Violent video prompts soul-searching

At a meeting held last Saturday to strategize against youth violence, some parents saw it for the first time. Their stony faces watched as edited parts of a grainy video - known in some dark corners of the Internet as the "most brutal beatdown of 2007" - played out on a screen at the Vietnamese American Community Center in Fields Corner.

In the video, which originally appeared on YouTube, more than 20 youth from at least three different gangs beat two teenagers into what appears to be an unconscious state. It ends and the screen is rolled up. Tram Tran, a liaison for Boston Police District C-11 is introduced in Vietnamese. One thing she must try and do is quell rumors circulating in the community that the incident - which took place last summer in a Fields Corner parking lot - was faked.

"In recent years the number of kids involved in violence has increased sharply," a translator from Viet-AID begins, following Tran's words. "The parents often have no idea what's going on. Parents come to their kid's schools and report that their kids just go out of the family. They can't find them."

The generation gap between Vietnamese-American youth and their parents can be vast. Vietnamese youth in Dorchester face a number of challenges, not all of them scenes from a typical American childhood. Vietnamese teens might find extra incentive to join gangs, act tough, or find other ways to protect themselves from threats real or perceived. They often listen to American hip-hop or other high-energy popular music, not unlike the majority of teens in Dot.

Their parents likely belong to one of a number of waves of immigrants that came over after the war ended in 1975. First, those who feared reprisals from communist troops came, then, millions of others fled communist political, agricultural and economic policies. Vietnamese-Americans who spent most of their lives in Vietnam tend to hold views that are considered conservative in America. Senator John McCain is a popular candidate among the older set, largely because of his militaristic attitude and history as a prisoner of war. They prefer Vietnamese traditional music, particularly at community events.

The contrast manifested in the room when three teenage girls with tight-fitting clothing and a bare midriff or two assembled in front of the crowd and danced in sync to an American hip-hop track. Though some of the audience cracked smiles, many reverted to the same stony expression they held during the gruesome video as the girls went through their suggestive routine.

In break-out sessions designed to give participants a chance to generate ideas that could address the violence depicted in the video, the idea that children have too much freedom was a common theme; moral and civic education was suggested, "like in Vietnam." One group leader reported a story about a man in Brockton who ran afoul of the state's Department of Youth Services after chaining his daughter's leg to her bed out of total frustration with his inability to keep track of her whereabouts.

On the lighter side, some suggested that a lack of communication is the main problem, and parents have nowhere to turn when their children are out of control. Youth often speak far better English than their parents, and so also hold an advantage in controlling communications from their schools. Tram Tran's office at C-11 and Viet-AID are common places call, and they often can't handle every request.

"They call us and we don't have the capacity," said Hiep Chu, director of Viet-AID, after the meeting. "We kind of turn them away. They don't understand that there are different agencies doing different things."

Vivian Soper of Catholic Charities reported another side of the coin, on which her organization searched for over a year to hire a Vietnamese liaison who could help connect the community to their services.

"It's difficult," said keynote speaker Thanh Tran, a professor from Boston College, after the event. "They raise an important point. We need to provide more support for parents, where they could contact to get help with a situation before it is too late."

The parenting focus was an unexpected one for organizers. They imagined parents' greatest demand would be more youth services, not parental counseling and advice.

Viet-AID and a growing consortium of Vietnamese, Catholic and Dorchester groups are now turning their attention to organizing a meeting to get the perspective of Vietnamese youth. The date has yet to be set.