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Cultures at the Crossroads

When Old World Habits Clash With New World Laws, It's Another Sign the Melting Pot Is Bubbling Imperfectly


It's an issue as ancient as the first civilizations, and the last king of the Incas.

He was Atahualpa, executed by Spaniard Francisco Pizzaro in 1532. In the chaste European judgment of Pizzaro, the Inca ruler was an incestuous, treasonable idol worshiper. In the culture of Atahualpa, his wife was his sister, there was no king above himself and no god higher than the sun.

So one people's piety became another culture's crime. And that's a concern as current as a double wedding last month in Lincoln, Neb.

Before a Muslim cleric, Latif Al-Hussani, 34, and Majed Al-Taminy, 28, both former Iraqi refugees, took the daughters of Salem and Salima Al-Saidy in holy and arranged matrimony.

That the brides were only 13 and 14 violated no tenets of Islam. But they broke the laws of Nebraska. Both grooms have been charged with statutory rape, both parents with child abuse.

And this head-on collision between Old World ways and New World laws shows that the 220-year-old American melting pot is still bubbling as imperfectly as it always has.

Worse, suggest experts, one corollary of increasing cultural conflict may be the emergence of backlash--against immigrants, affirmative action, languages other than English and welfare payments even to documented, resident, taxpaying noncitizens.

"If you start with the premise that 'melting pot' means assimilation into the dominant culture, then we've done a lot of that over the years," says Doriane Lambelet Coleman, a professor at Duke University School of Law who has written on multiculturalism and the courts for the Columbia Law Review. "But if 'melting pot' means . . . people from different cultures come to the United States and we each contribute wonderful attributes to a new, larger culture, I think that has not happened."

What has occurred, claim others, is a long succession of appalling crimes--including murder, mayhem and brutality to animals--where clashing global cultures was the common denominator.

And where, in many instances, Habits of Homeland versus Laws of Adopted Country were considered mitigating circumstances during sentencing--resulting in probation for one mother convicted of killing her two children.

* That was in 1985 after Japanese immigrant Fomiko Kimura walked into the waves off Santa Monica, held her two struggling children underwater, and tried killing herself. Charged with voluntary manslaughter, Kimura pleaded no contest but also oyako-shinju, or parent-child suicide traditionally practiced by Japanese wives dishonored by a husband's adultery.

* Nine years ago in New York, a Chinese immigrant cited old-country precedents andwas given probation for clubbing his unfaithful wife to death.

* This year, two Korean women, one a Methodist missionary visiting Los Angeles, the other the wife of a Chicago doctor, died from beatings as part of anchal prayer, or church rites to exorcise personal demons. The Chicago defendants were charged with misdemeanor battery and received probation; trial is pending in the Los Angeles case.

* A Laotian woman was abducted from work at Fresno City College and raped. At his trial, her Hmong boyfriend explained zij poj niam, or marriage by capture, his tribe's customary process of choosing a bride. He was fined and given 120 days in jail.

* In New York, despite incessant raids, cockfights flourish among immigrants from Latin America and Asia, where the blood sport is as legal as hunting and fishing in this country.

* Folk remedy or child abuse? In Orange County, it's cao gio, a folklore cold cure where Vietnamese and Cambodian children are lightly burned with hot coins. Cruelty to animals or Asian cuisine? In Long Beach, charges were dismissed against two refugees who clubbed a puppy to death and ate it because dog is often food in Cambodia.

In Nigeria, striking a child and putting pepper on the abrasions is acceptable discipline. And in Iraq, girls may be married off while young enough to still be sleeping with Barbie dolls.

But not in Nebraska.

In Lincoln last month, marriages to the two early teens brought rape charges against the grooms, who face up to 50 years in prison.

"What we have here is an example of a cultural gulf, no doubt about it," says Terrell Cannon, lawyer for Al-Hussani, a cook, and Al-Taminy, a factory worker. "These guys still can't understand why they were arrested. They really don't think they did anything wrong, and there certainly was no intent to break the law."

Those charged in the case--all resident aliens, but not American citizens--came to Lincoln in 1993 after five years in a refugee camp in Saudi Arabia. They merged with Lincoln's Iraqi population of 700; received help to find jobs and apartments; and took a one-week Catholic Social Services course on life in America--lectures that in future, say an official, will include tips on our marrying ways.

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