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.

"After the funeral, there were isolated incidents," he resumes, "but we had no idea the Vietnamese community was being victimized by their own people." Sister Paulette Weindel, who works with refugees at St. Pius V Catholic Church, set up a meeting ("Once again on a Sunday," LaLumandier sighs) with some people who'd been victimized. The offenders were an organized group of street thugs, kids who lived in the neighborhood. They were not Vietnamese, but 80 percent of their victims were.

"Simultaneous to this, our detectives jumped a bunch of young Vietnamese kids, younger than the Black String Gang, and we start cleaning up burglary after burglary, and all of the victims are Vietnamese. We began to see that there were just a ton of incidents."

LaLumandier sped up distribution of bilingual police-report forms and laminated picture-books for interviewing non-English-speaking victims. Soon, joint projects with the International Institute built trust, and he started receiving fresh reports for incidents dating back as far as 1994. Meanwhile, he'd heard that something was going to happen on South Grand. "We had no idea the magnitude of it," he says. "I was talking to some guys from Intelligence, and it was hysterical: "We've got some "intell" on this, and we've been talking to the "Eye" (the FBI).'"

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."

LaLumandier is equally frank about the fear, mistrust, confusion and cultural clashes that have plagued the local police.

"In some instances the bad guys would get phone numbers and call the victims back and say, "Don't even think about calling the police.' Now, it's happened only twice in my almost 30 years that the bad guys went back. But now we get to the Vietnamese people, and life's taught them that if someone threatens to come and get them, they do it.

"Sadly, we are finding things out by trial-and-error," he continues. "When you go into a Vietnamese household, you address the oldest person. It's just respect. But we are trying to be resourceful, so if the eldest does not speak English, we look for the youngest person! We've just insulted the entire household. In Vietnam, you can just give the police officer some money and everything is OK. "No, no, no,' we tell them. But then try to explain the bond system. You can pay and get out of jail!"

The Third District captain has an excellent reputation for understanding the challenges of a dramatically diverse neighborhood — but some of his officers do not. For years now, the department has been saying how hard it's trying to recruit Vietnamese officers.

LaLumandier proudly announces that now there are six, two of whom actually speak Vietnamese.

A department official later corrects the information: They have six officers of Asian descent, one of whom speaks Cantonese.

Upstairs at the Mekong Restaurant, one of the longest-established on South Grand, there's a room with huge shaggy dark-green trees, a ceiling fan and '50s-style booths. In one, a Vietnamese math professor visiting Washington University from New Zealand is conversing with an award-winning scientist, while the highly educated Trinh Dang, chair of Roosevelt's bilingual program, speaks French to an observer. Across the room, six high-school girls are lined up on a low sofa, leaning forward eagerly in spite of the awkward angle. A presentation of the Vietnamese-American Education Society is about to begin. Compliments fly, the scholars filling in the gaps of each other's modesty with elaborate praise, and you begin to see why it's so hard for Vietnamese to preserve self-esteem in this casually rude culture.

"When I came here in 1975, I didn't have a counselor," confides Lam Pham, a successful engineer who now lives in Chesterfield. "I couldn't speak much English, and I chose which area to make money first — engineer. Technical, quick money. I wasted 18 years. I chose wrong. It's been ... a performance. So we try to help the new generation discover their goals and values, put them in the right direction. Their parents are busy and don't have the opportunity to have more knowledge like we do."

Slides begin to flash, announcing scientific breakthroughs, cellular clocks, cosmic motion, genomics, biochips. Dang rises. "Well, ladies and gentlemen, I prefer to talk to you in English, because I believe all of you are outstanding students." He lectures them about the importance of motivation: "Why? Because you need to succeed in your life, to pay homage, eternal gratitude, to your parents."

The biggest obstacle, whispers student Ronald Nguyen, is "peer pressure. They think if they do well, their peers will call them nerds and they will be separated from society — which is actually just a false perception. As you learn how to get through school, you learn how to get along with people, do your work and keep a low profile."

More speakers enjoin the young people, and the litany is repeated: connection, connection, connection; study, study, study; Wash. U., Wash. U., Wash. U. "Always do more than you are asked to do," urges Dang. "Look for ways to improve. Read the book How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie."

After the kids file out, Dang sinks into a chair and waves away a beer, too distressed to enjoy it. "In my time, the Vietnamese people considered going to school as a privilege, and they cherished it," he says. "Over here, in my opinion, public school has been considered a daycare center. Students come to school to socialize or get a lunch ticket. Over there, when the bell rang, they were already in the classroom, and when the teacher came in, they had to stand.

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