Asian American gambling addicts face cultural gap in getting help

The rangers found Ee Kouei Saelee hanging from a tree in Gibson Ranch Park after he'd gambled away his life savings, his self-respect and his will to live.

Saelee, 51, had helped many of Sacramento's Mien refugees find jobs, homes and health care. But the shaman who spoke five languages and saved others' lives as a healer and medical interpreter couldn't save himself from his addiction to pai gao poker.

Hours before he died, his widow recalled, "He was sitting on the bed and said, 'Honey, we've lost all our money, I can't feed my family. I have to die.' "

More than a million Californians have a gambling addiction, and the problem is especially acute locally. In the past two years, the 916 area code has ranked first or second in calls to the state's gambling hotline. Few of the callers are Asian, despite studies showing that Asian Americans are particularly prone to gambling addiction.

That disconnect is partly cultural, said Dr. Tim Fong of UCLA's Gambling Studies Program.

"From the Asian experience there's this whole mind-set that problems of the mind, psychiatric problems, are not real problems," said Fong, who wrote several of the studies. Many Asians "believe your fate is predetermined from the day you're born, and you really have no control."

Even those who want to get help for gambling addiction might not know where to go, especially if they don't speak English well.

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