It's a uniquely American teen-age tribal rite. For newly arrived Asian families it's only a small : part of a culture they must learn. For their teen-age children it's as significant : and exciting as it is to any teen-ager. It's . . . : Prom Night

Times Staff Writer

Imagine a Norman Rockwell illustration of an American teen-age ritual, the senior prom. A pretty young woman in a fairy-tale gown. A striking young man in a tuxedo. Youth in glittering imitation of more mature idols.

Now, cast their faces in the changing complexion of America.

The arrival of political and economic refugees from Asia in this decade has given us a new generation of hyphenated Americans struggling with the old issues of culture conflict and assimilation. And the prom, nonexistent in traditional Asian culture, has become a source of conflict. It puts many teen-age Asian-Americans, eager to be like their U.S.-born peers, seriously at odds with parents who are suspicious of this uniquely Western rite of passage.

The conflict can be especially profound for Asian daughters because the traditional societies in which their parents were raised forbid or limit dating for these young women.

Despite the conflicts, however, eager teens often wear down reluctant parents. For the sense of anticipation that precedes a prom--the sense that no night in a teen-ager's life will be so socially important--is truly a powerful force.

Just Before the Big Event . . .

Kenny (Keng) Kaing stood in his date's dining room in Tujunga, his face toward his feet, his hands buried in his pockets, the shoulders of his perfectly fitted black tux sinking by the second. Dejection filled the room.

Kaing took his right hand out his pocket and fingered the end of the pink monogrammed scarf draped around his neck. The fourth finger of his right hand bore an elegantly crafted band of silver studded with 33 diamond chips, a prom present from his mother. He rocked on his heels, his back to the circling fish in the nearly wall-long aquarium behind him, and shook a head of hair permed and shorn in imitation of an idol, Olympic Gold Medalist Carl Lewis.

His date's parents watched him from the kitchen a room away. His date watched him from a few feet away. His date's two younger sisters, 14-year-old twins, watched him intermittently and tittered. A photographer's lens held him in focus. Even the fish behind him seemed to press against the aquarium's glass wall for a better look.

Feeling the Pressure

Kaing, at 17, was a man under pressure. And his worst prom-night fear was happening.

"No limo," he muttered. Misty, a big, blond dog, licked his hand and brushed against him, threatening the dark perfection of his tux. Kaing gently pushed her away.

"It's not even 5 yet," his date's father, Sam Owen, called from the kitchen.

"But I told him 4:30," Kaing said.

"Did you give him the right address, Kenny?" Maxine Owen, his date, asked calmly. Her words didn't register.

"I almost told him 3," Kaing said in a pained, quiet voice. He walked to the dining-room window and looked out. "It's 5 now."

He walked back in front of the aquarium and stood quietly, head drifting toward his feet again. Everyone was silent and the fish swam.

To fill the void, Kaing talked about his plans after graduation from Verdugo Hills High School in Tujunga, where he and other Asian students have been bused from their homes in Chinatown.

"I wish I didn't have to go to college," he said. "I hate studying. It gives me a headache." Everyone laughed.

Kaing, 17, wants to own his own business one day, "for when you get old or something. Maybe in Cambodia. I want to go back there when things change. I want to be president," he said seriously, then laughed.

Kaing said he was born to a well-to-do family in Phnom Penh, then stated his date of birth, "June 6, 1969. I like history, things about World War II. I was a soldier at the age of 7," he added matter-of-factly.

Separated From Family

"They took me from my family when I was 5," he said of the Khmer Rouge, who came to power in 1975. "I was away from my family for 2 1/2 years. I was scared."

As Kaing remembers it, he was expected to go into the field to fight when he was 9. But with the help of a "brave aunt . . . she planned everything, my two sisters, me, my brother, (mother) and grandmother escaped across the border into Thailand," he said. But his father "just disappeared" during the reign of Pol Pot. "I have no idea if he is dead or alive," the young man said with a shrug. "Lots of Cambodians been through this."

The dining room fell quiet again.

The anguished past was history. The prom was about to happen and Kenny Kaing's limousine was already an hour and a half late.

Prom night was not supposed to go like this.

The limousine still had not arrived by 6:15. Frantic calls were made to limo services, but nothing was available. Then Kenny realized something else was wrong. He had left his tickets to the prom at his home in Chinatown--and he didn't have his car. He had arranged to have a friend drive it to the Woodland Hills Marriott Hotel where the prom was being held.

He called a friend for help.

"Peter, hi, it's Kenny. The L.A. reporter is here, everybody is here. . . . But no limo. Everything went wrong at the last minute. I left the tickets at home."

At 7:10 p.m., 40 minutes before his senior high prom began, Kaing and his date pulled up to his home in Chinatown. His younger brother, Hank, watched open-mouthed as his brother, who had left hours ago, got out of a 1987 silver-gray Honda Accord DX that hadn't been washed in weeks. Kaing told the reporter-turned-chauffeur that he'd be right out. In minutes, he returned with the prom tickets. He was shaking his head again. "Everybody wanted to know what happened," he said. "Please," he begged them, "don't ask."

Their limousine having never arrived, Kenny Kaing and Maxine Owen rode in a dusty, silver-gray Honda to a parking structure adjacent to the Marriott. Kaing's car was parked there. They dropped off their after-prom party clothes, then locked the car door.

Kaing had no intention of driving his car to the front of the hotel. "It would be too embarrassing," he said. His friends expected him to arrive in a limousine. Stoically, the couple walked.

"I couldn't believe it," said Su-Jin Chung, a pretty young woman with a flip manner and frequent winner of the Blonde Wig Award--a gag trophy her honors class awards for acting dumb at Santiago High School in Garden Grove.

"My dad actually said have a good time" at the prom, she said, passing the steam from an iron over her pink, strapless prom dress once more.

Chung, who was born in Seoul, Korea, was at the home of her best friend, Sheryl Baggett. Both were dressing for the prom that night.

"My mom was telling me I could go and my sister was telling me I could go, (so her father was) overruled," said Chung, who came to the United States from Seoul 10 years ago.

"Su-Jin's boyfriend is up for prom king," Baggett said, "and I think he has a chance."

"And she's up for prom queen," Chung said. "I'm not up for anything."

"This is like as good as it gets," Baggett said, checking for creases in her pale green evening gown.

"It's going to get wrinkled anyway," Chung said. They headed for the bathroom.

"This is nothing compared to the co-ed (dance last winter)" Baggett said, staring into the bathroom mirror. "That was like one of the worst experiences. It's like the girl-ask-guy formal. We had like a total of a half-hour to get completely ready--hair, makeup, shower and everything. Plus, we were in charge of the whole thing."

"We have plenty of time," Chung said.

"But you know what's going to happen," Baggett said, "you're going to think that until 6:45 and then you realize there's something else you have to do. That always happens."

Baggett's mother yelled upstairs, "What time are the guys coming?"

"Seven," her daughter answered. She grabbed a lock of hair and twirled it around the barrel of an electric curling iron. "I asked him to the prom," Baggett said about her date.

Chung's date, Frances Chan, asked her "a long time ago. We expected it." He's the kicker for the football team as well as candidate for prom king.

"Yeah," Baggett said, "we were sitting around talking and she's saying 'he's not going to ask me.' We had a bet. And you haven't paid me yet."

On prom night, Chung describes herself as a "wild type." Baggett, who claims to be shy with boys, explained that her friend will "just walk up to anybody and start talking," despite her traditional Asian upbringing.

Has to Obey Parents

In quieter moments, Chung, 18, an honor student fluent in several languages, assessed herself differently, however. She sat outside her parents' sandwich shop in Garden Grove where she works part-time after school and will work full-time after graduation instead of going to college.

"I know I have to obey my parents. I could leave home, but I guess I'm scared. That's why I don't tell him about the prom. He knows but he acts like he doesn't want to know. He just doesn't want to admit that he is letting me go."

Chung, a sullen expression on her face, a pink bow in her hair, leaned back in the white grid patio chair outside the sandwich shop. "I have to marry a Korean and a Christian. That's who my sister is marrying. My father said he was going back to Korea to pick out a husband for me. No way. . . . I don't know what I want to do."

The second oldest of four daughters, Chung "is a very bright young lady," said her school counselor, Carolyn Rust. "And she is a very frustrated young lady." She and two younger sisters are in the school's gifted program. "The family bought a restaurant and required that the oldest learn the business and then, as she got older, the next child coming up would learn it. And that's where we are with Su-Jin."

Since she won't be going to college after graduation "she lost all motivation in her senior year," Rust said. "And if I keep pushing her she gets very frustrated. She just has the attitude of 'Why should I bother since I'm not going to college?' They're a very close family, and they do what the father says."

Chung sat with Baggett in her bedroom, its walls plastered with pictures of rock stars and one-third of the floor space occupied by a giant stereo system.

Baggett, who is going to college, has suggested several times that her friend move in with her family, work part-time and attend school.

But Chung said she can't. Her sister is leaving to get married. That means the work load would fall on her mother who has been ill, she said.

Said Chung: "My parents are being nicer to me than they were to my older sister because she had to set an example. She couldn't go to the prom, she couldn't go to dances."

Wants to be Rich

But her sister's life has taken a turn for the better, said Chung. She's marrying a rich man. And "of course," Chung expects to be rich one day, too.

"Not 'Dynasty' rich. That would make me unhappy. Look at all the problems they have. Comfortable rich, where I don't have to work, though I would want to work for a while." She thinks she'll marry money.

"Did (your parents) tell you when you were little, 'Whatever you want to do you can do it?' " asked her girlfriend.

Chung shook her head.

"See," Baggett said, "that's different. Most American parents say whatever you want to do with your life, just put your mind to it and you can do it."

At 6:10 p.m., the two friends make a tactical decision. They will put their prom gowns on at precisely 6:30.

"But we will be upstairs when they get here," said Baggett, as the two conspired to make an impression on their dates.

"Yeah, we're going to walk down the stairs," said Chung, planning a grand entrance.

"And we're not going to walk down until they are both here, all right?" Baggett said.

"All right," Chung agreed.

At 6:55 p.m., Baggett's date arrived: Marcos Vizcara, the quintessential tall, dark, handsome man.

At 7:15 p.m. Chung moaned, "My guy's not here yet."

A half-hour late, jacket in hand, Frances Chan arrived to escort Su-Jin Chung to Santiago High School's 25th-anniversary prom in the Rose Garden of the Sheraton-Anaheim hotel. A photographer and a den full of the Baggett family greeted him.

Why was he late?

"Ah, let me think of a story," Chan said.

The young women made a studied descent down the stairs and cameras started clicking.

"Frances," Baggett's father said, "you need to put your jacket on so someone can put a boutonniere on you."

The stocky football player reluctantly donned his formal cloth.

Minutes later, Su-Jin Chung and Frances Chan sped off in a shiny black Camaro.

After the Prom . . .

The gowns were haute couture or definitely good imitations at the Verdugo Hills High School prom at the Woodland Hills Marriott, and every tux could have won the GQ seal of approval. Elegance and sophistication reigned. The only problem seemed to be the size of the dance floor. Students complained all night that the space was too small to get down.

Otherwise, it was fine, right?

"Fine," Kaing said.

Really?

"No," he said, days after the prom, momentarily exasperated. "Everything went wrong. I had to take Maxine home, she had a stomachache." In fact, "after dinner, a lot of people hit the bathroom. Then I had to rush back to the hotel" to catch the bus for the after-party. "I missed the bus, but I caught up with it at a friend's house about 2 a.m." As for the "limo guy" who never showed up, "I'm going to kill him," he joked.

Anything else?

"No, it was fine."

Santiago High School's prom in the Rose Garden of the Sheraton-Anaheim was an outdoor affair with fireworks. It was the school's 25th anniversary and tradition vied with contemporary fashion. An adult sponsor, who collected tickets at the door, was dressed in a white, lacy gown. She was the portrait of a proper chaperon, a Norman Rockwell subject in waiting. She smiled indulgently as young women in short, black, strapless sheaths passed by. She praised a few young women in white, long gowns with sleeves. Chung, in her satiny, pink strapless gown seemed an acceptable balance of modernity and tradition as she entered the Rose Garden.

"It went fine," Chung practically chirped after the prom. "Frances was named king of the prom."

And she was back home by 1 a.m. as promised. "But my dad was asleep when I got back."

Anything else happen?

"Noooo," she said, over the phone from her parents' sandwich shop. "What more can happen?"

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
66°