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On the morning of February 28, thirteen-year-old Dan Lin, donning her favorite “girl-in-black uniform”, which consisted of black jacket, black jeans, and black sneakers, left for school at 7:00 sharp, her mother remembered. For the next ten days, Lin had disappeared completely from her sight, the fourth time in less than a year, with two runaways in a row this February. Like Lin, runaway teens are becoming an alarming phenomenon in Brooklyn’s Chinatown. From October 2013 to March 2014, there were at least four other incidences. The teenagers often ran away two or more times.
2013
October   16
November 19
2014
February   28
March   1
13-year-old Xinying Lin left home for the fourth time. She complained to the police that she couldn’t stand her mother’s nagging.
12-year-old schoolmates Jin Liu and Zhishan Wu from the Sunset Park’s M.S.233 did not return home after school. The police used helicopters and other traditional vehicles to search the nearby parks. Two days later, the police located them through GPS in their iPhones.
The missing girl Dan Lin is only thirteen years old, 4 feet 8 inches tall and weighing 90 pounds. She has long black hair and brown eyes. She was seen last time at 7 O’Clock on the morning of Feb. 28 leaving her house at 8th Ave and 53rd St. She did not return home since then. She was wearing black jacket, black jeans and black sneakers. Her mother Ms. Shen said she texted her after missing eight days, telling her mother not to worry about her as she is travelling.Ms. Shen said this is the fourth time Lin ran away.
15-year old Ruo Chen, was reported missing. This is the third time she ran away from home, leaving a note that read “Dad and Mom, don’t look for me. Just assume I am dead.” Her family moved to Florida two months ago from Brooklyn. Four days later, Chen was found back in Brooklyn.
The situation is said to be much direr than reported, partly because most teenagers went missing without their families alerting the police. In general, missing girls’ parents are more worried their daughters might have been exploited sexually and are unwilling to file a police report.
Frustrations at School
Fearing for her daughter’s safety and life, Dan Lin’s mother, Ms. Shen, sought help from the police and the Chinese media. On March 9, a Chinese local spotted Lin in an internet café just a couple of blocks from her home. Police later confirmed her identity. After a thorough checkup, Lin was released and returned home.
In their tiny apartment on 8th Ave. and 53rd St, the living room becomes Lin’s makeshift bedroom. The day we visited her, Lin has books spread on her bed. Once in a while, Lin would play with her little sister, who is 10 years younger.
Lin confessed that staying away from home gave her a sense of freedom. She was deeply frustrated with school. She used to be one of the top students in her class back in China, but now she is struggling with English language, let alone other subjects. On top of that, Lin said her mother is short-tempered and rarely pays any attention to her.
Ms. Shen understands Lin’s frustration at school, but with limited English ability and a toddler in tow, she felt helpless when it came to her older daughter. She tried to sign her up for cram schools, but Lin refused to go.
Due to Her Own Language Barrier, Dan Lin's Mom Feels Helpless
She did not clean up after she came back. She used to be well organized.
Everything used to be in order. She did not do her home work.
Those books were laying there for nothing
She said she could not catch up due to language barrier.
I asked her to go to after school to learn English,but she refused to go.
I do not know what else to do.
The second day after Lin’s return, she did not want to go to school. Her mother had to call for help. The school sent a security guard to accompany her back to school.
Detachment from Parents
Brooklyn's Chinatown has the fastest growing new immigrant population. Pictured here is Apartment-for-rent ads on 8th Ave.
Although there is no official figure on how many satellite babies are living in Brooklyn, the number is considerable. Brooklyn boasts the third largest Chinatown in New York City, after Manhattan’s old Chinatown and the one in Flushing, Queens. Yet, Brooklyn has seen the fastest growth in foreign-born Chinese population in the last decade. The most recent statistics available show that, while the overall number of Chinese immigrants in the city has increased from 262,000 to 355,000, a 35% increase from 2000 to 2013, those who settled in Brooklyn grew 49% from 86,000 to 128,000 over the same period.
Admittedly, teen runaways are not a phenomenon unique to Chinese immigrants. According to federal data, of about 1.6 to 2.8 million American teens aged 10 to 18 years old, approximately one in seven has run away from home.
Brooklyn’s Chinatown commonly refers to areas surrounding Eighth Ave. and Sunset Park. Most of the runaway teens were so-called satellite babies. They were sent back to China when still in cradles to be raised by their grandparents while their parents worked long hours to get by. These children only reunited with their parents when they reached school age or even later, when they could stay home alone and help take care of younger siblings.
But for Chinese teens, the growing pains are complicated by the fact that they were shuffled between two cultures in their childhood. Psychologist Zhangyu Chen, who has her practice in Brooklyn, said that Chinese teens tend to demonstrate more rebellious behaviors than average, largely because many have trouble catching up in school. Losing interest in studying, these teens like to hang out at internet cafés and fall into video games and drugs.
Fiddling with Drugs
Fifteen- year-old Ruo Chen used to live in an apartment building at Eighth Avenue and 50th Street in Brooklyn. She ran away from home twice last November and December and returned voluntarily. Her mother Ms. Zheng said her daughter didn’t speak much English when she came to the U.S. two years ago. The language barrier held her back at school and she wanted to drop out.
Chen made some new “friends” who often skip class together and find seclusion in internet cafes. Ms. Zheng said her daughter told her their group leader is a twenty-something year old girl who made the minors sell ketamine and ecstasy. “If they are caught by the police, they often manage to get out of jail in a few days,” Ms. Zheng said.
Ruo Chen's Mom Explains Her Decision to Move Away from Brooklyn
She took airplane from Florida to Brooklyn.
Some "friends" bought the ticket for her
We did not get her the ticket
Does this consist of child trafficking?
Last time a boy picked her up at the airport
She stayed in touch with them
Those friends who hang out at the internet cafe on 49th St.
And sell ketamine
My daughter told me that they are dealing drugs
This criminal gang allured my daughter to run away
The leader in the group knew some teenagers did not want to go to school
He took advantage of them
He forced them to sell drugs for become prostitutes
This prompted Ms. Zheng to move to Florida to get her daughter out of trouble’s way. But two months after the move, Chen flew back to Brooklyn. Ms. Zheng believed her special friends paid for her airplane tickets and that her daughter was under their control.
Although the law in general is more lenient towards teens, dealing drugs is no small matter, says criminal lawyer Junyu Wang. Once convicted, teenagers will carry that baggage for the rest of their lives, making it almost impossible to attend college or land a decent job. In addition, parents of runaway teens might be accused of neglecting or endangering their children's welfare.
“There is a big difference in Chinese and American cultures in terms of corporal punishment. In the United States, slapping your children in the face can be viewed as child abuse."
Junyu Wang
Criminal Attorney
Fighting An Unfamiliar Battlefield
Ms. Xiaojing Feng, a public school guidance counselor, believed that the high expectations Chinese parents placed on academic achievements worsened their children’s feelings of defeat at school.
“Once I asked my students what their parents say that hurts them most, they unanimously said it was when their parents told them they gave up everything to immigrate to the United States in order to give them a better future.”
Xiaojing Feng
Public School Counselor
Teenagers are trying to gain their independence. They want their parents to understand and respect them as individuals, but they are still vulnerable psychologically and financially, explains Yuanxia Zhang.
“Many teens in China are told that America is a fancy place, and that life here is easy and all fun. They are very disappointed by what they ultimately experience here.”
Yuanxia Zhang
Psychologist
Dr. Zhangyu Chen said parenting styles rooted in different cultures are somewhat to blame.
“Chinese parents with Confucius beliefs demand absolute obedience from their children, meanwhile kids in the U.S. are taught to speak up for themselves, even it means disagreeing with the authority figures.”
Zhangyu Chen
Psychologist
Chris Chan, a social worker and director of Family Harmony, agrees.
“The dynamics in most Chinese families resembles that of a court, where parents act like a judge or the police.”
Chris Chan
Director, Family Harmony
Non-profit organization Chinese-American Planning Council offers free programs to teens ranging from English to computer skills. Director of Youth Programs Steve Mei said many Chinese teens become victims of bullying at school.
“Chinese Americans and Chinese students are often picked on at school, lots of the time, it is very difficult, the young people get very frustrated, frustrated with the school system no one to speak to, cannot speak to their parents, cannot speak to their teachers, it exacerbates the problem, it kind of snowballs.”
Steve Mei
Director, CPC Youth Program
The phenomenon of runaway teens definitely makes many Chinese parents reflect on their philosophy and priority in raising their children. With the community at large engaging in this battle, maybe the struggles experienced by these runaways will be alleviated in the future.
As for Dan Lin, she is trying to come to terms with her parents. “After wandering outside for so long, I did want to come home.”

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