Owning My Culture Crown

We turned off the lights and hunkered down on the couch downstairs to watch a movie. If we needed to go upstairs, we couldn’t turn on the lights or peek out the windows.

You would think that this is the beginning of a story about living in a bad neighborhood.. No. This was my family’s routine on Halloween when we lived in the United States for a couple of years when I was a child.

Depicted in our Christian community as “Satan’s holiday,” we were led to believe that Halloween was an evil day and we were shunned if we were a part of it. In my six-year-old brain, I couldn’t figure out why it was a “bad” holiday when at the store I saw princesses, furry animals and Minnie Mouse costumes. How I had wanted to dress up as my favorite princess for a day—and get candy by just knocking on people’s front doors!

All I heard from adults in my immediate community was how candy collected on Halloween night had razors or poison in them. I couldn’t understand why someone would give that to a child. My six-year-old brain couldn’t process the holiday’s paradox. I was content enough with the fun substitute my parents offered my brother and I, so I just watched a movie and ate the popcorn they gave us on October 31.

Then we moved abroad.

We kept moving to countries where Halloween wasn’t celebrated. Those childhood dreams of dressing up one day in public as a Disney princess or a character from Sesame Street seemed to vanish into thin air.

As an adult, I moved back to the U.S for grad school and lived there on my own. When Halloween rolled around, I felt scared.

I wasn’t terrified of the masks or gory paints you could buy to create zombie looks, nor from the haunted houses, frightening carved jack-o-lanterns or over-sized spiders hung from trees in my neighborhood. I was scared that I didn’t know how I personally felt about this holiday and its traditions.

As an Adult Third Culture Kid grappling with identity, a sense of belonging, and notions of home, I felt overwhelmed once again with who or what I should believe in and what values I should create for myself. The tug of war between familial values and traditional faith beliefs from my upbringing were constantly under scrutiny as I grew up, and I felt an ongoing agonizing tension between my personal values, my family’s beliefs, the countries I had lived in, my Christian community and my own passport country.

That space was emotionally, mentally and physically frightening enough to be in without having to process it next to the paper ghost hanging outside my window.

I decided to choose curiosity over fear. I would approach this holiday celebration holistically for what it can—and does—mean to people and not for what a handful believe it means.

I was invited to a graduate school Halloween party and I decided I would go. Most of my classmates told me that their costumes would have witty double meanings; not unlike Ross’ sputnik costume in the TV series, “Friends.”

I decided to be inventive myself, and now, that is what this holiday has become for me: an expression of my creativity. I purchased a cubic zirconia tiara off of Amazon and a “Miss America” sash off of Etsy. On the night of the party, I reached into the back of my closet to pull out a gown I hadn’t had worn at a grad school event yet. I put it on and placed my tiara on my curly updo. Finally, I awarded myself the “Miss America” sash that I had marked with a sharpie to say “Miss ATCK,” instead. I then placed a flag pin of each country I had lived in on my cross-body sash. South Africa, South Korea, Germany, Japan, Israel, Austria, Greece, and Hungary. I had a bouquet of flowers to complete my look.

At the party, there were several creative costumes, most of which were too academic or nerdy to retell here. But, I think no one would disagree with me when I claim that my costume took first place in creativity and accuracy for displaying my identity. It was part academic because I displayed the ATCK acronym on my sash. My classmates recognized it from our Intercultural Communication class, but I had become familiar with the term far before that, of course! Part of my costume was princess, part was creative, and all parts were not truly American.

That night I celebrated Halloween and felt authentically safe, spiritual, and special. For a few hours, it seemed I had gained any loss I had unconsciously or consciously felt by not having celebrated Halloween in my childhood—both domestically and abroad.

For me, this holiday means connection, community, and creativity.

How did the night end? Unlike a traditional beauty pageant contestant, I ate all the candy and chocolate in sight that night. And I lived to write about it.