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Asian-American Domestic Violence: A Critical Pyschohistorical Perspective

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Asian-American Domestic Violence: A Critical Pyschohistorical Perspective

Benjamin R. Tong *

There is hardly anything resembling an extensive and informative literature on who abuses whom in Asian American households, and how often and, most important of all, why.

If such a body of work actually exists, I myself have not seen it, save for a scant number of published articles. Yet if people on the clinical frontlines know what they have witnessed, domestic violence does indeed go on. Only in recent years have we witnessed the emergence of a few suggestive and promising research-based writings (Chan, Tsui, 1985; Huisman, 1996; Kim et al, 2000; Yick, Berthold, 2005; Yoshioka et al, 2001), pointing to a factual basis for the phenomenon, but with limited demographic or empirical documentation. There continues to be a glaring paucity of substantial hard data with respect to prevalence and incidence (rf. also Chan, 1988; Christensen, 1988; Hirata, 1979; Ho, 1990; Ocampo, 1989; Root, 1985; Tsui, 1985).

Because the present chapter is necessarily of limited scope (as opposed to a much more comprehensive, multivolume book-length discussion), I will select one Asian American group--Chinese Americans--as a focus for observations on the psychohistorical roots of domestic violence. The reader is invited to consider the proposition that in certain respects related experiences of other Asian Americans might well be compellingly similar if not entirely identical.

There are, by most estimates, some nineteen ethnoculturally distinct Asian American communities. It would certainly not do for me to couch my comments in general "Asian American" terms and, in the process, imply that experiences presumably common to all nineteen are somehow more significant than the differences between those groups. Such is not the case. The very same observers who would insist on the obvious convenience of such overgeneralizations would, in another instance, be appalled at the notion that all European cultures are necessarily identical or more similar than different; that is, growing up in Luxemburg is no different than a childhood in London.

Restricting my attention to Chinese Americans, I invite the reader to decide, if he or she is able to, the extent to which my remarks might have wider relevance vis-a-vis other Americans of Asian descent. For the balance of this discussion, I will argue that the etiological roots of domestic abuse-whether physical, emotional, or sexual-are to be found in four interrelated phenomena: problems of adaptation, cross-cultural clashes, racist oppression, and repressive heritage.


The phenomenal growth of the Asian American population over the period of 1965-2002 has received a great deal of attention as of late. Many conclude, quite accurately, that Asian America consists of a substantial number of so-called recent newcomers. Hence, the understandable media, scholarly, and social service priority given to adaptational problems of immigrants, Asian and otherwise. According to federal Census Bureau surveys for the years 1975 to 1985, for example, almost half of the 4.7 million Asian, Hispanic, and Black people who moved to the United States from abroad in that period settled in suburban and nonmetropolitan areas, obviously making for adaptational struggles of an unprecedented nature (Herbers, 1986). When Chinese as well as other Asian newcomers encounter the demands of everyday life in the United States, values, beliefs, and norms are "compared," or "shaken," or "broken up," or "tried on for size," or "imposed," depending on one's way of understanding such experiences.

Regardless of interpretation, discerning observers have noted that domestic stress, which often enough leads to conflict and abuse, is frequently traceable to such newcomer issues as language difficulties, status anxieties, money hassles, pressures to perform well at school and work, abrupt and unprecedented shifts in traditional family roles, and separation or loss of significant others (Huang & Ying, 1989; Lee, 1982; Shon & Ja, 1982; Wong, 1988, Ching-Louie, 1992; Toji, D.S. & Johnson, J.H., 1992; Zeng & Xie, 2004).

The Lee family came from Hong Kong about 4 years ago. Neither parent has had the opportunity to learn English, as between the father and mother there are a total of four part-time blue-collar jobs. The children are now of middle and high school age. The, too, work, when not keeping school hours, to help supplement the family income. Whenever strangers appear at the front door (e.g., police, mail deliveries, solicitors, survey searchers), the children assume responsibility for being interpreters and translators. Sometimes they even make major decisions for the entire family as a result of this special role of spokespersons with representatives of the outside world. Lately, Mr. Lee has been unusually cranky, irritable, and emotionally abusive of both spouse and children. A neighbor recently reported seeing Mr. Lee slap his oldest child during a heated argument in front of their house, "something which seemed unusual for him to do."

In his deliberations on the nature of myth and identity, Bruner (1979) offered a psychohistorical paradigm that might well serve to account for a significant volume of symptomatic behavior-including domestic violencerelated to the stresses of the migration experience. A people's deepest beliefs and worldviews, or mythos, provide for a coherent narrative to address three fundamental concerns that cut across collective existence as well as individual lives: (1) history, a sense of the past, or "who we have always been"; (2) identity, a sense of the present, or "who are, or should be, right now"; and (3) destiny, a sense of the future, or "who we are meant to be." Events like war, economic chaos, and natural disasters disrupt the substance and continuity of all three. Furthermore, migration aimed at escaping the consequences of such catastrophic events exacerbate that very same disruption. Sluski's (1979) rather eloquent "stage" theory of migratory adjustments suggests something of the impact on family structure and dynamics.

Some families manage to mourn what has been left behind and integrate it constructively into a blend of old and new rules, models, and habits that constitute their new reality.... In other families, whatever has been left behind in the country of origin, may become increasingly idealized (making adaptation more difficult) or denigrated (making mourning and working through of the loss more difficult). (p. 386)




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