I have a very clear memory of getting excited about Halloween for the first time.
It was the mid '80s, and all my kindergarten friends and I were abuzz over the big Halloween party that would be held after school. There'd be candy and games and art projects and candy. And Mr. G was going to get dressed up as George Washington! Even though I didn't really care about George Washington at the time and Mr. G terrified me, the thought of my GROWN-UP teacher in a funny outfit thrilled me.
I remember gathering with my friends Eric, Bryan, Crissy, and Mary in the sandbox to talk about costumes.
"I'm going to be Optimus Prime!" Eric said
"I'm going to be a unicorn!" Crissy said.
"I want to be She-Ra!" my best friend, Mary, said.
"Ooh! I'll be Catra!" I said.
Then Crissy piped up. "Nuh-uh. You can't be Catra and She-Ra, because you guys are CHINESE."
"Yeah," Eric chimed in. "Those guys aren't Chinese." (They also weren't guys — FREAKIN' ERIC.)
"Oh," I just said. I think Mary said something similarly small. I remember feeling so embarrassed that they had actually noticed my Chineseness. How foolish I had been to think that I could be Catra, She-Ra's cat-lady nemesis. The good parts were always the white girls.
I ended up going as a regular old cat that year. And the next year. The following year I was a Tootsie Roll. Then a dead lady. Then a dancing cat (think leotard, Snoopy leg warmers, a '70s corduroy vest, jelly shoes, a tail, and cat ears — SHOCKINGLY it was homemade). After that I was a dancing dead lady ice cream cone. I'll let you figure that one out (hint, I had a perm).
When my mom was throwing together my costumes, she always tacked on the word "dancing" to explain the unexplainable. Apparently a trademark of all dancers is their devotion to corduroy vests.
Every once in a while, I'd test the waters, see what people thought of me being Ariel from The Little Mermaid or Alice from Alice in Wonderland. I really had a thing for waist-length hair. I really wanted a wig.
"Mmm, but it would be weird," was the reaction from my friend Anny. "Those girls are blonde or red-headed."
"But I really want a wig!" I told her.
"Yeah, but you'd still look Chinese. Those girls aren't Chinese."
I remember one year, I got really cranky with my mom over the fact that I was seemingly "not allowed" to be anything but a non-human or something dead. It was the late '80s/early '90s, and there were no cool Asian characters for a kid to dress up as.
"You could be a Chinese Girl!" my mom suggested and dragged out a cheongsam from the back of her closet.
"NOOOOOOOO!" I cried. "That's not the pooooooooiiiiint!"
I think that was the year I was the dancing dead lady ice cream cone. I'm 99 percent sure Mom threw that one together because I was an ungrateful brat.
Oddly enough I remember this girl Lori dressing up as a "Chinese Girl" one year, and even then 10-year-old Louise rolled her eyes with a vengeance.
It wasn't until I got older that I felt brave enough to be whoever, or whatever I wanted for Halloween regardless of the "appropriate" race. And who am I kidding? These days I default to "cat" just because it's easy.
Look, I know that I can't, nor do I want to, place the blame of my Halloween costume woes on my childhood peers. They were just reacting to and mimicking what they heard and saw in American culture. If you don't see anybody crossing racial "boundaries," how are you to think that it's "allowed"?
(Of course, Lori dressing up as a "Chinese" was allowed because...not white = costume?)
Plus, as a fairly timid Chinese-American girl in '80s/'90s America, I was struggling to figure out where I fit into American culture. I knew I belonged in it because where else was I supposed to go? I didn't speak Cantonese like my parents; I spoke English like Brenda Walsh and Mallory Keaton and Catra. But everything about the pop culture I loved so much tacitly told me that I could look but not touch.
Americans look like this. You're...something else. Please watch from a distance.
It's easy to say now that I should have just "marched to my own beat" or owned my "otherness" or something, but I didn't have that sort of self-awareness or vocabulary at the time. Like every other kid, I wanted to be accepted — being Asian just added an extra "unfair" layer to my uncoolness.
I bring up my childhood costume woes because I recently got roped into a conversation with a friend about how she was running out of Asian character costumes, or costumes that could pass for Asian, for her Chinese-American daughter. I'll admit I didn't say much, I try not to make it a habit of telling parents how to do stuff with their kids.
But my friend's situation made me think: Was she fretting over her daughter's costume because as a kid she felt she could only wear "Asian" character costumes? Or did she want her daughter to feel proud and empowered over her Asianness, therefore only wearing cool, exciting costumes that represented cool, exciting Asian people?
Furthermore, I can't help but wonder if, as a person of color, does dressing up as a white character or hero further reinforce the idea that in order for you to be powerful, beautiful, exceptional in Western culture, you need to be white?
Have I just taken all the fun out of Halloween?
I don't have a clear answer for myself. What do you think? Did you grow up with limited costume options because of something out of your control? How did you deal? Did you go the dancing food route? Or did you have the guts (or let's be honest, childhood obliviousness) to just do whatever you wanted?
If nothing else, tell me your weirdest childhood costume. Corduroy vests for everyone!