How ‘saving face’ silences domestic violence in Asian-Australian communities

Asian Australian women feel pressure to 'save face.' Source: @FreshhConnection

Reaching victims of domestic violence in diverse communities requires more than translated pamphlets, writes contributor to The Feed, Shona Yang.

In under a fortnight, seven women in Australia have died at the hands of someone they knew. Among them were Mhelody Polan Bruno, a 25-year-old Filipino woman visiting Australia, and Kim Chau, a 39-year-old Vietnamese-Australian woman.

Their presence is a reminder of the ways that Asian-Australian experiences of domestic violence can be swept under the rug – sometimes by their own communities.  

When we look at immigrants in aspects of taboo topics, we just want to blame the culture and we ignore other structural factors, but it’s all interconnected.

“When we look at immigrants in aspects of taboo topics, we just want to blame the culture and we ignore other structural factors, but it’s all interconnected,” says Dr Nafiseh Ghafournia, author of a recent academic paper titled Are Immigrant Women Visible in Australian Domestic Violence Reports that Potentially Influence Policy?

“If you don’t know the language, you can’t find a job and you don’t have financial independence, you become completely dependent on your partner or husband. It’s the language, it’s the lack of knowledge of the legal system and it’s the fear of police.”

Ghafournia explains that a failure to engage with these complexities contributes to the exclusion and invisibility of victims in culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) communities, and ultimately it damages their right to protection in Australia.

Referring to The National Plan to Reduce Violence against Women and their Children, Ghafournia points out that, “There’s no mention of CALD communities in policies, but when there is mention, it’s only about Female Genital Mutilation or forced marriage. There is an over-representation and focus on one aspect of the culture and we forget about other aspects.”

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 Kun-Ok Kim from Chung-Ang University in Seoul explains the concept of ‘face’ as a vital part of Korean culture and behaviour from as early as the 1800s. Kim writes, “The ‘face’ is the most important and suitable place to show a Korean's good educational and family background, and, at the same time, is the best place to conceal emotions. In a culture where self-disclosure is not appreciated, the direct and candid revelation of emotional expressions is discouraged and taboo in certain social contexts.”

For Australians born into immigrant families, ‘saving face’ is still pertinent today.

“In an [Anglo] Australian family, if one of the members of the family has problems or is behaving badly, the responsibility for that behaviour tends to be regarded as just the person who is actually engaged in such behaviour,” explains Professor Harry Minas in an interview with Monash University’s MOJO News. “Whereas in an Asian [Australian] family, for instance, if one person is doing the wrong thing, then that reflects very directly on the family,” he said.

Sarah* is a Korean-Australian who has witnessed domestic violence in her home. Her parents held key positions in the Korean-Australian community, and any hint of trouble at home would smear shame across the family name. 

“It’s about saving face and keeping that image of a perfect family. I couldn’t tell my friends because in Korean culture, we gossip so much. The fact their parents know my parents can be so damaging,” she explains.

It’s affected how I view relationships, and that can make you feel very lonely and isolated.

In a popular Facebook group dedicated to Asian diaspora communities, I asked whether ‘saving face’ continues to hold people back from talking about violent experiences.

I received an overwhelming response from victims of sexual abuse or domestic violence, who had been told not to tell anyone in order to avoid damaging their reputation.

Being an Asian woman, you’re being perceived as one who needs to carry the weight.

“Being an Asian woman, you’re being perceived as one who needs to carry the weight. You need to be the strong woman so you can’t be too vulnerable. You’ve got to keep the family together so there’s no time to deal with anxiety or depression or any of that stuff,” shares Julia*, a Khmer-Australian woman. 

In some cases, choosing not to vocalise traumatic experiences resulted in repercussions like mental illnesses, self-harm and a breakdown in relationships.

Leah* was told to hide the violence and breakdown of her family for over a decade, until she had a mental breakdown. 

“In the Asian culture, the way others perceive you is more important than how you feel about yourself or what you’re actually doing. I tried to play the role of a perfect daughter and I didn’t think there was any space for my feelings.”  

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 Cynthia Chung is one of few Mandarin-speaking practitioners at Relationships Australia, a national support service. She encounters many Chinese families that need help resolving property or parenting matters.

Most of the families she works with are required by law to attend mediation services. “When matters are about separation and divorce, there is still a stigma," explains Cynthia.

There is a mentality that family issues are dealt with within the family.

“In my experience, a lot of it comes down to trust. Many Asian families I’ve worked with have been worried because many times they haven’t been able to trust police or officials in their home country, so I would stress confidentiality and privacy and let them know what resources are available,” she says.

Relationships Australia runs group activities in Mandarin, but Cynthia recognises that initiatives involving leaders within Chinese communities can help minimise the barriers that these communities face when seeking professional help.

“We are getting more Chinese people coming to us so there is definitely a need for more Chinese counsellors. We have just launched a new service targeting Chinese elders through mediation and we have also received positive feedback from working with an Asian Radio talk back show.”  

Many CALD women are simply unaware of the services available. Although half of the country’s population were either born overseas or have at least one parent born outside the country, there is a disproportionate number of CALD communities utilising the available services. In 2018, only 19 per cent of clients that utilised the services of Relationships Australia identified themselves as migrants.

General Manager of Relationships Australia, David Goldman, says the organisation tries to cater to CALD communities through translation services and group programs for Mandarin speakers. The national website is currently undergoing an overhaul to include translated pages in Mandarin, Hindi and Arabic.

Michelle Lin, a Chinese-Australian counsellor for Interrelate, a nonprofit support service, says, “It’s hard to find people who are confident in the language but are also trained counsellors. People aren’t super keen on getting a translator in because they’re already sharing personal, intimate stuff. They don’t want another stranger coming in, and sometimes it can be hard if you’re in a very small ethnic group because the only translators might be someone you know and that becomes tricky,” she explains.

“A large majority of social workers are white and when you’re working with other communities such as Indigenous or Asian communities, the simple fact that I’m not white is a huge positive because it gets rid of that immediate distrust.”

Lin says Asian Australians are falling through the gaps of a Western health care system.

“In my social work degree, there was very little diversity. It was 90 per cent white. There are no incentives for Asian Australians to be trained in mental health care or counselling. There are no appropriate scholarships from the government.”

Writing for The Conversation, Professor Minas stressed a similar point. “Given problems in communication, and the fact that Australian mental health clinicians receive very little if any training in culturally appropriate assessment and treatment, one might expect that service outcomes will be worse,” he wrote.

With virtually no research to indicate whether immigrants who access social services are receiving better or worse outcomes than those born in Australia, taking an inclusive approach to the research and training is a start.

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According to a report by the National Mental Health Commission, many CALD communities, particularly Vietnamese and other Asian communities, access public mental health services at less than half the rate of the general population.

On a practical level, it helps to understand the different linguistic structures that make the practice of self-reflection or reporting domestic violence inherently difficult. In the Korean language, talking about the ‘self’ is a relatively foreign construct. 

Dr Jane Park is a Korean-Australian lecturer in cultural studies at the University of Sydney. She explains that the idea of ‘self’ in the modern West is vastly different to a communal framework in Eastern Asia. 

“In the Korean language, there is no word for ‘I’. Even if I live alone, I’d say “woori jib” which is ‘our’ house not ‘my’ house,” she explains.

“We don’t call each other by name. We usually refer to each other as where we are in the social hierarchy– as someone’s mum, or wife.

“Confucianism is so family-focused and group-focused so people are more reticent to express their emotions through language because that’s a very Western thing,” says Dr Park.

Rooted in Confucian principles, elements of the Korean culture are hierarchical and patriarchal. In Confucian teachings, the family functions as a microcosm for the nation. There is no sense of self as promoted in the Western world view where an individual is a single entity with rights and agency.

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Advocates and researchers indicate that an intersectional approach is the key to preventing violence within CALD communities. As part of an intersectional framework, counsellors from Relationship Australia and Interrelate say recognising the stigma of violence and the culture of ‘shame’ is critical in reaching CALD communities.

Measures of inclusion and diversity are underway in services across Australia, a drastic improvement from 2011, when Ghafournia first started her research.   

“When I started working in the area of domestic violence and immigration in 2011, there was little research and CALD communities were under researched. It was a big gap but it is getting better with the arrival of more immigrants and refugees. There is still a gap but it is getting better in comparison to 2011,” she recalls.  

While improvements are underway, there is still a long way to go until people within CALD communities can safely signal for help.

 

*Names have been changed to protect identity.

If this article raises any concerns, please contact any of the following services for support:

1800 RESPECT is the national sexual assault, domestic and family violence counselling and information referral service. Dial 1800 737 732

Relationships Australia provides support groups and counselling services for abusive and abused partners. Translation available. Contact: 1300 364 277

Lifeline provides 24/7 crisis support. Translating and Interpreting Service is available (TIS) on 131 450 or ask to talk to Lifeline in the language required on 13 11 14.

Shona Yang is a freelance writer based in Sydney. She writes about the Asian-Australian experience on her blog: shonasays.com