It did not take the young Vietnamese refugees long to learn the way of life in their Washington area high school. Within a year, they began dating, sneaking out for beers, talking back to their parents.
In the end, the girl became pregnant.
Such behavior was unheard of in their native land. When the girl's father found out, he threw her out of the house. When the boy's parents were told, they scorned the "fallen woman" and refused to let the two marry.
Alone, caught between the worlds of her parents and her American peers, the girl went to the home of a friend, opened the medicine cabinet and swallowed a bottle of sleeping pills.
In little ways, the tragedy of Indochina continues to haunt the refugees here. It is perhaps most painfully played out as the parents watch their chidlren, day by day, week by week, grow farther away from the traditions of their ancestors.
"The children don't know whether they are American or Vietnamese," said Jackie Bong Wright, a Vietnamese refugee who works with other Indochinese refugees and their adjustment problems. "The parents can only think of how they lived in Vietnam or Cambodia or Laos. They try to understand, but it is very hard for them."
The Vietnamese girl who became pregnant was fortunate -- her suicide attempt was discovered in time. In a tearful reunion, her father came to the hospital and forgave her. And the boy's parents in the end allowed the couple to marry.
Everywhere, Indochinese refugees and their children must confront the hidden costs of their flight from Southeast Asia.
As many as 15,000 Indochinese students attend area schools, out of a total area school population of 491,000. One of the schools with a high proportion of Indochinese students is J.E.B. Stuart High School in Fairfax county, which has 65 Indochinese among its 1,600 students.
"The problems we have with the Indochinese are generally problems that are below the surface," said one J.E.B. Stuart official, who noted that all 11 Indochinese students who were graduated there this year are going on to college. "They are good students and they work hard. They are more respectful of the teachers than [are] American students. But underneath all of that, we know they are having problems adjusting."
There have been reports of some suicide attempts by Indochinese children who have found the pressures of adjustment too great, say some counselors and individuals who work with the refugee community.
Some of those problems stem from families that have broken up -- partly as a result of the long separations husbands and wives had to endure when they escaped Southeast Asia at different times.
Other problems occur when parents try to regulate the lives of their children in the traditional way, limiting their contacts with friends outside the home and insisting that they devote hours to school work while their American peers lead a more relaxed life.
"This freedom, it is something so new, a kind of freedom the children never had before," said Dr. Thu Huu Bui, a Vietnamese who teaches English to refugees and other foreign children at J.E.B. Stuart High "Most of them enjoy it. They don't want to give it up."
"They pick up English quickly," said Alice Thompson, who graduated from that school this month. "But they pick up all our bad habits faster. They stand in the hallways eyeing the chicks. When you walk by and they say something, you know they're talking about you but you don't know what they're saying."
For the parents, the experience is both baffling and deeply distressing. Because in their native countries, teachers were revered figures, the parents find it difficult to question school officials about what they should do. They avoid parent-teacher conferences out of shyness or, if they do attend, they do not ask questions -- a disconcerting experience, Bui said, for teachers who are used to parents demanding answers.
The adjustment problem of the young Vietnamese couple who eventually married follow the pattern experienced by other Indochinese, Bui said, though suicide attempts are rare.
For the first few weeks, the new refugees are model students, who bow in the traditional way of their homeland when they meet their teachers in the hallways, bow when they hand in their papers, never talk in class and complete all their assignments diligently, Bui said.
At the same time the new students often are harassed by Indochinese students who have arrived earlier. The recent arrivals are taunted over their inability to speak English and their traditional manners.
"I find out when I came that some of the Vietnamese here are not very good friends," said Nghia Nguyen, 17, one of the J.E.B. Stuart graduates. "They changed totally. I spoke Vietnamese with one and he spoke English back to me. I told him, 'You forget your mother language." They want to be Americanized too much."
The Indochinese sometimes find that the American students regard them suspiciously. Some fights have been reported between the two groups. In one incident, earlier this year at a Fairfax school, a Vietnamese youth was jailed after he stabbed a bigger American student who had shoved him, according to Fairfax County officials.
"It takes about amonth or so, and then some -- particularly those who don't have their whole family here and are alone -- begin talking in class or giving the teacher a hard time," said Bui. By the end of the year, some have begun cutting classes, petting in the hallways or drinking.
At home, he said, they begin talking back to their parents, who must rely on them to communicate with the outside world since they frequently do not speak English very well. The fathers, once middle- or upper-class heads of households, find themselves in menial jobs and the situation often becomes "very bad at home," Bui said.
"The parents can't understand what is happening to their children. The family is so important in Vietnam [and other parts of Indochina], and they are very frightened that the children will leave home like American children do," he said.
Nghia Nguhyen, who still follows the wishes of his family, says he is disturbed by what happens to many of his fellow refugee classmates.
"We have escaped from Vietnam and we have learned a lesson," he said shortly after his graduation. "Here we seem to forget it, that we must stay together as a family."
"They have become American too fast," said one Indochinese parent at the J.E.B. Stuart graduation. "My children are not afraid of the parents as they used to be."
She sighed. "Now they will go away to university and live far away. This is such a big country. I am afraid I will not see my children much anymore." i