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.

His own parents, who were middle-class in Vietnam but arrived here with nothing, work long hours, too, "but afterward, they don't do anything else except come home and talk with us. Cook good food and eat and chat, talk about what career we want. Though they cannot understand English, my dad read a whole book 50 times in Vietnamese about American colleges."

Slowly the acculturation takes place, the new generation makes good and the value systems blend — or at least lie down next to each other. But it's easier for some than for others.

"Initially about 500 families arrived in St. Louis in 1975," recalls Anna Crosslin, president of the International Institute of Metropolitan St. Louis, charged with resettling more recent refugees. She's referring to the First Wave, mainly educated, highly placed families who'd worked with the U.S. government during the war or had relatives here. Often they were settled, in the county, by church groups, and the transition was fairly smooth.

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."

They were followed by the Second Wave, "boat people" who were usually ethnic Chinese. Then, in 1983, some resettlement of Amerasians began, climaxing after the passage of the 1987 Amerasian Homecoming Act. Amerasian children had already survived a decade of harsh postwar discrimination in Vietnam — denied education, sometimes separated from their families, often exiled to rural outposts where their faces wouldn't haunt the government. The stigma bled onto Vietnamese parents (the mothers who'd been raped or steered into prostitution during the war; the fathers who'd married them afterward) and siblings, too.

When the U.S. opened its doors, older Amerasians with families of their own had to choose: Bring your spouse and children, or bring your parents and siblings. Some did what an American would never do: chose their parents and left their own husbands and wives behind. Others came with spouses who simply wanted to be American and divorced them soon after arrival. Many in established marriages divorced, too, the glue of Vietnamese custom dissolved by American feminism and freedom (or chaos and moral anarchy).

Usually the single parents were mothers. But if the children were boys, that doubled the challenge, because in traditional Vietnamese society, it's fathers who shape their sons' identities. Women often aren't perceived as powerful enough to control adolescent males, especially without the old supports of extended family and a cohesive culture.

Stack single parenthood on top of poverty, a language barrier and a lack of education. Add Vietnamese society's hatred of Amerasians. Then add disillusionment.

"The Amerasians had always thought, if they could just come to America, they'd be OK," notes Crosslin. "They came because they thought this was their homeland. Then they got here and didn't fit any better. So the American dream may be more elusive for them than it is for other refugees, because their dream has been different from the beginning."

More than 400 families with Amerasian members settled in St. Louis during the '80s and '90s, including the families of Hieu Vo, Ut Ngo and Phuong Doan. Today, the final wave of Vietnamese immigration — people sent to re-education camps after the war — is trickling to a halt. The youngest Amerasians are now 25, the oldest in their late 30s. Most have adjusted beautifully. But the Vietnamese call those who haven't bui doi, the dust of life. It's a phrase used both for Amerasians (who thought that coming to this country would be the gold of life) and for gang members, or kids gone wild.

On Feb. 8, 1996, a Saturday morning far colder than any they'd felt in Vietnam, 300 people marched slowly down Grand Avenue, their steps as heavy as the coffin they bore. Thanh Tan Le had been a lieutenant colonel in the South Vietnamese army, and when he brought his family to this country, he'd become one of the International Institute's most beloved caseworkers. Then he was shot by an armed robber, early on a weekday morning, while getting ready to drive his wife to work.

For the Vietnamese community, the procession was a public mourning, tribute and protest — but it was also a way to remind the rest of St. Louis that there were gangs and criminals hurting them. "Maybe a month before he died, Channel 5 did a story about the Asian gang," recalls Ngoc Doan, senior caseworker at the International Institute, "so we needed to present the gang who killed him, not the Asian gang. We want to live in peace."

For police officer Barry LaLumandier, whose official title would later become South Patrol Liaison-New Americans, the request to hold a funeral procession wasn't just strategic PR, it was "a breakthrough. We lined up a little detail, helped them get permits, shut down intersections. I got there that morning and there they all were, hundreds more than anyone expected, all lined up perfectly orderly. When it was over, we shook hands and I thought, "We're there. We've finally done it. If they need anything, they'll come to us.'"

But they didn't.

"It was still not enough to win their trust," he reports sadly. "We knew there were difficulties; we were finding out things. We asked about meeting with a couple Vietnamese leaders, but it never materialized — primarily because of the number of hours people work." Usually it's 16 hours a day, every day but Sunday. Yet LaLumandier's new full-time assignment, working with immigrant communities in South St. Louis, is 9-5, weekdays.

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