Lost in America

When the feds busted the "Black String Gang," they scratched the surface of the Vietnamese youth problem in South St. Louis. But no one's bothered to dig deeper into how it started.

Nguyen is one of many in the Vietnamese community who believe that Hieu's Group is an FBI construct, a merging of several different gangs or groups into a dramatic single entity. "Hieu's name is easy to remember," he points out, pronouncing the Vietnamese suffix friends added as a funny nickname. It sounds like "Hieu-gah." "Whenever something happened, people would say his name, whether he was involved or not."

The clincher for others is Vo's age: 26. In the Vietnamese culture, kids live in multigenerational families and grow up more slowly; they're not even considered ready to babysit until age 18 or 19, and youth can extend to the early 30s. The real leader of the gang, people whisper, "is a man in his 50s with lots of property, connections and business interests."

All officials will say is, "The investigation is ongoing."

In the 1992 Rough Rider — one of the few Roosevelt High School yearbooks whose last copy hasn't been stolen from the school library — somebody goofed. Ut Ngo's name appears beneath a photo of an African-American girl who's twice his weight and looks about 30. But there he is, an inch away from his proper name and history, grinning eagerly, his denim jacket leaving a moat of air around his long, skinny neck. Maybe it's just the cowlick, or the lopsided smile, but there's a sweetness about him that's hard to trace, seven years later, in accounts of armed home-invasion robberies.

Back when that picture was taken, Ngo was just a freshman and hadn't had much time to get involved in the life of the school. Yet virtually none of the other 111 Roosevelt students with Vietnamese names had done so, either. The '92 yearbook has almost triple the number of Vietnamese students as the '89 yearbook, yet they still don't show up in the casual "party pix," or the big sports teams, or the clubs (except the National Honor Society). Roosevelt's 1992 homecoming court was all African-American. So was — is — the school's prevailing culture.

The difference between a place like Roosevelt High and a school in Vietnam is the difference between swimming laps in a lane and diving into a tidal wave. In Vietnam, students were expected to be silent and obedient. At Roosevelt, teachers have been heard to cuss students out, and playing around in class is so pervasive, Vietnamese students mention it spontaneously.

By 1993, the St. Louis Public Schools showed no record of any student named Ut Ngo. He and Phuong Doan, who also dropped out of Roosevelt High, were hanging out with the man who's now alleged to be their gang leader. Four years their senior, Hieu Vo had arrived in the U.S. too late for school. So the three young men spent a lot of time singing at the Karaoke Club, or resting their elbows on vinyl gingham at Pho Saigon Restaurant. Soon, older men without wives were hanging out with them, drinking.

"Vietnamese kids just walk out of school," remarks one teacher. "They trade on the fact that Americans can't recognize Asian kids very easily. Parents don't know to come get a printout of their attendance. And the Vietnamese tend to be very susceptible to their peer group" — they've come, after all, from a society in which the group's interrelationships matter far more than the individual — "so if they get involved with a friend who's in trouble, it's only a matter of time before they're cutting classes, too.

"The school rewards the students who are very successful, very driven," she sighs. "That's the stereotype of the Asian student. But they don't all fit that."

You'd never know it to talk to Steve Warmack, principal of Roosevelt High School. "They are academic, they are polite, they've got a good work ethic, they blend right in," he says of his Vietnamese students. "Their attendance is probably better than the rest of our children." What about the dropout rate? "This is an area I really don't want to get into, because the way the rate is figured and the reality of what we have does not always line up. We have a really transient population, and it's extremely hard to keep tabs on some of those kids."

And those who do get into trouble? "I think a big factor is the lack of parental and home involvement in setting education as a priority of the household. Consequently" — ah, he admits it — "we have an attendance rate that is not where it needs to be."

As for friction in the student body, he swears there's only been one fight since he arrived. Maybe that's true within the school boundaries, retorts Anne-Elise Price, a public defender in the city's juvenile unit. "The problem myclients have is on the way to and fromschool. The fights happen a block away. I don't think they have dealt at all with the problem of the cultural clashes in that school. When the kids tell you that they get beat up at Roosevelt and then they drop out, they are telling you the truth."

Nabila Salib,director of the St. Louis Public Schools' bilingual and world-languages program, hotly defends the progress of the 1,000-or-so Vietnamese students in the public schools, about 550 of whom are in the English-as-a-second-language (ESL) program, half at Roosevelt and half at Soldan. "They are doing very, very well," she says. "They do attend school; they don't drop; they graduate — about 98 percent. And in math and science, they are the first."

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