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.