. It offers counseling, legal aid and a safe place to stay close to cultural ties that support, rather than bind.

Nancy (not her real name) is a Filipina in her late 30s. This is how she described her plight: A doctor, she and her husband came to the United States 10 years ago. Nancy and her three children fled to the shelter in 1983 to escape from John (not his real name), after he threatened to kill them. Frustrated one night after losing money in an investment, John choked his youngest daughter, hit Nancy and went on a rampage.

"I tried to stop him from hitting me. But he hit me all over my back and my shoulders. The children were crying and I kept shouting at him to stop. When he wouldn't, I just grabbed my children and ran to my neighbors. They called the police. I didn't know what to do. He scared me," Nancy said quietly during an interview at the shelter.

Before the police arrived, John ran away. Knowing he kept a gun for protection, Nancy was unsure of where to go and was frightened that he would follow. "John knew everybody I knew. I didn't want to endanger anybody in case he tried to find me, " Nancy said as she looked at one of her daughters. "The police told me about Every Women's Shelter so I went there."

Nancy stayed at the shelter for three weeks and then found an apartment with the counselors' help.

Wife-beating is not unusual in the Pacific-Asian culture, said Nilda Rimonte, the shelter's founder and executive director. Many Asian men feel they have license to hit their women.

"They go home and feel safe, so they feel they are able to hit their wives. They have been told it is OK to hit them . . . (that) it might be good for her," Rimonte said.

In traditional Asian culture, both husband and wife accept wife-beating as a way of life, said Lucie Cheng, director of UCLA's Asian American Studies Center.

While many Asian immigrant husbands are not more likely than other husbands to beat their wives, they are more likely to be excused for doing so, Cheng said.

"If the wife is seen as doing something wrong, the husband beats her. So, if the husband said she was disobedient, others would say she deserved a beating," Cheng said.

There has been little documentation of wife abuse in Los Angeles' Asian community, but it certainly exists, said Bill Watanabe, executive director of Little Tokyo Service Center, which has handled wife-battering cases that often involve women born in Japan. Typically, these women are afraid to make changes because they are used to being submissive. They are reluctant to split from their husbands, Watanabe said.

Unknown Quantity

"We don't see hundreds of cases, but we do see several," he said. "But these are the people who are willing to come forward and seek help. We don't know how many are afraid to come out."

"In Korean culture, the man comes first," said Woo Lee, vice president of the Korean Federation, a Los Angeles social-service organization. But he added that wife-battering is rare among Koreans.

Because many cases go unreported, reliable data on domestic violence in any ethnic group is difficult to get, said Marge Nichols, a research director for the United Way, which compiles statistical information on Los Angeles' Asian communities.

All battered women tend to be afraid of their husbands or boyfriends and are so embarrassed that they would rather keep the beating to themselves, agreed Asha Parekh, a crisis counselor at the shelter. For Asian immigrant women, the problem may be even worse because many are traditionally subservient to their husbands.

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