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Local leaders discuss Cambodian heritage, police profiling and park access in Long Beach

The following post was written by intern Maggie Su as the first in a series of profiles of API members of the community.

Ladine Chan and Patrick Duong are not your typical father-son duo. In fact, they aren’t related at all. But, judging from their good-natured banter, one might assume otherwise. Chan, Program Coordinator for Educated Men with Meaningful Messages (EM3) — a youth program under Families in Good Health at Dignity Health St. Mary Medical Center in Long Beach — works with primarily Cambodian youth, aged 14 to 19. He himself was once a youth in the program over a decade ago. Duong, who just completed his first year at Long Beach City College, is a recent graduate of the program. He credits EM3 with helping him finish high school.

As residents of Long Beach, Chan and Duong have limited access to safe parks. Most are poorly maintained and rife with gang activity. Furthermore, Long Beach residents must also contend with a lack of access to healthy foods. In a neighborhood where the most readily available groceries are from corner stores or liquor stories, many families have to travel at least three or four miles in order to purchase nutritious goods.

Despite the area’s lack of resources, programs such as EM3 exist to help residents combat the odds they face. The EM3 youth attend workshops every Friday on subjects ranging from life skills to violence in the community to healthy relationships. The program also teaches youth about their own cultural heritage, given that the majority of their parents are refugees of the Cambodian genocide under the Khmer Rouge regime.

“It gets very emotional to talk about what happened during the genocide, very traumatizing,” Chan said. “That’s why some of the youth get lost in it.”

Many members of the Cambodian community in Long Beach, which Chan estimates comprises 30 to 40 percent of the total population in the area — the largest Cambodian population anywhere outside of Phnom Penh — suffer from untreated PTSD. This makes it difficult for parents, unwilling to bring up the past, to discuss their background with their children. The result is that Cambodian youth know little about what the previous generation experienced.

“I didn’t really know a lot about my culture at the time over the years,” Duong said. “Joining EM3 really helped reinforce that and helped me open the doors to my self identity.”

Adequate discussion and acknowledgment of a diversity of cultures is also lacking in public education, according to Duong, who thinks every high school in Long Beach ought to teach an Asian American culture class. As a Cambodian American, he feels like a minority within the minority, and wishes his education had been tailored more to his cultural background.

Duong, originally from Grand Rapids, Michigan, did not always identify strongly as Cambodian. In the white suburb he formerly lived in with his father, he took on the role of “stereotypical model minority,” playing the part with “glasses, polo shirts and a one-strap backpack.” When he moved to Long Beach, he found that he was able to break the mold, expressing himself in new ways that were not bound to a cliché Asian stereotype.

But, with freedom of self-expression came harsh realities such as police profiling. His first experience in Long Beach was of cops entering his mother’s apartment, shouting at her and reprimanding her for speaking her native tongue. Although his mother had done no wrong — the police were looking for someone else — the incident gave Duong his first taste of life with constant police involvement. The sound of a siren is a daily occurrence in his neighborhood; multiple cops roam his block. At first, it gave him paranoia. Now, he is accustomed to it.

Chan has also had to contend with police profiling. Despite having a clean record, he has been pulled over more times than he can count by cops who mistake him for a gang member. Once when with a friend, he was surrounded by eight police cars. He was dragged out of his car and his entire vehicle was searched. The only explanation he was given: “You fit a description.”

Despite constant unsolicited interactions with the police that initially resulted in frustration, Chan is now patient, recognizing that it takes time to mend relationships. Through community events, he reaches out to cops, attempting to create a dialogue that will enable them to better understand each other.

“There are good cops and bad cops,” Chan said. “Unfortunately, it’s mostly the bad cops we’re dealing with because of the area we live in.”

Duong thinks the cops placed in his neighborhood are not adequately educated on the demographic of the area. Perhaps if they were, they would be better equipped to deal with the gang violence that has historically dominated the area.

“Gang tension was on the rise [in the 1990s],” Chan said. “It was pretty tough for any youth to engage in any physical activity at the parks.”

Although there are multiple parks in the area, they are ill-maintained and poorly lit at night. Conditions have improved in the past few decades, but the parks can still be unsafe, even in broad daylight. Duong accidentally walked into the middle of a shooting at Long Beach’s MacArthur Park his sophomore year of high school. Although nothing happened to him that day, he has lost multiple friends who were in the wrong place at the wrong time to gang-related violence.

But the future is not entirely bleak. At a skate park at McBride Park, youth of all racial backgrounds interact freely. Much of the racial tension that characterized their parents’ generation has been mitigated; people are now more open-minded, according to Duong.

“We were just tired of that negative energy from the past, having to deal with that every single day,” Duong said. “Now, we can hang out with anybody.”

He credits skating — in addition to hip hop — with providing common ground and a sense of unity among Long Beach youth. A skateboard is a relatively inexpensive source of transportation and recreation. Hip hop, on the other hand, is a universal genre that allows one to tell one’s story while simultaneously relating to others, Duong said. His only wish is that his friends had more access to skate parks.

“[They shouldn’t] have to deal with being written up by the police just because they’re skating,” Duong said.

 

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