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.

"When a Vietnamese man says, "Yeah, yeah,' it's no guarantee that he agrees, admits or even understands," she continues. ""Yeah' is only a mark of attention; all it means is that he's listening." Refusing to make eye contact doesn't necessarily mean he's lying, either; it might simply be a show of respect. Conversely, grinning at a question does not indicate disrespect, just nervousness or confusion.

Kari also worries about the misidentification of criminals. Names are often identical (there are only about 200 Vietnamese family names, all told) and witnesses unfamiliar with American ways can be too readily acquiescent. "You get handed a list of names," she explains, "and you've been trained to say yes to people in authority, and you have in fact been a victim of crime, but not by every last person on that sheet. If you're lacking in English, it's easier just to say yes."

At 9 a.m. on June 9, 1998,FBI agents glided into the parking lot of the Burger King at Grand and Keokuk. Approaching 26-year-old Tam Nguyen, they invited him to sit in their car and listen to a composite tape, hoping he'd cooperate and bring them more information. Nervous, he said he had to get to work at Hunan Yu by 10 a.m. Unmoved, agents played a conversation about Hung Van Pham, one of the alleged gang members, saying he "has a lot of crazy young boys that hang around with him, smoke dope and steal."

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."

Hung Van Pham, a.k.a. Hung Den, is 28, and he is listed in the court file as having a fourth-grade education. According to Tam Nguyen, he hung out with the younger boys in order to be "strong."

What was in it for them?

Oddly enough, probably just simple old-fashioned reassurance. Social order, hierarchy. A group-defined, family-structured identity. In New York's infamous Born to Kill gang, the leader was the anh hai, the Vietnamese term for the elder brother deemed wisest. The underbosses, to use the popular Mafia analogy, were dai low, regular big brothers. The initiates were sai low, eagerly obedient little brothers.

"We speculate that this started off because there is a lack of solidarity in the Vietnamese community, a lack of discipline in the families," says a local law-enforcement officer. Deadpan as Sgt. Joe Friday on Dragnet, he fails to note the great irony: By dint of the proud hard work this country adores in its immigrants, the Vietnamese, who value family above all else, have become absentee parents. Six days a week, their children go unsupervised for at least eight hours a day, 16 if they skip school. When parents do come home, they're often too naive to guide teenagers who've soaked up the culture and language so much faster than the adults, upsetting the family's balance of power.

"In Vietnam, you can spank your kid," mutters one father. "Here, if you hit him, someone in the neighborhood might call to report you. Children listen to their parents more in Vietnam. When you say, "Sit down, stand up,' they do. But not now, not here. Here, they can decide if they are going to school or not. My son left home, and when he came back here to visit, him never see me."

Americanized kids say, "Hel-lo, Bye-bye," mimics another father, flapping his hand furiously. "It looks normal, but in Vietnam, that is impolite."

As much as adults bemoan the loss of tradition and manners, they know their own powerlessness has played a role. To be blunt: When a rural parent's washing her hands in the toilet's reservoir, it's hard for an Americanized child to continue to bow.

It's also hard for a parent to know how to parent. In Vietnam, "family values" came straight from Confucius' model of an orderly society. Parents were to provide authority, not explanation, and children were to stifle any anger, frustration or contempt. Punishment could include shaming, physical slaps and withdrawal of love — not to mention kneeling for hours in a corner holding soup cans above your head. Children remained dependent on the family, which made decisions for them, until they married — and then sometimes only moved next door. Media was tightly controlled; social behavior followed unbending rules; multigenerational families provided constant, vigilant supervision. Family was the only real security.

Here, families disperse easily. There is something called "child abuse," and children quickly familiarize themselves with its entitlements. They also learn "self-expression." They move out of the family home at age 18. They draw behavior and identity from sources outside the family. They learn that it can be thrilling to break rules. They learn a way of life where speed and impulse rule, and respect is a foreign concept.

"I've seen too many family structures broken apart," sighs one Vietnamese teenager, the exemplary kind, with a 4.0 grade-point average and a curtain of politeness that rarely parts. "Many Vietnamese women, when they come to America, they think they are lady first. They always think ladies the best here. So, because of money, they follow another American man and divorce the old husband. Also, families have to work very hard in order to have a stable economy in the family, and by being so busy, they forget the kids."

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