Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Halloween, Huiling and a Freak Snowstorm

While I was at the beach in China, Cheshire Connecticut made it through hurricane Irene with minimal damage this past year.  The State had prepared for the worst of it.  Families like mine had gathered bathtubs full of water, my mother spent a few days baking goods (which included about 50 hua jiuan, approximately 100 bao zi, 3 kg of some kind of salted beef), they bought extra batteries from Costco and boarded up the windows, and I was receiving updates that neared the scale of about twenty international calls from the US per day.

While I was driving down to Connecticut from Potsdam New York (one hour shy of Ottawa), I realized that a freak snow storm had hit the northeast, leaving about 3 million people without power (and the unlucky well-water users like our home without water).  I came home to Connecticut, six hours south of Canada, to about a foot of snow, chaotically fallen trees and telephone lines, and no electricity.  It felt like the dead of winter.  It was barely even November.

* * * * *

Growing up as a first generation Chinese-American child, I inherited a list of memories that signify an immigrant childhood.  I waited for Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny and was usually disappointed in the mornings when my mom presented me an unwrapped gift, usually some kind of winter clothing wear and not the awesome new Barbie doll or hotwheels toy (or whatever other thing was in style during the 90s).   I wore about three layers of long underwear underneath my jeans to school.  Each day, my mom packed me enough food to feed a small family going on vacation, and my hair was always tied up with a ridiculous number of bows and hair ties until I reached the age of six, which was when my mom cut my hair into the infamous bob (with bangs), which I wore until the age of eight.  If you want to see what I looked like, just google “asian kid hair up”, and you’ll probably get a good idea for it. 
Anyway, to leave my digression, we celebrated almost no holidays except for Halloween.  For whatever reason, my mother found Halloween to be some exceptional event, and I would be dressed up in a costume that allowed me to wear about six layers of clothing underneath, since god forbid I would get cold trick-or-treating.  This usually involved a costume that involved some kind of a mask.  “Good!  Even better.  Your face will be covered, and you can stay warm that way,” my mother would say.   [note to reader: a good cultural explanation for this is that even though China has a similar climate to the US, Chinese people are extremely – and I mean extremely – abhorrent to cold weather.  My aunt once called both my uncles to remind them that I was not allowed to drink warm or cold water during my stay in China, for fear that I would get sick.]
My hindsight explanation for my mother’s love of Halloween is the following: given that she was a graduate student living on a stipend, Halloween was the one holiday that meant I could get free stuff (and who cares if candy gives you cavities, excess sugar, too much saturated fat?), and she could watch in happiness over my excitement at organizing my hard-earned candy at the end of the night (back in my AAAAAA days, I used to organize them by brand, type, size, and preference.  I have, since then, made leaps and bounds to rid myself of some of this admittingly obsessive compulsive behavior.  It’s taken a lot of hard work, but I’ve made progress.  I am now only a type AA personality.).  As for my mom, well she is probably an economist’s perfect example of the assumption that more is always better, and I think part of her felt happy to know that I was celebrating something that other kids did in a culture so different than the one we left. 
So we’d leave the house when it was just barely dark, or when it was socially acceptable to begin trick-or-treating, and I always went alone.  My mother, being who she is, always had a strategy and route planned: we would pick the densest homes, and she’d make sure I took the shortest routes: hypotenuses across lawns, cutting and zig-zagging through streets depending on the frequencies of the houses.  She would have me persistently ring door-bells of unlit homes just in case, and if a home ever left a big bowl of candy out that said, “Help yourself”, I’d always take one and turn to my mom who would say, “Well, you may as well just grab a few more.”
Genealogically speaking, I believe hording does run in the family.  My grandfather used to have a tendency to hide photography and dentistry equipment that he’d buy or pick up from places, and I was always given the task of cleaning out his room to make sure he didn’t stash too much useless stuff under the bed and in the closets.  I attest that my mother’s Halloween frenzy was a direct trait that carried down from his line. 
“One more street,” she’d say.  This meant that after the usual three hours of trick-or-treating, I was exhausted and probably begging for her to let me stop.
“But I have school tomorrow,” I’d plead back to her. 
“I think they still have their lights on.  One more.” And we’d drive up to another street corner, and I’d lug my bag of candy with me and ring the door bell, always slightly embarrassed that it was about 10:00pm, and I was still out.  And then afterward, I would beg her to go home, and she’d persuade me to go down to another street until one by one, the little lights from the homes disappeared into the dark of night.
* * * * *
I think I stopped trick-or-treating by the age of twelve or so, and during high school, spent my evenings handing out candy and probably doing my homework and being angsty or moody.  In college, I did what the rest of my peers did at Yale, which meant running and thrashing from dorm to dorm in what we would call, “liquor treating”, and we’d always end up at the yearly Orchestra concert in Woolsey hall in a drunken stupor of sorts.  I’m not sure I’m too proud of those Halloween years, although I am proud to say that I’ve never dressed up in a fantastically “slut-tastic” outfit (read: the one time in the year when it’s OK and preferred to be a minimalist in clothing).  One year, I remember being an alcoholic drink (rum and coke?) and another year one of the Seven Deadly Sins by dressing up as gluttony in an inflatable sumo-outfit (read: male magnet.  Ladies, you really got it all wrong.  The way to go is to inflate yourself to the size of a small vehicle and run around down the busy streets of New Haven, knocking into people.  You will be sure to be noticed.).  After college Halloween night, we’d all get up early in the morning and frantically do our reading or problem sets to off-set the hang-over guilt.  I remember locking myself up in one of the weenie bins of CCL with a bottle of orange juice (sorry Yale library) and a few sleeves of crackers.
* * * * *
As I was home for this year’s Halloween, I watched my little sister with some nostalgia and some nervousness over the memory of how serious we all took Halloween during my youth.  This year, however, was marked by about two feet of snow and no power in the town of Cheshire.  When you’re from a town like Cheshire, it’s possible for all the worried little parents to gather together and discourage a dark Halloween for the sake of the children.  It is then possible to set a unified time for a “post-poned” Halloween (two weeks later), that all the neighborhoods would agree upon. 
Now, given the storm, we had lost power and water in our home, which made daily life a living nightmare.  So, luckily, my stepdad took Sophia and me to his work place (thank you B--- pharmaceutical company!), where we hid in a corner in a cafeteria, trying not to be noticed by normal people who were working, and in the after-hours, we’d sneak into the gym and shower like fugitives.  On Halloween night, I got a call from my mother as she was driving home to check on the power situation, “Pan, I think Halloween is postponed in Cheshire.  If that’s true, I will bring Sophia’s costume to Wallingford, and we’ll go there.  If it’s in Cheshire, I’ll pick you two up and you can both go.”
“Mom, I’m too old to go trick-or-treating.”
“Ok, then take Sophia.”
“Mom, there’s two feet of snow and it’s about two below zero.”
“Her costume is big.  I made her into a banana this year.  She has a lot of clothes underneath.  Just wear gloves.  Do you want me to bring you another pair of pants to wear under yours now?”  I knew arguing with her on this was futile.  So we set off in Wallingford that night, my mother driving the minivan, and me walking with Sophia down the dark streets covered with snow. 
There were a few who braved Halloween 2011 through the cold and the wet.  My sister probably got overheated given the number of layers my mom made her wear, and as Sophia chugged along on the sidewalk in her banana costume, I surprised myself by shouting, “Sophia!  Hurry up, you can finish this street in about ten minutes, and that means we can move onto the next one and get more houses before we have to go to dinner!”