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HELPING THE WORLD'S HOMELESS; Asians in Americas; Hmong hew new lives from jungle Viets sample California suburbs

Drive-in hamburger stands, color TV sets, sprawling suburbs, and air-conditioned shopping centers are a far cry from the desolate refugee camps of northern Thailand or the sweltering transit centers of Bangkok.

For many Indo-Chinese here on the West Coast, resettlement has meant the end of a long, tedious wait and the hope of a bright new future.

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But it also means an often painful transition to an alien way of life, a clash of old and new cultures, and above all a serious challenge to the most traditional and established of Asian institutions -- the family.

The first wave of Indo-Chinese refugees to come here was the Vietnamese. They established themselves with a success similar to that of Japanese immigrants in the early 1900s. One measure of that success: 80 percent of the 130,000 Vietnamese who came to the US after the fall of Saigon five years ago now own their own homes.

"They were mainly educated, middle class, and had skills," says Bouavanh Raisih of the Catholic Community Service in San Diego, one of nine volunteer agencies locally involved in the resettlement of Indo-Chinese refugees. "They had worked with the Americans in Vietnam, so living here has not really come as a shock."

The readjustment road, however, has been a bit more bumpy for the Laotians, Khmer (Cambodians), and ethnic Chinese from Vietnam who began flooding into the country two years ago.

"Basically, the Hmong seem to have the greatest difficulties in settling down ," says Judy Ackermann of the Family Service Association in San Diego. Some of their Asian customs would horrify their American neighbors, she adds.

Over the past two years the association has concentrated on helping the 300 or so Hmong families in the area cope with their new lives. Like the Tibetans in Switzerland, the older generation is finding the change from Southeast Asia to a new country particularly hard. Many are unable to accept the idea they may never see their homeland again.

"Many of the old Hmong are contemplating a return to Laos," Ms. Ackermann explains, "but the young who have discovered transistor radios and cars definitely want to stay."

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Walking through the rows of drab green low-income houses in Linda Vista on the outskirts of San Diego, one often sees elderly Hmong men wistfully sitting on the doorsteps of their new family homes while saronged women hang out laundry and little children play with worn tennis balls on the sidewalks. Somehow, despite the surrounding activity, the older men seem to be dreaming of the forested mountains of Laos.

"As long as they go on dreaming," observes one social worker at a nearby Indo-Chinese refugee assistance center, "they will never gain inner peace of mind."

Social workers say both the Laotians and Khmer suffer from depression, marital problems, and conflicts between young and old. There is also a high incidence of suicide attempts.

Clan leaders are particularly worried about the noticeable erosion in family loyalties.The young seem to be adopting American customs and shunning the life of their elders. Women, too, are beginning to challenge traditional poles by venturing out into the work world and participating in outside social activities.

But if the refugee families are straining to cope, so is the city of San Diego. More than 40,000 Indo-Chinese refugees now live here. Another 600 are coming in each month. Both residents and city officials have accused volunteer agencies and the federal government of just "dumping" the refugees in the San Diego area.

"We are not shirking our responsibility to take them," says Jim Bates, a city supervisor. "But the United States needs to adopt a better policy which would share the load more evenly throughout the country. Here at Linda Vista we have roughly 4,000 refugees -- more than are in the entire state of Kansas."

Seventy percent of the pupils at the Linda Vista Elementary School are Indo-Chinese. This has caused considerable apprehension among some Anglo and Mexican parents. But teachers interviewed by this reporter contend the ethnic mix is not necessarily a drawback.

"We have been learning a great deal from the Indo-Chinese," one says."As long as the entire community is involved and willing to understand, then things can work out quite well."

The language barrier remains one of the chief obstacles for new arrivals. Many of the Laotian and Khmer refugees are unable to write in their native language, let alone English. A number of the older Indo-Chinese rely on their children, who learn English at school, to interpret for them.

"Housing is our greatest problem," says one official of the Catholic Community Service. Some landlords have taken advantage of the refugees by doubling or even tripling rents. "They know that the Indo-Chinese are too polite to complain," the official adds.

On the other hand, some landlords are giving first preference to the Indo-Chinese because they believe them to be more reliable tenants. And this has angered many Americans.

The refugees are also struggling to cope in the workplace. Refugees who were farmers in Laos and Cambodia tend to find the best employment possibilities here in urban factories. Many have already established a reputation for being industrious.

"They are above all willing to learn totally new trades," notes one community worker here. "But they may have to wait up to four months before anything can be found. There is lots of competition -- with as many as six or seven people, including Americans -- applying for each job."

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