IT TOOK Hue Nguyen only two weeks away from home to realize she had made a big mistake. She was staying in a motel room with 10 other Chinese-Vietnamese boys and girls when several of them suddenly began snorting cocaine. Hue, 17, refused to join in. The next day, she returned home to San Gabriel.
"I tasted what I thought was very good fruit, but it didn't taste very good at all. So I stopped eating it," she says.
For her younger sister, Nhung, 16, the realization came much more slowly and only after a painful yearlong odyssey in which she dropped out of the ninth grade, ran away from home with a 16-year-old boyfriend, and returned only to discover that her mother no longer wanted to care for her. Nhung became a ward of the county, alternating between McClaren Hall and a foster home.
This summer, Nhung and her mother patched things up. She moved back home and got a job as a waitress. Since she's returned to school, her English has improved steadily. But her relationship with her mom remains rocky. "I'm just waiting until I turn 18," she says.
The boys wandering the streets are difficult to track, but it is the girls, shy and embarrassed, who are the most elusive. Hue and Nhung were among a handful of troubled girls who agreed to be interviewed. They say their mother has not been the same since the family left Vietnam in 1982. Asian parents are much harder on their daughters, they insist, fearful that the girls will lose their virginity. They complain that they are forbidden to talk on the telephone and are scolded if they happen to be in the presence of a boy when their mother picks them up from school. "She always tells us that if we didn't leave Vietnam, none of this would have happened," Hue says. "She misses Vietnam. She has a lot of anger."
Nhung wants to graduate from high school and get a good job. Hue is thinking of attending a community college. Other than that, the two think little about the future. "It's too early for that," they say.