Don’t eat kimchi in front of the Americans. They hate the smell.
And Halloween, it’s an evil holiday where they worship the devil. Don’t let your kids go trick-or-treating; turn off all of your lights and don’t let the kids know you’re home, because they’ll knock on the door for candy. And if there’s no candy, they’ll vandalize your house. Halloween is a day against God.
Okay. So, having landed on U.S. soil in November of 1989, I had just about 11 months to experience my very first Halloween. And for 11 months, the cultural lessons from other Korean parents to mine included a clear hatred against Halloween, a disdain for a day that was ever-so-clearly in their minds made for satan worshippers.
I’m not sure if you’d be familiar with the American childhood experience, but Halloween was a big deal. We used to have Halloween parades, and every year, kids got so excited for it; every mother but mine, or so it seemed to me, came to school and dressed their little child in some form of a costume that ranged from superheroes to princesses to bugs, gardens, the universe… the whole gambit.
My favorite of course were the princess costumes from age 9 until probably… now?
Just as soon as the leaves began to reflect a beautiful hue of yellow, orange and red and the cool winds beckoned the layering of a cardigan in good ol’ Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, every other shop window display was filled with incredible Halloween decorations. I loved peering into them, mesmerized and awe struck at the foreign sight that I didn’t understand but found so enticing. No, no, I’m not talking about the goblins and the monsters and the cobwebs filled with gore. My memory sits particularly on a show window that held the most bedazzling butterfly costume I had ever seen: Pink tutu with glittery wings of sparkly rainbow colors twinkling like diamonds in the warm spotlight. I see it so clearly still.
For third graders at Hosack Elementary School, the whole month of October was filled with talk of Halloween and trick or treating. The week leading up to the Halloween parade was the worst. I’m gonna be Superman! I’m gonna be Spiderman! I am gonna be Snow White! I’m gonna be Sleeping Beauty! I’m gonna be Cinderella! Then came the inevitable question to the silent kid in the swarm of excited children: Liz, what about you? What are you gonna be?
Hm. Well. I’m gonna be a butterfly. Yeah? What’s your costume look like? Well… It’s pink sheer… with a fluffy tutu that goes around my waist… and my wings spread wide across my shoulders and sparkle like diamonds in the sunlight. It’s beautiful. Cowabunga, that sounds awesome! In reality, I probably just said in my limited English, “I’m gonna be a butterfly,” but, in my mind, this was the image I wanted to articulate, the image I wanted to be in our Halloween parade.
The day nears. I never told my parents that I needed a costume. Or even that there was a parade. I mean, how could I? They had warned us: Halloween is evil. We can’t celebrate it. We’ll go to church that night and come home after trick-or-treating is all over. They will give you candy there where there’s no danger of any poisonous ones from strangers. So… how was I, a timid 9-year-old, gonna tell my parents that my school – the whole school – was gonna celebrate this demonic day? They’d really be leery of America then.
I probably should’ve played sick, but that skill only came later in my teenage years. So I went to school. We only had classes in the morning and the whole afternoon was dedicated to the parade. Excitement everywhere, from parents, teachers, students… and costumes. Costumes everywhere. Liz, where’s your butterfly costume? I forgot it at home. Can’t your mom bring it to you? No… she’s at work and it’s far away. Oh… aw… oh no… what will you do?
As if it weren’t bad enough that I didn’t have a costume, the only other Asian kid in my grade – a Vietnamese boy named Chris – also had no costume to wear. We the Asians, the odd ones, the 1.5 generation immigrants who are bridging two continents. I was mortified.
I walk up to Mr Scheller, my homeroom and science teacher, and take deep breaths along the way to share my dreaded dilemma. When I muster up the courage to say to him, “Mr Scheller, I forgot my costume…” he, as if anticipating this moment, as if to silently communicate that he understands how tiring it gets to straddle two cultures, says with the kindest smile and enthusiasm, “No worries! This happens every year, and I always have extra costumes!” He opens the teacher cubby behind his desk, reaches in and takes out two sets of hangers and asks, “Would you like to be a caveman or a cave woman?”
So there I was, demoted from a sparkly butterfly to a cavewoman wearing a poop-color-brown-one-shouldered-jagged-edge dress holding a fake wooden club to fit the part. Oh, right, with a caveman partner who was, fittingly, also Asian. We then got in line with everyone else to prance around the parade… amidst superheroes and princesses, we, the two Asian cave-people.
That night at church I received a brown paper lunch bag filled some Jolly Ranchers and a few fun-size Snickers and Milky Way bars. That had made me feel slightly better, until the next day when my friends came in with pillow cases full of candy from their trick-or-treating excursions.
When Halloween came around in 2006 and I was teaching a Creative Writing elective, I gave my usual daily prompt for warm up: “This was my best / worst Halloween experience ever…”. The students who were willing shared their stories, and they eventually asked me mine. This was the story I told, and my high school students were riveted. Wait, so you’ve never gone trick or treating? Awww, you never got to be a butterfly?! What does your mom say about this now? Wait… huh? Hm. Good question. I have never told her this story.
That year’s Thanksgiving, I drove home to Pittsburgh and shared the story with my mom as we were driving back from the mall. It was an oddly emotional experience, as if I had reverted to a 9-year-old child all over again, unlike it being a hilarious story when I had shared with my students. Instead, I was back in the arena of the gawking crowd snapping photos of the rosy-cheeked Asian cave people walking hand-in-hand escorted by Embarrassment. I was 9 again, wondering why my mom couldn’t be like the other moms who prettied their daughters’ cheeks with blush, tinted their lips the perfect pink and pinned pretty ribbons in their newly curled ringlets. I wiggled my nose to extinguish the unexpected singe and looked out the window with a feigned laughter, caught by surprise at the flood of childish emotions I had long forgotten.
I managed to hold it together, but when I looked over at my mom as we slowed at a red light, her eyes were overflowing with tears. Mom! Why are you crying? Oh, my baby… oh my goodness, how you loved to be a princess! How you loved the pretty sparkly things, and I had no idea! I didn’t know… these are the woes of immigrant parents who don’t know any better. I just believed whatever others said. Oh, my poor baby… how sad you must have been! My mom looked at me with such sorrow, such guilt, such regret and in the end, we had to laugh, because really, it’s now just a great story. And now my parents as grandparents get to see their grandchildren dress up in cute costumes and learn that Halloween is just that… a day when my little niece can dress up like Elsa and insist she wear that dress for the next two weeks much to my sister-in-law’s dismay. A day when my baby nephew is a cute, cuddly pumpkin with his perfectly round chubby cheeks.
It is just a story now, a great one. One that taught my students how to write with imagery, one that brought me and my mom an intimate moment, one that brought me a pillowcase filled with candy from two of my students in that Creative Writing class who said they trick-or-treated for me just so I could have that pillowcase full of candy I never got to have as a child. It is indeed just a story… a beautiful story of metamorphosis that breaks myths, fears and ignorance.
About the Author
Elizabeth Heejin Cho (Liz Cho) is currently the Director of Curriculum at Gyeonggi Suwon International School in South Korea. She has been an educator since 2003 and has taught high school creative writing, AP English, IB English, Film Studies and Forensics. An Apple Distinguished Educator and certified teacher of aerial silks, Liz is passionate about finding creative ways to build a sense of community and adaptability in all learners, young and old. She also holds her certification in Teaching ESL Students in the Mainstream Classroom.