Saturday, September 18, 2010

From Boston to Long Beach: Khmer Gangs and Education

Educators Meeting in Phnom Penh

During the trip, we met a group of Fulbright Hayes GPA participants out of Boston.  Here is Mike meeting his counterpart.  
Here's Joy making a new friend from Boston's educational system.  It turns out that there is a huge Cambodian student population in Boston, and the issues were the same as in Long Beach.  They were there specifically to get a better understanding of Khmer culture.

While, we had dinner, the subject of gang activity in the Cambodian community came up.  I talked to them briefly about my experiences at the community college level.  They were having a difficult time because the elementary, middle and high schools are forced to deal with it no matter what.  The high school instructor was trying to find a way to negotiate a way to keep the gang activity off limits at the schools.  Now, this was a conversation between a Japanese American college instructor and a Caucasian administrator from Boston which occurred in the middle of Phnom Penh.  The contrasts of Buddhist temples and monks with the mean streets of America was striking.  So, what were we talking about?  Creating exit strategies . . . more specifically, education as an exit strategy.  It's a complex topic, so I guess I should offer some information.  Much of what follows was part of a conversation in Phnom Penh.      

Origins of Khmer Gangs
Long Beach has one of the largest populations of Cambodians outside of South East Asia.  (There is a significant Khmer population in South Vietnam by the Mekong Delta.)  Unfortunately, the Khmer community has also been plagued by gang activity in Long Beach.  Now this gang phenomenon is not exclusive to them.  Many immigrant groups ended up with gang activity from the Irish, Jews, Italians of the 1800's to the Chinese, Mexicans, El Salvadorans, Cambodians and Vietnamese of the 2000's.  What is unique is the history of Cambodians.  They were bombed by the USA in a secret war, then subjected to the Khmer Rouge Killing Fields, then ruled by Vietnam afterwards.  A tragic history.  They come to the USA for a better life, and then things fall apart as noted in Time Magazine in 2001.  America has a way of breeding these problems.  

The History Channel series, Gangland, has some disturbing materials. So if you are sensitive to this stuff, then don't click on the YouTube links.  There are actually two major Asian gangs functioning in the Long Beach area.  One would be called TRG, or the Tiny Raskal Gang.  This clip focuses on Fresno, but in reality, they are a hard core Long Beach product.

The other group would be called Asian Boyz.  Now, when I first heard of them, it was out of Little Saigon, but then it seemed that they had a major presence in Long Beach.  Initially, I had thought it was more of a Vietnamese gang, but it turned out to be more inclusive.  I noticed something about the Asian Boyz that seemed to be common--race and ethnicity issues.

Ethnic conflicts.  Many of the Asian gangs were formulated as a reaction against other gangs in the area which were most often Hispanic.  Afterwards, they would turn against other Asian gangs.  This profile follows the pattern that existed since the Irish immigration of the 1800s, as portrayed in the film Gangs of New York.  Immigrants would move to areas often considered "ghetto."  Many of the parents would work long hours to support the family, but also leave their kids unsupervised.  Cultural values of traditional Khmer culture often conflict with American values and habits.  Subsequently, rifts develop between parents and children.  The Cambodians in Long Beach and Vietnamese in Westminister have complex histories as well.  Cambodians running away from the Khmer Rouge ended up in more troubled parts of Long Beach.  Long Beach looks nothing like Cambodia.  Vietnamese boat people ended up in suburban parts of Westminister.  They went from a country of rainy season to drought.  Regardless, dropping these communities into LA always seemed to have side effects.  How do people from a homogenous society deal with a multi-ethnic society?  Sometimes not well.  

Deportation, Law Enforcement and Education
Lately, subjectively, the amount of criminal activity in Long Beach has been on decline.  A discussion with LBPD revealed that crime has actually dropped in Long Beach by 25%.  With increased law enforcement pressure, the Cambodian populated gangs in Long Beach seemed to be less active.  Generally, the policy of community based policing has decreased the level of murders in Long Beach.  One other additional factor could be deportation.  In the LB Press Telegram, this issue is discussed in their series called, "Exiled to Cambodia."  In part II, they noted a few deported Cambodians trying to remake their lives in Phnom Penn.  Apparently, one way to get rid of a gang member is to fully utilize the immigration courts.  This is not to say all the people being deported are gang members.  In fact, a few are probably getting deported for minor offenses like possession of a controlled substance.  The thing is that it makes me wonder if we are exporting the problem too.  For example Mara Salvatrucha or MS 13 is an El Salvadoran gang that developed here, but we exported to El Salvador.  Now El Salvador has a problem.  Recently there has been both more law enforcement pressure and educational system pressure to break the cycles for all the gangs in Long Beach.  Khmers are just a lego part of a huge lego building of gang activity.  For both law enforcement and educators, it is a problem that seems almost impossible to solve.          

In the College Classroom  
So, why is this topic important for a professor of English to know about?  In the past, I had taught at a number of colleges in Los Angeles and in the OC.  A report in the LB Press Telegram seems to indicate that gang activity is a problem that exists from the core of society.  It's a problem that won't go away easily.  Now, many of my other colleagues don't know it, but there are gangsters in their classrooms.  Just because you graduate from let's say LB Poly doesn't mean you graduate from the gang.  In fact, I would speculate that there are more members on your campus than you might think.  I even heard of Bloods taking classes at Long Beach State.  How do I know this?  Because, quite often, they told me.  I really need to change my essay prompt about regrets.  I have no clue why people tell me things.  Maybe because I have a bald head and Asian . . . Hey, he must be a monk; let's air our the issues with him.  Most often, it's like, "You know what professor, I've done things that now I regret" sort of stuff.  You have the generic story about getting pregnant at a young age.  You have others about doing something stupid like reenacting a Jackass episode.  You have others who say I joined a gang, and then got incarcerated.  Real fun stuff here.  Maybe it was because of the prompts which often are phrased like "Have you been pressured to do something you didn't want to do?"  Sometimes I wondered if it was to gain sympathy from me.  (Didn't really, but you must show respect.  It's the only way to break the cycle.  I'll explain.)  Occasionally, authenticity questions would come up, but most people don't go up to a professor to declare they are a gang member.  Now if they got a scholarship OK.  Normally, no one wants to talk about jumping in (Getting beat up by fellow gang members to join the gang) to the professor.  Many might say they are leaving, but I think that is more easily said than done.  There is a reason, I think, for this behavior however.  Everyone wants a confessor.  That's why they go to a priest or see their therapist.  With English, essays are very personal, so therefore they tell you about their personal issues.  

Education as an Exit Strategy
I think some of these students were trying to formulate an exit plan for their troubles.  Some of them happen to be gangstas.  There are reasons for such change like suddenly becoming a parent.  Ironically, since I am now based in Compton, Ca, people often think that I must be drowning in this gangsta stuff.  I know there are gangs in the city; I've heard of the South Side Compton Crips or T Flats or whatever.  But Compton isn't the place in which I thought it was pervasive--it's everywhere in Southern California.  Many of the OC colleges have some hard core stuff going on.  Some of the hardest gangs are located in the OC, and they are taking classes in OC colleges.  When I taught a few classes in East Los Angeles, some of the hero essays were about brothers shot in confrontations.  It figures.  Some students were from Hollenbeck.  That area of Los Angeles is particularly plagued by this problem.

In Santa Ana, I encountered students who were a part of F Troop.  It's a Hispanic gang.  A student once told me that he writes faster in "gang" than regular handwriting.  He wanted out because the young ones were violating codes, and he had a kid.  In Cypress, I encountered some students who obviously didn't like me and dropped my class, but it was because they were NLR or Nazi Low Riders, a White Supremacist gang.  You can tell if they have spider web tattoos on their elbows and wear the number 88 (which stands for Heil Hitler).  The oddest thing was seeing a Korean student who was part of Black Crip crew in Long Beach.  The crew shall remain nameless, but it was because he grew up in the neighborhood.  If you listened to him talk, it was all hood in tone.  I've encountered other denominations that may or may not be gangs like Straight Edgers.  There were also Non-racist Skinheads that go around beating up Racist Skinheads.  It's really wild out there.  

The Korean kid got out, as far as I can tell.  The former Blood revamped his wardrobe, and began to pursue a job in animation.  Another Cambodian kid decided to go into the auto repair business.  Whether or not they really are out of the life, I don't know.  I just say, "You have a kid man.  It's not a hard thing to decide."  The problem is that the gang life forces illogical and potentially self destructive decisions.  It is not entirely certain if a person really does leave that lifestyle.    

In Long Beach, there has always been a long term tension between East Side Longos and TRG.  I became aware of this long before the History Channel's Gangland series emerged.  While teaching a class in the LBC (so to speak), a young Cambodian student came up to me, and he talked about getting out of the "life."  It came to the conclusion that he was a shot caller, and he was talking about tensions between his crew and the "Mexicans."  He never really said which gang he was with, but I could read between the discourse.  At one point in time, there was a truce.  The truce was supposedly broken by the Mexicans because 2 Cambodians were assassinated perhaps as a part of an initiation.  Consequently, things fell apart.  Because of the touchy nature of "respect" in this life, truces don't seem to last that long.  Had the truce lasted a bit longer . . .  Still, the guy was in college at the time, taking classes.

The other thing is that most gang members are men.  In some ways, this leads to other issues and other theories.
It's up to you to figure out if you agree with this concept, but when you factor terms like respect, being tough, being down . . . it figures.  For some, it is better to be Tony Montana of Scarface than to be Shakespeare.  It's why when they read, they will read Sister Soulja's The Coldest Winter Ever versus Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath.  Some focus on being "hood rich."  

Just Teach
I don't treat people with pasts any more differently than an angel.  Everyone is the same to me.  The standards for passing the class are the same.  What I find is that they only want to see if you are going to prejudge them.  Grade them for their work, not their wardrobe or their past issues.  The way I see it, everyone has issues anyways.  
Many college instructors in the Los Angeles and Orange County basins do not know the nature of their student body.  It is important to get a handle on the overall picture of your population.  In reality, students have complex lives, often gangsta lives.  Often, some of the things that appear to be unrelated becomes much more crystal clear later.

From International to the Local
There are other causes for conflicts as well.  For example, international politics can become local gang politics.  The Asian Boyz versus Wah Ching--there was a gang war depicted in the History Channel series.  They are respectively Cambodian/Vietnamese versus Ethnic Chinese.  Why?  If you do the research, there has been longstanding tensions between Vietnam and China.  In fact, they have gone to war with each other several times.  There is even tension today related to a few islands in North Vietnam.  The Vietnamese refuse to call the South China Sea, the South China Sea.  They prefer East Sea.  So, historically, there has been a"beef" between the Vietnamese and Chinese, so it does seem the global becomes the local.  It's sort of a long standing border war that gets repacked into a "beef" war.  People carry the historical conflicts here to America sometimes.

Perceptions and Mis-readings
Sometimes, you watch the news, and you just might hear about a former student.  You think, "That student was so great in class.  I can't see that student being a criminal."  Better luck tomorrow.
(By the way, Justin Lin's Better Luck Tomorrow sort of touches on the duality of perceptions versus reality.  A 4.0 Asian student might be committing crimes.)  The Black student in your class who sags might just be doing it for the fashion, and he is really a biochem major.  He doesn't bang at all.  The Mexican kid who shaves his head and wears khakis might be helping his father as a gardener.  Whom you think is a gangster, and whom you think is a scholar may not correlate.  Because of racial profiling and stereotyping, many gang members are not commonly displaying their flags anymore.  The stereotype of dress as coding no longer works really.  The fact is unless they tell you, you don't know.  Even then, are you sure it is the truth?  The way I view it, treat all students with respect and hold them all equally to standards.  It helps with the student with the past as much as the AP student.  If you explain why they didn't pass, they often understand, and they will probably enroll in your class next semester.  I view my position as a coach, and occasionally, it means being an accidental life coach.    

The role of the Community College
Sometimes it is better not to know a students past or their current history, which is why I keep a formal distance.  Often the students who talk about "respect" are the ones with touchy pasts.  But community college is a different thing.  Often, it is the last ditch effort for change.  A person had to make a decision to change their life, if they enrolled into the college.  The very act of enrollment is a sign of change in attitude.  In this sense, I give no judgments.  Who am I to judge?  I always say, "You are not the past, but you are the future to be defined by your actions today.  To define yourself, focus on the present.  The present is what you must observe closely.  The future's seed is in the now."  College is often an exit strategy for people from past problems in life.     

Now, this is not to say that everyone in a classroom is a gang member.  In fact, MOST of the students are probably too busy trying to figure out mundane things like if their boyfriend or girlfriend is cheating, or texting about lunch or thinking about how to do the least amount of work in the classroom.  Maybe the most important issue to them is the when the new Blackberry or iPhone is going to be released.  But, from what I can tell, there are other worlds that walk through your doors.  Gang members are just a part of the fabric.  There will be the veteran from the 2nd Persian Gulf War suffering from PTSD.  There will be the single mother living in a garage.  There will be the woman running away from her abusive mate.  On other campuses, I remember seeing students who were obviously in rehab.  Gang activity is the least of the problems out there.  I know of a young Latina, who takes care of all her brothers and sisters.  At 18, she is now their mother.  She is still going to my college.  The community college system really is the place to remake yourself.  As instructors, we facilitate it.  We are the catalyst for change in a life.  I suppose this is more of a social constructivist approach to our roles.  It's not just a job.

The thing is that gangstas are not just in Compton.  That's a stereotype thanks to the rap group, NWA.  They are in Santa Ana, Cypress, East Los Angeles, West Los Angeles, Gardena, Venice, Huntington Beach, Long Beach.  It's the American way.  They are even in Boston.