Larry Lee, executive director of the New York Asian Women’s Center, with a staff member at the center, which keeps its address secret to protect its clients from abusive husbands. “Asians have a shame culture,” Lee said. Abused women might think, “What are my relatives going to think about me?”
Battered Asian women find help Downtown
By Annie Lok
A new life in America held horrors Lisa had not imagined when she arrived at her husband’s Queens apartment three-and-a-half years ago.
In the course of two-and-a-half years, Lisa, who would not use her real name because of the risk to her safety, said she was cursed at, beaten and raped by her husband, a Chinese-American man who had wooed her in China by bringing her parents gifts and telling them he loved her. They had met through mutual friends, and because he was so forthright with his feelings and she liked the prospect of living in America, she married him and came to New York in 2004. A college graduate who worked for an insurance company in China before emigrating, Lisa soon became a prisoner in her own home, tormented by her abusive husband and her own inability to escape.
He forbade her from going out without him and from using the telephone except for one five-minute call a week to her parents. He proved to have a terrible temper, and would yell at Lisa at the slightest provocation. He called her obscene names. Lisa said he took drugs for erectile dysfunction and every night would demand sex from her. After three months of this treatment, Lisa tried to tell him to stop. He quelled her protests by threatening to call immigration officials and have her deported. When she took a job in a nail salon, he took all her earnings.
Lisa’s husband, who did not work because he collected rent as a landlord, became more violent as the marriage wore on. He began to beat Lisa and force her to have sex with him. Because she knew no one else in the U.S., she was afraid to leave even though she feared for her life.
“I felt if I stayed in that house I would die,” she said through an interpreter.
In November 2006, Lisa finally made a break after a particularly brutal assault. Two weeks after her husband had promised not to hit her again because she had called the police, he once again demanded that she have sex with him. When she refused, he cut up her Medicaid and credit cards, threw out her clothes, and smashed her cell phone with a hammer. After that, he grabbed her head and banged it against the wall. It was the last straw for Lisa.
“I was very scared,” she said in Mandarin. “I felt disgusted and decided to get out of the marriage. I didn’t even want the green card anymore.”
Lisa managed to get out of the house and check into a cheap motel in Queens. She decided to find a divorce lawyer. When she located one, he looked at her bruises and cuts, and told her to call 311 for help.
That was the turning point for Lisa. She called 311 on a pay phone, and was given the telephone number for the New York Asian Women’s Center’s hotline. That night, she told a counselor on the hotline about her situation. The next day, a worker from the New York Asian Women’s Center picked her up and drove her to one of their shelters, where she was given food, clothing, and taken to a hospital for medical care.
The New York Asian Women’s Center, based in Lower Manhattan, was founded in 1982 to help Asian and Asian American women who were victims of domestic violence. Today, its counselors and caseworkers support and guide women through the tumult of leaving their abusive partners in 15 different languages, including several dialects of Chinese, Hindi, Bengali and Vietnamese.
About half of the women who seek help there are Chinese, said Larry Lee, the center’s executive director. The rest come from Korea, South Asia and Southeast Asia. To protect the women they serve, the center’s staff will not disclose the address of their offices or shelters. The two temporary shelters the shelter runs can house up to 37 women and their children.
Lee said there are 300 women a month who are part of the non-residential program, where women get emotional counseling, legal aid to obtain orders of protection from their batterers and to apply for green cards, and help with benefits and entitlements.
The hotline fields about 3,000 calls a year from women in abusive situations. Typically, Lee said, hotline counselors listen and help callers determine if they are ready to leave their batterers. Even when faced with ongoing physical and verbal assault, it can take women a long time to pull themselves out of their homes.
“The women keep hoping they can stay in their situations, and would maybe call five times before breaking away,” Lee said.
In his work, Lee has encountered women who suffer extreme physical abuse repeated choking, deafness resulting from blows who may still go back to their batterers.
Like Lisa, many of these women are immigrants, and fear deportation if they left their husbands. Under the Violence Against Women Act of 1998, domestic violence victims can apply for green cards on their own if they were married to a U.S. citizen or a legal permanent resident. The women’s center refers their clients for legal aid to apply for green cards under this law, and their case managers will accompany them to court whenever necessary, Lee said.
Asian women who have been abused may also be socially and linguistically isolated if they speak little English. Financial dependence on their batterers can also keep a woman in an abusive relationship. To help these women become self-sufficient, the center offers English classes and job training and placement free of charge.
Cultural forces can also make Asian women loathe to leave their families. The family’s cohesion ranks higher than an individual’s needs, and talking about domestic violence is taboo.
“Asians have a shame culture,” Lee said. Abused women might think, “What are my relatives going to think about me?” And that can be a major hindrance to women speaking out. “You can think of a million things they can think of you.”
Shame was part of the reason Lisa stayed with her husband as long as she did. She had thought her life with the man from New York would be “happy and peaceful.” When it turned out to be anything but, she was embarrassed, she said, as though it were somehow her fault.
It has been more than a year since Lisa left her husband. At the shelter, she received counseling, became part of a support group with other domestic violence sufferers, and took ESL classes. Her case manager helped her apply for public assistance, and connected her with legal aid to apply for a green card and an order of protection against her husband.
Three months after entering the shelter, Lisa found an apartment and now supports herself, working again at a nail salon.
“I feel like I have a new life. I feel safe,” she said.