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Siriboungthong moved up here three years ago from the troubled Laotian neighborhoods of Fresno, after marrying a Chinese man and breaking out of her insular community. Ever since, she has tried to help to end the wave of assaults and retaliation sweeping through San Pablo's Laotian children. Toward that end, three weeks ago she and Toommaly called for a parents-only town hall meeting in response to Boonkeut's murder. They hoped to get their elders to grieve in public, acknowledge that they have a problem, and then ask for help.
The heat wave that scorched Southern California was still ramping up on October 25, and everyone on MacDonald Avenue seemed to wilt. But inside the Richmond Senior Center, the air was pleasantly cool beneath the Chinese oil paintings and leather saddles hanging on the walls. The government officials outnumbered their own constituents; Congressman George Miller, state Assemblywoman Loni Hancock, and county Supervisor John Gioia made small talk in the front seats, while Siriboungthong glanced at her watch and hoped aloud that the parents were just on "Asian time" -- that is, thirty minutes late. Finally, after enough people had quietly slid into the back seats, she approached the microphone.
As Siriboungthong laid out the ground rules, a Laotian interpreter stood at her side, and two assistants scribbled away on sheets of butcher paper. Then Siriboungthong did her best to establish the tone she and her colleagues were hoping for. "I'll ask you to please think back to the very, very first moment that you had heard of this incident," she softly coaxed. "I'd like you to think back to where you were, what you remember facing, what do you remember hearing? What do you remember feeling? What was going through your mind? And finally, how has this incident affected you, your family, your personal life?"
After an awkward silence, a middle-aged man named Sary Tatpaporn walked slowly down the aisle. With his tie, grey slacks, and timid demeanor, he could have been on his way to work at H&R Block. Instead, he was about to tell the sad story of his son. In so doing, he hoped his example would encourage others to be equally forthcoming.
Standing before the microphone, Tatpaporn spoke in a strong voice, at least for a while. "When we first plan to have our family, we were lucky to have one son, one daughter," he said. "It's like a perfect dream, to have a son first, and second a daughter. And my son turned out to be a nightmare for us, and he still stays with us, and have lots of problems, and we have to deal with him almost every day. ... And as a result of his mental problem, he lost all of his friends. That's a sad time, for him and for me." Tatpaporn struggled for composure, and a tear ran down his left cheek. Maly Siriboungthong glided up behind him and placed her hand on his shoulder. "And to see this incident again," he continued, "in such a way that an innocent life, a young girl who have a long way to go, and have a very promising future, and her life has been taken away -- it just hurt me a lot."
Tatpaporn's son was born in a refugee camp. Like almost every Laotian in San Pablo, he and his father were on the wrong side of history. When the communists came to power, they gave Tatpaporn a choice: life in a reeducation camp, or a one-way ticket across the Thai border. So he crossed the border and spent four years in a refugee camp before making his way to the United States. Life here wasn't much easier at first. Although Tatpaporn stayed with his uncle and attended classes at the Berkeley Adult School, the transition from a rural tent city to the fastest place on earth left him dizzy and afraid. "All of a sudden we were dropped over here, everything was completely changed," he says in a later interview, in English still jagged after twenty years. "The culture, the language, everything. I have a really difficult time to adjust the first couple year. ... At first, honestly I was afraid of the black people, because in our country, we don't have many of them. ... I'm okay now. I have lots of African-American friends."
Eventually he found work as a bilingual teacher's aide and began assembling a down payment for a home in San Pablo. But something started happening to his son at age twelve. A white boy started picking on him in school, he says, and the very next day his son joined one of the area's first Southeast Asian street gangs, the Sons of Death. Within weeks, the boy's grades dropped, and the drugs and alcohol started. "He would disappear for a couple days, and I wouldn't know where he was," Tatpaporn says. "I had to go to different homes to look for him. And when I found him, he would refuse to come home."
It turned out that his son's difficulties were rooted in schizophrenia. Tatpaporn remembers the quiet desperation his family experienced as his son's friends deserted him. Now the father is determined not to sit by while other parents go through similar anguish. He started with the parents of Chan Boonkeut. "The father that lost his daughter, he have similar problems with his son," he says. "He consult me many times, ask me how to deal with this situation. ... I think the real problem in our community, people worry about their face, about their family integrity. As a result, they tend to keep their problem to themselves, not be willing to get help. For me, I'm not afraid to share. I want to share my problem, the problem's already here. I just don't want to see the people face the similar problem, or if they do, they honestly accept the problem and try to get help."
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