Vivienne Nguyen is NAPALSA's former Vice-President and former President of the local APALSA chapter at Hofstra University School of Law. She is co-creator of the VOICES project.
Last week I was sitting in the library studying when another graduate student-friend approached me and asked the usual "How was your summer?" I was definitely in the middle of demystifying my M&A reading and was not in the mood to be sociable let alone conversational. Knowing that my friend was not a law student, presented a prime opportunity for me to rattle off on a boring legal discussion on the type of work I did during the summer. I was zoning out and not really paying attention to what I was saying when my friend suddenly perked up and said, "there are seriously Asian gangs?" Not immediately recalling what I had said, but realizing that I probably had mentioned the kinds of cases I had worked on, I was suddenly surprised that he was in disbelief over the concept of full-on Asian gangs. "Yeah, they definitely do exist and they are actually pretty violent," I responded. Thus began a tsunami of explanations to validate my now nonchalant attitude towards the existence of Asian criminal street gangs.
I write about my encounter with my friend in the library because the sense of naivety he had was analogous to my own sentiments prior to clerking for the Alternate Public Defenders in Orange County, California. It is a little funny that after going to college and trying to fend off the notion of Asians being the "model minority" (whatever that is suppose to mean), I am currently exploring whether there is such thing as a model minority within gang culture and how Asian gangs (as I now perceive many of them) fuel the myth of Asians as the "model minority." Consider the following: a lot of Asian gang members are polite, articulate, and straight A students who just happen to engage in crimes on the side; Police in the area also openly discuss that Asian gangs differ from say their rival gangs in the fact that most other gangs engage in primarily drug trafficking, but Asian gangs tend to be involved in complex enterprises (more sophisticated if you will); Asian gangs also are "nomadic," (as in they do not claim streets or turfs e.g. Jeffrey St., Santa Ana 5th St., Cherry St.) which makes them a little harder to locate. Whatever great expectations I had of Asian gangs upon learning all these distinguishing facts were shot down this summer when I heard of their "creative" names: Viets for Life, Asian Boyz, Viet Boyz, Koreans Gone Loco, Lao Crips, Scissor Sisters. (Personal tangent: Seriously, V4L? Viets for Life??? This is definitely negative 10 points for creativity.)
As a Vietanamese American, learning about Vietanamese gangs fascinates me because growing up in the same area, I am in awe of how oblivious I have been to all of this gang action I grew up alongside with. Asian criminal street gangs are more mobile than Hispanic or white gangs. This provides good reasoning as to why Asian gangs are typically more violent. As "nomads" there is a greater need to carry weapons (i.e. knives, firearms) for self-defense purposes because the risk and fear combined with membership to a known gang increases the probability of a surprise encounter with a rival gang. (The pressure to act in rival gang encounters escalates the more "respect" becomes a valuable intangible of gang membership regardless of whether the gang is engages in criminal activity or not.) This is all pretty crazy....and even crazier is why/how Asian gangs have recently emerged with such great presence. Is it because Asian youth are feeling more culturally alienated to their parents/family? Is it because Asian gang members feel that the gang will provide the respect they desire in lieu of gaining respect from the illusive "American Dream" expectations their family and our society has for immigrants? Even more puzzling is why victims of criminal street Asian gang activity are predominantly Asian (What kinds of racial lines have been established and what prevents or encourages acting in a racially homogenous nature?)
I sit here now and contemplate all these questions and realize that law alone provides no answers to any of these questions. (No surprise there.) Law, as I see it, and particularly law as practiced by public defenders, requires so much more than application of doctrine. It is understanding the community you work in and understanding how individuals have morphed into what their community shapes them to be. I believe that the more I unveil people's stories, I get closer to the heart of being a great advocate.