The first time I gambled was in 1999 at the Nickel City in East Side San Jose. I was 9-years-old and my Vietnamese friend Vincent, his suspiciously older Asian friend Kevin, and my paranoid self played a few games of 13 for dollars and dimes.
I was nervous about getting caught, so I couldn’t concentrate on my hand *cough*Johns*cough* and I lost my $3.75. When the cashier swung by the back table to check on us, I hid my cards underneath my shirt, but Vincent stuck out his fist and said wassup to the cashier. “Does he realize we’re underage kids gambling in the store?…SWEET!”
In the 28 years that I’ve inhabited this earth, I’d like to think I’ve been a model citizen at best, and a minor annoyance at worst. The truth is, in my younger years I’ve done my share of downright illegal shit. And yes, it’s way worse than when I was 4-years-old and I tried to steal a lasagna noodle by stuffing it in my pants.
Yea, I was kind of a problem back then.
The Time I Kinda, Sorta Started A Gang
There’s young, there’s dumb, and then there’s me in 5th grade. Hindered by my boring 9-year-old lifestyle of ginseng and Kerns guava juice, I, like a retired and lonely librarian who hadn’t “been intimate with Karen in years”, wanted some adventure in my life. So I started a gang.
To clarify, it really wasn’t a gang. We were “The Little Rascals” — a ragtag group of devious middle-class Asian and Latino boys who spent their days shooting spit balls at the ceiling and playing with their… Tech Decks.
I structured The Little Rascals like a tier system with different ranks and levels named after animals. If a kid wanted to level up from a rat, he had to steal something. The more he stole, and the bigger/more valuable the item, he could ascend even higher to a wolf or a bear. But there was one catch: I kept inventing new levels so no one could truly reach the highest level where I was at: mega ultimate golden bald eagle.
I know, it’s corny, I was nine. Shut up.
It started off small (fancy lead pencils, a pack of gel pens) but morphed into shit like the keychain off the teacher’s keyring. We stole decorations off the teacher’s table, lunch money from backpacks, and even lunch money straight out of kid’s pockets.
At its worst point, we had a gang of kids popping off the emblems from the neighborhood BMWs and Honda Civics. One day my homie David Juarez brought his Jansport backpack to school and it was filled to the brim with neighborhood emblems. It looked like a bag of metallic jewels.
When we asked the other David, David Henderson, the Black kid in class, he declined. He didn’t want any part of it because “nah, I’m good.” He also landed the role of Malvolio in the school play adaptation of Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night,” so David Henderson was too busy getting a girlfriend to hang out with us *OooOooH!*
One day, a 4th grader ratted out me and my friend Michael. When the principal came down on us and threatened to throw us in juvenile hall, we called our parents who made it rain fire and legal fury. The principal backed down and we graduated 5th grade with zero scratches on our record and a B average.
Every Time We Gambled in Front of The High School Principal’s Office
Okay, so my 5th grade gang wasn’t out stealing checkbooks and ounces of OG KUSH from Kevin Nguyen’s trap house, but we did enough illegal shit to deserve some punishment. However, The Little Rascals didn’t last long. It all happened over the course of 3 months. But at Evergreen Valley High, I gambled almost every week, from freshman to senior year.
By senior year we had wised up and only played for fun. Plus, some of us turned 18 and we didn’t want to start our adult record with a mark. But early on, shit was like the trading floor of the New York Stock Exchange.
Our hangout spot was under an overhang near the cafeteria appropriately named “The Cave” since it resembled Batman’s bat cave. The Cave had great acoustics and you could hear the THWACK of cards slapping the pavement, and the battle cries of a bunch of Vietnamese and Filipino kids playing 13.
“Bitch! Double-twos muthafucka! Gimme my money!”
“DU MA (fuck you)!!! Bomb, bitch! Double or nothing?”
That’s how we made our lunch money. We “FOB squatted” for 45 minutes a day and could walk out with enough to buy a $1 cup of noodles. When a dude came back with a bacon cheeseburger from the cafeteria, it was like watching a Las Vegas high roller walk out with a new fiancée and shrimp cocktail sauce on his chin. “Damn foo, how much you make?”
On a good day we’d pocket a five, but most times we made or lost two bucks. The Cave was little Macau, and if you were a Black dude on the track team, one of those hallway emo Latino kids, or a preppy White kid who wanted to test their luck, you played with us. We started a campus culture and it paid.
It got pretty intense towards the middle of freshman year. Upperclassmen from the local Vietnamese and Cambodian gangs were playing with us, and prize money skyrocketed beyond what an average 15-year-old could afford. Kids lost their shoes, they wagered (probably fake) gold watches, and I managed to owe Ray Reyes $120 off a 30-second game.
In all fairness, Ray Reyes cheated so I didn’t owe him shit. But, Ray was kind of an intimidating kid so I convinced him that I’d pay back in counterfeit money. Yes. I spent an entire week testing out types of paper to see which would make the best counterfeit dollars. Thankfully, my step dad’s printer paper at home was too smooth to pass off as real, so LLAG bucks never went to market (bummer!)
All of this happened just around the corner from the principal’s office. They knew we played 13, they could hear us curse and get rowdy, and eventually they confiscated our cards. If we refused to hand over our decks, we were sent to the principal’s office. Teachers caught on and they took our cards too.
EVHS eventually tamed their crackdown on Asian card players, but they only scratched the surface of the problem. If they dared to see past the supposed, inherent innocence of Asian kids playing cards, they would have unearthed an underage community of illegal gambling, pawning, and gang activity.
Nah. Instead, the campus administration focused on Latino kids on academic probation. They sent the bad Latino students to our older, rival high school at Silvercreek High. When they weren’t targeting Latinos, they stationed a yard duty to hover over the Black kids on campus, even though Black students comprised of only 7% of the student body (Asians were 40%.)
Compared to most kids, I was a bad seed. A kid who was bored so he fucked shit up. I’ve done worse things than what I described, though I’d never confess. But even if I did tell you about the time I was in middle school and I ran through a construction lot with soon-to-be million dollar homes, and I vandalized about five of them, your image of me, and more importantly, the image of the Asian American community, would never be questioned.
If I were Black or Latino, I’d be a thug. A hustler and a con artist whose younger self vandalized, burglarized, and manipulated a few homes and a whole lotta people. If I were Black or Latino, I would have been sent to Silver Creek. Instead, I got to stay in the wealthy, brand-new campus of EVHS where a quarter of the students lived in million dollar homes.
I didn’t grow up in a bad neighborhood that was underfunded. All of these antics happened in Silicon Valley. And because of my visible Asianness, I got away with all of it.