Welfare dependency and work in the underground economy are likely to diminish as a second generation of Southeast Asians graduate from high school and college, resettlement officials believe.
"The kids are doing so well in school that you will not see a second-generation welfare problem," said Lavinia Limon of International Institute, a private agency assisting refugees and immigrants in Los Angeles County.
School officials in communities with large concentrations of Indochinese generally agree with that prognosis. They point to studies that show young Southeast Asians fluent in English, performing well in school and aware that the high fertility rates of their parents have contributed to poverty and welfare dependency.
But school officials say that a disturbing number of young refugees, perhaps 15% to 20% of the total, are struggling. For three months this summer, The Times followed the day-to-day lives of a group of young Vietnamese identified by their teachers as disaffected students who had dropped out or were on the verge of dropping out.
Nearly all had traveled a direct path from refugee camps in Malaysia to San Gabriel Valley communities with large Vietnamese refugee populations. Unlike Vietnamese classmates who had migrated to California after living in states with small refugee populations, they have never known America without the insulation of an ethnic community. Consequently, many speak limited English.
Like the others, Tam lost important years in a refugee camp, arriving too late at age 15 to take full advantage of American schools. He asked that his last name not be used.
"It was like I was deaf," he recalled of his classroom experience. "I didn't understand a word."
At 18, in the midst of his junior year, he dropped out. With a limited grasp of English and no job skills, Tam has bounced from one low-paying job to the next in the last two years. His mother, frustrated over his failure to find a steady job, recently sent him to live and work with an uncle in Philadelphia.
Tam's 17-year-old brother, Bui, who wears his hair spiked and his clothes baggy, has spent much of the last six months as a runaway, living with his 16-year-old girlfriend and half a dozen other Vietnamese runaways. They fill their days playing billiards and video games along Valley Boulevard in San Gabriel. They sleep at the homes of friends or rent a motel room in which a dozen teen-agers crowd in for the night.
"They don't want to go to school. They are wandering the streets," said Nam Trac, owner of the Saigon Center billiards hall and cafe where Bui and his friends hang out. "It is a pitiful thing to see.
"I tell them that they are young and have plenty of time to be successful. I tell them to learn a trade or America will be very hard for them."