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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Adults also have their own set of problems adjusting to life in the United States. They feel they don't belong, she says. Many also suffer from mental health problems. Due to traumatic migration experiences, 71 percent of Southeast Asians meet the criteria for a major affective disorder, according to a 1999 Surgeon General's report.

Sam Duch lost his father during the Khmer Rouge's violent takeover of Cambodia, and his mother has never quite recovered. Now 27, Duch coordinates a four-month-old youth program at a tiny Fruitvale-area nonprofit called Cambodian Community Development. He has the right pedigree: as a teen he helped start the Knight Brothers, Oakland's first Cambodian gang, and later did six years in the California Youth Authority for auto theft, conspiracy to commit murder, and second-degree murder. If he'd received more support at home, "maybe I would have turned out differently," he says. "But I don't blame my mother. To this day she still has trauma."

The first wave of refugees to flee the war in 1975 were well-connected government types who interacted with foreign governments, Duch explains. By the time the second and third wave of immigrants arrived in the United States during in the '80s, many had spent years in overseas refugee camps. A child from that region is lucky if both his parents survived, he says, and many single parents without job skills found themselves transported to a high-tech urban society. "A lot of people in the Third World don't have access to food or even basic needs," he says. "They still go, 'I need to go to the bathroom. Let me dig a hole.' "

While Pacific Islanders didn't flee wars, they face similar barriers with language, acculturation, and generation gaps. Some youth also rebel against the Catholic or Mormon churches that play a prominent role in various Pacific Islander cultures. "If you're Tongan and you're growing up in an Orthodox Christian religion, you have less freedom," says Penina Ava Taesali, who works with Pacific Islander youth. "And you may act out at school because this is all the time you have away from church and family."

Children of immigrants learn English and adapt to the new country much more quickly than their parents, says Phongboupha, and suddenly the roles are reversed. Parents rely on their kids to translate and to navigate them through the unfamiliar new world. And that gives the kids power. "Some kids don't even bother to tell their parents about things because the parents don't understand how everything works here," she says. "They think, 'It's a waste of time, so why should I tell my parents?' "

Trung's sixteen-year-old girlfriend, Emily, who is half Lao and half Thai, says her old-fashioned parents don't comprehend what kids have to go through at school today. "Like if I get in trouble at school it's all my fault. It's not someone else's fault even though they may have started the fight," she says. "They think if you just go and mind your own business everything will be okay. But if you go and mind your own business, someone will say you're stuck up."

Richmond sixteen-year-old Michael Saeteurn, who says he's been arrested eight to ten times, remembers that his parents wanted him to get a job when he was twelve, unaware of child labor laws. But Michael was already keeping himself occupied stealing cars to go joyriding. He started when he was eleven, quit going to class in the sixth grade, and developed a marijuana habit he's still trying to kick. His family, ethnic Mien, fled Laos in 1986 when he was just a few months old. The Saeteurns were too busy at first to realize their son had a drug problem. His mother didn't know until his probation officer sat her down. And the boy rarely crossed paths with his father, who put in long days as a janitor -- or so Michael thinks. Actually, he says, he's not sure quite what his father does.

That raises another issue. Children of immigrants often lack supervision because the parents work long hours at menial jobs just to make ends meet. Part of the delinquency problem stems from sheer poverty. That might seem counterintuitive, since in 2000, Asian Americans had the highest average household income of any group: $70,231 compared with $57,047 for all races. But again, when Asian Americans are broken down into subgroups, the results look quite different. Though the 2000 breakdowns are not yet available, data from the previous census showed that two thirds of Hmong and Laotians, one half of Cambodians, and one third of Vietnamese were living in poverty. Not coincidentally, youth arrest rates among these groups in Alameda County have consistently been among the highest of the Asian-American subgroups. Sergeant Harry Hu, head of the Oakland Police Department's gang unit, believes the kids getting arrested are mimicking their surroundings and adopting a less-than-wholesome American gangsta culture. "Obviously they don't live in very good neighborhoods, and the values in the streets are not what you want to teach them," Hu says. "A lot of these kids talk like blacks because they live in black neighborhoods; they speak and act just like them, down to the gold teeth and braided hair. I look at them and think they have an identity crisis. There's nothing wrong with it, but they tend to pick up the values around them. We have Southeast Asians selling dope at the street level and getting in conflict with black dealers."

According to the sergeant, Asian kids typically join gangs to fit in or to protect themselves. "They're smaller in size," he says. "When they go to school they get picked on, so they stick to their own and move in a group for protection."

Hu also leads gang awareness workshops for parents, and notes that many of the parents have such poor communication with their offspring, they have no idea the kids have been up to no good until they are arrested. Once, he says, he showed up to arrest a teen and found his room covered in gang writing. "I walked in his room and there was graffiti on the floor, graffiti on the ceiling, graffiti on all four walls. His notebooks and everything were covered in blue."

Hu asked the mother if she knew her son was in a gang, she said no.

"You ever go in his room?" he asked.


"What do you see?"

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