Young Americans

Nine scenes from the lives of new Minnesotans

At least I'm sitting. Amiin, GaaFu, and Ja'aFar (all nicknames) walk, kick, lunge and generally jump around with the spring-loaded energy of 15-year-olds in summer. Amiin was going to take his friends to soccer practice this morning, but the coach wouldn't let them play, so they all left. Now they're waiting for the afternoon game. GaaFu, sporting professional shorts and a White Sox cap, chatters intermittently in Somali, regardless of whether anyone else happens to be speaking at the same time. Ja'aFar, the curly-haired, bright-eyed one, mostly smiles. Amiin alternates between beaming innocence, grown-man seriousness (he could, after all, have been fighting a war right now), and an ironic sense of humor almost too sophisticated for his age.

Amiin is the oldest of the three, and he speaks the most English, partly because he's smart and partly because he spent two of his four years in the States in shelters and foster homes for reasons he wants kept private. "At St. Joe's [Home for Children], I was translating all the time," he remembers. "They would bring in kids and call me, thinking that I would speak their language." Often he didn't--Somalia alone is home to more than a dozen languages--but "I tried to understand what they were saying, at least a little bit, and sometimes I could." At Sanford Middle School, he was called away from class to interpret so often, "I got good grades just for translating." Now he's at Roosevelt High, which has some 700 Somali students and several native speakers on staff. "I don't tell everybody that I'm Somali. Because some of the older kids, they don't speak English yet, but they're stronger than me and they would beat me up."

Amiin has lived with his latest foster mom for six months. He's been trying to meet people in the new neighborhood, but without too much luck. He's already learned not to chat people up in the street; one woman, he says, ran to her front door and slammed it when he approached. He's the only black kid on the block.

So he hangs out with white adults--one guy has been taking him fishing--and other Somali kids. It took him three years to find GaaFu and Ja'aFar, and the trio has been inseparable pretty much ever since. They bike together, eat together, play soccer and a game called "hurting" that involves a bag filled with dirt or rocks. They get into fights--"someone tries to mess with one of us, we all get in there and beat them up," Amiin says, and that odd irony creeps into his voice. "We don't do killings, though."

There's a pause as all three fall uncharacteristically silent; then Amiin gives GaaFu a mock punch. "He really likes white girls, and Arabic," Amiin grins as GaaFu launches into a rapid-fire protest. "I swear. Every time we see one from the car he's 'excuse me, let me see, excuse me!'" "But Amiin, he likes Somalis," Ja'aFar jumps in. "This one girl, he went after her three times"--he dodges Amiin--"'hello, excuse me, hello!'" GaaFu has picked up a wood chip from the flower bed and is kicking it around artfully. Amiin turns to me, serious again. "I only talk to people who I think are going to talk to me," he says. "A lot of people just ignore you." (Monika Bauerlein)

Hong Kong night at the Riverview

It's 11:20 on a Friday night, and three Chinese kids are hanging around on the corner. They're waiting for the Riverview Theater to open its doors, pacing with a loose, adolescent bravado, their Cantonese ringing in the still night. A half-hour later, the trio's inside, and they're not alone. Amid the Riverview's '50s deco, a patron gets a box of popcorn while another contemplates a bag of shrimp chips. Some teenagers are looking through the movie-poster books Ange Hwang is selling, pointing out whenever they come across a picture of Jet Li or Jackie Chan. One of them looks up and asks Hwang, "What's the movie tonight?"

Hwang should know: For a few years now, she's been the one running Cinema With Passion, a seat-of-the-pants operation that brings Hong Kong films to the Riverview every weekend. Although the occasional Jackie Chan flick can pack the house at upwards of 500 heads, average attendance looks a little more like a couple hundred, with a steadily growing core of Asian-immigrant regulars. Like the kid who asks Ange what tonight's film is, even though he's already paid for it.

As it turns out, tonight's film is God of Gamblers 3: The Early Stage. And although it doesn't star Chow Yun-Fat--the baby-faced superstar who played the original God of Gamblers--it's still a crowd pleaser. The audience is hooked on every frame of the hyperkinetic melodrama, laughing heartily at the lovesick humor and whooping it up at the fight scenes. This is film as community, as a raucous, participatory event. Even when there are problems with the projection, the audience isn't quiet and discontented; they shout at the image and cheer its correction, playfully demanding the movie they more or less came to see.

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