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.

It's true that Vietnamese students filled almost 32 percent of Roosevelt's 1999 upper-class honor roll. But given the number of dropouts you can meet just by walking down Grand Boulevard, Salib's 98 percent seems optimistic. What about the few she admits drop out — why does it happen? "It depends on the situation at home," she replies. "The few who drop out may need to work and support the family — something like that."

A former ESL teacher with years of experience in the public schools offers a sharply different assessment. "There is a significant dropout rate," she maintains. "And some who do graduate are not literate. I found (Vietnamese students) graduating with A's and B's who couldn't write a sentence in English."

Some ESL students hadn't been schooled enough to be literate in Vietnamese, the former teacher adds: "If you cannot read and write in your first language, and someone tries to teach you to read and write in English, you get unraveled."

AnhTuan Nguyen used to bowl with a group of friends whom the indictment places at the alleged gang's core. Nguyen says he pulled back when "this thing got out of hand."
Jennifer Silverberg
AnhTuan Nguyen used to bowl with a group of friends whom the indictment places at the alleged gang's core. Nguyen says he pulled back when "this thing got out of hand."

Learning to order a burger and a malt might be a breeze, but the academic language necessary for schoolwork can take five to seven years to develop, she points out. "If you're a high-school teacher, you don't have five to seven years." What often happens is that teachers notice interpersonal skills — a kid is charming, charismatic, capable — and say, "Let's move him out of ESL into the regular curriculum." The student spends the rest of high school cheating to hide the fact that he can't read and write well enough. "It's hard on their self-esteem," says the teacher, "and it's a moral violation of them, to force them to cheat to survive."

One boy was put into freshman English: "He couldn't even follow directions to turn the page. And when I tried to get him moved, they refused. There was no chance for individual instruction — we used to have total workloads of 150 students apiece, with maybe one aide. Eventually the boy withdrew emotionally, and then he dropped out. Last we heard, he'd joined a gang."

Phuong Doan is 22, the youngest alleged gang member charged in the indictment. He, too, had trouble reading and writing English, so he found a girlfriend and dropped out of Roosevelt, probably in 1994. The criminal charges against him date back to the same year.

It's a Thursday afternoon in a parched, overbright stretch of July, and Vietnamese dropouts (the ones authorities claim don't exist) fringe the sidewalk in front of the public library on South Grand. Two, chain-smoking, talk about their jobs doing nails. Sam is cleaning offices. "Too many bad people at school," he explains. "They play around; they don't respect teachers. And they sometimes hurt you. Sometimes it's not only blacks; sometimes it's Bosnians and other Asians."

The kids resume the seesaw inflections of their native language. Then one drops into English with a jolt: "Man, I gotta go get my money."

He turns and nearly runs smack into Rudy Wilkinson, an independent Catholic priest who's made it his business to stand amid these kids. At Roosevelt, where Wilkinson's been working as a teacher's aide, the early-'90s surge in immigration made them "the new underdogs," he explains. "Kids called them "chink' and wanted to fight them because they thought they all knew karate. One Vietnamese boy now calls himself "Ching Chong Chinaman,' because that's what the other kids used to call him."

Wilkinson has "adopted" several of these boys, including one young teenager who's "very aggressive, a fighter, a very angry boy." Another protégé is 20 and just out of jail, "so gracious, you could never imagine how much damage he could do. I've always wondered how they can hurt people," confesses Wilkinson, "but they have no remorse. They just see it as them against someone else."

The 20-year-old's father is still in Vietnam, and the boy talks often — irrationally — about going back. "I'm sorry to tell you, there are a lot of kids who are not wild about living here," says Wilkinson. "They see themselves as outsiders, as people who are not allowed to be who they are. And they're too busy translating to deal with other emotions. There's trauma that's never been taken care of, and there's anger they don't always recognize, because it's so deep-rooted." (Clues lie in the names of Asian youth gangs elsewhere: Asian Bad Boys, Born to Kill, Born to Violence, Cheap Boyz, Death on Arrival, Fuck the World, Lonely Boyz Only, Scar Boys.)

Wilkinson would like to see something as simple as a youth center, maybe in the old grocery store on South Grand. "There is nothing to prevent problems, nothing for them to do," he says, "and when you see a kid starting to get in trouble, there is no one in the Vietnamese community to take him under their wing. They are working, or it is not their responsibility, or they are busy gossiping that he is a "bad boy.' Bullshit."

Inside the library, Tommy — a playful young man, full of charming banter and dressed in quintessentially American sports gear — waits to talk to his friend "Mr. Rudy" (Wilkinson). Tommy's back in St. Louis after an exile to a school in Mississippi. His parents, who own the Tan My restaurant, saw him getting involved with gangs and forced some distance. At first he missed his friends terribly, but now he seems to agree it was the only solution: "Get them out of state. When I came back, my life totally changed. I don't hang out with Asian guys anymore. I only know one, he lives right by my house, who's a straight guy, don't do nothing."

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