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.

Seated at the very next table is one of the kids Tommy so rarely encounters, a Vietnamese boy who's so serious and thoughtful, wild impulse can't get a foot in the door. "I think all of those bad kids have been once good," he offers. "They play too much, or have a girlfriend. That can divide a youngster's mind away from working good in school. We never have that happen in Vietnam. And since a youngster does not have a good knowledge of how to deal with a boyfriend/girlfriend relationship — that love stuff — they have nothing to stop themselves from sexuality."

Add sex, then, to the list of juvenile starter crimes: drinking, drugs, gambling, stealing, truancy, violence, joyriding. Now, go find these kids.

"There was a Vietnamese boy here a few months ago," Sister Mary Anne Dooling, chaplain until last month at the St. Louis juvenile-detention center, recalls slowly. "He actually seemed very responsible — he was working very hard and worried that his boss would know what had happened. He was in some ways the parent, because his mom can't speak enough English to function. And you know, even for adults, seeing a parent become somewhat childlike is very hard. If I were a 16-year-old making all the decisions because this adult I'm supposed to respect can't communicate or operate, I would be so angry."

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."

That boy was one of only a handful of Vietnamese that Dooling saw in her years at the detention center, yet she heard countless stories of other Vietnamese kids in trouble. Her experience matches family-court statistics: Only one or two Vietnamese offenders a year are assigned to a juvenile caseworker, come to trial or go to detention.

Barry LaLumandier, spokesman for the St. Louis Police Department, says sometimes the kids fall — or dive deliberately — into the crack between East and West. "If they run a stop sign and police pull them over and they sit there and speak Vietnamese, that's frustrating. Either they get a ticket without much explanation, or the officer throws up his hands and walks away."

What if kids enter the system at a lower level — say, for a "status" offense that's illegal only because of the offender's age? "They are referred to the intake delinquency unit for counseling," explains a professional in the system. "But the DJOs (deputy juvenile officers) don't have degrees in counseling, so mainly they tell the kid, "Look, you're going to be in big trouble if you don't straighten up.'" At the next level, they're placed on probation and given a set of rules to follow (go to school, meet curfew, avoid wild kids, report in once a week). "So the kids get on Bi-State, show up at the office and maybe the DJO's on a home visit or in court, so they sign in and leave. On other occasions, it's a five-minute meeting."

Other than arrests, the usual entry points into the juvenile system are truancy reports from schools and "incorrigibility" petitions filed by parents. Many Vietnamese students are already 16 and cannot be labeled truant. Often, Vietnamese parents are working too hard to notice "incorrigibility" or can't bear to admit it in a child whose culture values filial piety, respect and obedience above all else.

Keith Hulsey, who teaches ESL at St. Pius V Catholic Church on South Grand, remembers a Vietnamese boy who blew off school to take a job in Louisiana, Mo., joining a van pool to do light-industrial work. "He had to pay for his Tommy Hilfiger shirts and baggy pants," Hulsey says dryly. "His parents were worried sick. So when he came home, they were so relieved they didn't make him go to school. He's now 15, and working full time.

"In most cases, the Vietnamese hold education very highly," adds Hulsey, "but some get caught up in making ends meet." College isn't an automatic goal — in Vietnam, university was pretty much reserved for geniuses and members of the Communist Party. Even secondary school sometimes took more money than the family had.

Enrolling in this country's genuinely free public education felt like grabbing the gold ring. And then they saw that it could tarnish.

Phuong Doan, a handsome, sleepy-eyed 22-year-old whose English comes out with African-American inflections, is playing patty-cake with his chubby, solemn year-old daughter through the glass visiting booth at the Franklin County Detention Center. He's been denied bond since his arrest on March 24 with the Black String Gang.

His girlfriend (who, along with Doan's parents, refused to be interviewed for this story) has a graceful long neck, a round face and high cheekbones. "Me, too," she murmurs into the booth's phone, alternating between Vietnamese and English. "Yes, she is" — hugging the baby. And then, more sharply, "I'm busy at home," tacitly reminding him that she's working overtime, doing businesswomen's nails six days a week to pay for a lawyer and support their child.

The woman in the next booth starts raving about a Garth Brooks special. Doan's parents, who've been hovering in the background, decide to wait outside, give the little family some privacy. Their son's been different these past two years, working hard, in love with his baby girl. The girlfriend insisted that he move to Florissant, away from trouble. In recent times, when he saw his old friends Vo and Ngo — both of whom have babies, too — it was while taking their wives and girlfriends shopping, or going to movies.

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