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Cultural Balancing Act Adds to Teen Angst

TIMES STAFF WRITER

When a school assignment required students to bring a dish of their family’s favorite food to class, John Concordia recalled the teacher’s shock at his selection: hamburgers.

“This is not your food,” he was told.

When Concordia jotted “American” in the ethnicity box of a school emergency notification card, a counselor corrected him:

“No, you’re Filipino.”

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The incidents forced Concordia to realize that society’s view of him did not necessarily mirror his own.

“You strive so hard to be an American, but all the time there’s reminders that you’re not,” said the 18-year-old from Los Angeles. “People kept telling me I was a Filipino, but I really didn’t know what one was, so I had to search for it.”

The teen years are almost inevitably a painful time of adjustment, but many Asian American youngsters like Concordia face an especially difficult struggle. They often have two cultures to reconcile and a dearth of Asian American role models to identify with. Many know little about their heritage or find themselves at odds with parents who are pushing them to retain Asian traditions.

So despite their growing numbers--as of last year there were an estimated 343,000 Asian teenagers in California--many feel alone as they try to answer the coming-of-age questions: “Who am I?” and “How do I fit in?”

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For Concordia, a passionate young man raised by his immigrant parents in the Echo Park district of Los Angeles, crude jokes on the radio drove him to search for his Filipino American identity.

At first he felt nothing but self loathing when he heard Filipinos denigrated as dog-eaters whose women were mail-order brides, and whose children cheated in Little League baseball. But he soon realized it was impossible to ignore his heritage, and he began learning about Filipino history and culture through a nonprofit community service agency.

He became chairman of Youth and Students Taking Action in the Neighborhood, which gets youth involved in community issues, such as rallying on behalf of Filipino war veterans. Today, he is proud to identify himself as being Filipino and plans to make his first trip to the Philippines in November.

“I used to believe that if people perceived me as being Filipino . . . they would think they could take advantage of me,” said Concordia, who dropped out of high school to help support his family. “But it’s different now. It’s more like, ‘You won’t take advantage of me, because I know who I am.’ ”

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Others are not as successful in dealing with the pressure.

Some experts believe that stress associated with the search for identity is a key factor in suicidal thoughts and rising cases of juvenile delinquency among Asian American youth.

The struggle for identity is particularly acute for some children because their home life is steeped in Confucian values--such as the emphasis on the family, respect for authority and learning. They also are burdened by the “model minority” myth that they should be superachievers.

So hot is the issue among Asian Americans that it has given rise to studies, movies and an array of programs designed to help the young explore their identities. In recent years, teenagers from New York and Boston to San Francisco and Los Angeles have formed leadership groups and held forums at which they learn about their history and share common experiences.

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“It’s an amazing, complex identity search for Asian students,” said Susan Hinkle, director of the New York-based Diversity Resource Collaborative, which co-sponsored a forum on Asian American youth identity in March. “The range of issues they’re dealing with is enormous, but one of the common threads is trying to figure out who they are in the context of being seen as one large, stereotypical group.”

Stuck in the Middle

Bombarded by images of the straight-arrow, straight-A student--or the Asian gangbanger who has perfected the finer points of pulling off a home-invasion robbery--too often the average kid gets lost in the shuffle.

“We make the news when whiz kids are using up resources, or we’re the gangs of the 1990s, but you rarely see anything in between,” said Glenn I. Masuda, a clinical director at the Asian Pacific Family Center’s school-based services in Rosemead. “As a result, Asian youth are going to be consistently limited in their view in what they can do or become.”

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That is not to say that all Asian American youth are plagued with identity problems. But for many, reaching a level of comfort with themselves can be complicated by the fact that they barely speak the same language as their parents, let alone share the same values.

Gloria Chan, a Manhattan-born, 17-year-old senior at the exclusive Spence School in New York, recalled how her immigrant parents raised her to be a traditional Chinese girl. She played the piano, learned Chinese dances and strove to gain entrance into an Ivy League school.

But it was during her sophomore year in high school that a question began nagging at her: Was she in fact Chinese or American? It was through soul-searching that Chan realized not only that she was a unique product of both cultures, but also that her values differed from those of her parents.

Her definition of personal success, for example, is based on her ability to positively affect people’s lives, rather than status or how much money she can earn.

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“I guess everybody goes through this whether you’re Asian or not,” Chan said of her identity search. “But if you are Asian, you’re forced to face the issue of culture.”

When cultures clash, when ethnic heritage tugs one way and American lifestyles another, it can leave young people confused.

Tugged in Two Directions

Perhaps more than other youths, Asian Americans are taught by their parents to be obedient and to strive to become doctors, lawyers or engineers. At school, the same children are encouraged to freely express themselves and pursue their interests, putting them at odds with their parents’ wishes.

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“When they go home, the kids end up living two different lives,” said Do Kim, director of the Los Angeles-based Korean American Youth Leadership Program.

Robin Lee, an 18-year-old Korean American high school student, used to talk in street slang and dress like a hip-hopper when he was out with friends. At home, he would lose the urban attire and play the role of the good Korean son, speaking to his immigrant parents in their native tongue.

“I got good at changing masks,” said Lee, a teen leader of a youth drug-abuse prevention project. “But when you take off the masks, you still have to figure out who you are underneath.”

To develop a new generation of Korean American leaders, Kim realized that he first had to address identity issues by helping youngsters like Lee understand their parents. Everyone who goes through the program attends a retreat, during which they bring a family picture and talk about what is going on at home.

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Tears begin to flow as they talk about the loneliness they feel because their parents work 16-hour days, the pressure to get into prestigious colleges, and the career sacrifices many of their parents made to come here.

“They realize there is a lot of common experience,” Kim said. “I use that pain and what they go through to understand ourselves as Korean Americans.”

But it can be the same for teenagers whose families came from Cambodia, Vietnam and other places in Asia. All too often they feel they have few people to turn to for inspiration.

The shortage, according to the teenagers, is present at home and school, when they go to the movies, and even as they flip the pages of a magazine.

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Anne Tumsatan, 16, recalled the anticipation she felt when one of her favorite teen magazines recently featured a spread on prom dresses. Tumsatan said she was anxious to see what colors were most flattering to the Asian complexion, only to find no Asian models were included.

“It really bothers me that there are not a lot of Asian American models,” said Tumsatan, a San Fernando Valley high school student, as she took a break from art classes at the Wat Thai Temple in North Hollywood, a gathering place for the Thai community. “It makes me wonder, is the world telling me that we’re ugly?”

The only Asian American role model Tumsatan could name was figure skater Michelle Kwan. As a result, she and other youths find themselves turning to Asia. Some take comfort in the popularity Asian movie stars Jackie Chan and Chow Yun-Fat have enjoyed here.

“I go to all their movies and I notice there are a lot of other Asians in the audience too,” said Tom Lerkcharan, a 17-year-old who studies Thai classical music at the Wat Thai Temple. “It makes me realize there are other people like me who want to see Asian stars.”

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The search for role models isn’t confined to Asia’s borders. For kids swept up in MTV and popular culture, their heroes are often African Americans.

When nearly 300 Filipino boys and girls from the San Diego area recently were asked which person, dead or alive, they most admire, their response surprised counselors at the San Diego-based Union of Pan-Asian Communities: Tupac Shakur, the rap star who was gunned down near the Las Vegas strip in 1996.

“Kids at that age want to be accepted, and Tupac was viewed as being cool,” said Alicia De Leon-Torres, a youth services manager for the group. “They thought of him as a positive influence, because in their minds, he told the world how it was in their way of living.”

One reason Asian American youths may be turning to non-Asian role models is that otherraces appear commonly in the mass media.

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A study commissioned by the advocacy group Children Now found that only 16% of Asian children reported seeing their race “very often” on television, compared to 22% of Latino children, 42% of blacks and more than 70% of whites.

The perceived lack of Asian American role models does not end in the realm of popular culture. Even more important, experts say, is the shortage of everyday figures who can provide an example and guidance, and who can best understand the needs and experiences of Asian American youths.

In California, only about 4% of teachers are of Asian descent, compared to 9% of the students, and it’s in school where role models could make a real difference, said Peter Kiang, an associate professor at the University of Massachusetts at Boston.

“Kids are looking for people to draw inspiration from or get clues from about how to handle day-to-day experiences,” Kiang said.

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There have been famous, accomplished or heroic Asian Americans, from Yoko Ono to Maxine Hong Kingston to astronaut Ellison S. Onizuka, who was killed in the Challenger explosion in 1986.

Missing Chapters

But many potential Asian American role models became celebrities or reached their prime before today’s youth were born or immigrated to this country. And few Asian Americans have made it into the history books.

The 1997 report, “An Invisible Crisis: The Educational Needs of Asian Pacific American Youth,” found that schools offer little Asian American history.

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Kim, who founded the Korean American Youth Leadership Program, said that when his students scanned an honors history book, the only mention of Korean Americans was with two paragraphs on the 1992 Los Angeles riots, accompanied by a photo of a Korean store owner smiling with a semiautomatic rifle.

“It’s just absurd that that is how we are going to be remembered unless we do something now,” Kim said.

Members of the Korean leadership program reacted by producing a calendar featuring profiles of Korean Americans such as Harry Kim, reputed developer of the Le Grande nectarine, and 1948 and 1952 Olympic gold medal-winning diver Dr. Sammy Lee.

Still, according to Stewart Kwoh, president of the Asian Pacific American Legal Center of Southern California, the perception that they have no role models may encourage youth to search--and in the end, the trail may lead back home.

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“The silver lining is that Asian American youth are constantly having to strive to achieve and identify,” said Kwoh, winner of a 1998 MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant. “And as they get older, they will see their parents as heroes. They will remember their hard-working spirit, family sacrifice and support of education.”

But some experience the typical feeling that parents are the enemy. Others, such as youngsters from the Hmong and Mien refugee communities whose members fled Laos, have fewer role models than most.

“That results in kids looking to peers for group identity, and because their peers are young kids, it can often lead to dangerous behavior,” said Wendy Walker-Moffat, author of “The Other Side of the Asian American Success Story.”

Disturbing Trends Seen

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Asian American gangs have proliferated since the 1980s. The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department says there are thousands of youths in an estimated 250 Asian gangs in the state, 70% of them in Southern California.

The number of Asians incarcerated or paroled by the California Youth Authority has nearly doubled since 1991, a figure far greater than the population’s growth for that period.

High rates of depression and mental illness are afflicting Asian Pacific American youth, particularly girls, according to the crisis report. It attributes the difficulties to living between two cultures, family disruption and the pain of feeling excluded.

Nearly 46% of Filipina high school girls who were surveyed five years ago by the San Diego Unified School District said they had seriously contemplated suicide during the previous 12 months. The teenagers cited the pain of trying to mesh cultures and a lack of Filipino American role models as key sources of conflict in their lives.

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School officials and the local Filipino community reacted by establishing a mentoring program. As many as 200 youngsters meet with their mentors on a weekly basis for activities such as going to baseball games or even getting facials together.

Young Filipinos also can draw upon essays by 49 second- and third-generation Filipino Americans who have successful careers, ranging from a Sea World animal trainer to a police detective. The essays appear in “The Bridge Generation: Sons and Daughters of Filipino Pioneers,” by Dario Villa, a local high school counselor.

“The book enhances their capacity to see themselves as important when they see someone who looks like them, who has a culture just like them, being successful in the community,” he said.

Such efforts appear to be paying off. In last year’s survey, the number of young Filipinas who reported suicidal thoughts had decreased to 36%, still higher than the overall average for students of 22%.

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Some teenagers have tackled the identity issue through youth groups that range from a couple of dozen young people meeting weekly in a Los Angeles warehouse to elaborate organizations that host annual forums for hundreds of teenagers.

Teenagers from Kim’s youth program provide drug education to other youth and warn Koreatown merchants about laws banning the sale of cigarettes to minors.

The identity issue also is being addressed--sometimes indirectly--through magazines with such titles as Variasians, A. Magazine, and YOLK. Giant Robot, an edgy magazine headquartered in Little Tokyo, has gained a cult-like following by writing features on such topics as all you ever wanted to know about rice, the latest in Japanese toys and Hong Kong films.

“Giant Robot shows people they don’t have to be like the stereotypical Asian person,” co-editor Eric Nakamura said. “They can be into punk rock and oddball things, and it’s cool.”

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The magazine also has helped expose them to role models. A 21-page spread titled “Yellow Power” profiled more than a dozen Asian Americans who were active in the civil rights movement during the 1960s and early 1970s and included photos of some with black leader Malcolm X.

Film is another means of self-expression.

Chronicles of Culture

One movie which has grabbed mainstream media attention is Chris Chan Lee’s “Yellow,” which tells the story of Sin Lee, the Korean son of a central Los Angeles grocer and his friends. The movie illustrates the tragic clash of cultures that can alienate children from immigrant parents.

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The Emmy-award winning documentary “a.k.a. Don Bonus” has become a hot topic among Asian American youth groups, partly because it fills a void in media portrayals of them. Made under the guidance of filmmaker Spencer Nakasako, it chronicles a year in the life of Sokly Ny, a Cambodian American teenager who wears baggy hip-hop clothing, lives in the San Francisco projects and is having problems passing his English proficiency exam.

Shot with a camcorder by Ny, who took the American alias Don Bonus, it captures him longing for more time with his older brother and for his father, who was killed by the Khmer Rouge.

A new Nakasako documentary, “Kelly Loves Tony,” chronicles a year in the life of a young Asian couple. She’s an honor student who has become pregnant and is trying to get through college, and he’s trying to leave gang life behind.

“These kids are telling stories that nobody is telling,” Nakasako said. “They are voices that are not heard.”

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TUESDAY: Impact on the nation’s top colleges

The complete series will be available on The Times’ Web site beginning Wednesday. Go to: https://www.latimes.com/asian

About This Series

As California’s fastest-growing ethnic group, Asian Americans find greater numbers bring greater successes and greater problems.

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Sunday: They are influencing everything from cuisine to commerce, while struggling to become fully vested in American life.

Today: Teens face a double identity crisis--battling the usual conflicts of adolescence while defining themselves in two cultures.

Tuesday: An Asian American enrollment boom is transforming the nation’s top universities.

Wednesday: In the corporate world, Asian Americans often stall in the middle ranks, but there are cracks in the glass ceiling.

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