JH is a senior at a all-boys Catholic high school in La Canada Flintridge, CA. He lives with his parents in Pasadena, CA.
JH sat down to talk with me about a ritual he and his friends began practicing as early as middle school – taking the train to Chinatown in downtown LA after school.
“Some of my friends started going in eighth grade…our middle school was really close to a Metro station, and we could just say we were walking to my friend N’s house and just go there instead. Tickets were only like $1.50 each way and it only takes like, 15 minutes to get there. I only went once though I think…and we just walked around and looked at stuff, they had those little turtles and firecrackers and shit, I don’t even know if anyone bought anything.
“I went more with friends in high school though, like freshman and sophomore year a bit. We could still take the Metro after school and just told our parents we were staying after school to do homework in the library or had a club meeting or something. My friends would also buy cigarettes at these little smoke shops there, and there was like, always one that kept getting shut down or they kept changing the name…it would pretty much be a different woman every time, like ‘Kim’s’ or ‘Annie’s’ or something. And they wouldn’t ask for your ID or anything, my friends would just like buy whatever their friends bought, like red Marlboros or American Spirits and stuff. They had pieces too [for smoking weed] and bongs, so sometimes my friends would get the cheap glass pipes, they were like $10 each or something. I know some people would go through the markets where they had clothes and knock-off jade stuff, and there was this one little stall hidden behind clothes that sold a whole bunch of weapons. We mostly just went and looked but some people bought things, like ninja stars or big knives…people said these guys supplied the Chinese mafia, or something. One time someone said they saw a warhead…like the kind of thing you put on top of a missile. For awhile one of my friends had like a plywood board in his garage, and we’d take turns throwing the ninja stars at it.”
I asked JH why he thought Chinatown was so popular for younger high school kids, and what it said about their youth culture:
“I don’t know…I don’t know when they built the Metro, but I guess it was probably pretty new. And in like 8th grade, beginning of high school, no one can drive, but you kind of want to start going out and exploring…beyond Pasadena, outside of just your neighborhood and school and stuff. And then the Metro only really has a few stops that aren’t in totally random places, like yeah you could get on different lines and go to Hollywood and stuff but we only had a couple hours after school and going too far was probably too…intimidating or scary when we were only like, 14. And then obviously older kids were doing it and that’s where they were getting dumb things like cigarettes that they had at parties, and I guess we just wanted to see what they were getting into, and it just seemed really cool going to a kind of sketchy place and knowing we were breaking all these rules. Probably just like, typical teenage rebellion, sneaking behind your parents’ backs before we could drive and really start getting into trouble. Plus, in Pasadena I think we all know we’re super sheltered in this really well-off community, and everyone’s had pretty comfortable and safe lives…which I guess adds to the danger part.”
I think this type of ritual is typical among teenagers, especially younger ones, who are just starting to become independent and want to push the boundaries their parents have set so far. The ages of 13-16, 17 really define the liminal period in American culture, when kids start to feel more self-sufficient but aren’t ready to take on all the responsibilities of adulthood; parents struggle with the transition too, knowing they should start preparing older children to take care of themselves, without wanting to kick them out of the nest so fast. Kids toeing the line, and learning to take advantage of their parents is nothing new, and here we see them trying to navigate the larger (and more adult) world using public transportation, coming into contact with drugs and drug paraphernalia, and doing so with an air of secrecy and defiance.
Additionally, it starts to separate “cool” or “mature” kids from those who are happy to obey authority, and some feel pressured to challenge their parents instead of their peers. Sneaking out and experimenting with illicit activities (drinking, drugs, sex, etc.) is a large part of the American high school experience, and this ritual demonstrates one foray into that world.
My informant told me about this game called Birdman while she was sharing about traditions at Scarsdale High School.
“I don’t know if other schools did this, but it was a game that started. And you basically do this, like, birdman (She holds her hands to her face, palms down, with her thumbs and index fingers making circles around her eyes) symbol over your eyes and if you quote in quote Birdman someone, they have to lie down on the ground for three seconds. And this was, like, a pretty harmless thing that started, but it just started to happen everywhere. So if you’d Birdman, like, you could– there were, like, ways to block a birdman and then, like, if you didn’t respond, you’d get blacklisted. There was, like, a comput—there was, like, an online blacklist for, like, who was blacklisted from Birdman. But seniors especially would take this really intensely and so, like, you, if you got Birdmanned, they would stop in the middle of everything and just get down on the floor for 3 seconds. And it was so intense that you could Birdman someone while driving, while they were driving and they would have to stop the car, get out of the car, lie down on the ground, and get back into the car. Um, and even teachers started to play. I think our librarian was, like, notorious for doing it, like, if you Birdmanned him in the library he’d get down on the ground.”
This was a game that my informant participated in during her freshman year of high school. She says it wasn’t something she was particularly interested in, but many of her friends were very into it. She played if she had to. This is a funny memory for my informant. She looks back on this game and can’t believe the students enjoyed it so much.
“In Chino Hills, there’s a ghost story sort of thing, um, where, uh, we have a lot of hills in Chino Hills and there’s one hill that, um, it’s almost as if it’s like two hills in a row. So there’s like a ‘U’ between the two hills. Um, and there used to be a road that goes up and over them, um, and you kind of go down and then back up, um, and supposedly there was a car accident, um, I don’t even know how long ago, um, where, like, 3 or 4 children ended up dying in the car accident in-between these two hills. Um, and supposedly, now there’s no longer a road, um, but if there– supposedly if you go in-between with your car and you kind of go down into where the ‘U’ is at the bottom and you set it up so that your car is in neutral, kind of facing upward toward the second hill, um, so that you’re– as if you’re going to go up the second hill, um, and then you put it in neutral and kind of go up slightly, um, supposedly you’re going to go back down… Supposedly the kids’ ghosts, the children’s ghosts, come and push your car back the opposite direction so you go back up the hill backwards, um, and so tons of, like, teenagers try to do this with their cars all the time um and supposedly, I’ve actually had a couple friends that told me it works, um, and everyone flips out, um, because everyone thinks these children’s ghosts come and, like, push your car, um, but in actuality it’s probably just gravity.” Laughs
My informant is a former resident of Chino Hills, California. This is a popular legend spread amongst the youth in the area and my informant first heard it from friends her age when she was a young teenager. My informant doesn’t have much patience for ghost stories, but enjoyed sharing the tale anyway. This is a legend that seems to have been around for awhile in the area as the father of another informant I spoke to remembers this story from when he was a teen. This secondary informant refers to the site mentioned in the legend as ‘Gravity Hill’ and adds a new detail: supposedly, when the ghost children are pushing the car up the hill, handprints can be seen on the windshield.
The Gravity Hill story is not unique to Chino Hills. Reportedly, there are several haunted hills throughout Southern California and, likely, the rest of the country. It’s an urban legend that is adapted for whatever area in which the story is told.
“Model UN pickup lines are used at Model UN conferences by high school students. In committees, which can range in size from five people to five hundred people… there’s a note passing system where different representatives of countries can pass each other notes. Ummm… traditionally these notes are for informational purposes that relate to the speeches and resolution writing. Informally, people use these notes to try to pickup delegates, so, the thing about Model UN pick-up lines is they specifically are puns that relate to debate and parliamentary procedure and sometimes the countries that are being represented. Typical pickup lines…. ummm, okay, one of the most creative pickup lines is, ummm, okay, hmmm, “I motion to ally with Greece and invade Djibouti.” Another one is, ummm, “I’d like to see your position on the floor,” and it’s funny because you write position papers. [laughs] A less creative one is, “I’d like to moderate your caucus.” I think it’s less creative because it doesn’t make too much sense. You just have to say it in a certain way for it to sound like a pickup line. Ummm… so, this one I got was great when I was representing South Africa at a conference, and the line was, “I wish I was Lesotho so I could be inside you.” Lesotho is a tiny country inside of South Africa. It’s completely landlocked and surrounded by South Africa. Oh my gosh, there is this other one… “wanna bang my gavel?”
I learned these pickup lines from generations of Model UN students. The older students will teach the new delegates these lines. I’ve been to conferences at Brown University and the University of Chicago and heard or read, on notes, some of the same pickup lines at both. The lines are pretty standard for Model UN conferences because parliamentary procedure stays the same.
I think they’re funny because it makes the committee experience much more enjoyable. You’re getting bored and someone sends you a pickup line in a note and it really brightens your day.”
The informant told me about these pickup lines while reminiscing about her high school days. She was laughing a lot and generally seemed to have fond memories of these pickup lines, despite that fact that they are pretty cringe-worthy. She belonged to a very competitive model United Nations team while in high school, but her fondest memories seem to be of the sillier things that happened at the model UN conferences.
The informant said she enjoyed the pickup lines because they provided entertainment, as the committee sessions would drag on for hours. I think the purpose and enjoyment of the pickup lines goes a little deeper than that. The lines make a lot of sense within the context of where they are used. When you are away at a conference for three to four days, surrounded by teenagers ranging from 14-18 years old, pretending to be older diplomats debating world issues, there are a lot of different factors coming into play. For instance, you have all of these hormonal teenagers shoved into a room together. Also, a lot of the teenagers who attend these conferences are pretty nerdy, and the pickup lines seem to be a way of reclaiming their status as more typical or sexualized teenagers. Most model UN conferences have a delegate dance on the last night of the conference, and the dances are a place where the delegates get to let loose and act like typical teenagers. The nerdy pickup lines seem to help the students tee-up for this dance. Additionally, many teenagers have difficulty telling their crushes that they like them, but sending an anonymous pickup line note to a student from a school from another state or another county who you will likely never see again is a safe way to flirt.