SAN DIEGO State University sociology professor Kenji Ima and psychologist Jeanne Nidorf have interviewed dozens of troubled Southeast Asian teens and examined the criminal and probation records of 100 more. A profile emerged:
They are either ethnic Chinese, Vietnamese or a blend. They arrive in the United States between the ages of 13 and 20 and have already formed an identity of themselves as wily and street-wise.
In Vietnam, they grew up without supervision and were adept at earning money by selling food or cigarettes on the streets.
They have missed several years of schooling because of the aftermath of war or the financial constraints from the death of a parent.
They arrive here without an intact family and live with an aunt, uncle or older sibling who also is having adjustment problems. The household is impoverished, subsisting on welfare or low-paying jobs.
Unlike younger siblings, they have only a few years to acquire a level of English needed to graduate. The daunting task is made more difficult by the fact that their schools, overwhelmed by large numbers of refugees, have failed to fully detect their educational deficiencies and they are placed in too high a grade.
They are small and react to frequent racial taunts by striking back physically. Fights lead to suspensions; the slow learner never catches up.
They are "anchor children," saddled with the extra burden of having to attain a financial foothold in America to sponsor family members who remain in Vietnam. Crime is seen as a shortcut to success.
They are probably not members of a formal, structured gang. Many robberies, car thefts and smaller crimes in the Vietnamese community are committed by informal clusters of teens who have run away from home and dropped out of school. They live together, wandering from town to town and living in motels.