The term ‘‘Asian’’ is widely used for those individuals who have ethnic ties to Asia, which includes the Far East, Southeast Asia, and the Indian subcontinent. This would consist of countries such as China, Japan, Korea, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, India, Pakistan, and the Philippines. ‘‘Pacific Islands’’ refers to Hawaii, Guam, and Samoa, and other islands in the region. The concept of ‘‘Asian American’’ (and sometimes ‘‘Asian/Pacific Islander American’’) has been employed for statistical purposes, and although Asian Americans share some physical and cultural similarities, in no way does this term capture the tremendous diversity within this group. There are over twenty-five Asian/Pacific Islander groups; each group has a different migration history to the United States, and the sociopolitical contexts of their respective homelands vary widely from each other. Asian Americans are also different in terms of their acculturation levels, length of residency in the United States, their languages, their English-speaking proficiency, education attainment, socioeconomic status, and religion. There are approximately thirty-two different languages that exist within the Asian American category group; and sometimes within a single Asian subgroup (i.e., Chinese), multiple dialects exist.
According to the U.S. Census (2004), there are 11.9 million Asian and Pacific Islanders living in the United States. This constitutes 4.2 percent of the U.S. population. It is estimated that by the year 2020, there will be a 145 percent to 177 percent increase from 1990. The Chinese are the largest Asian American group, comprising 24 percent of the U.S. Asian population, followed by Filipinos (representing 18 percent) and Asian Indians (representing 16 percent). A third of Asian Americans were born in the United States, and similar proportions are foreign born but U.S. citizens and foreign born but not U.S. citizens.
I. Invisibility of Domestic Violence in Asian American Communities
II. Taking Culture into Account When Examining Domestic Violence
III. Prevalence of Domestic Violence in Asian American Communities
IV. Domestic Violence in an Asian Cultural Context
A. Women’s Status and Roles
B. Hierarchical Relationship Patterns
C. Collectivistic Orientation and Loss of Face
D. Religious Orientations: Intersection with Cultural Values
V. Implications for Counselors
Invisibility of Domestic Violence in Asian American Communities
‘‘Intimate violence,’’ ‘‘domestic violence,’’ ‘‘wife beating,’’ ‘‘partner abuse,’’ and ‘‘spousal abuse’’ are terms that are used interchangeably, but they do have different political connotations. These terms are used within the context of women’s issues, which were brought to the public’s attention by the feminist movement of the 1960s in the United States. The term ‘‘domestic violence’’ will be used in this entry and will refer primarily to female victims of male perpetrators. While it is also recognized that abuse can occur in both heterosexual and homosexual relationships, the emphasis here will be on heterosexual relationships.
In the 1970s, crisis hotlines for rape and sexual assault victims as well as the first battered women’s shelter were established. Although domestic violence was clearly portrayed as a women’s issue, this early domestic violence movement was criticized for not capturing the voices and needs of ethnic minority women. In part, this was because the women’s movement consisted primarily of white women. They argued that gender inequities and power imbalances were the main causes of domestic violence for all women, regardless of color. Other structural and cultural factors such as racism, ethnocentrism, class, and poverty were not taken into account in how they worked alongside gender in influencing domestic violence. Ethnic minority women, including Asian American women, remained invisible, and scholars, researchers, and practitioners often concluded that domestic violence did not affect Asian American and immigrant communities.
Several factors have contributed and continue to contribute to the invisibility of domestic violence in Asian American communities. First, Asian Americans and immigrants generally underutilize Western social and mental health services or tend not to use them at all. Furthermore, there are few organizations that provide culturally appropriate and sensitive services staffed with professionals who are linguistically competent, especially when it comes to communicating in a wide range of dialects, to service this population. Therefore, cases of domestic violence may not necessarily come to the attention of mainstream service providers and authorities. Second, the ‘‘model minority myth’’ has been applied to Asian Americans, which has distorted the public’s perceptions of them. The ‘‘model minority myth’’ disseminates the view that Asian Americans have ‘‘made it’’ and have become successful, particularly in the areas of educational and occupational achievements. This myth clouds the fact that there are many social problems in Asian American communities, and as a result, such problems tend to be ignored. Third, racism, prejudice, and discrimination have also contributed to the invisibility of domestic violence among Asian Americans. Many Asian Americans opt to keep silent about incidences of domestic violence because they fear further racial attacks and discrimination. Abused Asian women who seek help often end up feeling discriminated against and marginalized in settings that are not sensitive to their culture and ethnicity. In addition, they also realize that their batterers are more likely to be unjustly treated by the police and judicial systems. Finally, cultural factors also play a role in impeding Asian American women from disclosing experiences with domestic violence. This will be discussed later in this research paper.
Taking Culture into Account When Examining Domestic Violence
Demographic shifts in the United States highlight the need to take culture into account when investigating social problems. Culture, race, and ethnicity have become forefront issues in America. It has been estimated that by 2050, ethnic minority groups will comprise almost half (47.5 percent) of the total U.S. population. Whites will most likely be a minority group by the year 2056. This multicultural shift calls for policymakers and service providers to adequately meet the needs of ethnic minorities.
The life experiences and social realities of Asian American and immigrant women are very different from those of white women. Some have argued that gender brings women of all colors together, and to some extent that may be true; however, it cannot be denied that other factors, such as racism, prejudice, discrimination, oppression, language barriers, and different cultural values and belief systems, will influence how victimization is experienced. Some Asian American or immigrant women may face unique obstacles, which are not necessarily part of the social realities of white domestic violence victims. For example, language barriers or lack of English language proficiency can exacerbate the difficulties Asian American or immigrant women experience in navigating the U.S. legal system and accessing services. In other cases, the legal status of Asian immigrant women can complicate the already complex dynamics of domestic violence. In some domestic violence cases, husbands who are U.S. citizens who sponsor their Asian non-U.S. resident wife may threaten to withdraw their sponsorship. The victim is then reluctant to report the abuse for fear she will be deported back to her homeland and lose custody of her children.
Culture and ethnicity are important social categories that impact attitudes toward domestic violence. For example, to what extent do individuals approve the use of violence against women? Are there certain situations in which individuals are more likely to approve the use of domestic violence? How is domestic violence defined? Attitudes, definitions, and beliefs justifying violence are often examined because they are considered to be risk factors to violence and can guide prevention efforts. Gender role beliefs (views about women’s and men’s roles) are intertwined with cultural belief systems, and it has been documented that patriarchy and male privilege are linked to violence against women.
Focus groups were conducted with Laotian, Khmer, Vietnamese, and Southeast Asian Chinese men and women to explore their perceptions of physical violence toward spouses. Attitudes varied somewhat among the four ethnic groups. Physical violence against wives was deemed unacceptable in the Chinese group, but the Chinese men reported using indirect and nonviolent means to control their wives. On the other hand, the Vietnamese appeared more tolerant of physical violence—the women believed it was to be tolerated periodically, and the men admitted to hitting their wives when they were angry. Both the Khmer and Laotian participants stated that physical violence in marriages was common and tolerated.
In a large study of 507 Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese, and Cambodian adults in the northeastern region of the United States, differences in attitudes toward domestic violence among these four Asian subgroups were examined. Among all four groups, in general, wife abuse was not sanctioned; however, the use of violence was justified in certain situations, such as a wife’s unfaithfulness, her nagging, her refusal to cook or keep the house clean, or her making fun of her partner. The Vietnamese and Cambodians were more likely to endorse male privilege and also more likely to justify the use of wife abuse. Interestingly, among Koreans, age of immigration was related with endorsing the use of marital violence. This study showed that cultural beliefs about women’s roles and male privilege influence attitudes toward wife abuse; however, there were variances in attitudes among Asians, which are influenced by an array of contextual factors such as immigration, sociopolitical conditions of their homelands, and level of education.
Feminist theory has argued that patriarchal ideologies influence violence against women. In a telephone survey of forty-seven South Asian women, the researchers were interested in whether patriarchal beliefs predicted perceptions of abuse. A vignette was read to participants describing a wife (from India) making dinner for her husband. They got into an argument whereby he accused her of making too many long-distance telephone calls. She denied it, stating that it was he who was making the calls. The husband lost his temper, pushed her, and slapped her on the face. She was holding a bowl with hot curry, which spilled and burned her foot. Is this scenario perceived as abuse? More than half of the women in this study stated that this Indian woman was a domestic violence victim, though those who endorsed patriarchal beliefs were less likely to state that the woman in the vignette was a domestic violence victim.
In another study, 289 Chinese American and 138 white undergraduate college students were surveyed to examine how students defined various acts of aggression and the extent to which they agreed that certain situations justified dating violence. The findings showed that Chinese American students were less likely to define dating violence in terms of psychological aggression compared with their white counterparts. Second, Chinese American students were more likely than the white students to agree that dating violence was justified in cases where the woman was caught having an affair, was drunk, screaming hysterically, unwilling to have sex, nagging, or flirting with someone else, and if the man was in a bad mood.
These findings were similar to results from another study that looked at gender differences in attitudes toward dating violence among 171 Filipino college students on a university campus. Although in general both Filipino males and females agreed that psychological aggression constituted dating violence, males did so to a significantly lesser degree. Again, while overall, Filipino students did not believe that dating violence was warranted under various circumstances, Filipino male students were more likely to justify violence if the female intimate partner/date was found flirting with another guy or having an affair. In both studies involving Chinese and Filipino college students cited here, it was speculated that in general, we live in a culture that sanctions retributive justice. Furthermore, culture affects how the world is interpreted. In certain Asian cultures, like the Chinese culture, aggression is condemned and looked down upon because of Chinese cultural norms that promote harmony and self-restraint in social relationships. Paradoxically, violence against women is condoned because of traditional views that place Asian women in subservient positions in the family and in society.
Finally, it is also crucial to examine culture in domestic violence because culture and ethnicity can influence help-seeking behaviors. In general, ethnic minorities are more reluctant to seek outside professional help, which may be attributed to their suspiciousness toward mental health and social services that are based on Western theoretical paradigms. Logistical factors such as financial limitations and inconvenient operational hours of many mental health and social service organizations also play a role affecting help-seeking behaviors. Finally, help-seeking behavior is in part influenced by the individual’s definition and understanding of the phenomenon, which is ultimately influenced by culture. If, according to the study described above, Chinese American college students are less likely than their white counterparts to define psychological abuse as dating violence, they may also be less likely to label the phenomenon as a problem and ultimately less likely to seek help. Ultimately, race, culture, and ethnicity influence how one perceives the world.
Prevalence of Domestic Violence in Asian American Communities
Since the 1990s, more empirical research has been done in the area of domestic violence and Asian American and immigrant women. The majority of these research studies have relied on using nonprobability sampling designs, which means it is not possible to get true prevalence rates. However, these studies offer us a glimpse of the scope of domestic violence in Asian American communities. These studies indicate that domestic violence does exist in them.
Domestic Violence in an Asian Cultural Context
Culture plays a role in influencing attitudes sanctioning, minimizing, or masking domestic violence. Culture can be defined as patterns of behaviors and customs such as food, dress, music, and the arts— the observable components of culture. They are passed down from generation to generation through verbal communication, instruction, and general observation. Yet, culture does not consist merely of practices or rituals, but it also exists in intangible forms such as language; artistic expression; religion; political, economic, and social structures; norms of behavior; and values. Culture also encompasses a worldview, which in turn encompasses assumptions and perceptions about the world and how it guides individuals’ behaviors and responses to their environment. It is not clear to what extent traditional Asian cultural values infuse the behaviors of Asian Americans living in the United States or how long it takes for Asian immigrants to begin adopting Western values, but it is known that acculturation is not a linear process whereby immigrant ethnic minorities move in stages in adopting the behaviors of their new environment. Culture is enduring, and cultural adaptation is not merely a process in which one selectively chooses to maintain and adhere to certain values and to discard others. Therefore, it is important to keep in mind that Asian American and immigrant women may adhere to more Eastern values and belief systems, while others are more acculturated and may endorse more Western values.
Women’s Status and Roles
In Asia, patriarchal norms influence much of the social order and structure. Patriarchy involves the transmission of power and authority from father to eldest son, with key decision making and authority revolving around the male members. Consequently, relationships are based on a hierarchy involving traditional gender roles. The husband is the head of the household, the primary breadwinner, and the decision maker. The wife is the caretaker of the husband, his family, and the children. Girls are socialized to be dutiful, virtuous, and submissive wives who ultimately become mothers in order to bear sons so that the family name can be perpetuated. These views about women and their roles are also influenced by Confucian principles. For example, one major Confucian tenet, ‘‘Three Submissions,’’ asserts that females are first to be subservient to their fathers before they are married, then to their husbands, and finally to their eldest son when widowed. Socialized early on with the notion that Asian women have no other options but to be wives and mothers, many battered Asian women find it difficult to terminate abusive relationships. These rigid gender role expectations are colored with moral nuances (i.e., being a good mother), and it leaves women bearing all the responsibility. Terminating the marriage may mean leaving the children behind, and if women opt for this route, they might subject themselves to criticisms of being a ‘‘bad mother.’’ An Asian domestic violence victim not only bears the pressure of having to live up to the ideal image of a woman and fulfilling her duties but is also pressured to maintain the family. Ostracism and criticism can ensue if she does not fulfill her responsibilities.
In many Asian countries, there is a preference for having sons so that the family lineage is preserved, which can be done only by having a son perform the ancestral worship rituals. Sons also serve as a social security system for elderly parents, since daughters are married off and reside with their husbands’ families. Therefore, wives experience great pressure to have sons, and those who cannot produce sons are humiliated, publicly shamed, and sometimes beaten. The devalued status of women in Asia still exists, as demonstrated by China’s one child policy, which was designed to curb the increasing population growth. Because of Chinese families’ desire to have sons, demographers are discovering that many baby girls are unaccounted for. Couples who give birth to baby girls often abandon or kill them so that they can adhere to the one child policy and still have a son. Such a climate fosters and condones violence against women.
Hierarchical Relationship Patterns
In Asian cultures, patterns of relationships are characterized by hierarchy. In Western societies, however, relationships are more likely to be egalitarian. In other words, the structure of Asian society is vertical, reflecting the influence of Confucianism. Confucianism has been described as a philosophy that emphasized peace, hierarchy, and order. Confucius arrived in China during a period of economic, political, and moral confusion, and he advocated a highly structured and hierarchical society, where everyone was ascribed specific roles. Proper conduct would naturally flow from this structure. His most well known philosophy describes five basic social relationships between (1) sovereign and subject, (2) father and son, (3) elder and younger brother, (4) husband and wife, and (5) friend and friend. A husband, for example, is deemed the authority figure. His primary responsibility is to provide for and protect the family. In turn, the wife must submit, be loyal, and fulfill her obligations to her husband. A focus group with Asian women and men found that these values may influence attitudes toward violence. Some Asian men, for example, believe that they have the responsibility of disciplining their wives, with physical violence being one mechanism of discipline.
Collectivistic Orientation and Loss of Face
In the United States and many Western societies, autonomy and individualism are the guiding philosophies. Individuals are socialized and reinforced to be self-sufficient and independent, and personal success and achievement are highly valued. Conversely, Asian cultures are characterized as collectivistic. In other words, one’s identity, behaviors, and successes are rooted in collective units such as the family and community. Roles are interdependent and inextricably woven into social structures. Therefore, a decision made by an individual must take into account the whole (i.e., family) rather than merely the individual’s needs. Shameful behaviors do not merely reflect on the individual but ultimately on his/her entire family, lineage, and even community. One of the major barriers confronted by Asian domestic violence victims in seeking assistance is that they are ashamed about the abuse. In part, this stems from societal myths that disseminate the misconception that domestic violence victims must have in some way provoked the violence, and consequently, victims deserve the abuse.
However, the concept of guilt and shame can take on different connotations in different cultures. In Western culture, the guilt rests on the individual, and the individual bears the ramifications. However, in traditional Asian cultures, such as those of China, Japan, and Korea, ‘‘loss of face’’ means disgrace and loss of respect not only for the individual but also the immediate family and the entire ancestral lineage. Again, this is rooted in the collectivistic orientation described above. It is believed that the successes and failures are due to the blessings or anger of their ancestors, and similarly, positive and negative behaviors are believed to impact future generations. Therefore, Asian domestic violence victims may be reluctant to disclose the abuse for fear of shaming their families and communities.
Religious Orientations: Intersection with Cultural Values
A victim’s religious beliefs may also be a cultural barrier to seeking assistance in domestic violence situations. Buddhism, the dominant religion in many parts of Asia, emphasizes the importance of perseverance and endurance and that life is a cycle, with each state linked to another. Its doctrine is tied to the Four Noble Truths: (1) Life is painful; (2) Pain originates from desire; (3) For pain to end, desire must end as well; and (4) The path to the end of pain is righteous living. The ultimate state is Nirvana, which is a peaceful state, absent of desire. There is an emphasis on fatalism; that is, all human beings must bear whatever trials and challenges that have been placed in the journey of life. This is the essence of karma, a Buddhist doctrine which advocates that all life is subject to suffering. This fatalistic orientation has colored attitudes toward help-seeking in domestic violence cases, where many Asian domestic violence victims remain silent about the abuse and do not seek help because they believe that they have to persevere and that violence is part of their fate.
Taoism is considered both a religion and philosophy. The individual is regarded as an autonomous being but interconnected with the natural forces of life. One does not necessarily attempt to alter one’s environment; rather, the objective is to seek harmony with the natural order of things through rituals. The ultimate goal is to find peace and union between the individual and the cosmic forces of nature, aiming for harmony for the good of the whole. This religious and philosophical orientation often results in Asian domestic violence victims implicitly accepting the abuse, and at times, criticizing and ostracizing those who shake the status quo. Consequently, Asian American domestic violence victims may relegate their own needs in order to preserve harmony, as conflict or confrontations are culturally (and/or philosophically) dissonant.
Practical Implications for Counselors
With all clients, building rapport or engagement is an integral part of the clinical process. However, when working with Asian American and immigrant domestic violence victims, particularly those who may be less acculturated, counselors need to convey authority, credibility, and legitimacy. Many Asian American or immigrant clients come into counseling believing that the counselor will quickly identify the problem and provide a solution. When the counselor does not do so, he or she loses legitimacy in the eyes of the client. Therefore, the counselor needs to overtly establish authority. Employing professional titles, displaying diplomas and professional licenses are some examples of overtly establishing legitimacy. Furthermore, obtaining sufficient information about the client and family and offering some explanation of the cause of the client’s problems can facilitate credibility. Consequently, counselors need to be very knowledgeable about domestic violence (from both a victim’s and a perpetrator’s perspective) and have strong links to community resources such as medical, family, and financial services, social services, legal assistance, and child care and immigration aid services. Clients will expect to take away something concrete (i.e., a solution), which is reinforced by cultural values of pragmatism. On the other hand, if the counselor focuses too much on facilitating emotional disclosure, Asian clients are more likely to terminate counseling prematurely.
When working with Asian American and immigrant domestic violence victims, it is also important to acknowledge their feelings of guilt and shame. The shame, and in this case, loss of face, stems from two sources—the emotional turmoil caused by the abuse, and the fact that the victim has had to seek outside assistance, particularly for issues considered to be private, sensitive family matters. Consequently, it is crucial for counselors to help victims work through their ambivalence about seeking help as well as their guilt for feeling that they are at fault for the abuse.
Empowering Asian American and immigrant domestic violence victims is another component of work with this population. However, it is important for counselors to keep in mind that the term ‘‘empowerment’’ is a social construction used in the fields of feminist studies, domestic violence, and the helping professions. Empowerment is based on principles of autonomy, individualism, and self-determination, which are primarily Western ideologies and are at times dissonant with traditional Asian values that revolve around collectivism, such as importance of the family, community, marriage, and relegating one’s own needs for the greater good. Therefore, counselors should not immediately coach Asian or Asian American domestic violence victims to leave the marriage, because it may not be congruent with their value systems. As with all domestic violence victims, their voices have been silenced, and it is vital to have their voices heard and to respect and support their decisions. Part of this entails educating them about what abuse entails, the dynamics of abuse, and facilitating and linking them to both informal and formal services.
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