Separating Love, Abuse for Asians : Culture: Immigrants find that disciplinary measures considered responsible parenting in their homelands may be improper in U.S.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The boy had bruises on his arms and legs.

Purple blotches tracked along his limbs, as though someone had beat the skinny 8-year-old Vietnamese boy with a belt.

When social worker Dat Nguyen knocked at the run-down El Monte apartment, the boy's parents readily admitted they had hit their son.

He was a bad boy, the mother said. He fought with schoolchildren who made fun of his shabby clothes and poor English. The teacher even sent a note home about this misbehavior, which brought much shame onto the family.

The parents, who immigrated from Vietnam in 1993, were dumbfounded to learn they were under investigation for child abuse. They listened as Nguyen struggled to explain terms like "excessive discipline" and "foster home"--words that have no equivalents in many Asian societies where extended families raise children and government interference is unheard of.

"We love our children, and we suffer with them when we discipline them, but we feel that hitting is OK," recalled the father, a former colonel in the South Vietnamese army who spent nine years in Communist re-education camps. "I have a responsibility to do this, so they will grow up to become good American citizens."

Corporal punishment is accepted discipline in many Asian cultures, but the practice is bringing trouble to some immigrants who find that what is considered responsible parenting in their native countries can be seen as abuse here.

"In Vietnam and China . . . it's a normal practice to hit a child with a whip for bringing home a B," said Frank Nguyen, no relation to Dat, who heads the Asian-Pacific Unit of the Los Angeles County Department of Children's Services.

In Korean, the word teaching, gyopyon, means "teaching with a cane."

It's not that abuse among the Asian community is a massive problem. While Asian Americans make up about 11% of the population in Los Angeles County, they accounted for only 1.8%, or 1,036 of the 59,414 cases of child abuse and neglect investigated in 1993.

But some experts believe the number of abuse cases is under-reported.

In a study of the issue, titled "Cultural Issues in the Prevention and Treatment of Child Abuse and Neglect," Frank Nguyen suggests that family loyalty and filial piety keep figures low. Also, Asian culture generally calls for resolving family problems internally.

But the issue is not one of high statistics; it's more one of different cultural outlooks, which raise provocative questions about the nature of discipline, parental authority and the need to protect children while observing sensitivity to other cultures.

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When social workers call on these families, they often find concerned and loving parents--not dysfunctional abusers. It's just that these families are used to handling things differently in their homelands.

"We have to be very, very sensitive to this issue, because what we think of as discipline could be definitely considered abuse in L.A.," said Sookkyung Chang, a clinical psychologist who works with Korean families in Rowland Heights and Los Angeles.

"In our history, if a child does something wrong, the mother will go get tree branches and administer 10 lashes on the calves. But she hasn't lost control. She's doing it as a punishment and everyone knows. In America, it's a totally different culture."

Those who work with Asian immigrant families say it's not always clear when physical punishment crosses over into child abuse. Often, it depends on one's cultural perspective. And therein lies trouble.

"There are real abuses out there, but there are also a lot of cultural misunderstandings," Nguyen said. "To stop using a stick is easy, but what's the alternative? They're scared to death they're going to lose control of their children. They're scared to death that the police will intervene and come take their kid into protective custody."

To address this cultural confusion, the Asian Youth Center and the Asian Pacific Family Center, both in Rosemead, now offer parenting classes in Cantonese, Vietnamese, Mandarin and Korean. Private psychologists of Asian heritage do a brisk business bridging the gap between conservative old-world parents and rebellious Americanized teens.

In 1992, the Department of Children's Services tripled its Asian-Pacific unit, based in Covina, from 8 to 24 social workers of Vietnamese, Korean, Laotian, Fukien, Cantonese, Samoan and Mandarin heritage.

With shared roots and a common language, these social workers have more chance for success. Aware that direct confrontation is considered rude, they break the ice with small talk about their common homeland. So that parents don't lose face in front of their children, they ask them to step into another room before explaining the purpose of their visit.

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Sometimes the issue is easily resolved, a clear-cut cultural misunderstanding such as the Southeast Asian practice of coining--or rubbing a child's back with a heated coin--a common folk remedy for respiratory illness. Coining leaves welts that look suspiciously like abuse to teachers unfamiliar with this treatment.

Spankings or beatings put social workers on more murky ground. Under California's broadly worded child protection laws, only simple spanking is allowed; the use of a belt or a slap to the face, under certain circumstances, can be grounds for court intervention.

Children's Services discourages all spanking. Instead, social workers urge parents to set limits and use grounding or loss of privilege as discipline. But it can be a hard sell.

In one case, Nguyen said a physical education teacher called the child abuse hot line after noticing marks on a boy's legs in the shower. When social workers arrived at the house, the boy's father threw his hands up and said:

"I give up, it's too complicated here in America. If you don't want me to educate my child, what can I do? You can take the child away."

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After long talks with the parents of the 8-year-old Vietnamese boy in El Monte, Nguyen determined that the boy was not in danger because the family was willing to take Nguyen's advice as a Vietnamese elder and try alternate forms of discipline.

So one summer afternoon, as the boy crawled happily into his father's lap, Nguyen explained the concept of "time out," in which a child is sent off to a quiet place to reflect on his misdeeds.

In many cases, social workers provide one-on-one counseling or recommend parenting classes that will teach American ways of dealing with children and adolescents. In more severe cases, parents are sentenced to attend such classes by a dependency court judge as a prerequisite to getting their children back.

If all else fails--as with 50 cases last year--they go to court and ask a judge to find the child another home.

And some parents resent being forced to attend American-style parenting classes, according to Josh Lin, a psychologist at the Asian Pacific Family Clinic in Rosemead.

"They feel mistreated by the system," Lin said. "They tell me that we need a law to protect parents, (that) when they attempt to control their kids, they end up in court.

"Then they tell me: 'Fine, take my child away from the home, I can't do anything with him, he won't listen to me.' "

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