For an immigrant mom, Halloween can be confusing. My own mother, never having experienced Halloween herself in Taiwan, was not prepared for it. Most of the time, it was an after thought and a scramble to get me into a costume. Over the years, I would hear over and over again about what a cute Peter Pan I made when I was one year old. It seems ironic that I would have such an awesome costume at a young age, because that would be the last of it for the next eighteen years.
In the first grade, I found out about Halloween from my classmates at school. I went home that day, thinking about how unfair it was that I didn’t know it was Halloween. On the verge of tears (I rarely cried because we weren’t allowed to at home, and it didn’t make sense to do it, nobody ever reacted anyway), I reluctantly told my mom it was Halloween. I had no costume, no plans to go trick or treating, and I was devastated. My mom, never one to dwell on tears, quickly put together a clown costume for me with a brightly colored blouse of her own, some baggy very MC Hammer looking pants, and adorned my face with circles with her lipstick. We ate dinner at my wa-puo’s house that night, and she explained we were going to go around the neighborhood before dinner to get some candy. We didn’t even have a cute pumpkin basket, but the plastic grocery bag would suffice. At the age of six, I was grateful my mom had made it work, and even though I wasn’t entirely ecstatic or jumping with joy at my improvised costume, my mom didn’t give me any opportunity to mope as she reminded me how resourceful she had been on such short notice. The Chinese daughter knew there was nothing to cry about anymore. Ma-ma had saved the day. But secretly, I told myself I’d remember next year. I told her right then and there that I wanted a costume next year. She agreed.
Second grade came. We made a trip to the Halloween costume shops in the mall before Halloween this year. I ended up leaving with a princess tiara and princess wand. Even though there were a lot of other costumes around, I seemed to have an awareness of prices and knew most of the stuff was too expensive. I was too scared to ask for anything big, so the tiara and wand were perfect. My mom quickly told me she could find the rest of my costume at home, and I agreed. She paired a long sleeved turtle neck with a blue wrap around long skirt, one she had upcycled from her own closet that now sat securely on my with a safety pin. I was overjoyed at my costume, until some white kids ridiculed it. I felt like the poor kid. I didn't really feel like I had any friends at school quite yet, so I just kind of kept it to myself. It was not a happy time, fortunately for me, the photos my dad took were all of us at home with our family, when I was ignorant of my poorly put together peasant's costume, so I was still happy and excited at the time. I just didn't have the heart to tell my mom my costume still sucked.
In the third grade, I was a waitress with the help of a folded red apron over a white blouse and black pants, a matching red handkerchief on my head, and a matching tray. I had always enjoyed serving other people, so being a waitress was exciting for me. We even got a photo to remember it. I actually really wanted to like the white girls who always wore neckerchiefs, poodle skirts, and a ponytail. But when I tried to explain it to my mom, she laughed at the idea of wearing a skirt with a dog on it. That idea ended quickly. I’ve always wondered what the Chinese girls in Taiwan wore in the 50’s. I think they were mostly in qi-paos still, but I’ve never actually asked my grandma or my mom. I just know the American 50’s poodle skirts were not part of their wardrobe. The waitress costume was an upgrade from the year before.. even if it was using mostly stuff I already owned and wore.
In the fourth grade, we got a little creative, but not necessarily in a good way. I had always enjoyed the I Dream of Jeannie 60’s show with Barbara Eden and Larry Hagman. So when my mom asked me what I wanted to be this year, I told her a genie. We couldn’t find a genie costume anywhere in my size, and I expressed concern about the bare mid-section in all the off the rack costumes. My mom had a simple solution, we’d just make the pants ourselves and pair it with a matching pink shirt. Brilliant!
Without the internet, we couldn’t just google the outfit from the show, so we recalled what we thought the genie wore and made our way to the closest craft store for some pink chiffon. Upon bringing it home, I noticed it was quite sheer and transparent, especially over what would essentially be a pair of underwear. When I expressed concern to my mom about it, she said she could fix it. She would sew the pant legs underneath a pair of shorts I had that were also pink. It sounded like a legit solution to me, so I agreed.
When the costume was all completed, I was a Chinese girl in a pink shirt with matching pink shorts and chiffon leggings below my knees which were connected to the shorts. I looked nothing like a genie. I expressed concern to my mom, and she told me to stop complaining and be grateful. Filial piety was thrown at me.. something about not appreciating all the effort my mom (who cannot sew) put into the costume.
At school, we were allowed to wear our costumes since Halloween fell on a weekday. So I wore my improvised genie costume. Everyone asked me what I was. When I explained I was a genie, I got a bunch of puzzled looks. After school, as if the torture wasn’t enough, my mom reminded me that we had plans to go to the mall, something I had begged her over and over again to do. When I told my mom I didn’t want to go, she gave me an earful about making commitments and not backing down. When I told her my costume didn’t quite look like a genie’s outfit, she yelled at me because it was me who was afraid to wear a midriff and me who didn’t want to wear underwear underneath the chiffon genie pants. She was right. So I sucked it up, and went to the mall in my non-genie outfit and trick or treated around the stores with my friends. At least my new closest friends didn’t seem to notice the ridiculousness of my costume. These new friends had moms who were also immigrants too, so they seemed to empathize. All the jeers came from the cool white girls, so in the comfort of the mall trip with just my own friends made it bearable and not so bad.
Fifth grade was when it all went wrong. I was fairly tall for a fifth grader, about 5’6 already, so most of the “kid” costumes didn’t quite fit me. My parents didn’t go through college in the U.S., only grad school, and even then, they stuck to the comfort of like minded Chinese students within the Chinese Student Association of St. Louis, and never really broke beyond. Needless to say, they most likely never attended any crazy Halloween parties. Or maybe insane Halloween parties didn't exist back then? I'm not sure.
I actually can recall that even then, it was a larger costume, so we stapled the skirt shorter. We were so grateful that the sizing fit me, most likely because it was an “adult” costume. My mom thought it was cute, as did I, and I had images of the cute little French maid broom in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast. It’s obvious we were both completely oblivious to the implications of such a costume. Fifth grade. I think that means I was around ten years old. French maid Daisy.
I went trick or treating with my two BFFs at the time. One was a magician, complete with a top hat, cape, and wand, while the other was a scary old Grandma – she wore an old tattered flower mumu and had a scary rubber mask. We got quite the looks that night. The Grandma mask was insanely freaky, the eyes were in the hair and the face was below her actual chin. Everyone stared at us like freaks. We brushed it off as we were probably getting too old for trick or treating, and didn’t think much of it. All three of us were immigrant children, none having been truly exposed to the culture of the times. And now that I think about it, I got some weird stares from pretty much everyone. At the time, I thought they were just impressed, or that maybe they had noticed our last minute improvised staples on the skirt. I'm glad we were oblivious. We laugh about it now.
The other day I was telling my mom how I was making my kid’s Halloween costumes again. I have ever since my firstborn was 6 months, and I've continued to enjoy making them something or buying them full blown costumes that they want. I don't ever want my own kids to feel the weird awkwardness I did as a kid on Halloween. I want them to be proud of their costumes and not feel ... sadly, poor or out of place. My mom thinks my Halloween costumes are a bit overboard but still cute. She ridicules me for the time I put into them, but then she brags about how talented her daughter is to her friends online as she posts photos of her grandchildren's homemade costumes. It's just part of having an Asian mom I guess. So while we talked about this year's Halloween costumes, she began reminiscing on all the many cute Halloween costumes she made me when I was a kid. I didn't know what to say. I think it'd be heartbreaking for her to know how out of place I felt for so many years on Halloween. And then I wondered if she knew about the French maid costume. Before I could ask her, she told me, “remember that cute maid costume you had?”
So she never figured it out.
Here's to another fun Halloween of new memories to counter the old ones from my childhood.