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Clash of Two Worlds Leaves Many in Pain

ASIAN IMPACT: Second of four parts. NEXT: How Eastern culture has adapted to Western ways

April 12, 1987|MARK ARAX | Times Staff Writer

Andy Herrera was lecturing his second-period history class at Mark Keppel High School on June 4 when he was summoned to the principal's office for an emergency phone call.

Ki Kang, a 1985 graduate of the Alhambra school and a three-year star on Herrera's track squad, was on the other end.

"Coach, I just called to say goodby and to thank you for everything you've done for me," she calmly told Herrera. "I'm tired of living. I'm going to kill myself."

Before Herrera could say a word, Kang hung up the phone.

Broken Relationship

He didn't know it at the time but Kang was calling from the home of George Vega, a Mark Keppel senior and a member of the track team. Herrera did not know that Vega had recently broken off his nine-month relationship with Kang, that she was emotionally distraught and had gone to Vega's house that morning seeking a reconciliation.

Sometime after lunch, Kang, 19, took a .22-caliber rifle belonging to Vega's family, lay on his bed, pulled the covers over her as if she were going to sleep and shot herself with a single bullet in the forehead. She died instantly.

Police say she left behind a short note to Vega that read in part, "If I can't have your love, then I don't want to live without you."

Her suicide, according to the accounts of friends, teachers and police, was not simply the desperate act of an emotionally teetering teen-ager pushed over the edge by unrequited love.

Kang, a native of Korea, had spent her school years struggling and ultimately failing to reconcile the conflicting demands of two worlds--a Korean world that insisted upon respect for her parents and their traditions and a newer one that encouraged individuality and free expression.

Secret From Parents

Much of her life--the track meets out of town, the relationship with Vega and her growing despair--was a secret she kept from her parents.

When they were told that she had killed herself in the bedroom of a young man they did not know, they refused to believe it and insisted that she had been murdered.

"She was a girl who came to this country and was immersed into a culture and value system that was totally different from her own," Herrera said. "She was doing everything to be an American, to be a success story, to make her parents proud of

her. At different times in her life, everything seemed to work--athletics, school and George.

"But her parents, like a lot of Asian parents, don't know what their children are facing in this country. They move into their own communities, patronize their own stores, visit with only their own. It's the kids who end up being exposed, who end up dealing with all this on their own.

"They're caught in between, trying to figure out how to honor and obey their parents but at the same time find their place in this society with its individual freedoms. Sometimes, like Ki, they end up dying trying to do both."

Agencies Overwhelmed

The unprecedented influx of Asians in the San Gabriel Valley has overwhelmed local mental health agencies, schools and churches with newcomers struggling to adjust to life in an alien culture. Like Kang's, their emotional problems typically arise from or are compounded by the social dislocation of being an immigrant or refugee.

The normal tensions between parent and child are magnified when both generations are laboring to come to terms with their own cultural shock, Asian mental health professionals and school authorities say. The existence of a tight-knit ethnic community can ease the alienation for parents, but it is little comfort for the school-age children who must interact daily with the larger society.

While many of the newcomers are excelling in school and business, a growing list of social ills now affect the Chinese, Vietnamese, Korean and Filipino communities. These problems--mostly affecting the younger generation--include drug abuse, gang violence, teen-age pregnancy, prostitution, wife beating, suicide and growing numbers of high school dropouts and runaways.

"Most of our Asian kids are doing fairly well. They're going to succeed on one level or another," said Stephen J. Kornfeld, dean of students at San Gabriel High School, where 29% of the student body is Asian.

"But there is certainly a significant percentage of newcomers who are feeling a lot of pain, who are dropping out of school and being drawn into gangs," Kornfeld said.

"We've had a lot of parents come to school to inquire about a son or daughter who has run away. Last year, one father was at the point of despair where he wanted his daughter back but was prepared to let her go. We eventually found out that she had run away to San Jose and had become a prostitute."

In some immigrant families such as the Kangs, parents insist on a traditional path for their children without taking into account the assimilation of a second generation. This often leads to resentment and estrangement between parents and child, according to mental health professionals and educators.

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