America's New Wave Of Runaways

SOME NIGHTS, KHAMHOM KEODARA is so worried about her son, Khampheth, that she wanders the streets of south Seattle looking for him. Her 11-year-old boy disappears for days at a time-he has skipped classes so often that his school doesn't want him back. And though he always returns home, Khampheth refuses to say where he's been. His parents, Laotian refugees who arrived in the United States six years ago, are at a loss to understand the American culture that seduces him. They've urged him to give up his mod haircut, his baggy pants, his plump down jacket. And they've changed their phone number time and again, desperate to cut Khampheth off from the crowd he hangs with. Nothing works. "Unless you've got good control, you cannot bring your child up," says his father, Khamseaen, 68. "It seems like I have lost control."

They're lumped in with all the whiz kids, the "miracle" immigrants with unlimited futures and unassailable family ties. But for many Southeast Asian teenagers, American life has not been the snap experts predicted. The first cracks appeared in the 1980s, in the stunning rise of Asian youth gangs. Now, in a widening rift between generations and cultures, a growing number of Southeast Asian children are running away, vanishing for days or months into a loose, nationwide network of "safe houses." No one knows how many Vietnamese, Cambodian, Laotian and Hmong youths are on the run. But counselors in Seattle estimate that one third of all refugee families in the area have had at least one child run away from home. "It is a big, big problem in the community," says Winslow Khamkeo, a Laotian counselor for the Refugee Federation Service Center. Just last month Milwaukee police discovered a hangout on the city's south side that was sheltering Asian runaways, including three Hmong teens from California and two from Minnesota, all missing for months. In other cities, Asian runaways as young as 11 or 12 are commonplace. "If you look at who become National Merit scholars, valedictorians and winners of national music contests, a lot of them are Southeast Asians," says Northwestern University professor Paul Friesema. "But clearly that masks the problem."

Why do so many who don't succeed run? The stress of assimilation often divides children eager to be embraced by their new world and parents terrified by it. Khampheth has perfected the adolescent leave-me-alone shrug. But even his monosyllabic answers hint at his alienation. Asked if kids would make fun of him if he wore the clothes his father wants him to, he nods, "Yes." Asked how they tease him, the young Laotian says: "They call you Chinese."

Many parents find it difficult to understand the new pressures their kids feel. The adults are an isolated, "highly traumatized" group, especially those who lived through the 1970s regime of Cambodian dictator Pol Pot, says San Francisco social worker Evelyn Lee, who works with Asian immigrants. "These families spend a lot of time just coping with the past," she says. Many are doomed to menial jobs or welfare. Unlike the wealthy, educated elite who fled Vietnam in the mid-1970s, the second and third waves rarely have the resources to make it in urban America.

Families reach the breaking point as children hit adolescence and rebel against Old World mores, and adults are powerless to stop them. "The only thing the parents offered them was food and a roof over their heads. But if a friend can offer those things, the kids don't need them any more," says Tom Nakao, a Seattle youth outreach worker, which has one of the largest concentrations of Asian refugees in the country.

Noc, a 15-year-old Cambodian refugee, fled his Seattle home last summer after a fight with his mother, who didn't want him to get an earring. In defiance, he got two. "The reason my mom and I don't get along is because, like, she won't let me do whatever I want to," says Noc, who's assumed the homeboy cadence of the projects. "I told her, 'Hey, it's my ear, you know?"' To some degree, Noc's struggle parallels the battles played out by every generation of immigrants. But there are differences. The Southeast Asians face a greater cultural gap than most European immigrants did. Worse, being tossed into the "miracle generation" upped the pressure on them to succeed.

Unlike many runaways, though, these teens rarely hide under bridges and down alleys. They sack out instead in "crash pads," small apartments or houses rented by large numbers of teens, that become hangouts for runaways. These "couch surfers" drift from house to house until they run out of places to stay. When they're caught or bored-they go home, for a while.

On a recent night in a ramshackle section of Seattle's Rainier Valley neighborhood, a small, sparsely furnished apartment is crowded with a dozen young Asians speaking Vietnamese to each other and halting English to a visitor. At the center is Tony, a 27-year-old Vietnamese-American. Though he opens his home to many young drifters, Tony is reluctant to talk about it, except to say he's been on his own since he was 11. The young crashers offer a torrent of complaints about the police, echoing the familiar concerns of young African-Americans. "They think all Asians are gangsters," says one. A friend adds: "They want you to tell them who did things. They try to scare us, tell us they'll send us to prison or back to Vietnam."

Police say they are increasingly suspicious of the Southeast Asian street kids because many of them have turned from hiding out to committing crimes. Lee, a 13-year-old Laotian from Milwaukee, ran away last summer to stay with older friends in the Twin Cities. For two weeks, they hopped from dance clubs to bars. "It was really fun being in the fast lane," brags Lee. But the $80 Lee left home with quickly disappeared, so he and his friends turned to petty theft. Lee believes many runaways are involved in bigger things: "What's really going on is violence and gangs and stealing and robbing and guns." Police and counselors agree. In Seattle, police say crack is appearing among runaways; so are guns. And gangs once con tent with looting cars are turning to drive-by shootings.

At least one expert believes that the phenomenon is actually rooted in some aspects of Southeast Asian culture. Northwestern University ethnographer Dwight Conquergood says that in Hmong communities in Asia, villagers commonly take off for a few days during times of trouble: "It's a natural conflict-resolution mechanism in Hmong society to go off to the next village or town for a period of time when there's tension at home."

Whatever the cause, parents seem unable to stop their children from running. Few call police or even have the language skills to communicate. Of the six runaways found on Milwaukee's South side last month, only one had been reported missing. "I don't think they [Asian parents] trust the authorities. I don't think they feel we can help," says Milwaukee Police Officer Kay Hanna, who investigates reports of missing children. "I think they are confused about what they should be doing."

So are their communities. Although shelters and drop-in centers for teenage runaways abound, many agencies aren't equipped to handle Asian kids who don't speak much English. Similarly, many Asian-American institutions-Buddhist temples, the Vietnamese Catholic Church-are set up for traditional families, not runaway kids. In Minnesota, state Rep. Dave Bishop has submitted a bill that would make it a felony to transport minors across state lines, arguing that many runaways are lured by older teens. It's a start, but counselors say the real solution is getting parents to bend their Old World rules.

That won't be easy. Speaking through a translator, Kham, the father of the young Milwaukee runaway named Lee, explains that Southeast Asians come to the United States for the same reasons all immigrants do: to find a better future for their children. And they're heartbroken when it doesn't work out. Kham mourns for his young son, who has become a stranger. "They learn the new lifestyle and they don't really believe in or respect the old traditions," he says. "It is very difficult for us to understand each other." The pain only deepens when a child runs away. "The hope we had is lost, and we feel like it was not worth coming," he says. What be doesn't know is whether he can reclaim the spark, or his son.