Among the kids who come trick or treating at my door every year, I always see a handful of adorable babies in dog or lion costumes experiencing their first Halloween, something they’ll have no memory of years from now. But I remember my first Halloween because I was eight years old when I was introduced to this interesting American tradition.
My family and I had been in this country for about five months when one day in late October, one of our sponsors, Mrs. Morrison, came over to tell us about this fun thing we kids were going to do on the last day of the month. The way I understood it, we had to pretend to be a scary character, dress up in costumes and walk around asking strangers for candy. I liked free candy just fine but didn’t know begging for food was encouraged here in America. I thought we had left Vietnam so we wouldn’t have to do things like that.
Mrs. Morrison finished her briefing and asked if we had any questions.
“Can we ask for rice?” I asked.
“Meat?” my brother asked.
“Candy only,” Mrs. Morrison said.
I had one more. “You do trick for candy?” Though I wasn’t sure what it meant, I’d heard it was bad to “turn tricks,” especially on the street.
Mrs. Morrison laughed. “Don’t worry. No one ever has to do any tricks. People will just give you candy because that’s the point.”
I still felt uncertain about this weird thing we were being talked into but next thing I knew, we were all hustled into Mrs. Morrison’s car to go shopping for costumes at K-Mart. Once there, we just stood and stared, overwhelmed by all the crazy-looking choices.
Mrs. Morrison started making suggestions to my brother. “How about a pirate?”
“No. They bad to boat people,” he said.
“Oh, okay,” Mrs. Morrison said. “Then let’s pick out something else for you.” She led him over to a different area. “How about a skeleton?” She held out a black outfit with the white outline of a skeleton on it.
“No skeleton,” my brother said.
“No. My uncle in Viet Nam skinny like that.”
“Oh.” Poor Mrs. Morrison. She had no idea selecting Halloween costumes could be such a landmine. Next to the skeleton outfit was a set of fatigues labeled as a G.I. Joe costume. “You probably wouldn’t want that one, either. Let’s move on.”
“Wait.” My brother hesitated, his eyes on the camouflage. He pulled out the costume, considered it for a moment. Then, “I want this.”
“Are you sure? You want to be a soldier?”
“Yes. They help my family,” my brother said. End of discussion.
“All right, then. I’m glad you’ve found something you like,” Mrs. Morrison says. She turned to my sister. “Are you all set?”
My sister was holding up a pink gown and tiara. “I’m a princess.” Of course she was.
I was the only one left. I looked around at the options, not really sparking to anything. I didn’t want to be a cat; the costume looked scratchy. A witch? The mask had a giant nose bigger than my face. An angel? I wasn’t.
And then I saw it. A fake plastic face with blond hair attached, peeking out at me from behind giant mouse ears.
“I want to be Miss America.”
The previous month, I’d seen the pageant for the first time. The singing announcer man said the women were the most beautiful in the country. Many of them were blond and blue-eyed, had big hair and bigger teeth, long arms and legs. I could never be Miss America, even if I drank lots of milk. Except here was my chance.
The costume came with a royal blue gown, sash, and a full mask depicting a pretty blond woman flashing dazzling Chiclet teeth. I slipped it over my face and my entire Asian-ness disappeared. I sighed. For one night, I could be a beauty queen.
“This one, please,” I said. I wanted to keep the pretty face on as we left the store.
But the next evening, as I walked down the street in my polyester gown and plastic mask, I found it hard to breathe. The mask kept fogging up and I couldn’t see properly through the eye holes. Worse, every time someone opened the door and said, “Oh, look how pretty you are!” I felt like a fake. How do you say thank you for a compliment you didn’t really earn?
So, I took off the mask and shook out my sweaty flat mask hair. I stood for a moment on the sidewalk, just breathing in the night air. I looked down at the gown. It was too long and the hem was dragging on the ground. I slipped out of that, too. (Luckily, I had on a tee and pajama pants underneath.) Then I said to my brother and sister, “OK, I’m ready to move on.”
At the next house, when the door opened, I gave the lady the biggest smile I had. She asked, “Who are you supposed to be?” Just me, I answered. As Mrs. Morrison said, I didn’t have to worry about tricking anyone.
Happy Halloween, everyone. What’s one of your favorite Halloween memories?