On Proms and Protocols–Figuring out the rules and creating new paths

When Lauren Peng posted the prom pictures she took of Huron High School students Rujia Zha and Michael Shen, her friends commented that the only thing that could make it better would be big explosions in the background, so… | Photograph taken and digitally enhanced by Lauren Peng

by Frances Kai-Hwa Wang | contributor

It was after midnight when my girlfriend Margie posted her prom picture on Facebook. The comments came promptly, “Major hotness! Oh, Margie looks good too.” (Her prom date, obviously, still enjoying his white tuxedo and sky blue ruffled shirt.)

Then Margie put out a call for all her friends to post their old prom pictures.


She was intrigued. What was the story here?

No story. Just, no.

My memory involuntarily flashed to my junior prom photo—my long-sleeved pink and lace Gunne Sax dress my mother made, my lanky prom date’s maroon tuxedo, the replacement boutonniere (free with his tuxedo) that he retrieved from his car when the one my mother made broke, that classic prom pose in front of the photographer. Oh, and we cannot forget the asianswithperms.tumblr.com hair!

I do not need a photo to remember all that teenage awkwardness.

As the child of immigrants, it was hard enough for me to figure out how things worked, what one was supposed to do, then explain it to my parents in a way that they would agree. Growing up, I relied heavily on reading the instructions for how things were “supposed” to be done. For example, I read the instructions on the shampoo bottle every day: Lather. Rinse. Repeat. I actually listened to the flight attendants’ safety instructions about the oxygen mask. I finally conquered my anxiety over western table manners by studying Miss Manners’ Basic Training: Eating.

I felt like such a barbarian whenever my ignorance or uncouthness was found out, whether it was driving the wrong way into a gas station (because there were no directional signs posted), not putting pennies in my penny loafers, or misidentifying Manjusri as Bhairav. Dork. So many social protocols are unstated.

I remember how confused I felt when I found out afterwards that others had done things very differently. The rich girls at my high school had their hair done in salons, rented limos, stayed out until dawn, drank champagne. You can do that? My hands were full just figuring out how to paint the fingernails on my right hand.

So I am always pleased to see young Asian Americans (who are so much cooler than I will ever be) figuring things out their own way, not being constrained by the way things have always been done, creatively constructing something new. Why depend on a school photographer when you could have a talented friend take your prom pictures for you? Then Photoshop an explosion into the background? Now that is a prom photo worthy of showing my friend, Angry Asian Man.

This is a different time we are in, with all this technology, all these new protocols to figure out as we go along. I Skype with my mother, Facetime with my college-bound daughter M, Facebook chat with my high schooler Hao Hao, Google chat with my brother who works at Google, get stalked by my nemesis on Twitter. Even though I work online and feel pretty competent in the virtual world, my mother still had a YouTube account before I did. I will always be awkward.

So I am glad for the chance to revisit some things annually, see how far I have come. When I run into my friends’ children dressed up with dates at fancy restaurants downtown, I recall the prom. When out-of-town parents drive slow and university students come downtown in caps and gowns, I remember graduation. When anxious first grade parents show up en masse at school, they must be chaperoning the annual first grade field trip to the Toledo Zoo.


Note: A great article out this week in Gilt Taste, “Is it Fair for Chefs to Cook Other Cultures’ Foods?—Two immigrant sons hash out what it’s like to have your food shunned and celebrated in America,” by Francis Lam, features editor of Gilt Taste, and Eddie Huang, charismatic owner and chef of BaoHaus Restaurant in New York City (with brother Evan Huang). In Eddie Huang’s bold blunt style, they make short work of the colonization and commodification of ethnic food. I have been saying the same thing for years about other aspects of culture—one has to understand the original melody before embarking on a new creative variation. Despite what the academics say about the authentic, one should not simply make it all up whole cloth and call it “Asian” (I am looking at you, Rihanna). This is actually the same conversation, but in much more colorful style. Thanks Francis Lam and Eddie Huang, I am learning courage from all corners.

Frances Kai-Hwa Wang is a second-generation Chinese American from California who now divides her time between Michigan and the Big Island of Hawaii. She is a contributor for New America Media Ethnoblog, Chicagoistheworld.org, PacificCitizen.org, and InCultureParent.com. She team-teaches Asian Pacific American History and the Law at the University of Michigan and University of Michigan Dearborn. She is a popular speaker on Asian Pacific American and multicultural issues. Check out her Web site at franceskaihwawang.com, her blogs at franceskaihwawang.blogspot.com and rememberingvincentchin.com, and she can be reached at fkwang888@gmail.com.


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