Those days are gone when neighbors refer to one another on the first name basis and exchange local gossip during their morning walks. That face-to-face interaction has since been replaced by electronic and online communication tools.
Cries of desperation go unheard
The byproduct of technology is a deep sense of loneliness and isolation. The sting of isolation becomes even more pronounced when one is an immigrant with limited English capabilities. Mundane and simple tasks such as going grocery shopping or getting on the bus can become quite a challenge. Some immigrants just quit trying and rely on their children and other family members to be their interpreters and drivers.
There is nothing essentially wrong with keeping to oneself. Nevertheless, when trials come, social isolation can keep one from getting the help one needs and drives one to do the unthinkable.
Melody Tsang, a social service counselor at the Asian American Civic Association (AACA) in Boston Chinatown, helps Chinese immigrants navigate various systems: everything from immigration to food stamp.
“Because of the nature of my work, sometimes I see clients who have experienced domestic violence or facing mental health problems,” Tsang said.
Tsang recalled getting a phone call that she would never forget. “Let’s call this client Anna. Anna is a 58-year-old woman who has been a client of AACA for over ten years. One morning, about two years ago, Anna called me on the phone in a sad, low voice. She told me she wanted to kill herself because she had just been diagnosed with lymphoma.
She was in a hospital where no one spoke her language. She had no one to talk to. On top of that, she didn’t want her husband to go through the pain of taking care of her. She said she wanted to jump out the window,” Tsang said.
Tsang listened to Anna patiently and consoled her. After spending an hour on the phone with Ann, Tsang was able to calm Anna down and instill a sense of hope in her.
“Since that day, we continued to talk frequently until she had surgery and received treatments,” Tsang said.
Unfortunately, not all stories have the same happy ending.
In April 2009, a Chinese mother in Wollaston was accused of stabbing her 9-year-old daughter and unborn child to death. Less than two years later, on January 13, 2011, another Chinese immigrant mother in Quincy was accused of killing her 8-year-old son, who reportedly died of carbon monoxide poisoning in their Germantown apartment. In the first incident, the investigator said that there had been “domestic turmoil” in the house weeks prior to the killing; the police responded to a “disorder” call at the home. In the second incident, the accused mother claimed to have been abused by her former husband for years.
“Everyone I spoke to felt sad about what happened,” said Betty Yau, member of Quincy’s Asian American Advisory of Chinese Americans, of the recent tragedy in Germantown.
Frank Hogan, a long-term Germantown resident, described Germantown as a peninsula, a geographically isolated section of Quincy. As such, getting around is an issue for immigrations who know little English. “[It might get] to these feelings [of isolation], as opposed to living in other parts of Quincy where there are grocery stores, etc. Part of the problem is difficulty with reading bus schedules,” Hogan wrote in an e-mail.
The city itself is not the issue here, Yau stressed.
“People may recall this incident [in Wollaston], and then this incident [in Germantown], and then jump to the [conclusion], what’s wrong with the city? But people are still moving to Quincy. I’ve lived in Quincy for about thirty years,” Yau said in a phone interview.
Despite these unfortunate incidents, there are still many good qualities about Quincy that makes it a good place to call home, such as the affordable housing prices, accessible public transportation, good public safety; the list goes on.
Growing Asian population in Quincy
According to a study by the Institute for Asian American Studies, there are about over 19,000 people living in Quincy, which accounts for almost a quarter of the city’s overall population. It all started in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when an Asian migration began to trickle into Quincy. The Asian population in Quincy continued to see a robust growth throughout the 1990s. Within the past ten years, enrollment of Asian children in schools citywide has tripled over the past ten years. Now, about thirty percent of the children in Quincy are Asian. It is perhaps an understatement to say that the historically white, blue-collar town has been going through a drastic transformation.
The city has come along in addressing the changes that come alongside with demographic change.
“There have been a lot of changes. A lot of people have been working hard to deal with the influx of Asians. Compared to other cities, [and compared to] ten to twenty years, in terms of Asian services, promoting cultural understanding, acknowledging the language issues, we have addressed all the issues responding to all the needs,” Yau said.
Organized efforts, however, still have limitations. There will always be unmet needs.
“With an incident like this that has happened, we will re-examine the changes, demographic changes in the city. Younger families in the Asian community, failed marriages… we are just human beings. We have financial hardships, we have emotional needs. We are not all that different from all other people. Local authorities, have we done enough to address the issues? I wouldn’t say that we had done a very good job at it, but I would say we would never walk away from it,” Yau continued.
Resources available for Chinese immigrants
Service provides in Quincy have come a long way in meeting the needs of their ever-growing Chinese-speaking population. A myriad of programs, classes, events, and literature is readily available in Chinese. For example, Quincy Asian Resources offers English classes; Quincy Medical Center and South Cove Community Health Center have a large team of Chinese-speaking medical and administrative staff; Thomas Crane Library regularly hosts informative sessions in Chinese; traditional Chinese holidays such as Chinese New Year and August Moon Festival are duly observed and celebrated every year and organizations that do not specifically cater to Asian clientele also offer language assistance.
“In most of the cases, when people are desperate and have unpleasant thoughts, it might be due to insecurities. They might be going through a family disturbance, illness or financial difficulty. Language barrier is also an important cause of isolation for non-English speaking people. I would suggest that the social service agencies provide more informational workshops in the community to help people learn the resources out there,” Tsang said.
Non-Chinese residents also pitch in ideas of ways to reach out to their Chinese neighbors. Hogan suggests making use of Germantown’s community by showing Chinese-language movies nights at Germantown’s community center on weekends or running ESL classes.
Preventing domestic violence – A community responsibility
In a survey Asian Task Force Against Domestic Violence (ATASK) conducted in 2000 titled the “Asian Family Violence Report,” 24% of the interviewed Chinese community members have known a woman who has been shoved, pushed, slapped, hit, kicked, or suffered other injuries by her partner. According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (NCADV), this statistic is congruent with national statistics that 1 in 4 women will experience domestic violence in her life time. However, men can also be victims of domestic violence.
“At ATASK, we define domestic violence as a pattern of power and control that one partner holds over the other. In other words, when someone is in an abusive relationship, they rarely have any decision making power and often have a fear of their partner,” said Qingjian Shi, Director of Education and Outreach at ATASK.
The danger with domestic violence, Shi points out, people associate it with just physical abuse. However, physical abuse is just one of many forms of abuse; others include emotional/psychological abuse, verbal abuse, financial abuse, sexual abuse, and cultural/identity abuse.
“ In many cases, an abusive relationship begins with emotional abuse, where the abusive partner is constantly checking on their partner, controlling who they can see and talk to, not allowing them to participate in certain activities, calling them names, or making them feel bad about who they are. As this behavior continues, it can often escalate into physical abuse,” Shi said.
Other signs of abuse may be the throwing of objects, threats of violence and previous relationship violence by the abusive partner.
“Someone who is experiencing abuse can feel very isolated and alone, depressed, and sometimes even have suicidal thoughts. They may feel hopeless and sad,” Shi said.
Unfortunately, those who have spotted signs domestic abuse may choose to sweep it under the rug.
“A lot of times, even when we see violence happen before our eyes, with our families, friends, and peers, we don’t say anything or intervene to stop it from happening,” Shi said. “Ignoring domestic violence not only prevents our communities to talk about an issue that is very prevalent, but also makes the person who is experience the violence feel invisible – like what they are experiencing is not real or dangerous.”
ATASK’s staff speaks over 12 Asian languages. ATASK hosts a 24 hour confidential helpline at 617-338-2355 where those affected by domestic violence can call in for linguistically and culturally appropriate services.
Getting to know your neighbors
Local resources are always going to be limited. Love, however, is always at one’s disposal, if one is willing to give it.
“I think it would help if people could build better relations with their neighbors, Asians or non-Asians on the individual level. They may be able to better prevent something tragic to happen. Resources are so limited,” Yau said.
Tsang shares a similar sentiment, “Sometimes, people go to the extremities. This can happen in a critical moment. If someone can talk to them, it may change their viewpoints or decisions,” she said.
Communication is a two-way street; so is cultural understanding.
“The best way to know their Chinese neighbors is to learn about the Chinese culture. Only when people know the culture, they would like to know about their Chinese neighbors. Of course, we have to learn the culture of main stream society too so that we can adjust our lives and get along with our non-Chinese neighbors in this place more easily,” Tsang said.