Thursday, May 18, 2006
From USA TODAY…
L.A. confronts Asian family abuse
By Martin Kasindorf
LOS ANGELES — Seven deaths within one week in spasms of family violence have plunged this city’s Koreatown into questioning its immigrant culture of stoically bearing the stresses of adjusting to American life.
Three Korean-born men allegedly killed spouses or children, and in two cases killed themselves, police reports say. The killings April 2-9 echo murder-suicides in recent years among immigrant Chinese and Filipinos in California and among Laotian Hmong refugees in California, Minnesota and Wisconsin.
Mental health professionals are searching for explanations. Many say that traditional Asian values of patriarchy and reticence may make these immigrant families more vulnerable to murder and suicide when they encounter setbacks than groups from other countries.
Among fathers emigrating from Asia, “there’s a mentality of, ‘If I’m a failure, I make my whole family look bad, and we’re all in this together, for better or for worse,’” says Helen Hsu, a psychologist with Asian Community Mental Health Services in Oakland. “And there’s a huge social stigma in a man seeking help, telling people he’s having family problems or he’s depressed.”
In most Asian cultures, “people try to deal with problems ourselves or within the family,” says Alice Lai-Bitker, a Chinese-American and a member of the Alameda County, Calif., Board of Supervisors. “If you’re an immigrant, you have added stress. Some of the populations come from war-torn countries. Cambodians, Laotians, Hmong had tremendous trauma before they got here.”
Family violence has been a problem in Asian-American immigrant neighborhoods for years, says Howard Kim, director of Korean Community Services here. Still, the bloodshed last month “came as a great shock to all Korean families,” he says. “It just gave us this chilled feeling.”
According to the 2000 Census, 78% of the 1.2 million Korean-Americans counted that year were immigrants. Korean-born fathers struggle silently to meet social expectations that “they’ll work hard to get rich in business and their kids will succeed,” says David Cha, 30, a youth pastor at Oriental Mission Church here.
‘Shame and guilt’
“If things don’t fall into place in that magic formula, there’s a lot of shame and guilt,” Cha says. “The culture says the parents must provide for their kids. Suicidally, they may think, ‘I’m not going to be a fit parent. No one will be left to care for the kids, so I’m going to take them with me.’”
The April incidents:
•Prosecutors allege Dae Kwon Yun, 54, was distraught after his garment-manufacturing business failed and his wife filed for divorce. He allegedly locked himself, daughter Ashley, 11, and son Alexander, 10, in his SUV and set it afire. Yun stumbled out. The children died. Yun, still hospitalized with burns, has been charged with murder.
•Bong Joo Lee, 40, shot and killed his 5-year-old daughter, Iris, then killed himself, says Sgt. Bill Megenney of the Fontana, Calif., police. Lee had been unemployed and owed a $200,000 gambling debt, Megenney says.
•Sang In Kim, 55, fatally shot his wife, Young Ok, 50, and their son, Matthew, 8, and wounded their 16-year-old daughter before killing himself. Police haven’t disclosed a motive.
In reaction, the Korean American Family Service Center started a telephone hotline that is getting “two or three calls a day from families asking about some help and prevention,” executive director Peter Chang says. At a news conference, Los Angeles County Supervisor Yvonne Burke advised immigrants that by dialing 211 they can get foreign-language referrals to social services. (Dialing 211 for referrals is available in six California counties, parts of 37 other states and Washington, D.C.)
In churchgoing Koreatown, some social service providers are criticizing pastors for ignoring domestic violence. “One of our problems is that the church wants to take care of the church stuff, not the community stuff,” Chang says.
Violence isn’t the pastors’ fault, Kim says. “By long custom in Korea, there is a lack of opening yourself up to other people,” he says.
Other Asian-American groups have worked to shore up community mental-health services after incidents like these:
•Charles Loo, 50, a wealthy businessman who had emigrated in 1995 from Singapore, died in May 2005 while on life support after he tried to hang himself in the San Mateo County, Calif., jail. Loo was awaiting trial on a charge of fatally stabbing his 17-year-old son before stabbing himself. Loo’s mother told the Oakland Tribune he had never learned English, had no friends and felt “isolated.”
•Four Filipinos were found dead in a San Francisco murder-suicide in 1999. Lorenzo Silva, 62, shot three neighbors he was friends with, police say. Silva had been diagnosed with cancer and his wife had returned to the Philippines, police say. Two murder-suicides in Seattle during the 1990s involved Filipino couples.
•Police records show at least nine Hmong murder-suicides involving spouses or children since 1998. In Oshkosh, Wis., on April 5, Yang Pao Lo, 37, fatally shot his wife, Zia Yang, 36, who wanted a divorce. During an 11-hour standoff with SWAT teams, the man killed himself, police say. The couple had seven children, ages 4 to 17. In St. Paul in February, Kou Khang, 30, fatally stabbed his wife, Joane, 25, and himself.
In Hmong communities, spousal violence is “this ongoing, rampant issue that people just don't want to deal with,” says Doua Thor, who is Hmong and executive director of the Washington-based Southeast Asia Action Resource Center. “There needs to be more community discussion on violence.”
Role-reversal and loss of status for men are frequent problems as women quickly learn English and take over family finances, Lai-Bitker says. “It seems to be easier for females to adjust, to get jobs.”
A Ford Foundation study in 2002 blamed the Hmong killings on “the changed economic status of some Hmong women and the violent backlash by men who feel they have ‘lost control’ of their women. … Men use suicide killings as a weapon to keep their wives in line by … threatening: ‘If you don’t behave, the whole family will die.’”