FOR 19-year-old Chinese-American Lily Lee, it's a way to learn the finer points: How to walk upstairs in high heels and long gown; which fork to use for shrimp; how to signal waiters that one is finished. For her parents, it's a way for family and daughter to meet and develop Chinese friends and speak Chinese. For grandparents, it's a way to garner cross-generational support in an alien land.
``It'' is the Chinese-American Debutante Guild, the first all-Chinese group of its kind in the United States, according to the Organization of Chinese Americans (OCA), a Washington, D.C.-based national advocacy group. Twenty-two women from some of the area's posher neighborhoods have been training for the group's first-ever public event - a ``coming out'' rite this Saturday known as the ``Winter Blossom Ball.''
``You can see it as a bunch of Asians going off to be with their own kind, but you can also see it as a way to infiltrate American society as a group and integrate,'' says Rosalie Chin, a senior at the University of California at Los Angeles who will graduate with a degree in electrical engineering. The debutantes have met some 20 times for lessons in manners, makeup, ballroom dancing, and deportment, as well as just for fun.
``You have to realize that most of us were raised using chopsticks,'' says Ms. Chin. ``So when we come into a formal dining situation and see something like 15 forks staring at us, it's like - whoa ... something different.''
But the Guild's goals are broader than just presenting ``of age'' girls to society, the European and American tradition that is still popular in many communities. Just as the Chinese philosopher Meng-Tzu emphasized filial piety as the foundation of Chinese society, the Guild wants to build stronger community foundations for its Chinese families.
``The ball is, first of all, a senior-citizen project,'' says Nelson Mar, president of the Asian American Senior Citizens Service Center (AASCSC), a housing, care, and recreation program. In the past ten years, he says, the influx of Asians from China, Hong Kong, Japan, Korea, and Singapore has more than doubled the Asian population in Orange County. Yet only one Asian service center exists in the county, primarily to serve Vietnamese.
The ball - a $100-per-plate gala at the Disneyland Hotel - will raise money for a new facility. Each of the debutantes must perform 100 hours of community service in local nursing facilities and social projects.
``At the same time they are embracing members of their own race, we are training them to reach out into the American community to instill Asian values,'' says Mar. One of the values in peril of being lost by the new generation, he says, is the obligation to take care of one's parents.
``Wedding the guild's community work and elderly fundraising with a ball for the young underlines how the entire family is so integral to the Asian mind set,'' says Daphne Kwok, executive director of the OCA.
``The whole thing is to help you make more of yourself and reach out to others,'' adds Christine Sun, a junior at UCLA.
``I wish I had had something like this when I came to America,'' says Margaret Lee, Lily's mother. She emigrated here from Taiwan 25 years ago. ``I felt behind for so many years. ... This would've helped my confidence in social situations so much.''
In the mid-'60s, the Japan America Society of Southern California staged an annual ball predominantly for women of Japanese descent. But it was discontinued in 1968 as the popularity of all such balls declined in the anti-Establishment '60s, though a national circuit of traditional, white-dominated debutante charity balls survives.
The aristocratic roots of debutante balls in Europe make them appealing to families and groups seeking to establish legitimacy, says Paul Kooistra, a sociologist at Furman University. More and more African-American families across the South have begun throwing such balls, he notes. ``More than just a snobbish way to say, `we're affluent,' or `we're wealthy,' they are a civil way of saying `we are people of standing and take ourselves seriously,''' he says.
It's not an inexpensive message: Besides the $100-a-plate fee at the Chinese-American Debutante Guild ball, etiquette training costs $350, gown prices may reach $2,000, and guild families are expected to donate $1,000 toward the senior center.
``Wearing big dresses and dancing waltzes is not my idea of being an American or Chinese,'' Chin reflects. ``This has to do with the larger values of culture itself - and that is bringing people together for a greater good.''