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Pumpkin Masks and Cat Ears
During the month of October, I taught my students about Halloween. Anyone who knows me knows that I am a total sucker for spooky stuff, costumes, and any kind of Halloween and/or autumn-related festivities. To boot, Halloween is all-but-unheard of in China. They generally get the standard Christmas, Valentine's Day and April Fool's lectures in English class, but Halloween is pretty much overlooked. This means it was both a fun opportunity and an immense challenge to teach. In the U.S., we take for granted the plethora of Halloween-related activities and supplies that line every street corner come October, so invention was my middle name without spooky stores to visit for costume necessities and décor.
My first big task was creating my costume. I thought about going as an 80’s girl, since 80’s clothing and style abound in China in ways that would make your stomach churn. However, after much thought, I realized my students probably would have no idea that I was wearing a costume at all, and I would be answering the inane question, "Why do you look like us?" all day long. Therefore, I opted for the much simpler, more obvious choice: the Halloween black cat. I am the least crafty/sewing/inventive person on the face of the earth, but I figured this cat thing was doable. First, I needed a few supplies.
I purchased a black headband from a small accessories shop and tore off the ugly gold bow it came with. Then, I cut out ear shapes from an old cardboard bag sitting in my closet that formerly housed mooncakes from Mid-Autumn Festival. Using a sharpie, I colored the ears black and taped them onto the headband with packing tape. I already had a nice black dressy shirt to use as costuming for my top, as well as a black skirt. I then needed black tights, combined with my black ballet slippers, and several types of makeup for my face. Lastly came the tail, which was only possible with a LONG black sock (we are talking thigh-high, here) stuffed with something cottony and equipped with a way to pin it to my backside.
What needs to be understood here is the amount of WORK that this seemingly-simple process took. I visited roughly 10 shops and stores to buy all the needed supplies - tape, headband, makeup, and sock. I even went to a pharmacy shop to get gauze cotton to use as tail stuffing. I enlisted a crafty student to help sew the tail, and she was amazing enough to create a small band with which to tie it on. Whew, costume accomplished! I also had to visit about five different stores before finding actual black pantyhose, and was duly skeptical at the package, which boasted "One size fits all." Um, yeah right. Have you ever tried fitting a 5'6" burly laowai girl into CHINESE PANTYHOSE? I DON'T THINK SO!
On top of everything, I had been given the ominous task of organizing an English Corner (an informal English activity time) Halloween party. This was a real chore, especially since there were no decorations available to speak of. I enlisted one full class to the assignment of decorating the room. I downloaded traces and cutouts from the internet and we went shopping at half a dozen stores to find all the necessary types of paper, supplies, paints, candy, and key provisions to make the room look good. We also scavenged through the farmer's market until we found three dusty, dirty pumpkins lying on an abandoned old, wooden cart and purchased all of them for the premium cost of ¥15. I also told the students they could wear costumes if they wanted, which they interpreted as "Let's all make the same pumpkin mask out of this one jack-o-lantern trace and then glue unsightly feathers to the front."
Back in June, I had been asked to participate in a talent show and sing in front of the entire school and faculty - roughly 5,000 people. As it turned out, this was to be a bi-annual occurrence because I was asked to participate once again that October. I took my guitar and actually put on a little makeup this time, so as not to look like the Chinese lesbian folk musician version of Britney Spears again. They also provided me with two microphones. I decided to cater a bit more for my audience, pulling out all the stops to sing "I Will Always Love You" - the old Whitney Houston-covering-Dolly Parton favorite.
After a week and a half of planning, the Halloween shindig finally commenced. Students were milling around everywhere in the spookily-decorated room, handing out pumpkin masks to reluctant teachers and family members. There were between 50 and 60 people, mostly students, hanging out. Unlike western parties, Chinese parties just sort of start whenever one person decides it’s time, even if people are still arriving or talking. No matter - on with the show.
The class had also taken it upon themselves to create an entire lineup of entertainment - also very typical of Chinese parties, where standing around, drinking and generally having a good time is not enough. No, we must be ENTERTAINED. The class came up with about 20 different "acts" (including me doing another acapella rendition of 'I Will Always Love You' with FAR too much reverb) - an odd assorted combination of Chinese and western stuff. There was Chinese painting accompanied by traditional flute, me telling a ghost story, students doing karaoke to pop songs, two teachers giving a display of Cha-cha dancing whilst wearing pumpkin masks, and a round of Bobbing for Apples, which was a huge hit.
It was quite a strange sight, really. A room full of Chinese people with absolutely no idea about Halloween, all wearing pumpkin masks and some bobbing for apples. Teachers and students alike dunk dunk dunking for their tries at the apples, totally without skill or regard, just one after the other crazily pushing their heads into the water for a try. I have never before nor should I ever again expect to witness such a strange display.
Then there was me, the black laowai cat. I posed at least 74 times for photos, especially because someone had the bright idea to invite the news, so there were reporters flashing cameras every which way. Just what we all needed: to capture the horrific clash of culture and awkwardness on film, to be remembered forever.
The kids loved the candy and the jack-o-lanterns. The afternoon before the party, I’d spent two hours carving three jack-o-lanterns. No one told me Chinese pumpkins were a different species, and therefore are harder to carve. They also loved the game of 'Pass the Pumpkin' - my twisted rendition of "Hot Potato" using a tiny pumpkin.
I rode home, partially costumed, on my bicycle, laden with extra candy, gifts, my cat tail, and school books. There I was: cat make-up and ears, bicycling down the road through the chill of the late autumn evening. A spectacle to behold, in love with China in all it’s bizarre splendor.