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Youth Opinion : A Tale of Two Brothers: Gang Leader, Class President

It seems only yesterday that my family first stepped on this land, America. My dad was going to start a church, and we came from South Korea without any English except “thank you,” “yes” and “no.”

It is very different now. We are nothing like the people we were nine years ago. My dad is a butcher, my mom is a caterer, my younger brother is a hardcore gangster with tattoos--and I will enter UC San Diego next month. When I was graduated from high school in May, sitting on the podium as the senior-class president, my brother could not attend because he was locked up in a youth camp on parole violation.

This is an immigrant story of filled and unfulfilled expectations, of two brothers with identical heritage but divergent futures. We are foreigners in this land, but ours, in a way, is a completely American story.

At the beginning, my dad tried to start a church, in Ohio. It didnot work out. After a year, we moved to Los Angeles, where my dad knew some people whomight help us. My brother and I were scared of going to school because of all the violence we had heard about. Little did I know then that the time had come for my brother and me to walk the different paths of life we were destined for.

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My dad’s plan failed again in Los Angeles. He became unemployed and my mom returned to Korea to work and bring back enough money for the family. In her absence, my brother and I sold our toys to our friends to feed ourselves. When my dad saw this, he was moved emotionally and found work as a butcher.

For immigrant families, it is pretty normal for the kids to be left at home by themselves. While my parents were working hard at minimum wage, my brother and I were exposed to many things this dreamy American society had to offer, both the good and the bad.

We first got into skateboarding, which was fun. Then a new family moved in next door with a teen-ager a few years older than us. He began to skate with us. A few months later, he joined a street gang and we joined, too. To be honest, I loved the feeling of power that I held in my hands.

No one ever messed with me at school. But about a year after we joined the gang, my neighbor got shot. He did not die, but the stitches around his stomach made me think. One of my junior-high friends asked me to go to church with him. I went at first to check out the girls, but God reached out and saved me from the pit I was in.

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The same did not happen to my brother. He did follow me to church, but after a few months went back to his old ways. He got into fights at school and was arrested many times for crimes such as car theft. His face was shown in one of the Korean newspapers as he sat in the back of a police car. In high school, we diverged further.

Still, he is smart, and tough. He attempted to turn his life around by using his fighting skills in martial arts. Within just a year and a half he became a brown belt in Tae Kwon Do. He won medals in California and nationally, even taking a silver medal at the Junior Olympics. But soon he began to lose interest in martial arts and went back to the gang. Since then, he has covered his body with tattoos and been in and out of different youth camps. He is highly ranked in his gang.

Whenever my brother was locked up, my mom was always the one bailing him out even though exhausted from her work--10 to 14 hours a day, six days a week. The stress of work and my brother’s difficulties have caused her nerve damage. We had to borrow $7,000 for my freshman year of college, so money is very scarce in my family. Yet she still manages to laugh with us at times of joy, which are rare in our family.

Why did my brother and I take such different paths?

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I have been taking the bus to high school in the San Fernando Valley from Koreatown so that I can have my education in a safer area. I was the first minority student elected senior class president at El Camino Real High School.

My brother acknowledges that he has gone wrong and he wants a high school diploma and a stable career. But he says he is in too deep to get out. How ironic, two young brothers, sons of the same mother and father and just one year apart in age, but so different.

Yet we are both good leaders, I of the senior class, he of a street gang. I say this not to boast of success but to let you know of the pain I have in my heart to see my brother the way he is.


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