YO! Youth Outlook

Persistent Divide

As I watched the coverage of Hurricane Katrina, my stomach churned. The storm was devastating, but the unveiling of racism towards Black people was disgusting. I kept repeating the same question over and over - how could this be happening?

I hated the sense of helplessness that came over me, and I knew if I sat at home boiling in anger I would end up lashing out and doing something that I would later regret. Hurricane Katrina is the largest natural disaster to hit U.S. soil, but because it hit Black communities the "country" could care less. Instead of having a response similar to the one after the 9.11 terrorist attacks, it took up to a week before any proper relief reached New Orleans.

After walking around angry at anything that resembled white America I decided to do something. Mainstream media has never done a good job of covering communities of color, so my first reaction was to grab my camera and document what was really happening.

I knew that if I kept myself distant from what was happening, it too would fade into history and become a murky memory. I couldn't let that happen, so I decided to go with the people who would give me the most access, the American Red Cross.

My Grandmother tried to warn me before I signed up with the Red Cross, that their treatment of Black people had not changed from when she was a nurse in the 50s. It is hard to understand how I could have been in such a state of denial about the Red Cross, yet so aware of the fact that the racist mentality of the past is still alive and present today.

My good friend Fay and I enrolled in the training program in order to make it down to the Gulf States. Not to our surprise, many of the volunteers going through the training and being deployed were white. The people of color were urged to work on the phones or help set up shelter around the Bay Area.

I arrived in Austin Texas with butterflies in my stomach, sweaty palms, and a lump in my throat. It had taken a month of training and bull-shitting from the Red Cross to get here and I almost didn't make it. Yes, after doing all my paper work, buying all the supplies, and putting in 13-hours of training I was told to turn around and go home at the ticket gate.

Hot tears of anger rolled down my cheeks as I argued with Florence, the deployment officer of the San Francisco chapter. The end result of our phone call resulted in her telling me that I might not ever be deployed and that I brought the situation on myself. Instead of turning around and giving up, I booked a flight on Untied airlines to Austin, Texas, thanks to my mom's job. The Red Cross said they were going to deploy me on the 26th of September, but when it came down it once again they jerked me around.

On the first day Fay and I were sent to the headquarters to be assigned an affected area for our first mission. Since we are both photographers they put us in the PR group being sent to the Ford Base in Beaumont. I really did not want to be apart of the PR group, but I had to stick with Fay. Right off the bat, we were the only ones who were not issued phones or promised Go Kits - kits that include equipment for in the field reporting and communications. That was just the beginning of the internal racism we encountered while volunteering with the Red Cross.

We were made to depend on others for transportation, watched and followed while we were doing or jobs, verbally attacked in the field by other volunteers, and made to feel unsafe. People tried to tell me that it had nothing to do with race. But when there are less than five Black people on a site of over 100 volunteers and we are the only ones encountering problems, what else can it be?

Michael Seimers, a volunteer photographer from Denver, took it upon himself to interrogate the two of us. When we first introduced ourselves to him and told him about our idea to make a photography book that we could sell to raise money for the Red Cross, he flipped.

He accused us of using the Red Cross funds to further our own agenda, then he demanded we give him our personal deployment numbers so that he could report us to the National headquarters in DC. I sat down with his onsite supervisor, told him who I was and that I represented my school publication and planed on donating images to the Bay Area chapter.

He was pleased with that and told us to go eat lunch and get plenty of water so that we would have strength while out in the field. After Fay and I finished out lunch and grabbed a few extra bottles of water, we headed out to meet up with our groups. Seimers and his partner Shannon, another PR reporter from the first group, started yelling at us: "If you think we are going to be waiting on the two of you then you're wrong. We will leave you behind!" Then they went on to complain about the two of us not answering our phones, but since we were not issued work phones our personal reception was bad. It seemed like they were out to sabotage us.

That day while out on the field, Seimers continued to harass me by yelling orders at me while I was trying to talk to hurricane Rita survivors. He even went so far as to get in front of my camera while I was shooting photographs, demanding that I stop shooting and talk to him. It took every ounce of restraint I had not to push him out of my face.

I looked at my team leader for help, but she looked away and continued writing down caption information for him. Finally, I looked him dead in the eye and put on my sternest "I'll kick your ass: voice I could, "Back off," I said. "We can talk about this when we return to the base!" As I walked away, he yelled: "Don't you walk away from me!" From that day on Fay and I realized that we were the only ones that had each other's backs.

I have never felt like a NIGGER before. There have been times when racist remarks where made, and institutionalized racism is something all people of color deal with. But being stripped of my rights, my voice, and treated like an evacuee was infuriating.

I was about to leave the whole experience bitter and completely distrusting of white people until I met the Johnson family in a Wal-Mart parking lot. They were sitting in the bed of a white truck laughing and eating sandwiches. I walked past them while heading car, but I couldn't get their faces out of my head. That family did more for me than I could have ever done with all my good attentions of going down south for them.

When I interviewed the eldest daughter, I had to fight back the tears when she talked about what it felt like to be separated from her brother during the evacuation. The things that family saw and went through are more than I could even imagine, yet they are still able to smile and be grateful for each day they have together.

Before I left I asked her one last question: "What would it take to get your lives back to the way it was before?" She smiled at me and replied, "Prayer, lots and lots of prayer." Their story and strength made me realize that we always have and always will survive the ignorance of our oppressors.

When I returned from doing Hurricane Rita/ Katrina relief in Texas, I was completely distressed. The images of houses torn apart and the stories of displaced families were intense, but the true trauma came from behind the scenes of the Red Cross organization. The Red Cross gave me a rude awakening to the real world as a Black woman, but the strength of the people I encountered reminded me that we are survivors.

Learning to Say No to My Immigrant Parents

I've wanted to be a lawyer, a ballerina, the president, even a nun once, but never a doctor. Guess what my parents pushed me to be?

Like many Burmese American parents, mine longed for the day when their child became a doctor. In Burma, if you weren't a big-time government official or a successful businessman, the only way to bring home any income was to be a doctor. Even doctors didn't earn much, but at least they were respected.

The gap between the rich and the poor in Burma is huge and widening. While the government and the rich plate their doorknobs with gold, the poor struggle to live on an income that is, on average, equivalent to $7 a month. There is little opportunity for the poor to rise -- annual state spending on education is among the lowest in the world, estimated at 28 cents per child in 2002.

As a result, in Burma, the competition for a profession in medicine is intense. My parents' dream was to come to America so their daughter could study ... medicine! Then, in 20 years or so, they could bring me back to Burma and proclaim to relatives that their daughter was studying to be a doctor in America.

So my parents immigrated to America and began their new lives as postal service employees, working hard to establish a better future for their children.

As soon as I started to play pretend, my parents started lavishing me with one doctor's play kit after another.

At a Buddhist ceremony in Fremont, Calif., when I was 7 or 8, I had to make a wish and lift three boulders. If I were able to lift all three, my wish would supposedly come true. When I neared the front of the line, my mom whispered, "Wish to be a doctor."

But I hated going to the doctor, shivered at the thought of giving another person a shot and did poorly in science courses.

In my junior year of high school, I decided to make my parents happy and take my first step into the medical field. In addition to two other AP classes, an honors class, two jobs and the swim team, I signed up for AP chemistry.

I started off OK, but as the year progressed, I found myself slipping in chemistry. I panicked -- how would I get into a good college now? As my grade coasted out of control, my best friend, who was also failing, and I resorted to cheating. We found a way to break in the building at night to look at the exams in advance. We did this successfully for a couple of months. But one night ...

We succeeded in entering the building, but not the teacher's office.

Earlier in the day, my friend had distracted the teacher while I unlocked the office door so we could come back that night -- but now it was locked.

I remembered that there was a hole in the ceiling of the classroom that led to a crawl space where wires and pipes ran and only technicians would visit for repairs. Desperate, we planned to reach the room by walking through the crawl space and jumping through that hole in the ceiling. We knew that ladders to the ceiling could be found behind the walls in the boys' bathroom.

We found the ladder, and after a dangerous pitch-black climb, reached the crawl space. We made a precarious climb over protruding pipes and boards, but when the light emanating from the boys' bathroom faded to blackness, we turned back in disappointment.

The next day, I failed my chemistry test. I was dozing off in class when a tall, bald security guard with a walkie-talkie stomped into the room and bellowed my name. I was suddenly as awake as if I had swallowed a bottle of No-Doz.

I'm still not sure how the staff found out I'd broken in. They suspended my friend and me for three days and gave us F's in chemistry.

At home, I discussed the incident with my parents. They were worried about college admissions, and especially about how this would affect my prospects as a doctor.

At first, I blamed them for making me enter a field they knew I was weak in. But blaming others for my actions could not be right. By the end of that conversation, I was blaming myself. I blamed myself for not being in control of my future; for letting my parents live my life.

It was then that I realized I was mature enough to make major life decisions for myself. I let my parents know that I could not let them decide what I would study or who I should be. If I did, I would hate school and regret my life.

I explained to my parents that I could be successful in other ways while enjoying what I do. "I promise you, Mom, Dad, whatever I will be, I'll be successful," I said. "I will make you proud."

With that, my parents -- sadly, hopefully -- let me go.

I am currently a journalism major at the University of California, Irvine, pursuing a career in broadcasting -- a field I discovered I love.

Dancing My Culture

The sun was poking in and out of the clouds. The weather was hot. There were hundreds of people gathered in a circle. I was nervous because it was going to be my first time grass dancing outside in public. I had been practicing indoors for eight months. I had danced in front of people before, but never that many.

I was at an event called the “Gathering of the Lodges” in Oakland, Ca. There were people from different tribes, and lots of Indian tacos, fry bread and chicken. People at booths sold dream catchers, necklaces, belt buckles and moccasins. Other people watched the dancing, talked, bought stuff and ate food.

It felt good to grass dance, even though it was hard because the songs were long and grass dancing is tiring. As grass dancers, we follow the elders who march eight flags out first – flags like the American flag with a Native American man in the middle. Then the drums begin playing and we come out to pat down the grass.

I am Tahono Odham, Cheyenne and African American. Grass dancing is traditional to the Cheyenne, because we are from the plains. In the plains there are a lot of snakes and lizards. Grass dancers have the job of making sure that the animals moved away while everyone is dancing. We also flatten the grass out. We step with one foot over the other and then switch.

I have wanted to dance since I was seven but I didn’t know where to go to learn. My dad, who is Native American, was away in jail four times when I was growing up so I wasn’t able to learn about my culture. I’m angry about that. I wanted to tell people that I’m Native American, but I didn’t know anything about my culture.

I started taking classes last August at the Intertribal Friendship House in Oakland. It was hard, but my cousin helped me. I got used to it and I practiced on my own. Fancy and traditional steps are different. Fancy dancing is fast, you are spinning and jumping. It’s a lot harder than grass dancing, which is slower with a little hop step. I chose to do grass dancing first because fancy is a lot more work. I wanted to get used to dancing and working out my legs.

My teacher made my regalia, which is sky blue and dark blue with a star in the middle of the back. My moccasins are light brown with red, blue and black beads. I wear a bandana on my head that is army print in dark blue, black and sky blue. When my hair was long, I put it in braids or a ponytail. My choker is light brown with clear, sky blue beads. I wear eight silver and brown bells on my ankle.

I made a lot of Native American friends dancing. It’s easier to make Native friends when you’re involved in the community. I like being together with everybody, not stressing on anything else, just chillin’.

Dancing is important to me because it’s a part of my culture. I feel like I know my culture better, which makes me feel good. It’s a part of me now. I want to have a wolf on my regalia one day because a wolf is a teacher and I feel that I teach a lot of stuff to little kids.

We Young People Get Our News Wherever We Can

jon stewartYO! EDITOR'S NOTE: A new poll shows young people are more likely to get their election coverage from "Saturday Night Live" than nightly newscasts. That's great, writes PNS contributor Russell Morse, 22, who says youth know they must search media far and wide to learn political truths in America today.

The primaries are in full swing. So far, Kerry is smiling, Dean is shooting Red Bull in his veins to prepare for next week and Lieberman has probably resigned himself to checking IDs at movie theaters for the rest of his political career. It's all very exciting. But there's one story that shouldn't go unmentioned in all the hoopla.

The Pew Research Center for the People and the Press conducted a survey of young people to see where they're getting their election news. It turns out that only 23 percent get their updates from the nightly news, down from 39 percent in 2000. But here's the good news: 21 percent of young people ages 18 to 29 cited comedy shows like "Saturday Night Live" and Jon Stewart's "Daily Show" as their primary sources for campaign news. Twenty-one percent! That's, like, one in five 18 to 29-year-olds. I don't have my numbers in front of me, but I think that's a bigger percentage of young people than the ones who actually vote.

Needless to say, everyone is upset. Tom Brokaw was so busy denying the relevance of the study he almost missed the teleprompt reminder to swap out his bionic hip. And all over the TV, experts have been invited to talk about "what to do with our stupid kids." The only people who are happy about the study are the ones working at MTV news, who have done a lot recently to be taken more seriously.

I think people are taking this study the wrong way. It doesn't mean young people are stupid. It doesn't mean we don't care about politics. What it means -- and this is a good thing -- is that we're savvy enough to seek alternate news sources. We're the first generation to grow up with cable, and in the age of too much information we're one step behind the "microchip in your earlobe" generation. We know what's what. And we know that the local news isn't good for much more than sports scores and the five-day weather forecast. We also know that CNN is owned by the same people who own Batman and Eminem, so it's just entertainment. And boring. At least SNL is funny.

That TV news people are outraged about this whole thing just highlights the fact that they're out of touch. Even the politicians know how to get at young voters. Gov. Schwarzenegger announced his candidacy on Jay Leno. John Edwards announced his on Jon Stewart's show. Al Sharpton hosted "Saturday Night Live."

On my local newscast, the night before the New Hampshire primary, one correspondent remarked, "Somebody's gonna get voted off this island tomorrow." The anchor back in the studio responded, "Ha ha -- 'Survivor.' Thanks, Hank." How do you take that seriously? You don't.

I'm not saying that young people should only watch comedy shows to get accurate election coverage. But if young people are realizing they're not getting the information that they should be from the TV news, that's encouraging. People I know are turning to a number of alternate news outlets. The Internet is an obvious source for independent coverage. But there are others.

The other day, an 18-year-old with gold teeth was telling me about a story he read on Dick Cheney in The Socialist Worker. He said somebody had given him the paper at his community college, and even though he was skeptical, he read it. He told me, "I don't believe most of the stuff in there. But I read everything I get my hands on. That way, at least SOME of it will be true."

Russell Morse (jiver76@yahoo.com) is an associate editor at YO! Youth Outlook (www.youthoutlook.org) a magazine by and about Bay Area youth, and a PNS project.

The Columbine Art Phenomenon

A scene from the movie "Elephant."

It's a long time since the last kid shot up his school. Close to three years, even. And it's been a busy three years -- new president, September 11, wars, everybody's broke. It's a different America today from the one that suburban boys were putting holes in. So I guess it's about time for some movies and books to start trickling out, fictionalizing the phenomenon that was the cafeteria shoot-em-up.

What do you know? In the past three months, two movies and two books came out which either use school shootings as a plot device or aim to explain the phenomenon. And they couldn't be more different from each other. We've got a zany farce, an art film, a mockumentary and (what could easily be) a Lifetime movie.

Let's start with the zany farce: DBC Pierre's parodic novel "Vernon God Little." The guy who wrote it is British and I guess he was so baffled by modern America that he decided to write a whole book clowning us. It's pretty funny. The title character is a 16-year-old kid who survives a school shooting, then gets scapegoated for the murders and has to fight a death penalty case in Texas. Now what could be more American than that?

I think the book does a better job explaining the energy behind school shootings than all those CNN child psychologists and Michael Moore combined. The book succeeds because it doesn't fall into the "I'm an expert" trap of trying to blame the violence on one thing. Instead, Pierre singles out the real culprit: the overwhelming insanity of millennium American life -- the richest time in the most prosperous country in the history of the world where everybody's fat (in the book, all the women are on the "Pritkin" diet), TV news media is off the hook with the scandal/murder/celebrity shit, kids are obsessed with basketball sneakers that could feed a dozen limbless Eritrean orphans for a month and every pre-teen boy has been "diagnosed" with some kind of condition. (Quick: What's another word for ADD? How about "being a freaking boy?" Tom Sawyer wasn't on Ritalin.) Pierre weaves all these factors and more into a seamless, insanely funny narrative which should be required reading in every high school right now. Oh, I forgot -- schools can't afford books any more.

vernon god little
DBC Pierre's parodic novel "Vernon God Little."

I guess while we're talking about books, I should mention the other one -- the Lifetime movie one. It's called "We Need to Talk about Kevin" and it's not very good. Or at least I didn't get it. It's about this lonely neurotic lady who writes letters to her ex-husband because she doesn't have anybody else to talk to. Oh yeah, and their son shot up his school and killed seven people. The only thing she can think about is herself, though. The whole book she's whining about "is it my fault?" and "everybody in town looks at me weird." Even though it's a good angle to take and a story I'd like to hear, the mom's perspective here was a little shallow and the shooting itself just becomes a platform for her to talk about guilt she had anyway.

"Elephant" is the art film, directed by Gus Van Sant ("My Own Private Idaho," "Good Will Hunting"). The whole movie (or most of it) takes place in a single day at a big suburban high school. Early in the movie, we look forward and see that this is the day that the school gets shot up. So we spend an hour and a half watching fresh faced kids float down hallways, giggling and crying and you can't help but wonder who's gonna die.

"Elephant" succeeds for the same reason that "Vernon God Little" succeeds: it doesn't try and tell you why it happened. It just happened. (Some slip-ups, though. There is a loooong scene of one of the future shooters playing a first-person shooter game and some clichéd bully scenes. And then, inexplicably, the two shooters -- both boys -- take a shower together and make out. There are a lot of ways to interpret that scene, but it's a pretty heavy statement to make with no explanation.) Other than that, though, the main thing I came away with was, "this is what high school is really like, so why didn't everybody go crazy and start shooting people?" "Elephant" makes high school look like high school, which is all at once boring, terrifying, fun and sick.

Then there's "Zero Day," which is the mockumentary. The idea behind it is: what if the Columbine kids kept a video diary in the days leading up to the shooting? The creepiest part is that the actors look just like the real kids and they're saying stuff you would expect them to say (Dude! Where's my pipe bomb?).

Having watched the movies and read the books, I'm in something of a stupor. The school shooting phenomenon has passed and if these examples are any reflection, still nobody knows what to think or say or do about it. It's like America said, "that was weird" and then made some abstract art blindfolded while listening to minimalist techno. And the whole idea of a movie about Columbine is mind-boggling. If you watch movies like "Basketball Diaries" and "Heathers," which both came out years before the shootings started, you can see scenes of schoolhouse carnage which are exactly like Columbine. And if you believe Joe Lieberman, that's why these kids did it -- violent entertainment. So a movie fictionalizing a school shooting committed by kids emulating a movie is art imitating life which imitated art. But forget the cliché. Art and life are in some crazy orgy where you can't tell whose foot that is or who's on top and there are fluids everywhere.

But "Vernon God Little" is a good book and you should rent "Elephant" when it comes out on video just to trip out.

Russell Morse is a senior writer for Youth Outlook.

RaGe Against Your Enemies

computerYO! Editor's Note: Although there are a group of young Americans under indictment for causing havoc on America's computers in the headlines, there are hundreds of young cyber sorcerers casting viro-curses on the enemies of their friends and gaining valuable computer skills, showing that hacker culture is more than meets the eye.

To many hackers of the underground world he was once known as TinY, but don't let the name fool you, with the click of a button he can instantly have 35 plus people monitoring your every online movement.

TinY was his call sign. At age 20 he has already retired from the hacking world consisting of mostly 15-21 year-olds. In the recent media barrage of stories about young hackers -- such as Jeffrey Lee Parson, 18, and Adrian Lamo, 22, who both admitted to hacking into the websites of large corporations and government organizations -- it's almost as if they wanted to get caught. Lamo turned himself in for hacking into the New York Times database, causing over $25,000 worth of damage. Parson spread a virus called teekids.exe, and hacked into the website of the Minnesota Governor's Office. To many hackers, creating a virus that spreads worldwide or hacking a highly secured government homepage is equal to gaining celebrity status.

TinY was the leader of a hacker group once known as RaGe. He explains "I started getting into it when I was maybe about 13. I originally started by being a graphics designer and I was asked to do some of the graphic work for some of the hacking programs that were being made for a particular hacking group. When I joined the group as that, the leader asked me to train with him and he taught me a couple of things until eventually I took over his position."

Little did he know, he was leading a nationwide group of 30-something hackers that ranked fifth among an elite list of hacking groups, along with United Pirated Software, United Warez, Katwarez and the Legion of Doom. The CIA is still trying to track down Legion of Doom for some of their nastier crimes.

RaGe had different sections. One section would get 10-15 credit cards a week; two were given to TinY and the others were distributed among the other members. TinY himself never used these credit cards. He was not in it for the money, but that is not to say other members weren't. One section would crack and distribute software. They are part of a warez community that would exchange software with other groups, then distribute it to regular people who needed software. They also had a security division that made sure they had each other's back. If anyone would mess with a member of the group, RaGe would hack into that person's computer, get into their bank accounts, send viruses to them, find out who their family and friends where and send viruses to them, too.

One time a friend of TinY's was angry at someone and she jokingly told him to hack into that person's computer. He took it seriously, told his security division and "had him on lockdown." For the first week, the security division -- which consisted of about 35 people -- would kick him off every time he logged on.

The second week they kept sending him viruses. In the final weeks, TinY signed on himself and told the guy directly, "Don't ever mess with my friend" and sent him a string of codes that crashed his computer. On a lighter note, the victim is now a good friend of TinY's.

When asked why he raised hell on other people's desktops, TinY said "I wanted something to do in my spare time and this was just something to me that was fun." He added that another reason was software. "I wanted a lot of software that I couldn't afford." He mentioned Adobe Photoshop, for example, which costs upwards of $600. He did not have that much money as a kid, nor would he spend that much now, so he downloaded a pirated version from his crew. But there was more: if anyone ever messed with him, having the power to "completely ruin their computer, keep them offline, get into their account, anything I wanted, that was a power-trip I couldn't let go off."

Although TinY messed with other's computers, he never felt guilty because he always gave warnings and only did it to someone when they gave him reason to. He never used anyone's credit cards and did not feel he was really stealing anything from a large corporation who steals from people everyday by charging a ridiculous $600 for software.

The thought of getting caught was always on TinY's mind though. "I heard that one of my friends actually got stormed by the feds," he said. "They stormed his room, took away all his equipment and his right to go on the internet."

Perhaps some hackers, like Parson and Lamo, are so concerned with getting props from their peers that they overlooked the consequences. Perhaps they were making a statement by becoming martyrs for the hacking community. Whatever the reason, the decisions they chose will significantly affect their lives. While Adrian was released on $250,000 bond, he was ordered not to use a computer again.

As for TinY, he's no longer a hacker. When TinY first started, the internet was still new and most security levels were at 32-bit encryption. Now everything is at 128-bit encryption. He feels the hype of the hacking era is over. Now TinY is back where he started using his skills for graphics design and web design, using his powers only for good and not evil, but he had fun the whole way.

Min Lee is a staff writer for YO!

We Have No Jobs

At a busy intersection in Kingston, Jamaica, I purchase a newspaper from one of the hard working "ghetto youths" who dodge in and out of speeding traffic every day to wash car windows or peddle peanuts rolled in stiff brown paper. The front page has big bold headlines that scream of war, death, and inflation.

But even though public sentiment in Jamaica is mostly critical of U.S. foriegn policy -- some of the headlines in The Gleaner were, "The Rise of American Totalitarianism," and "Manifest Destiny and the Iraqi War" -- many young Jamaicans still dream of living and working in the land of opportunity."

"Your country has done much damage to our country and other countries in the world, you know?" said one newspaper boy. "But there are no jobs here and many jobs there."

Although the U.S. media has focused on how the economies of large industrialized nations will hurt after the war, small "third world" countries like Jamaica have felt the immediate effects of U.S. actions since the day the war began. When I arrived in Jamaica March 17 -- the same day that President Bush announced his 48-hour countdown -- the exchange rate was almost $50 (for each $1 U.S. you get $50 Jamaican). When I left March 27, the newspapers reported the rate at $55.43.

Jamaica is already billions of dollars in debt due to unfair loan agreements made with the World Trade Organization and International Monetary Fund in the 1970's. Today, many of Jamaica's skilled and educated workers remain unemployed as U.S. and European products flood the market. And with the ongoing war and subsequent fears of traveling, Jamaica's largest industry, tourism, is suffering.

Although almost everyone I spoke to during my visit rejoiced at the sight of my "Let Iraq Live" button, one unemployed Jamaican in August Town expressed support for the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Shaking his head at one member of out tour group's insistence that the U.S. is a brutal bully, he replied, "What can Iraq do for me?"

"Look at us," he said, pointing at the four youth standing behind him, "we're all skilled, you know, but we have no jobs. You see me? I want America to win always. It needs to be all right so we can go there to work."

But even before September 11th, only Jamaicans who owned homes and had steady, well-paying jobs were eligible to apply for visas, and even then the U.S. often denied qualified applicants . Some Jamaican community groups are in the process of organizing exchange programs, but until then, some innovative young Jamaican males take matters into their own hands by charming American tourists into marriage to get visas.

"They see tourist girls as a ticket to go out to the States or even Canada," said Jason Henzell, owner of Jake's Restaurant and Hotel in Treasure Beach. "It's a soft-core form of male prostitution."

Jamaica's economic crisis -- which began shortly after British colonial rule ended (August 6, 1962) and has been intensified by greedy international corporate interests like U.S. companies -- has left many of its young people searching for a way out. One young Jamaican, who is a practicing Ethiopian Orthodox, told me she believes the U.S. will soon suffer the wrath of divine retribution for its actions, but in the same breath shared dreams of living in "my country" one day.

Carleen Samuels, a film and music producer who is in her 30's, said, "Everybody wants to be Jay-Z. The worst thing that happened to Jamaica was cable. The new generation doesn't know Jamaica. The culture is dead. American culture is it."

And while television sells American dreams, the U.S.'s tight grip on the country's market has ensured that people cannot purchase anything but American imports.

Although some angry citizens boycott U.S. products, the U.S. has made it too expensive for the everyday Jamaican consumer.

"If I want to buy only Jamaican products, what can I buy?" asked Shani, 14. "For many things there is only the American ones."

There is almost no way to avoid the influence of U.S. culture in Jamaica. Standing near a drink stand on one of my last days of my trip, I bobbed my head as 50 Cent's "In da Club" blasted out of a car filled with young people. A youth standing next to me -- holding a Ting (a soft drink made in Jamaica by Pepsi) and wearing Sean John jeans and a red bandana under a fuzzy white Kangol hat -- asked what I thought about the war as an American.

I told him I was against it. He smiled and nodded. "Yeah mon, I don't like your president and what's going on with the war, he said. "But I wan' go to your country still you know."

Shadi Ramni, 22, is a writer, photographer, as well as a contributing editor for YO!

The Killing Game

San Francisco's Mission District is a swath of palm trees, weathered Victorian houses and shops ablaze in tropical colors. On 24th Street, youngsters dressed in red lounge on the steps of McDonald’s, unmindful of wandering mariachis, Christians proselytizing in Spanish and old women selling roses and tamales. But on the back streets and alleys of this neighborhood, kids are dying.

The crime rate in California’s largest cities and counties is up 11 percent from last year. In San Francisco, a spike in gang violence in the past month, a dozen shootings, has led to six deaths. The victims are typically young -- 19, 21, 17 years old. Community workers say they've never seen anything like it. Mothers are afraid to let their sons leave the house.

But to the young people who live here, the drama is just a backdrop to a lifestyle that won't let them sleep. Here are the stories of three young men of the street who have made three different, fateful choices.

Animal Thug

"I'm an animal, bro... Animal Thug. That's me," he laughs, flashing twenty-dollar smiles at every girl who passes. Animal sits in Balompie's, a Salvadoran restaurant on 18th Street, eating chips and telling stories, stopping every few minutes to pop at a waitress who flirts back, giggling. He tells murder tales as if they were punch lines.

At 21, it's a wonder that Animal has made it this far. "I’ve been through a lot of sh--, man. I've been shot at hella times. I just come back at 'em -- pop back. We used to get in shootouts every day. Broad daylight, nighttime, whatever. There'd be hella people in the streets, throwing bottles at each other, shooting back and forth."

Animal is from 19th Street, with a well-known local crew of Sureños, a Mission gang. He has lived in the Mission most of his life and he got into the game early. The recent rise in shooting deaths barely registers with him. "It's been like this. It's nothing. You come around, you might get shot. That's just how it is."

But Animal knows the block is hot right now, especially for him. Not only is he a target for rivals, but the police know him -- he's a registered gang member. He’s already served time for attempted murder and he's still on probation. For now he’s given up selling drugs, but his pockets aren't hurting. "All my females pay me. I don't have to worry about money." He's considered moving to San Jose, to live with his girl and baby, but has a hard time seeing himself outside the Mission or tied to one woman.

His cell phone rings -- it does every few minutes. This call seems important, and he stands up to leave, blowing kisses to the waitress.

"A while back, some kid got shot by my house and people thought it was me. Someone told me they heard I was dead. I said, 'Yeah? I don't feel dead.' F--- it. Let them think that. Now I'm back. They call me Machiavelli."


Jose tried to live right, but the street was too strong. Now his older sister Gloria has to tell his story for him. Gloria’s little brother was killed two weeks ago. He was 21.

Gloria has been busy planning the funeral, helping her mom, begging the police for information and talking to Jose’s friends. "It's very painful." She pauses, glancing down. "There's nobody to blame. Even though he made bad choices, he wasn't a bad person."

Gloria and José's mom brought three kids to San Francisco from Nicaragua years ago, alone. She made a home for them in the Mission. They never knew their father.

When Gloria was 13 and Jose 10, their baby sister died from a brain tumor. That same year their grandmother, who lived with them, also passed. "Things weren't the same after that," Gloria remembers. "My mom started drinking a lot and kind of forgot about us. I was old enough to figure things out for myself, but I think José was kind of lost."

A few years later, José started at Mission High School. Soon he came home worried because some kids were pressuring him to join their gang. His mom tried to transfer him to another school, but the district said no. For a while, Jose wouldn't go to school because he was afraid. Eventually, he gave in to the pressure.

Jose wouldn't come home most nights because the block his family lived on was a rival gang’s turf. And then he got into drugs.

"It was really bad,” Gloria says. “He was gone for two or three months and we would drive around looking for him. My mom rode the bus looking for him. When we finally saw him again, he was so skinny -- oh my God. That's when we really tried to help him out, but there was only so much we could have done."

Eventually, he was arrested and spent some time in jail. When he got out, he went to go live with his brother in San Jose. Things got better. He gained his weight back, was spending a lot of time at home with his two kids, one 3 years old, the other 7 months.

"You could tell he was really starting to change. He was working out and everything and he was really excited not to have to worry about gang stuff. He would have the kids over at the house and play with them all day.” But one night, Gloria’s mother got a call from someone at the county hospital, which she couldn’t understand because she didn’t speak English. “Two minutes later,” Gloria says, “the police showed up at the door. 'Your son got shot. He's dead.'"

Gloria and her mother attend a vigil for Jose a few days later. José's friends from the gang are there, and everyone takes turns speaking. When José's mom gets up, she pleads with his friends not to seek retaliation: "My son is dead. I want you to live."


On a hot day Miguel, 19, is one of the guys you look for, whose bells bring summertime, sugar and ice. He's a paletero, one of many who walk the streets of the Mission pushing wheeled iceboxes filled with ice cream and popsicles, a buck a pop.

Miguel came from the coast of Oaxaca, Mexico. He's seen the district deteriorate. Walking the neighborhood every day, he meets all sorts of people and sees all that happens. He has chosen a path different from Animal Thug's and Jose's.

"I’ve been a paletero since I was 15," he says. There are lots of paleteros. They're all his friends, and rivals. "I’ve seen gang violence, sure. They fight, the cops come, they run. They've never robbed me or messed with me. Their violence is all about drugs; they have their turfs."

Miguel came here with an uncle. It took them 10 days, three days alone to cross the desert. "It was hot. The distance was never-ending. It was cold at night. There was only cactus, rocks, snakes -- desert stuff."

He misses Mexico. "But I came here to work, do right, send money home. It's not bad here. I make about $700 to $800 a month in the hot season. Bad days, about five bucks. Parks are the best. Music is important to me. I play the keyboards, you know. I sing corridos, cumbias, rancheas -- all kinds of Mexican music."

All he wants to do is "work, save money, go back home and live."

Russell Morse, 22, is associate editor of YO! Youth Outlook, a journal of youth life in the San Francisco Bay Area published by Pacific News Service. Josue Rojas, 21, is a graffiti artist and YO! staff writer and illustrator.

Am I Chinese?

charactersI was born in China and came here when I was six. I drew pictures on the airplane on the way to America. On the side of those pictures I wrote words in Chinese. I do not know what those words mean anymore.

Sometime between that flight and now I stopped thinking, speaking and writing in Chinese.

It's come to a point where it's difficult to talk to my own parents. They don't speak much English. They've tried to learn, but only managed to pick up a few words. My mom can kind of make a coherent sentence because she interacts with customers at work as a cashier. She sometimes leaves little notes on the kitchen table like, "eat soup & chicken."

My dad, on the other hand, knows almost nothing about English. He works at a nearby Chinese restaurant in the kitchen with Chinese-speaking co-workers. Fortunately, he can draw, so he sometimes draws pictures of a TV with a number indicating what channel and time, so I can record Chinese TV shows for him while he's at work.

My parents talk to me in Chinese and I try to respond but often stop in the middle of a sentence because I don't know the Chinese word. Our conversations have gotten shorter and shorter over the years. They call me from work sometimes, and the typical conversation goes like this:


"Have you ate yet?"


"What are you doing now?"


"Did your brother eat yet?"


I can say more but I don't bother. I think the most common phrase I say to them is "stop bugging me." They ask, "What are you doing on the computer? What are you drawing? What are you reading?"

I tell them to stop bugging me.

I guess this is a typical teenage response to parents, but I say it's only partly because I don't want them in my business and partly because I don't want to make the effort of explaining. Explaining means I have to gather my thoughts in English and individually come up with the translation for each word. I might want to say something like "that person is tall," but what comes out is "that person is high." (By the way, "high" doesn't translate into "drugged up" in Chinese either).

Responding to yes or no questions I can do. It's like a multiple-choice question: yes, no, and occasionally maybe.

The worst is family gatherings, usually dinners around the holidays. My aunts will ramble on and on in Chinese (and they have their own undecipherable dialect). They must use thousands of words every time they speak, but only sometimes, possibly, if I am lucky, I can pick up my name. Maybe they talk sh-- about me, but I don't understand or care.

They're kind too, always putting food on my plate, which also kind of sucks because it makes me feel like I can't do sh-- for myself, and then I have to thank them. There's two different forms of "thank you" in Cantonese: "m'goy" and "do jey" (or some might be familiar with xièxie in Mandarin). One is for a gift and one is for a service, but I can never remember which is which.

Have I lost my roots? Probably. My friends say I'm not Asian because my household is the only Asian one where you don't take off your shoes, and I don't like them pearl tapioca drinks or whatever you want to call it. I also prefer nachos over fried rice and Kentucky Fried Chicken over Chinese fried chicken.

On the other hand, my family does drive three Hondas and one Acura, and my English is still pretty crappy. Does that make me Chinese?

No, there aren't any traits or actions that make me Chinese and there is no real measure of how Chinese I am. Nonetheless, there's a tendency for people, myself included, to place me on a spectrum where one end is yellow and the other is a mixture of white, black, brown and green. It's hard to say where I am now, but I find myself slowly inching toward that mixture. But part of me will always remain Chinese. So what if I can't speak my native language and don't listen to Japanese pop music? Being Chinese doesn't mean being bound by Asian stereotypes.

I can't say that I know the answer to who I am, and I'm open to different ways of looking at it. I do wish, though, that I understood more Chinese so I could talk to my parents. But I'm still young. Maybe it's not too late. And barriers are made to be overcome, right?

PNS contributor Min Lee, 19, writes for YO! (Youth Outlook), a journal of youth life in the San Francisco Bay Area published by Pacific News Service.

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