Lost Generation 

The stereotype of Asian kids in America is that of do-gooders and academic overachievers. But break the crime stats into ethnic subgroups and you'll start running into more and more kids like Lil' Cloudy -- gangsta.

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With youth arrest figures skyrocketing, some Asian-American community groups have raised the alarm, yet the problem remains largely ignored outside of these groups. After all, the numbers are still relatively small: only 3.7 percent of people living in the United States are of Asian descent.

But the rising number of arrests is no small problem in California, where 12 percent of the population is Asian American. It is perhaps of most concern here in the Bay Area, where the Asian youth population is booming. In the latest census, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders made up 21 percent of Alameda County's youth -- the same as Latinos -- and were the fastest-expanding youth category, growing 66 percent over the past decade. In San Francisco County across the bay, kids of Asian descent dwarfed all other ethnic categories in 2000, comprising 38 percent of all kids aged ten to seventeen.

One organization that has paid close attention to this growing at-risk population is the Asian/Pacific Islander Youth Violence Prevention Center, a team effort of the Oakland-based National Council on Crime and Delinquency and the University of Hawaii. Last year, the center released reports that analyzed juvenile arrest data culled from the probation departments in San Francisco and Alameda counties.

Overall, the center found, these youngsters had lower arrest rates than other racial groups, but the way law enforcement agencies tabulated data obscured the subtleties. Although there are more than forty distinct Asian ethnicities, detainees are often lumped into the general "Asian" or "other" categories. So the center combed through arrest data, sorting people by ethnic surnames. Through this process, a more detailed picture emerged. "One of the important findings is, even though on the surface when you look at Asians as a category they seem to have a low arrest rate, when you disaggregate the data you see some Asian subgroups have very high crime rates," says Isami Arifuku, who coauthored the studies.

In Alameda county, for instance, overall arrest numbers for Asian-American kids grew at a slower clip than the youth population, but for specific subgroups -- including Chinese, Korean, Cambodian, and Asian Indian -- the arrest numbers more than doubled since 1991, far outpacing growth in these youth populations. And some Asian youth subgroups, including Vietnamese, Laotians, and Samoans, have considerably higher arrest rates per 1,000 kids of their ethnicity than young Hispanics and whites.

The girls are also getting in trouble. Arrests of Asian and Pacific Islander girls in Alameda County shot up 681 percent from 1991, more than ten times their population increase. The report also found that Cambodians, Laotians, and Pacific Islanders had high recidivism rates. Within two years, more than forty percent of those arrested within each group had been arrested again, and Cambodians and Laotians reoffended with greater seriousness.

While these limited studies reveal in more detail which kids are getting into trouble with the law, they don't reveal why. Are there socioeconomic factors? A generation gap? Cultural conflict? The center's researchers plan to extensively survey four hundred youths and their parents about their habits, values, attitudes, and a hundred other characteristics in order to pinpoint the reasons. They have also gathered representatives from more than twenty local organizations to investigate these issues and formulate a community response plan to combat violent crime.

Until they have better data, they can only speculate. "It's a second-generation problem, in theory," Arifuku says. "There is a phenomenon when there are new immigrants to this country, the next generation is the one that seems to get involved in the juvenile justice system. And this is across the board. It isn't just Asians. It has to do with a rejection of their parents' culture or their values."

Lil' Cloudy seems to fit that profile. Before he picked up his street name, he was just Trung -- the middle of five children of Vietnamese immigrants. The boy was always a troublemaker, the kind of kid who talked back to his parents and threatened his siblings with his fists. His older sister Lily remembers that when she was four and Trung was two, he hit her over the head with a wooden stick so hard that she bled. (The boy's name and those of his family members have been changed due to his gang affiliation, and the identity of his high school and its employees were purposely omitted.)

By all accounts, including his own, Trung is the black sheep of the family. His eldest sister attends San Francisco State. Lily, the second oldest, just finished her sophomore year at UC Berkeley on a full scholarship. His sixteen-year-old sister and twelve-year-old brother have managed well in school so far.

Lily doubts Trung would have ended up in this much trouble had he been brought up differently. "I think we raised ourselves, in a way," she says, describing her folks as "strict Asian parents." Their parents, who declined to be interviewed for this story, left their homeland during the Vietnam War. The mother came from a family too poor to afford running water. Her parents were divorced, a rarity in Vietnam at the time. Trung's father fared a little better. He, at least, received some college education.

Trung was born in Stockton. When he was four, the family moved to a two-bedroom house in Richmond, where the parents slept in one room and all the kids in the other. The parents struggled to adapt to an urban environment so different from the rural villages where they grew up. "My parents don't understand some things about America," says Lily, who has such unusually wide eyes and beguiling lashes that she looks like someone's imagined drawing come to life. "Like don't leave your car door unlocked and your windows rolled down. They don't understand why that's dangerous. They didn't start doing taxes until two or three years ago because they didn't know."

Both Lily and Trung say their father is hardly ever home. He works long hours at his landscaping business. When he does interact with the kids, the only emotion he shows, in Trung's view, is anger. "He's never supportive -- even when I was twelve years old," says the young man. "Like before, I got straight A's and he never said nothing. Just 'Oh.' It's like expected that you get straight A's. Or, if you got a B, you messed up. That's how it is."

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