Voices from Little Asia:
ìBlue Dragonî Teens Reflect on their Experiences as Asian Americans

Melinda F. Cowart, Ron W. Wilhelm, and Ronald E. Cowart

When I was in elementary, I wanted to make friends with the American people, At first I come, I donít speak English, I just want to say ìHi.î And then they just walk away. They gave me a look and then whatís wrong with that. And then the American people and Spanish people, they start calling me ìChink! Chink!î And after that I know that people donít like each other in America.
 
 
 

(Dong, age 21, a Vietnamese-Cambodian refugee, 1996)

 
 
 

In 1983, in response to a growing truancy and dropout rate among Asian teens in Dallas, Texas, Ron Cowart (a Dallas police officer), and his wife Melinda Cowart (an English as a Second Language instructor) decided to establish an all Asian American Boy Scout Explorer Post with a focus on law enforcement and community serviceóthe Blue Dragon Explorer Post. The youngsters were 15- to 21-year-old Vietnamese, Laotian, and Cambodian boys. The Cowarts had become active in the Asian Advisory Council, which had been set up to advise the Dallas Independent School District on issues affecting the Asian community.

In the early 1980s, Dallas had become one of 17 sites in the nation where Asian refugees resettled. Many Dallas churches agreed to sponsor these families. Federal resettlement agencies, however, soon used these participating families and churches as channels for a seemingly unending flow of refugees into the city. Public agencies concentrated the new arrivals in a poor, high-crime, inner-city neighborhood in old east Dallas, an area that came to be known as ìLittle Asia.î The result was a painful rise in unemployment, domestic violence, teenage pregnancy, drug and alcohol abuse, and gang violence.

Ignorance and Misconceptions

Dallas city agencies neither funded solutions for nor appreciated the complexity of the problems that the refugees faced. But the officials were not unique in this regard. Across the United States, the general public knows very little about these refugees or the problems they face, even though more than one million Southeast Asian refugees have been resettled in the United States since the collapse of the governments of Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia in 1975. Indeed, Southeast Asian refugees and immigrants are now this countryís third largest and fastest growing ethnic minority.

Officials of educational, social service, law enforcement, and health agencies continue to cite language and cultural differences, mistrust of authorities, fear of retaliation, and ignorance of laws as barriers to the services that refugees need to become self-sufficient.1 But as Derald and D. Sue have pointed out, there is a mistaken belief that ìAsian Americansí immunity to the ill effects of racism serves to obfuscate problems of educational-vocational deficiencies, culture conflicts, unemployment, poverty, and mental health. This misconception has shifted responsibility for these problems from institutional racism to the individual.î2

Youthful Alienation and Isolation

Asian American youths face especially severe problems. Many who arrived in the U. S. as refugees were born or raised in the latter days of the social disintegration of their home countries. The psychological effects of losing family members, surviving war, and enduring intense violence, starvation, the harsh life in a refugee camp, and resettling in a new world have played major roles in desensitizing them emotionally.

Refugee youths sometimes exhibit symptoms of post-traumatic stress syndrome. As have some returning Vietnam War veterans, these displaced youths may suffer from depression, headaches, nightmares, and flashbacks. Often they are unable or unwilling to share their feelings with teachers, social service providers, and other outsiders.

These young peopleís parents, themselves suffering the aftermath of war and separation from their homelands, are often unable to provide them with critically needed emotional stability and support that traditionally characterize the Asian family.3 Parents struggle to provide proper discipline or guidance but are confused about where to turn for help. Even when these parents do occasionally seek counseling for their children, most U.S. agencies must rely on untrained translators who are unfamiliar with Western-style counseling and interviewing techniques, and the counselors themselves are often unfamiliar with Asian psychology and cultural practices.

The schooling experience in the United States may actually heighten these adolescentsí sense of cultural alienation. Prior to their arrival, many Southeast Asian refugee youths never experienced a classroom. Now, they are caught between two cultures they donít completely understand. Parents expect them to be studious and well-disciplined and teachers expect them to be more assertive, a trait not usually acceptable in Asian culture.4

The frustration over these contradictory expectations and the difficulties of blending into mainstream U. S. culture make gang membership even more of a viable option for many Asian youth.5 Further, intergenerational conflicts arise because of discrepancies in the acculturation process.6 These conflicts lead many Asian youth to separate from their families by running away or joining gangs to create their own support network.

U. S. law enforcement and school officials have expressed concern about rising gang violence among these young people, yet have usually not succeeded in involving them in gang prevention and intervention efforts. Because of the stereotypical assumption that all Asians are overachievers, and because they represent only a small percentage of the general population, outreach efforts historically have been directed toward other ethnic groups.

Rights and Responsibilities

Hirayama and Cetingok have suggested that Asian immigrants could resolve many of their problems if they had access to certain resources. In addition to the basics of a job and home, these include knowledge of the civil, political, and legal system and of American methods of problem-solving; attitudes and behavior or social skills that are effective in dealing with U.S. social systems and organizations; and a social support systemówithin and outside of their ethnic community. These programs should, at the same time, encourage Asian Americans to appreciate their own unique values and traditions and to have a greater sense of self-worth.7 In Solbergís view, Asian American youth need help and support from religious and community leaders, student organizations, and church groups.8

The Blue Dragon Explorer Post is an example of the role an all-Asian American youth group can play in the acculturation process of young people from immigrant and refugee families. In the weekly meetings in the Blue Dragon Explorer Post, Ron and Melinda developed the initial activities to help the boys learn the basics of U. S. laws, citizensí rights and responsibilities, and mainstream cultural norms and behaviors. Simultaneously, the boys were encouraged to maintain, celebrate, and share their home cultures. The main emphasis was on English vocabulary and community involvement and service.

The Explorer Post meets after school in a police storefront in ìLittle Asia.î Because of historical inter-ethnic conflicts, the Cambodian, Vietnamese, and Laotian members at first tended to keep to themselves. Each of three ìsquads,î one for each ethnic group, even elected a leader. Before long, however, the teens were making friends with members from the other squads and the squad concept evolved into ethnically mixed teams.

Initially, Ron and Melinda outfitted the boys with uniforms that resembled those of the Dallas police, required them to get short haircuts, and instructed them in proper hygiene. To encourage teamwork, the boys were drilled in military formations. The boys learned about police procedures, laws of arrest, state statutes, and the penal codes. Many got to ride in police cars with regular officers. The boys have responded by helping the police organize the Asian refugee community, distributing crime prevention literature, and translating for the police and other social service agencies.

Social Support and Service

The Blue Dragons Explorer Post now has more than 30 members who are as diverse as the community they serve. The third generation of Blue Dragons includes both boys and girls who are Vietnamese, Laotian, Cambodian, Korean, East Indian, Thai, Hispanic, and African American.

During Post meetings, the teens often share their common experiences and discuss solutions to their own life adjustment problems and cultural conflicts. They also plan the monthly service projects through which they develop leadership and decision-making skills. (Ron and Melinda have been surprised to learn that members who organize community service projects for the Blue Dragons do not hold leadership roles in their schools.)

Among the groupís service activities are: feeding the homeless at a downtown shelter that Ron Cowart directs; distributing blankets, fans, and coats for low-income residents of Little Asia; visiting each month with low-income elderly residents at a nursing home in Little Asia; tutoring younger children after school; installing smoke detectors and peepholes in doors in high-crime apartment complexes; and participating in neighborhood cleanups.

To learn about and instill pride in their ethnic heritage, members learned and performed traditional folk dances from their native countries and performed flag ceremonies at cultural events.

Thoughts on School and Acculturation

In fall 1996, with the assistance of KERA public television in Dallas, the teens decided to make a video about their acculturation experiences. During a series of monthly ìroundtableî discussions, they decided on six major areas to exploreóreligion, violence, parental conflict, standards of dating, school issues, and discrimination incidents.

The video, called ìThrough the Eye of the Dragon,î aired nationally in spring 1998. In it, female Post members discuss conflicts with their parents over dating and Americanization issues, members participate in the Postís service activities, a memberís mother and grandmother shop in an Asian market in east Dallas, a Buddhist religious celebration takes place, and a Cambodian-Vietnamese member talks about the pressures he and his family have faced.

After completing the video, the Cowarts decided to explore these six areas further by personally interviewing the teens. Over 15 months, they conducted 30- to 45-minute interviews with 19 Post members, including immigrants from Korea, the Philippines, India, and Thailand; refugees from Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos; and second generation Asian Americans representing Thailand and the Philippines. They followed up these individual interviews with a series of semi-structured group interviews. Each group consisted of four to six current members of the Post. Some groups also included members of the first and second cohort groups who continue to drop in from time to time. All the sessions were tape-recorded.

Although the questions were varied, the Cowarts asked all 19 members what they thought social studies teachers could do to improve their individual situations. Following are some of their findings.

Discrimination. The group found elementary schools more accepting of and more nurturing of diverse cultures than secondary schools are. Everyone interviewed reported that he or she had experienced and had witnessed incidents of discrimination in high school by both teachers and students of other ethnic groups. One student recalled being asked to make a presentation about his country to his middle school peers, who proceeded to make fun of him for being different. Daily experiences like these, the students confided, often led to violence or to their withdrawal.

Stereotyping. Everyone knew at least one teacher with a stereotypical notion of how an Asian student should perform in art, math, and science. They reported that when they did not fulfill the teachersí stereotypes, the teachers seldom engaged or drew them out. The students were frustrated about a lack of understanding of the unique qualities of each Asian group. They resented being lumped into one great group of Asians. They were also angered by the trivialization of Asian religious and cultural symbols in pop culture commercialism.

School subject matter. When asked what their teachers had taught in class about the refugee or immigrant experience, the teens were quick to report that little was taughtóeven in history, government, sociology, and economics classes. English classes did not include literature about or by Asian or Asian American authors. They shared a feeling of isolation because their peers and teachers didnít understand the many adjustments they and their families had to make as refugees or immigrants. And, as one student said, ìWe donít know about each other; we donít even know about other Asian cultures. And our teachers donít know about us either.î

Dating standards. In regard to socializing outside the home and dating behavior, most of the youths said their parents are more lenient with their sons than with their daughters, but that in their home countries, the girls would be even more restricted.

Tips for Teachers

What did the students think social studies teachers should do to ameliorate some of these problems? They offered several suggestions:

1. ìTeach more in depth about the small Southeast Asian and Middle Eastern countries,î one member advised. The teens believed that the knowledge gap from not teaching about their countries helped to perpetuate stereotypes and a lack of accurate understanding of the Southeast Asian refugee experience.

2. ìTeach more about the perspectives of people who live in specific areas of the world,î another member suggested. The Post members attributed the stereotypical comments they heard daily to the ignorance of people who know no other perspective than their own. Several suggested ìShow and Tellî culture days.

3. The students wanted their teachers to give a broader perspective on immigration than they do. Several complained that teachers imply that war is the only reason immigrants come to the United States, thereby trivializing their familiesí experiences. They also pointed out that teachers frequently use the term ìimmigrantî to refer to both immigrants and refugees, even though they havenít all had the same experiences.

4. Members wanted teachers to explore the contributions that immigrants have made to the diversity of U.S. culture and to the U.S. economy. They felt their classmates might accept them more readily if they knew more about their groupsí positive contributions in art, architecture, music, government, and literature. They spoke of the successful business practices of the Asian American community in Dallas, including the many ethnic restaurants, clothing stores, and other commercial establishments. They had learned that noted architect I. M. Pei designed the Dallas city hall building, and they understood these contributions as part of the acculturation process in which members of the Asian community were learning to work within the U. S. culture and economy.

A Familiar and Accepting Forum

When asked why they joined the Blue Dragons, most members said they began to visit the meetings to be with their friends, but eventually joined because there was no club or organization especially for them at their schools. Many said that though they had friends from other ethnic groups at school, they always felt like outsiders.

The teens find support here for both their adolescent need to belong and their ownóand othersíócultural heritage. One Vietnamese member who had arrived in the United States when he was only two months old said the meetings made him want to learn more about his own culture. Another said that before joining the group, he did not know that Filipino and East Indians were Asians. One of the East Indian members reported that his diet changed drastically after joining the group; he now enjoyed food from other Asian cultures.

Group members also liked the community service aspect. They said it made them feel good about themselves and their culture and they enjoyed demonstrating to adults that not all teenagers are bad.

The Blue Dragon Explorer Post offers Asian immigrants and refugees, and Asian American teens a familiar and accepting forum in which they learn to negotiate cultural boundaries; a forum through which they can bring meaning to their acculturation experiences. At the same time, it has gradually developed a service model grounded in traditional Asian values of family and community needs above individual needs. In 1990, more than 40 members of the Blue Dragons became new U.S. citizens, and in 1992, another 20 members gained U.S. citizenship.

Notes

1. Ron E. Cowart and Melinda F. Cowart, ìCommunities Held Hostage: A Profile of a Laotian Street Gang in Dallas,î Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice 12, No. 4 (1996).

2. Derald W. Sue and D. Sue, cited by Surjit S. Dhooper, ìToward an Effective Response to the Needs of Asian-Americans,î Journal of Multicultural Social Work 1, No. 2 (1991), 66.

3. Deborah Prowthrow-Stith, Deadly Consequences. (New York: Harper Collins, 1993), 52-

4. Robert D. Morrow, ìCultural Differences, Be Aware!î Academic Therapy 23, No. 2, 141-149

5. Samuel Walker, Cassia Spohn, DeLone, The Color of Justice. (New York: Wadsworth Publishing, 1996).

6. S. Wakil, C. Siddique and F. Wakil. ìBetween Two Cultures: A Study in Socialization of Children of Immigrants,î Journal of Marriage and the Family 43 (1981), 929-940.

7. H. Hirayama and M. Cetingok cited by Dhooper, 74.

8. V. Solberg, ìAsian American College Students: It Is Time to Reach Out,î Journal of College Student Development 35 (1994), 296-301.

Melinda F. Cowart and Ron W. Wilhelm are associate professors in the Department of Teacher Education and Administration at the University of North Texas. Ron Cowart, a retired Dallas police officer, is director of the Dallas Day Resource Center for the Homeless and an adjunct professor of criminal justice at Dallas Baptist University.