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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So far Trung has met his enemies face to face only once, at a car show in San Mateo. He describes the fight as exhilarating but confusing because it was in a public place. "You didn't know who to hit," he says. Though Color of Blood outnumbered his gang two to one, he noticed that some of them just stood around. "That makes no sense. Why would you be in COB and not help your homeboy out?" he asks with disgust. When the cops arrived, he and his friends slipped into the crowd.

The only disadvantage to being in a gang is that you might die, he says. When it's pointed out that lots of people manage to have good times without risking their lives, Trung shrugs. "Yeah, you could have fun. But I think I have more fun with them. I feel safe when I'm with them. It's when I'm out by myself I got to watch my back."

Emily, his girlfriend of five months, says she worries all the time about him. But what can she do? "When he goes out and does something with SOD, he wouldn't tell me," she says. "That's between them. I know not to ask."

Even gang members get their priorities straight though, she says. She's met SOD members in their twenties and thirties with wives and kids. They don't stay out late; they go home to their families, she says. "I know he's going to make the right decision when it comes down to it," she says. Trung remains loyal to the gang not because he's a bad person, but because his friends have always been there for him. Asked if anyone ever quits, Emily says, "I don't think so. I've never heard of anyone leaving."


Bobby Saephan quit the Asian Crips a few years back. He joined when he was eleven or twelve. Now he's seventeen. When you join, he says, you don't realize that you'll soon have to watch your back all the time and sleep with one eye open. "I wanted my freedom," he says. "I didn't want to look around all the time for people."

Saephan, who is Mien, started smoking pot about the same time he joined the Crips. He got high virtually every day between the ages of twelve and seventeen, he says. He smoked to numb out the world. "You want that feeling. Without that feeling you can't go through the day," he explains. "It's like if you didn't eat, you wouldn't be able to get through the day."

His parents divorced when he was six. He and his mother lived in shelters for a year after his father broke his mother's jaw. Then they moved in with his new stepfather. Saephan complains that his mom and stepfather refused to trust him. "First word that comes out of their mouths is my name if something breaks or someone cries. They always blame me," he says.

The young man spent the last three years on probation after he was caught at school with a razor, with which he'd planned to slice open a cigar to stuff it with weed. He violated his probation repeatedly, failing the weekly drug tests. But after the birth of his daughter last month, he vowed to stay sober, and now attends a program called Drug Court every day after school.

His fiancée, Christine Saechao, recently got off probation. She'd been in and out of juvenile hall for assault several times since she was eleven or twelve. She cracked a girl's head once. She tried all sorts of drugs. "I was young and stupid," is how she sums it all up.

Drug use is especially high among Lao, Khmu, and Mien youth, says Phongboupha, who also coordinates a drug prevention program that serves several West Contra Costa schools. Yet neither Bobby Saephan nor his fiancée got any counseling until after they were arrested. Even when Asian parents realize their children have problems, many don't seek help. According to the 1999 Surgeon General's report, Asian Americans patronize mental health services less frequently than any other ethnic group, though the prevalence of mental illness in their communities is comparable to that of other groups. They're ashamed, and tend to distrust assurances of confidentiality, Phongboupha says. They don't understand the point of talking about their problems and sharing family business. Mental-health counseling, in fact, doesn't exist in much of Asia.

In addition, it's hard for immigrant parents to find counseling in their own languages, even in the diverse Bay Area. This is especially true for Pacific Islanders. Penina Ava Taesali, a Samoan American who helps runs a youth program called Asian Pacific Islander Youth Promoting Advocacy and Leadership, says she has a difficult time finding islanders who would make good youth coordinators or counselors. Very few go into the social services, she says.

Without someone to stand up for them, young Pacific Islanders are often stereotyped and quickly dismissed. Because they tend to be big-boned and tall, people automatically assume they're the aggressor in a fight. "Role models like the Rock perpetuate the stereotypes," says Taesali, referring to the WWF wrestler who is perhaps one of the nation's most famous Pacific Islanders. "The stereotypes are that they're fighters, like all you can do is play rugby or football. Those are the choices you have as a Pacific Islander man. But the youth I work with are poets and artists."

The myth that the Asian-American population is collectively well-off and well-educated also has consequences for funding. Government, nonprofit, and private foundations and social service agencies often overlook the at-risk Asian-American groups and very little data is collected on them. "Community organizations say whenever they write a proposal or make a request, they're always wanting data and they never have any," says Isami Arifuku at the API center.

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