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.

"I work, I come home, and they come and get me," says Doan, alarmed by the resurrection of his past and terrified that he'll be sent back to Vietnam. (He doesn't seem to realize that's not even possible; we don't have diplomatic arrangements to deport criminals to Vietnam. If these defendants are convicted, they will go to prison and then, if their crime falls within new, stringent, retroactive categories such as "aggravated felony," they will be — theoretically — deported. In actuality, they will be released into the custody of the Immigration and Naturalization Service and will remain incarcerated in this country. Indefinitely.)

Even if he's acquitted, Doan may qualify for deportation retroactively: Back in 1994, he was convicted of second-degree assault after what sounds like a youth-gang fight in a South Grand restaurant that's since closed. He spent two years on probation. As best he can figure, that conviction has now resurfaced as "Nov. 18, 1994: conspiracy to murder Nham Le." Both Phuong Doan (a.k.a. Thom) and his friend Hieu Vo (a.k.a. Hieu Co) are charged.

All friends recall is a fight between two Asian groups and a bullet zinging through a window; they also mention a Romeo and Juliet theme, with Doan's older sister marrying into the restaurant owner's family, as had Nham Le. After the fight erupted, Doan was arrested. Then his father lost his temper and got himself arrested, too. He was eventually released with a stern injunction to leave witnesses alone, or else. Meanwhile, friends say Doan's mom had gone, in Vietnamese tradition, to offer to make right whatever her son had done. She was arrested for attempted bribery.

These days, the Doans work long factory hours and then stay home watching movies, afraid to talk to anyone. Their son is also being charged with conspiracy to rob and actual armed robbery: According to the indictment, he and three other men "entered the home of Nguyen T. Pham and, while armed with a deadly weapon or dangerous instrument, confronted and bound Trag T. Phan and Nguyen T. Muoi and demanded the cash in the house." Next, Doan is charged with unlawfully transporting $40,000 in stolen goods from St. Louis to San Jose. And he's charged with extorting money from Pho Grand and Truc Lam.

Friends remember how, when Truc Lam put a camera above their doorway, Doan and his friends hammed it up, acting even tougher for the camera.

It's all turned very, very serious.

The Rev. Minh Chou Vo,pastor of St. Peter's Lutheran Church on Kingshighway, is a kind and irrepressibly cheerful man who — despite being mired in social work and interpreting responsibilities for his refugee church — will spend 15 minutes making silly faces to coax a smile from a shy toddler or drive for hours visiting alleged gang members scattered in detention facilities around the state.

Chou Vo has become "unofficial pastor to the gangs," in the wry phrase of his American wife, Kari Vo. Several times that has meant conducting funerals for young people shot to death, or spotting the trademark cigarette burns that sometimes mean gang involvement. Other times, it's meant taking a group of kids to camp and finding them all huddled in one cabin because they've never been alone. Explaining to naive parents that their kids are bluffing, that people do still get married in America. Helping a teased kid on the edge of trouble switch schools, learn better English and stop wanting to bash and kill people.

"The church can forgive, but the people cannot," Chou says angrily, referring to the three friends — Phuong Doan, Ut Ngo, Hieu Vo — he watched fall into trouble and climb back out. Now they have babies and full-time jobs; one even had a church wedding. "In the last two years, these young men changed a lot," he insists. "I am very proud of them. Everybody saw the change. But now they deny it."

Shortly after the March 24 arrests, Chou went to Truc Lam for lunch and felt his stomach go sour. On the wall was an official posting "in very, very mean language in Vietnamese, telling people to stay away from them. And they are not even found guilty yet! I don't think that is legal," he says firmly, "so I took it down. I left my phone number in case the FBI wanted to call me."

In English, the language wasn't so mean, he adds; it just said they were looking for evidence. In Vietnamese, the words burned shame. And Chou is convinced that the interpreter's emphasis was deliberate.

Chou's wife, Kari, worries more about inadvertent mistranslations. As an American married to a Vietnamese man, she knows just how complex the language can be, and how easily misunderstood. Vietnamese has no formal past tense, so as she leaves a parishioner's house, she's telling the family how much she's enjoying seeing their house. The language has no consistent personal pronoun for "I"; she's learned to refer to herself with different words, depending on her relationship to the person she's addressing. Vietnamese has no direct "no": "It's a softened yes-no," a courtesy Kari is afraid could be misunderstood by impatient officials who register only the first half.

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