Into the Melting Pot: Asian Youths Try Crime : Families Torn as They Face Culture Shock

Times Staff Writer

The Buddhist monk, a doctor of philosophy, spoke of lost children who have shed their old ways, replacing them with a freedom that knows no right or wrong.

"A lot of Vietnamese people complain that their children, they go to school and do not come home. Not for three or four days. Not for a week," said Thich Thien Thanh.

"A lot of families, they come here and they cry because their children are like this, and they do not know how to do," said Thanh, spiritual leader of a small Buddhist congregation on Orange Avenue.

A few of these children have robbed their countrymen and gone to jail. Others have begun asking Long Beach Vietnamese businessmen for money.

Boys Plead for Money

"Boys, very young ones, they come and they say, 'Give me $5 or $10.' The businessmen are angry because the boys come again and again. But they are afraid. I tell them, 'You give them (the money) or you die. And if they come regularly, you inform the police,' " Thanh said.

The monk, who through weekend cultural activities provides dozens of children with an alternative to crime, began seeing the change and hearing parents' sad stories perhaps a year ago, months before police realized that Long Beach had its own Asian youth gang problem.

Neither police nor leaders in Long Beach's 35,000-person Indochinese immigrant community can say how many children have banded together in loosely knit gangs. They guess the number is small. But they all say the problem is growing, and that most newly arrived refugee children, gang members or not, are having a difficult time adjusting to America.

"We try to tell people that we got some problems in our community, and if we don't take care of it, it's going to explode like a time bomb," said Nil S. Hul, president of the Cambodian Business Assn. of Long Beach.

"The children have come into another world, and everything is different," said Hul, a merchant and military officer in Cambodia before he fled in 1975. He is now a grocer.

"Before in our families, we got tight discipline. There were certain things you could not do until you reach a certain age. . . . But over here, we're talking about freedom and liberty, and you cannot even beat your children in order to discipline them," Hul said.

Majority Are Illiterate

The emergence of youth gangs has corresponded directly with the influx in recent years of a non-educated group of immigrants, peasant farmers and forest dwellers in their native lands.

Two-thirds to three-fourths of the adult Cambodians in Long Beach are illiterate even in their own language, leaders of the 25,000-person Cambodian community estimate.

Unlike the early waves of immigrants from educated and business classes, the newcomers have had to adjust not only to a new language but to the modern urban world as well.

The result has been a loss of self-esteem and power by parents and elders, most of whom speak little English, hold no jobs and cannot help their children with school work. In their topsy-turvy new world, the children are the bosses, because to some degree they have acquired the English language.

"Now the parent is abused, not the child," said Mory Ouk, a junior high school principal in Cambodia and an immigrant counselor for the Long Beach Unified School District since 1981.

"The children feel they are free to do whatever they want. They feel freedom not to go to school, not to obey parents anymore," Ouk said.

Actions Learned From TV

Many immigrant children live in the central city and learn American ways by copying the actions of Latino and black gangs around them, Ouk said. And, they often learn about this country through television, Hul said:"They see it on TV and they take it at face value."

This is a portrait of Indochinese youths far removed from the stereotype of the over-achieving immigrant student, educators say. But today in Long Beach, they say, most Asian immigrant children are doing poorly in school. About 8,200 Southeast Asian students, including some 7,300 Cambodians, are enrolled in public schools.

"Because of those giddy early days of success, the public has formed this stereotype of every Asian student being that potential valedictorian. But a great many of them are also experiencing problems with the gangs, the dropouts, the suicides," said Martha Estrada, coordinator of Long Beach schools' immigrant assistance programs.

"Before, it was, 'I want to learn to do this. How can I finish this?' Now there is much more futility. And there's a perception that if the student does poorly at school, the family loses face. So there is a lot of pressure at home on these kids," Estrada said.

Enrollment Increase of 5,000

Some 6,000 new immigrant students--about 55% Latino and 33% Asian--were enrolled in Long Beach schools last year, up from 5,000 the year before, Estrada said.

"In the last few waves (of Asian immigrants), the great majority of students have had little or no formal skills. And, in going around to the schools, the teachers are saying more and more, 'What happened?' They're finding it's taking a lot more mediation and a lot of discipline with these children," she said.

Increasingly, Estrada's eight-person Southeast immigrant counseling staff, which includes four Cambodians, is dealing with runaways and school fights or with youngsters who are physically abusing their parents and siblings, she said.

Several Asian immigrant students in lower elementary grades were suspended this school year for belligerent behavior or not following classroom rules, Estrada said.

"We've even had a couple of kindergarten terrors," she said. "My staff says it's not a problem of maturity. It's a problem of imitation of what they perceive to be acceptable American behavior."

Hundreds of older students also are arriving here after years in refugee camps and with little formal education. They have little hope of graduating with students their own age, Estrada said.

Subject to Peer Pressure

These students are likely candidates for membership in Asian gangs, Ouk said. "Mostly they participate in the gangs because of the peer pressure only. They just want to get along with the people living around them," he said.

Most local junior high and high schools have four or five Cambodian students identified as gang members, he said. "It's not a great amount, but it's too much for us," Ouk said.

Since the existence of gangs reflects badly on the larger Cambodian community, leaders often call the parents of the delinquents, Hul and Ouk said.

"But it seems that most of the parents are illiterate. And they are afraid about child abuse laws. . . . It's almost tying their hands up," Ouk said.

As a counselor to students in trouble, Ouk said he personally knows three Cambodian youths who have gone to Westminster or Santa Ana for criminal training by Vietnamese gangs. "I don't think they get much money, but some of them get the drug (cocaine)," he said.

Reponse to the increasing problems of Asian youths has been piecemeal, educators and community leaders say.

'Still Not Enough'

The United Cambodian Community Organization provides youth counselors and family advisers. The Asian Pacific Family Outreach clinic counsels troubled families. Cambodians individually assist those in need. And the school district has its eight full-time Southeast Asian counselors.

"But we still are not enough to go around," Estrada said. "Society says all Southeast Asians are high achievers, and maybe we're neglecting a group out there that needs help."

Recent grant requests to the city for translator, domestic violence and youth delinquency programs have been denied, Hul said.

City officials note, however, that they awarded two grants worth $107,000 to the United Cambodian Community Organization in May, 1986, on a one-year-only basis. "We look at these to become self-sufficient after the first year," Mayor Ernie Kell said recently.

But nine of 16 social service organizations funded last year will receive new grants this year, according to the proposed city budget. No Cambodian group is on the new list.

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