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Hmong teen-agers say they struggle between two cultures

DATELINE: DETROIT - October 30, 2000, Monday

Recent rebellious - and sometimes violent - behavior among Hmong teen-agers is not a mystery to Hmong youths who say it stems from a culture struggle.

Hmong teen-agers say they want to honor their heritage and traditions, but also want to take advantage of their U.S. independence rights.

The Hmong culture demands obedience and dedication to family and many teen-agers say they longingly watch as their American-born peers go to malls and join school clubs and athletic teams.

"Our parents are strict," said Pa Yang, a 16-year-old Hmong from Pontiac. "We can't do the things other kids do. Especially for girls. The parents don't think we need to be in sports; they think it's shameful for us to want to do these things. We are only supposed to stay home and take care of the family."

Suspected Hmong gang members have been charged with shooting a 3-year-old in the head earlier this month and for raping four Wisconsin girls in 1999.

Ngia Lee, 18, is scheduled to appear in 51st District Court in Waterford Tuesday on charges that he shot a gun at a Hmong New Year's celebration and struck Malena Herr, 3.

An investigation continues into whether Lee has gang ties. He is charged with three counts of assault with intent to murder and three counts of using a gun while committing a felony. If convicted, Lee could be imprisoned for life.

In 1999, Hmong gang members were charged with repeatedly raping four Wisconsin girls and holding them captive in a Detroit home.

The culture clash has caused many Hmong children to seek freedom in gangs. Gang experts and former members say there are hundreds of loosely connected Hmong gangs in states where sizable Hmong populations exist: Minnesota, Wisconsin, California and Michigan.

Police say the gangs usually fight among themselves, rarely deal with groups outside their own race and are growing more violent.

Parents and community elders don't have any answers.

Sao Hang, a 61-year-old Detroiter who helped counsel the Lee family, said problems with Hmong children were nonexistent in their native lands of Laos and Thailand.

"In this country they don't want to listen to parents. They want too much freedom. They get in too much trouble and we don't know how to fix. Now we are very sorry for our children and what they do," Hang told the Detroit Free Press for a story Monday.

The Hmong began immigrating to the United States in the mid-1970s.