A new world of crime and gangs


The lure of the streets is stealing away the children of Southeast Asian refugees



Seattle Times staff reporter


"My boys call me K-Bone. The K stands for Khmer, you know. Khmer-Bone, K­Bone. Or just K. I used to run with SAG (South Asian Gang), they're Bloods, you know. My mother, she don't like me running with the boys. Me and her don't get along. My father, he died in Cambodia. How old was I, I don't remember. But my mother, she won't let me do nothin'. Like if I want an earring, she won't let me. She gets mad, and I say, `Hey it's my ear, why can't I do whatever I want with my ear? She wishes I was back in Cambodia. She says I turned bad here."

K went out and got two earrings, a shiny golden hoop on each lobe. Then he left home to live with a friend on Beacon Hill. That's where he hangs out now, since dropping out of school last semester. Recently he appeared in court on burglary charges; the time before that it was for stealing a car. K is 15 years old.

His mother is in her 40s, a Cambodian refugee who came to Seattle in 1981 with K and his three siblings. She and her late husband were rice farmers—a lifetime ago it seems. What a strange world, America. If only her husband were here, maybe he could do something about K.

The last time she saw K, standing in the doorway of their High Point apartment in his baggy pants and oversized coat, talking Crip-this and Blood-that, his hair shaved on the sides and those golden earrings dangling from under a Tarheels baseball cap, she looked at him as if he were an alien. Though she speaks no English, her face seemed to say:

What have you become, son?

It is a question that many Southeast Asian refugee parents, in fact, much of the Southeast Asian refugee community, are asking about their children. Of all the problems facing the Vietnamese Cambodian and Laotian communities, the most urgent, according to refugee agencies, is youth delinquency and crime.

A Seattle task force has found that while Southeast Asian refugees account for only 17 percent of the Asian-Pacific Islander population in King County, they make up the largest and fastest-growing group among that population's youth gangs. Some estimate that as many as half of all Asian-Pacific Islander gang members in the county are Southeast Asian.

"It's a critical problem, and it's a huge problem in proportion to the size of the population," says David Okimoto, director of the Atlantic Street Center, a human-service agency in Seattle's South End.

Gangs are only part of the picture. The overall number of criminal cases referred to the King County prosecutor involving Asian youths rose 40 percent from 1991 to 1992, to more than 1,600 cases, and Southeast Asians accounted for most of the rise. The trend continued last year.

Furthermore, an increasing number of South­east Asian children are leading vagabond lives, accounting for up to 10 percent of children living on the streets. The makeshift "camp" of Laotian and Vietnamese teenagers discovered by police in a darkened stairwell in the International District last spring is one of many that have been found.

As often happens, the police and courts are on the front lines of a complex social phenomenon, this time involving a population still recovering from warfare and uprootedness and culture shock. The crime numbers don't begin to reflect the turmoil in refugee communities as Old World parents lose control over their New World teenagers, the cultural gap between them as wide as the Pacific Ocean.

Washington has the third-largest Southeast Asian refugee population in the country—48,000 people, of whom about 30,000 live in King County. Most vulnerable seem to be refugees who came in the second and third waves of immigration in the late 1970s and 1980s, refugees who tended to be less educated and less moneyed, often coming from subsistence farming or fishing backgrounds. For this group, the New World seems as bewildering to the parents as it is intoxicating to their children.

It's a neighborhood thing

Neang, a 16-year-old Cambodian, spent most of last year serving time for selling cocaine at a White Center pool hall. His family immigrated here from Cambodia in 1979 and has spent the last 14 years living at Park Lake Homes, a sprawling housing project in White Center.

Park- Lake is the only home Neang has ever known. From the time he was 11, he ran with a pack of kids who called themselves the Local Asian Boys. There were about 30 of them, a real mix: Cambodians, Laotians, Vietnamese, Filipinos and a few whites and African Americans. Mostly they hung out and drank beer.

As lawbreakers, they were small-time at first, vandalizing and prowling cars, but last year the pack suddenly became dangerous, committing strong-arm robberies, assaults and drive-by shootings. Two members of the group have been convicted and one is awaiting trial for the murder of 19-year-old Carlos Guzman, who was shot in the back in South Park last May.

Neang says he did not join the group the way somebody might join a fraternity. "It was a neighborhood thing, a friend thing," he says. "If you grew up in the neighborhood, you know, you just became part of the gang. That's where it was at, that's where it all happened."

It is a scenario occurring throughout the region in low-in­come housing projects where Southeast Asian refugees have settled: Children in transition from one culture to another, groping for an American identity, are embracing the ethos of the streets—mostly because it is there; it is what surrounds them, says Lee Lim, an Asian liaison for King County police. It is in essence, the life model.

The vast majority of Southeast Asian kids work and study hard and obey the law, but as with many of today's young people, a significant portion of even these "good kids" willingly engage in the "gang sub­culture," so that even kids who are not gang members often walk and talk and dress the part. Police and community members often cannot distinguish the actors from the genuine players, especially since the line separating them continues to blur.

A handful of refugee outreach workers such as Danh Quyen have been working furiously to keep children from drifting too far. Quyen spends his Saturday mornings teaching Southeast Asian culture and gang-prevention classes at Holly Park Community Center. But such efforts seem overpowered by trends in popular culture.

"Absurdly, being in a gang has become glamorous and fashionable," says King County Officer Mac Allen, formerly a Los Angeles County officer who spent years working with gangs in South Central L.A.

For many Southeast Asian refugee children, it goes beyond fash­ion. They drift into street life because too often they find little structure, and acceptance, in the other aspects of their lives. Language and cultural problems often preclude success at school, and refugee cummunities are too young to have a network of social organizations.

So what's left? The family? That's broken, too.

Families crumble apart

Refugee families in effect have been turned upside down, and the result is that many of them don't work anymore.

In Southeast Asia, the father is the unchallenged head of the house, the disciplinarian, and both mother and father are to be "respected and obeyed and not questioned," says Lane Gerber, a Seattle University [bottom line of page lost]

In America, the father is effectively emasculated. With the family living on welfare, the father often has no status, no money and no authority. And the mother, too, loses her authority. "They don't have the power of experience anymore," Gerber says. "The wisdom that they learned from their experiences doesn't fit into this culture."

And because the children learn English more quickly, the parents often become dependent on them for tasks as simple as paying rent or buying groceries. As the children become more assimilated and educated, the gap between them and their parents grows wider. The typical scenario is this: young urban, Americanized, English-speaking kids on the one hand and old, rural, uneducated Southeast Asiatic parents on the other.

Parents who try to discipline their kids by spanking or hitting, which is acceptable in Southeast Asian cultures, could find themselves behind bars for child abuse here. It has happened more often than most people realize, says Trung Nguyen, a community police officer with King County police.

"Here, the kids are smarter, they know the language, they know the system," Nguyen says. "Who's in command, who's the leader? Basically, the chain of command, the whole family hierarchy, is gone."

Far tougher road today

So what you have, in essence, is a lot of kids left to raise themselves. A frightening thought considering the condition of the society they have entered, says Dr. Evelyn Lee, a San Francisco psychiatrist who works with refugees. Refugees today face difficulties that few immigrants have ever encountered.

It's a society much different than the one immigrants found 20, 30, 40 years ago, Lee says.

In 1940, the main problems faced by high-school students had to do with "running in the halls, talking in class and chewing gum." Today, Lee says, the problems kids face every day involve drugs, guns, [bottom of page lost]