Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Sugar time

You say tomato, I say tomato
You say potato, I say potato
Tomato, tomato, potato, potato …

Ah, ok … it doesn’t really work in print, does it? We just sound like a couple of stoned people trying to start a conversation.
But the point remains – we’re different. Who are we? Well our “we” is Australians. Your “we” is Americans. If it sounds like I’m going over this clearly and slowly then maybe it’s because I’m going through what we basic uncomplicated cavemen like to call “an existential crisis”.
I never expected it to hit me, but I’ve found myself wondering who I am and where I fit in this world as I ponder what in Beijing has become one of life’s big questions: Do we let our kids celebrate Halloween?
Those pesky kids again!
Every October, this comes up. Halloween isn’t a traditional Chinese thing, of course. Of all the things the Chinese invented, it never occurred to them to grow a pumpkin, hollow it out and stick a candle in it. They never thought to put on skeleton costume and demand lollies from a neighbour under the threat of throwing a rotten egg onto his roof. “Hey – that’s good egg!” you’d probably hear. (What constitutes a rotten egg here is a matter of much debate, thanks to the technique of quasi-preservation that produces the famous and very disturbing hundred-year-old egg).
No, Halloween is something you find yourself pulled into as part of Beijing’s large, diverse and enthralling expat community, which numbers roughly 112,513.
Each year in our multi-tower apartment compound, as we celebrate the harvest, thoughts turn to the eve of All Saints Day. Shall we go to Mass to pray for the souls of the holy? Or should we dress our kids as the undead and go get candy?
And every year, I’m the grinch, the old Scrooge, complete with bald head and everything. (Because of a broken leg I even used to hobble around with a stick!) I’m the one who says Bah humbug. My wife says it too, only in a more reasoned, wordy, less-expletive-filled way. So our girls have never partaken in our compound’s Halloween night.
The author, having a perfectly fine time last Oct 31.

And don’t our American cohorts react? None more so than our dear friend Stephanie. She’s a Halloween fundamentalist. She loves it more than life itself and is organiser-in-chief of our compound’s festivities. Each year when I announce our family’s trenchant stick-in-the-muddedness, her jaw drops and her eyes widen as if I’ve just decided to give our daughters crewcuts for the prom. Those same eyes redden as she fumbles for words to describe my neglect. “B-but, the children!” she whimpers. “How could you?”
Of course my idol and source of all my parenting tips, The Tiger Mother, would never sanction such frivolous tomfoolery as getting out and celebrating Halloween. Although perhaps she really was getting into the spirit. What could have been more scary for those kids than yet another night in?
An American family whoops it up.
Halloween, 2008.
But my problem with Halloween is not that it interferes with our girls’ strictly enforced lack of a social life. It’s more that it’s just not us. In its most commonly celebrated form, it’s an American tradition. That’s fine for them, but we Australians have our own. I’m no screaming patriot. George Bernard Shaw put it well when he said patriotism is “your conviction that this country is superior to all other countries because you were born in it”. Still, we must have difference, or we all end up the same. It’s more interesting, for example, if we don’t all have perfect teeth.
Australia must cling to our traditions in the face of the many American bits that have infiltrated during pax Americana. I don’t care what anyone says, The A Team and The Dukes of Hazzard have not taken our proud nation forward. More disturbing are reports from Sydney of oddly-dressed children in the streets stuffing their faces each October 31.
Stephanie points out that sharing other countries’ traditions is a great part of being in the cultural melting pot of Beijing’s expat community. That’s true, but if we did Halloween I’d feel bad about all those other countries and cultures. I didn’t observe Diwali on Wednesday – well, I turned on some lights, but I do that every night. On Bastille Day I ingested no snails and surrendered nothing. Last Ramadan I ate like a king.
At least Halloween is well timed for me to make this obtuse argument, for it falls just before Australia’s national day. Not Australia Day on January 26, but the one that really brings the nation together.
On the first Tuesday of November, all Australians stop what they’re doing to listen to a horse race. They also stop what they’re doing for several hours before and after that horse race, mostly to drink alcohol.
It’s called the Melbourne Cup and it’s far more than a horse race. But I can’t go into all its history and cultural significance here. You don’t want to read a grown man crying.
But it’s big. Aged five, I can clearly remember our nun, Sister Gemma, stopping a lesson on a Tuesday afternoon to conduct the class sweepstakes. I’m pretty sure it was two cents per child. We each drew a horse’s name out of a hat and then, like millions of boys, girls and adults across the country, huddled next to the radio and listened to Gala Supreme get the money.
Now don’t tell me that little kids betting on a horse race isn’t more heart-warming than a bunch of children going round dressed as ghouls.
Yet will my American friends do Melbourne Cup day with me? Oh no. No doubt they’ll trot out their usual excuses, like they’re “working at their jobs” or they’re “injecting their insulin”.
Our friend Stephanie out having fun with
the kids. Our compound. 31/10/10.
Still, despite my intellectual objections, I feel different for our third Beijing Halloween. For one thing, our girls are more aware of it now at six and four. There’s a big build-up at their international schools. They don’t really care for concepts such as “countries”, “national identity”, “cultural differences” and “trifectas”.
And for them, it’s all about the dressing up, not about the lollies. They’re as excited as any American kid. I also recently saw Halloween wonderfully depicted on the superb Modern Family. I feel myself softening. Maybe it is all harmless fun and we should enjoy it while we’re here?
Then again, there’s the sugar aspect. It’s all good fun until someone loses a tooth. And it now appears to be just free candy (and no, our kids aren’t allowed to call lollies that).
I thought trick or treat used to stand for something. Now, kids just turn up and get the treat. Shouldn’t the adult be made to fear that if his little visitors aren’t satisfied some act of wanton vandalism will be committed on his house? Or his person?
There seems to be an abject lack of reward for crafty scheming. Maybe I’m more a fan of old school Halloween.
In the 1990s Halloween first hit me when I was sitting at home in my old Beijing compound and some Azerbaijani kids came knocking. “Trick or treat,” they said. They weren’t even dressed up, I didn’t think Halloween was an Azerbaijani thing, with all my vast knowledge of Azerbaijani things, but I went along with it. When I went to the fridge I found some sweets and a tomato. (That’s all. I was a bachelor then.) So I thought I’d play a little trick first, before handing over the booty. I held two hands behind my back and first extended the one with the tomato. The kids’ eyes lit up. They grabbed it and fled.
Chinese kids out last Halloween night
- costumes on, hands at the ready.
Their parents, keeping an eye on them.
In our compound the idea is that we all sign up so we’ve got great stashes of sweets to give each other’s kids upon their now empty threat of “trick or treat”. The plan is that all the compound’s children will end up with roughly the same tonnage. So why not just buy our own lollies and let our own kids eat them? That way we could stay in and not go through all that costume hassle.
Another simple way of joining the spirit would be to sit our girls down, give them each a bowl of sugar and some Cokes, put on Friday the 13th and leave the house. Would they ever forget their first real celebration of Halloween? Not bloody likely.
So I don’t know. Should we or shouldn’t we observe Halloween? Parenting is tough. I went to what seemed like dozens of pre-natal classes and, unless I was asleep, I'm sure they never once mentioned witches and pumpkins.
An American, yesterday.
Notes and clarifications:
1.     You can help Tiger Father in his greatest parenting dilemna to date – Take a stand, or take the candy? – by completing the complex and time-consuming survey to the right.
2.     We don’t have proms in Australia either. But no doubt they’re coming.
3.     Of course I called those Azerbaijani kids back and exchanged the lollies for the tomato. Are you crazy? Did you really think I’d let them take off with my dinner?

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