Like many (most) people, I went through that phase in middle school and maybe the first year or two of high school. You know, that phase, when you’re body’s full of weird hormones, your friends change faster than your favorite band, and your parents seem like dictators. I guess I was a teenager.
One evening my mom and I were having an argument, I don’t remember about what, but suddenly she shouted at me in broken Chinglish, “It’s because you’re a ‘teenager’ right?! Americans have this stupid word ‘teenager’ which means as soon as kids turn 13 they think that they can act like hooligans and don’t have to listen to their parents anymore! In China, we never had this problem!” I quickly retaliated, calling her idea absolutely false and bullshit.
However, her words stuck in my head. The more I thought about it, the more unsettled I became. “Teenager” was just a label for those years between 13 and 17. It didn’t define us in those years. It couldn’t. Those years were defined by whispered rumors, games of truth or dare, cafeteria table cliques, JV sports team bus rides, buying your first thong, smoking your first joint. Being in the middle of all the drama yet somehow left out. Feeling, nervous, excited, impatient, incredibly volatile all at the same time. It wasn’t something you could capture in one word, much less say that all these emotions and experiences are a result of that word. I felt insulted that my mother could somehow blame all of my behavior on this word, “teenager.”
But also, never has American society been so obsessed with any other stage of life. Media loves portraying all the extremes of teenage life: the spoiled princess on her sweet 16th, the dutiful future-Harvard student acing the SATs, the juvenile delinquent selling pot in the school parking lot. You could find a thousand books and a thousand movies glorifying first loves, and the perfect high school prom, or villainizing the bad influence of the slutty best-friend, or a dependence on caffeine and Ritalin. Often it seems that could be absolutely nothing in common between two teenagers besides their age and a guarantee of change. There is no normal teenage experience. I grew up in a suburban middle-class family, yet my own experiences could hardly be called normal.
So what does it mean to be an American teenager? It’s not simply an indication of age. The word “teenager” is so much more charged than that. But I refuse to believe that it’s purely cultural construct like my mother said. MTV didn’t push us through puberty and put us in a school with hundreds of other kids. It might have influenced the way we dress, what we considered cool to listen to and watch, but we were more than that, weren’t we?