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Center Counsels Koreans on Domestic Violence : Families: Almost 70% of facility's sessions deal with issues such as spousal abuse. Cultural norms that dictate sexual inequality create barriers to change.

October 16, 1994|LESLIE BERESTEIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

In a tiny, sunlit office at the Korean American Family Service Center in mid-Wilshire, a young man sat with his head slightly bowed and his dark eyes slightly lowered behind glasses. As he faced Hae Soon Lee, a female domestic violence counselor, he spoke softly in Korean, a trace of embarrassment and shame lingering in his voice as he talked about turning violent toward his girlfriend.

"She came here when she was much younger than me, so she is much more Americanized than I am," said the 26-year-old Korean immigrant, who has been receiving counseling at the center for almost six months since being convicted of misdemeanor battery.

"We were planning to get married, and I was taught that the man is supposed to plan everything," he continued. "But I had to discuss plans and finances with her, and that was difficult for me. It created tension and stress."

Lee, who has been counseling partners in abusive relationships at the center for four years, added her own commentary as she interpreted her court-referred client's confessions.

"In Korean culture, women are supposed to be very submissive, and he expected his girlfriend to be this way," she said. "The bottom line is power and control, and one way in which he could control her was physical violence. But she is never going to be submissive, and he has to accept this."

For 11 years, the Korean American Family Service Center has offered family counseling to the Los Angeles Korean community. Almost 70% of the center's workload is related to domestic violence; the remainder covers many areas, including child abuse prevention and information, marriage and divorce counseling, and occasional classes in English, family law and parenting. It is the only agency offering domestic violence counseling to the Korean community, and one of the toughest challenges faced by its staff of seven Korean-speaking counselors is trying to reverse centuries-old cultural norms that emphasize sexual inequality--and sometimes set the stage for violence at home.

Hyeseop Shin, who recently joined the center as executive director, said that about half of all domestic violence cases within the local Asian American community occur in Korean American households, although there are many other patriarchal Asian cultures in which women are expected to be submissive.

The primary reason for this, she said, is that the Korean community in Los Angeles is still relatively new, and most families in which wives suffer from domestic violence are first-generation immigrants who have not yet accustomed themselves to the fact that in the United States spousal abuse is a crime.

"Many Chinese and Japanese people here are not immigrants, but second- or third-generation," Shin said. "However, a lot of Koreans still suffer from a lack of acculturation. Many Korean men do not know wife-beating is illegal here. So they think they can do anything they want with their wives."

Although all women and couples are accepted, most of the center's clients come from court referrals, Shin said. The couples are separated at first, with abusive husbands attending group therapy and abused wives receiving one-on-one counseling.

The men are taught how to control their anger and learn how to treat their wives with more respect, whereas women are given emotional support and informed of the choices available to them if counseling does not solve their problems, including restraining orders, shelters and divorce.

Shin said Korean women, especially those who are attached to old ways, often present a challenge to the counselors.

"We had an older couple come in who had been married for more than 20 years," she said. "This woman had been getting beaten for 20 years, and all this time she hadn't said anything because she thought it was part of normal marital interaction."

The couple is undergoing counseling, Shin said.

In much of Asian culture, divorce is looked upon as morally incorrect, and because many Korean immigrant women are financially dependent on their husbands, abused wives are often especially reluctant to leave their marriages.

"One of the criticisms our agency faces from the Korean community is that we sometimes encourage divorce," Shin said. "It's something that conservative, patriarchal men say without knowing what these women have been through."

Shin is working on a plan to set up economic development and job training classes for women at the center so that battered wives will be better prepared financially to leave an abusive marriage.

Once couples have completed their counseling, most do not come back a second time, Shin said. The shame of having lost face by being arrested in front of family or neighbors, along with the threat of getting caught again, combine to deter Korean men--who generally wish to be law-abiding, she said--from further aggression against their partners.

Or so she hopes.

*

"There's no way of knowing whether the reason they don't come back is because they don't beat their wives anymore, or whether it's because they control their wives so well now they make sure they don't tell anybody," Shin said pensively.

"I like to believe that it's because we're successful."

Back in Hae Soon Lee's little office, the young man with the bowed head looked up slightly to face his counselor.

"I'm learning to compromise with my girlfriend," he told her. "So I can accept her as she is."

Information: (213) 389-6755.

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