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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"She didn't even know how to explain it," Hu recalls. "She was totally clueless."

When they eventually end up in juvenile hall or on probation, some are referred by the courts to Asian Pacific Psychological Services. Despite the counseling, many teens steadfastly refuse to give up their gang membership. "Really, inside they're such sweethearts," Phongboupha says. "But when they get together, that's when I feel it's a failure. What have I not done right?"


The bell rang some time ago, but Trung and his friend ignore it. Instead, they stand in a circle with three other guys, discussing a stereo that Trung's friend wants back from someone. One guy passes Trung a blue rag. He stuffs it in his pocket, thereby violating his probation. He is not supposed to wear his gang colors. One time, a school administrator relates, Trung came to school in a blue shirt and another student spotted his probation officer coming down the street for a surprise visit. Trung sprinted to the bathroom to change before the cop arrived.

An adult with a walkie-talkie on his belt arrives to shoo them, and the group disperses. Trung and his friend, who wears floppy hair and a constant smirk, throw their arms around each other's shoulders and stroll down the dark hallway towards their classroom. "That's a smart kid," says the disciplinarian, his eyes following Trung down the hall. "He could go so far if he didn't hang around with that other one."

Trung is one of Phongboupha's failures. For a while, he looked like he was getting on track. He started attending a different school, and got a job filing papers and answering the phones at Asian Pacific Psychological Services. But a year into his counseling, at age seventeen, he joined the gang. The turning point for Trung, though, came two years earlier when his family moved to Fairfield for a year. Suddenly cut off from friends, Trung spent the beginning of ninth grade as a loner. He racked up big phone bills calling friends in Richmond, which angered his father. "They don't understand why it's important for him to have outside communication," Lily says of her parents.

It was a difficult year for Trung. He was hospitalized for several weeks following a flare-up of hepatitis B, which he contracted in childhood. The new friends he finally made weren't model students. He started skipping class, drinking, and smoking weed with them instead. Trung figures he only attended classes for a month out of that whole school year, and his parents didn't realize it until he failed and was held back, he says.

That year, Trung also became close to a distant cousin whose older brother had been in the Sons of Death -- the older cousin had been shot to death the previous year during a gang fight. For some reason, Trung explains, his gang wasn't armed that day. When the other side pulled out their guns, the Sons ran to their cars and raced off. His cousin, just nineteen, was still fighting and was left behind to die.

Frightened by the murder, Trung's parents tightened their reins, trying to isolate him from his friends. They banned his friends from visiting or calling. But far from discouraging their son, his cousin's death gave him more resolve to join the gang. He wanted revenge and still does.

Even confronted with the specter of life in prison, Trung says he wouldn't hesitate to kill those responsible for his cousin's death. He would take that chance, he says. "It might make me feel a lot better, knowing that he killed somebody, knowing how much he made my family suffer," he says. "Yeah, I would love to just do the same."

But just as Trung settled in with his new friends, his family moved back to Richmond. Trung continued to drink, smoke dope, and play hooky through the tenth and eleventh grades. His mom sometimes spotted him on the streets as she drove to work and would vainly plead with him to go back to school, Lily says. One weekend last year, Lily returned from college to find that her brother had joined the Sons of Death. She wasn't terribly surprised. "After a while, I was like 'Why not,'" Trung says. "They're all my friends. I'm with them every day. I might as well be part of it."

Two of his other cousins are in the Sons of Death as well. One goes by the nickname Big Cloudy for the copious amount of smoke he generates -- hence Lil' Cloudy.

Lily shudders to think about her little brother's violent initiation rite. She thinks he joined to prove how manly he is. "I've always thought he had small man's complex," she says. They call it "testing your nuts," Trung explains. "When you get jumped in and you don't swing back, that says a lot. When you swing back, it shows you got heart. If you fight back it shows no matter what, you're still going to fight. You ain't going to go out like a sucka."

And what does he do in this gang exactly? "We hang on the corner and wait for someone to come through. Basically we attempt to get our enemies." When asked if he and his friends break into cars or houses, he declines to comment, saying only that they've done some serious things. Illegal things. But everything happens for a reason, he adds.

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