Here comes Lil’ Cloudy walking down the hallway of his high school, baggy jeans sagging, T-shirt hanging off his slight frame like drapes from a curtain rod. The boy’s hair is shaved close on the sides and sticks straight up on top, a slick field of bristles. His friends teasingly call him Bart. “Eat my shorts,” he’ll say, playing along.
A person passing this kid on the street probably wouldn’t think much of him, a skinny teenager standing about five feet tall, maybe five-one with the Bart hair — just another Asian youngster into the hip-hop look, talking the hip-hop talk. They’d probably mistake him for two or three years younger than his eighteen years. And they’d certainly never peg him as a troublemaker. They’d be wrong. Before his dad called the cops on him, Lil’ Cloudy never left his house without a .22 shoved in his pants pocket. Now he never leaves home without an ankle bracelet monitoring his whereabouts.
After being plucked out of class for an interview, the young man slouches in a chair wedged between a desk and a door, and answers questions thoughtfully, fiddling all the while with a sheet of paper in both hands. He is serious and polite. He doesn’t talk loudly, wave his hands around, or cuss. His physical presence, in fact, hardly occupies the corner he’s sitting in, at least until you start to consider the dangerous game he is playing. “I really didn’t look at it like ‘I’ve got a gun. I’m going to kill someone,’ ” he says. “It’s just in case they roll up on me and try to kill me.”
The “they” in this equation are members of a street gang called Color of Blood. Naturally, they wear red. Lil’ Cloudy belongs to Sons of Death. Their color is blue. If the rivals spot each other, whether in their hometown of Richmond or elsewhere, they’ll go at it like a pack of dogs bred to fight — and sometimes kill.
“We got a history that goes way back,” he boasts. “Like the Israelis and Palestinians.”
Lil’ Cloudy’s own history with Sons of Death is considerably shorter, starting just a few years ago when some of his cousins and close friends joined. Last August, the boy himself got “jumped in” — the expression for a gang initiation rite in which members welcome a newcomer with a severe beating. By the first week of March, he’d been arrested, and the former straight-A student spent his eighteenth birthday behind bars.
Sons of Death started in the 1980s as a gang for the Mien, an ethnic group from Laos. Color of Blood was strictly Khmu, the Laotian equivalent of Native Americans.
Bang Karnsouvong is old enough to have been around when these gangs were forming, and is now dealing with their legacy. “Let’s go! Let’s go!” his voice booms from inside a boys’ restroom. Kids trickle out the door in ones and twos, but continue to loiter, trying to squeeze out another minute away from class.
In his eleven years with West Contra Costa County Unified School District, Karnsouvong has spent four as site supervisor at Gompers High School. Located near downtown Richmond, it is one of the district’s two “alternative” schools — the modern euphemism for facilities that will take kids who’ve been expelled everywhere else. Some of the older teens, part of a program called Stop Drop, are only required to attend class three hours a day, and get a half-hour break in the middle of their morning.
Though he’s twice the age of his students, Karnsouvong dresses like them. He wears baggy pants (but not so excessively baggy that he can’t run in them). A diamond stud glistens in his left ear, and his first name dangles from a thick gold chain around his neck.
Given his clientele, the supervisor is naturally well versed in gang culture. Today’s gangs, Karnsouvong says, are more ethnically mixed, with lines drawn more on geographical boundaries than ethnic ones. Gompers and Richmond High fall in blue territory. De Anza and El Cerrito High are red. Still, the fights usually occur between groups from the same race. “Once in a while we’ll get a red one here and the kids will beat the shit out of him,” he says nonchalantly.
Over the years Karnsouvong has seen an increasing number of Asian-American kids at the alternative schools, both boys and girls. A product of the same school district, he remembers that when he was a student at Kennedy High, these kids more or less lived up to their stereotype as well-behaved overachievers. “In the ’80s, Asian kids were at the top of their classes,” he says. Today, he sees scores of Lil’ Cloudys sauntering through the doors. Kids today are different, he offers, shaking his head as he surveys the crop of delinquents walking his hallways.
Different indeed. The old stereotypes may still apply in the burbs, but in poorer urban areas of the East Bay and all around the country, a darker side of Asian assimilation into US culture is becoming increasingly apparent. And while Lil’ Cloudy’s problems could easily be attributed to family troubles, it’s difficult to argue with national crime statistics. From 1977 to 1997, while the number of arrests of African-American youth fell thirty percent, arrest numbers for young Asian and Pacific Islanders in the United States increased by 726 percent, according to FBI figures. That’s a staggering number, even when you factor in a nearly threefold increase in the Asian population over the past two decades — from 3.7 million to 10.2 million.
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.”
Trung’s mom stayed at home for many years after the family left Vietnam, depending on her husband for money, transportation, and communication with the outside world. Because he speaks English and she only knows basics picked up from an English as a Second Language class, the husband is the one who meets with teachers, pays the bills, and makes most family decisions. She finally gained some measure of freedom, first learning how to drive and then getting a job at a nail salon about four years ago.
The couple fights often. “Dad doesn’t respect mom,” Lily says. “He thinks she’s ignorant.”
He also chastises his wife for spending too much on clothes for herself and the kids. One night Lily came home to find her mother standing dazed outside as smoke poured from the chimney; her dad was burning his wife’s clothes in the fireplace. That’s what he does when he’s mad, Lily says. He destroys your possessions.
Trung knows his mom cares about him. “I’m a momma’s boy,” he admits with a grin. As for his father, he might as well be a stranger: “Me and my dad don’t get along at all,” Trung says. “I don’t ever talk to him. He’s the man that lives with me. That’s all.”
It wasn’t always like this. From eight to thirteen, Trung had a decent relationship with his dad, Lily says. They went fishing together. But of the siblings, Trung also faced his father’s wrath most often. When late-night arguments between Trung and his eldest sister woke the parents up, dad would storm into the room and yell at them both, but blame Trung more, Lily says. And while her dad never hit his daughters, he often beat Trung. “Mom always defended him,” Lily says of her brother. “Like she would try to hold dad back as he beat down the door.”
Sometimes Trung’s mom tried to shield the boy with her own body. And the boy learned to turn odd spots throughout the house into hiding places to escape his father. “Sometimes he hid in the dryer because he’s so small,” Lily recalls. Other times he slept on a pile of blankets in his sister’s closet for a day or two.
Her father seems at a loss about how to discipline Trung, Lily says. He tries to isolate him from his friends, whom he considers bad influences. When they call, he warns them not to call again. He has broken many phones in fits of anger, she says, and has torn Trung’s room apart, ripping posters from the walls, throwing out his clothes, and smashing his stereo and TV to bits. A week later, mom quietly replaces her son’s electronics. She has bought at least two televisions, Lily says. “I think because Trung is the oldest boy, Dad expected more out of him,” she says.
Trung claims he doesn’t care about his dad, yet it’s clear that he does. He repeatedly mentions how much his dad yells at him and badmouths him to others. Just the other week, dad told some relatives that Trung stole his cousin’s car, which would have been impossible, since Trung was under house arrest. “Why would he do that?” the young man wonders aloud.
“I don’t think he believes dad wants the best for him,” Lily says. “He thinks dad is out to get him.”
When Trung was sixteen, a doctor referred him to Bouakhay Phongboupha, a counselor at Asian Pacific Psychological Services. “He’d already been kicked out of high school when I got him,” she says.
In her five years working at the nonprofit agency, Phongboupha has tried to guide many young people like Trung. “A lot of them are hungry for love,” she says. “Not that their parents don’t love them. It’s just misunderstood. When parents lecture, it shows they love them. But the kids don’t know. Traditionally, Asian parents never say the good stuff you do. They just say the negative.”
Parents get offended when she says the problems start at home, but it’s true, she says. For one, the parenting techniques immigrants were raised with don’t always translate well in America. Phongboupha, a second generation Laotian who grew up in Richmond like most of her young clients, uses Laos as an example. In rural Laos, parents depend on the whole village to watch the kids. “Teachers have the right to hit children,” she says. “That’s where they learn discipline.”
As a consequence, many parents don’t know when to put their foot down. At the same time, other parents may have learned from their own upbringing to treat their children strictly, but without providing the proper structure of acting as a good role model.
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?”
“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.
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.
Taesali says she often relies on anecdotal evidence when applying for grants because there simply isn’t any data on Pacific Islanders as a whole, not to mention the distinct subgroups like Samoan, Tongan, and Fijian.
Trung’s father stood before the judge and told him that his son was no good — beyond hope. “Lock him up as long as possible,” the boy remembers his father saying. After the proceedings, Trung asked the bailiff to bring his dad over so he could talk to him. His father refused.
It was Trung’s father who turned him in for carrying a weapon. The boy had come home drunk at three or four one morning. His father began yelling. Trung didn’t want to hear it. He took a shower. The next day, his father confronted him about the pistol he had found in his son’s clothes. What Trung didn’t know was that his father had turned the gun over to the police, who had issued a warrant for his arrest. When he came home drunk again a few weeks later, his dad called the cops; the teenager was arrested around the corner from his house.
His father has no right to tell him what to do, Trung says. His father stays out late drinking and owns a gun, too, he says. Lily confirms this. Once, she says, her dad was arrested for drunk driving.
For the weapons charge, Trung did a month in juvenile hall, where he took the GED exam. “In juvenile, school is fun,” he says in all seriousness. “If you don’t go to school, you’ve got to stay in your cell all day and they bring your food on a tray. You wear underwear that maybe the guy next to you wore yesterday.”
Lily says Trung called home every day. No one visited. His mother wanted to, but didn’t know how to get there, he says. After he turned eighteen, he was transferred to another unit that housed more serious offenders — people who had committed armed robberies and other violent acts. “I think he was scared,” Lily says. “There are some big guys in there.” Hopefully, the thought of life behind bars will keep him out, she says.
Trung is now on probation until he turns 21, and the ankle monitor tracks his every move. He must wear it for a hundred days and is not allowed to leave the house, except for school, counseling, community service, probation meetings, or the weekly drug test. Violating any of these requirements is grounds for re-arrest, as is taking part in any gang activity. The probation officer can search his house at any time.
Lil’ Cloudy plays along. He attends his classes, but he also keeps that blue bandanna in his pocket. The young man doesn’t feel as though he’s done anything wrong. “Why do I have to have counseling? Why don’t my mom and dad take counseling too?” he says. “If a two-year-old says ‘fuck,’ who’s to blame? Not the two-year-old. Why is that different when you’re twelve? I’m not going to put all the blame on the parents. But parents got to learn different methods of raising their kids.”
Now he spends his days watching the NBA play-offs, reading a bit, and listening to music in his spartan room, furnished with the bottom half of a bunk bed and a seat from an old car as a chair. Ten shirts hang in the closet — almost all of them blue. He still hasn’t bothered to put anything up on the walls after his father’s last rampage through the room.
Unlike many of his gang peers, Trung has aspirations. His diploma arrived at the end of May, and Mom bought a frame for it right away. Trung now wants to enroll in community college. Though he missed most of ninth grade, he managed to attend class on the day his school administered the STAR test, the state’s standardized achievement test. He scored in the top five percent for his grade level, earning himself a $1,000 scholarship, should he ever decide to use it.
Maybe he’ll study business, he says. Maybe he’ll go into the military. Help develop weapons or something — all the news on terrorism interests him. “It’s kind of like street gangs, except bigger. Nations against nations. And they’re all fighting each other. Instead of having guns, they’re using nuclear weapons.”
Trung’s goals hinge on the material. “Live in a big house. Drive fancy cars. Never worry about bills and mortgages,” he says. Of course, that would also require that he not get killed in a spat over the color of his shirt.
Trung may have the same dreams as other teenagers, but he’s not willing to give up his gang to realize them. “I’m not going to quit,” he insists. “Sooner or later, I’ll be back doing the same thing.”
And if he does, don’t be fooled by that polite young man hanging on the corner. His parents may have traversed half the globe to escape a war, but Lil’ Cloudy, like many of his second-generation homeys, has dragged the preceding generation into a battle of a different sort.