Sunday, November 2, 2014

This Is Halloween

     Halloween is my favorite holiday. I get to indulge in my childhood fantasies—I become another person, a favorite character from a book, or another creature entirely. The fact that I’m currently living in another country, one that doesn’t celebrate Halloween as rabidly as America, didn’t prevent me from celebrating my favorite holiday.
     To tell everything about our Halloween experience is both boring and time consuming. So, for your enjoyment, here is a snippet of our Halloween—pumpkin carving in China.

     Two weeks before Halloween:
     “Chloe!” Courtney called to me over the heaped fruit. Her voice bubbled with excitement. I leaned around the pyramid of apples to see what had caused her exclamation. One hand on the cart, she stood in front of one of the many wooden barrels which held cabbages. This barrel, however, did not cradle heads of cabbage, but rather the beautiful orange spheres of pumpkins.
I almost dropped the bag of apples. Knowing that it was thoroughly odd, I let out a squeal and danced over to the treasure trove. Our fellow shoppers glanced at us curiously, then looked away with a shrug. Foreigners.
     “I sent a photo to Hammerstrom,” my roommate said, “We can carve them for Halloween!”
“We can come back next week, so they stay fresh.” I finally acknowledged the strange looks from the customers, and my happy dance petered out.

     One week later, and few hours before our pumpkin carving party:

     Professor Hammerstrom and I returned to the grocery store. From his apartment, our destination—the grocery store called Treat—was a twenty minute walk. This also happened to be the same day that the pollution level was 358, a level which the WHO (World Health Organization) deemed as “hazardous”—for reference, that same day, Tacoma was a mere 12. San Francisco might get to 70 on a bad day. Imagine, just for a moment, if you were a chain smoker in Chengdu. So, to save our lungs, we donned our pollution masks. We walked down the street, past the American consulate with their armed guards, dodging cars and scooters.
     Unscathed, we entered the underground mall in which Treat was located. As usual, it was packed with people: families with one or two kids in tow, couples holding hands, and gaggles of giggling teens. It was a weekend, after all, and the mall was the place to be.
Once in the store, we made a beeline for the vegetable section. My steps were purposeful, and excitement pulsed in my veins. I ignored the Dragon fruit and cabbages. My gaze belonged only to the beloved pumpkins.
     One problem.  
     “Nooo,” I moaned quietly, when I realized the horrible truth. “They’re gone!”
     Hammerstrom rubbed his jaw, “they were here?” He asked.
     “Yeah…” Realizing what he was implying, I walked around the displays, searching. No pumpkins. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw my professor approach an employee and ask a question. He beckoned me over and pointed. Hope renewed in my chest, I followed.
     Alas, although they were technically pumpkins, they were not the kind we needed. Instead of globes, these brown pumpkins were bowling pins.
     After five minutes debate, we decided to be adventurous and carve cantaloupes. Their hides were thick enough to survive the process of cleaning and carving, and they were suitably big enough to make a decent jack-o’-lantern.
     “As long as we’re out on a journey, we might as well look at other grocery stores.” I suggested. “Do you know of any other store that might carry pumpkins?”
     Hammerstrom’s ocean eyes searched the ceiling as he thought. “Yes, actually. There is a foreign store called Carrefour that might have them.”
     I did a little jig, which morphed into my happy dance. “Do you mind if we check?”
     He laughed, “If it’s okay with you.”
     A ten minute cab ride later, we arrived at the behemoth store. Carrefour is basically the French version of Costco. Three stories tall, it carries everything that anyone could ever want, from DVD players to clothes to cosmetics. They even had Halloween decorations and themed candy.
     They had pumpkins too…in a fashion.
     It was one round little pumpkin barely big enough to carve.
     “It’ll do.” I said, cradling it protectively in my arms.

     In total, our journey cost us about three hours and two cabs' fare. We were tired, but victorious.
     “Let’s not tell them about the cantaloupe,” Professor Hammerstrom suggested as we rode the rickety elevator up to his apartment, where I would drop off our precious fruits until later that evening. There was a spark of mischief in his eyes as he said, “I want to surprise them.”
     I laughed. “Excellent.”

     7:45 pm, the same day:
     The traffic rushed beneath the sky bridge. Visibility was low—three guesses as to why, and the first two guesses don’t count. Barely half a block away, the West Gate, one of the many entrances to the college campus, was hidden from my view. I took out my phone to take a photo.
     “It’s not fog.” I whispered to myself. Across the bridge, I saw Karo approaching. Slipping my phone back into my pocket, I gave him a wave and a grin.
     Karo has short black hair, chocolate brown eyes, and stocky build. When he laughs, a dimple appears on his left cheek. Despite the fact that English is not his mother tongue, he keeps me on my toes with his sharp wit. Often, I am laughing too hard to come up with a suitable retort for one of his wry observations. Karo teaches three of my Chinese language classes, and I assist him teaching English to other foreign students.
     Tonight, he carried a plastic bag. Catching my curious look, he explained, “I brought grapes. It’s traditional to bring a gift to the host—although I haven’t visited a foreign professor before.”
We started towards the apartment. “Well, Professor Hammerstrom is very traditional. He’ll be thrilled.” I assured him.
     Our pumpkin carving group consisted of Karo, Professor Hammerstrom, Nathan, and, of course, myself. Professor Hammerstrom and I were professionals when it came to pumpkin carving, and we take it very seriously. Both Nathan and Karo had never carved pumpkins—or cantaloupes—for Halloween before. Obviously, Karo hadn’t because he grew up in China. Nathan was also new to this tradition—not because his parents were religious, but rather because he had spent most of his life living overseas.
As you can see, he can barely contain his excitement.
Carving like a pro
     When we’d gathered around the small glass table in the kitchen, we revealed our “pumpkins”.
     “So, traditionally, we carve big pumpkins,” I said to Karo, “but since we’re in China, we couldn’t find the right kind. So…” I set the cantaloupes, followed by the midget pumpkin, on the table. “We’re carving these tonight.”
     Nathan chuckled and Karo smiled. I returned the smile—I’d been nervous that people would be disappointed at our failure to procure “real” pumpkins, but it appeared that no one really cared. Continuing the theme of making do with what we had, we used an old, ripped map as a table cloth and various kitchen utensils as carving tools. As we carved, Professor Hammerstrom and I told the history of the various Halloween traditions, many of which originated in Ireland. 

Learning about Samhain whilst carving.

     The cantaloupes, it turned out, were a fairly acceptable substitute for pumpkins, and infinitely easier to clean. Unlike previous pumpkin carvings, in which one person got one pumpkin, we traded between the melons and the pumpkin. It was a team effort—one person cut off the top, two people cleaned, and the last person carved the face.

Professor Hammerstrom showing us how it's done.
     At long last, we proudly set our creations on the counter and stood back to admire our handiwork. They were not the most complicated designs that I had done—far from it—but it was certainly my proudest work. Possibly this was due to the hours of walking and searching for our pumpkins, or perhaps it was because it was a team effort. Or, maybe it was the joy of sharing a childhood tradition with new friends.

A proud Karo and his first jack-o'-lantern.
An evening with friends and laughter, what more could we want?

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