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They Argued, They Cried, They Danced . . . and in the End, They Embraced : Time for Brotherhood

March 20, 1986|MARK ARAX | Times Staff Writer

Even as he boarded the bus, Loi Banh was having second thoughts.

The 16-year-old San Gabriel High School sophomore, a native of Vietnam, had never really talked to a Latino classmate before. Now, in the name of racial harmony, he was expected to sleep overnight in the same cabin with several of them.

"Orientals hate Mexicans, and Mexicans hate Orientals," Loi said. "This trip will change nothing."

It was the cynic in Loi that accepted the invitation of the staff at San Gabriel High to join 100 of his fellow students--a polyglot of Americans and recent immigrants from countries such as Nicaragua, Ecuador and Korea--for the two-day conference on racism and cultural understanding last week in the foothills above Glendale.

As Loi and a group of Vietnamese friends took seats in the back of the bus, it quickly became apparent that the retreat held a different, less serious, promise for them.

They sat in a semicircle, dealt cards all around and began playing $5-a-hand poker, with $5 and $10 bills wrapped as rings around their fingers. They joked of their disdain for a fellow Vietnamese student who, they said, had adopted too quickly the ways of his new country. They called the student a "banana," a derisive term meaning someone yellow on the outside and white on the inside.

"I just make friends with my people," Loi explained to a reporter. "It's easier that way."

Over the past eight years, a predominantly white student body at San Gabriel High School has given way to an Asian and Latino majority as a steady stream of students continues to flow in from Taiwan, Hong Kong, Southeast Asia and Central and South America.

School officials said the camping retreat was organized with the hope that cultural understanding and friendship might take root outside of campus, in an environment less burdened by peer pressure and ethnic division. The understanding then could be nurtured on campus where, in the words of Principal Jack Mount, the 100 students would form a "cornerstone of influence" on which to build a better school.

For two days, in the cold and rain, the students were shepherded from large group discussions to small group discussions, from ethnic group meetings to cabin group meetings and then to lunch or dinner. They were asked such philosophical questions as, "What kind of community do you want at San Gabriel High School?" and, "What risks are you willing to take to make your school better?"

They responded by hiding their fears in nervous laughter or finding comfort in the familiar face of one of their own. They laughed, they cried, they argued and then they danced. When it was all over, they shared gifts and embraced one another.

There were no dramatic changes; none were expected. School officials said the misunderstandings were too deep and the suspicions too ingrained for that. But there were the small, sometimes barely perceptible steps that inevitably precede racial understanding.

In the end, a few of those important steps, perhaps some of the bigger ones, were taken by Loi Banh and his friends.

Since 1975, the percentage of Asian students at San Gabriel has jumped from 4% to nearly 30% of the overall student population. Latinos now comprise 42% of the school's 3,300 students, and whites make up the remaining 28%.

The profound changes accompanying this influx, the racial backlash and a particular enmity between Asians and Latinos, were the impetus behind the retreat last Wednesday and Thursday.

"One of the things we never say is that there's not a racial problem here," Stephen Kornfeld, dean of students, said. "Tomorrow, we could have a stabbing on campus. We're not immune from anything."

Kornfeld knew enough about racial tension and teen-age anger to realize that his school was about to explode two years ago. As a graduate student and later as a continuation high school counselor, Kornfeld had worked with black and Latino gangs in Detroit and Los Angeles.

But the situation at San Gabriel High School was uniquely different, making for some unusual alliances. No longer were whites and Latinos major adversaries.They now formed an effective, if uneasy, alliance against Asians.

Kornfeld said a fight two years ago involving 30 to 40 students in the cafeteria convinced him that theschool was not prepared to deal with the backlash accompanying the influx of Asians.

"It was huge melee, and the combination of students was absolutely incredible," he said. "You had Latinos, blacks, whites and a Japanese fighting against a group of Asians. They all wanted 'those foreigners' out of here."

No one was seriously injured in the fight. But to forestall any further violence, Kornfeld met four times with each physical education class, talking to upwards of 400 students at a time. With the help of Paul Louie of the county's Commission on Human Relations, Kornfeld walked around campus identifying the various leaders of each social and ethnic group.

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