My Halloween decorations are up, so it’s official, THE HOLIDAYS HAVE STARTED! Halloween Town is crowded across my family room mantel, and in the living room, cauldrons are bubbling in Witch’s Hollow. Even the kitchen and bathrooms have bits of Boo and goulish soap. I love seeing yards dotted with tombstones and spiderwebs, and particularly enjoy the pole dancing skeleton down the street from my sister, Sue. Unfortunately, I have nothing festive on my porch, mostly because my yard looks so scary that neighborhood children probably think the house is creepy year-round.
I’ve always been big on decorating for the holidays, but our first Halloween in China proved a dud. We’d been there less than a week, and were still jet lagged, passing out when we shouldn’t, but ready to play at 3:00 a.m. Our big old house did seem rather haunted, what with the cobwebby Christmas tree and eerie dust-coated plastic decorations left by the previous inhabitants, as though they had rushed out in a hurry, possibly screaming. That, taken with the astonishing smell, couldn’t help but leave me wondering whether someone might conceivably have been buried under the floorboards. A Chinese mafia boss did live in our compound, so it wasn’t entirely outside the realm of possibility. Outside there were also witches’ brooms aplenty, in actual use by the wizened old women sweeping the streets with bundles of twigs tied around a stick. But these things were all a bit too real, and we were hoping for a nice mass-produced ghost or grinning skeleton to comfort us. That year our family celebrated rather weakly by letting the kids fill little bulk candy bags with nasty Chinese sweets because we didn’t yet know anything about anything, and it was the best we could do with our eyelids at half-mast.
It’s not so easy to celebrate a holiday in a country that does not celebrate along with you. In China my first mistake was thinking like an American, assuming I could run to a department store or craft shop to pick up whatever I needed. It wasn’t true of anything we were used to, and I’ll never forget standing under a shop awning about ten weeks after Halloween, miserable and shivering in my light jacket which was no match for the frigid rain. Our house was an icebox, our belongings hadn’t arrived, as westerners we were not the right size or shape to buy readymade clothes in China, and we were cold ALL the time. As I stood shivering, I looked up, and there it was across the street, like a gift from heaven, Dragon and Phoenix Tailors.
I hesitated at first, not knowing the cost, worrying about spending the money, but I shivered again, and that was it, something broke in me. I marched straight into that shop with one thought, and one thought only: I want to be warm!
The price turned out to be extremely reasonable, much cheaper than the United States, and soon we were all snuggled into cozy warm wool and cashmere coats, our necks wrapped in the silk scarves for which Suzhou is so famous. That marked the turning point, the moment I personalized the reality that China is a manufacturing center. Gradually I began to realize that keeping our family traditions in China was never going to be about what I could find, but about what I could dream up. Once you realize that if the tailors can make you a coat, they can also make you a costume, you are limited only by your imagination. One year, Porter had a silk lined, wool Harry Potter Gryffindor robe that would have passed muster at Hogwarts, and Abby commissioned a red velvet hooded cape so she could be a vampire, or possibly spend an evening at the opera. In China, enjoying the holidays was not about going to the store, but about sourcing the materials and the skills, uniting them in one place with a clear sketch and set of instructions.
After the tailor, I went on to discover the fabric market where I had our bedding made. Then there was Wedding Street, the formalwear manufacturing district where many of the U.S.’s fancy costumes and custom prom dresses are actually stitched together. I even learned to use Taobao, the fabulous Chinese online marketplace where you could probably get a kidney 75% off, if you knew where to look, and how to write it in Chinese. Eventually our house was fully festooned for the holidays, and we threw open our doors to invite all who wanted to celebrate. I even dealt with the smell, so no one complained of the eau de Dead Body that plagued our first Halloween.
Returning to the U.S., so abruptly and unplanned, was a bit of a shock and a wrench for all of us. None of my children could drive, and suddenly cut off from taxis, trains, and our driver, Porter commented that he felt like his feet were nailed to the floor. To make it worse, soon my boys outgrew their Sunday clothes, and I was faced with the shocking cost of buying a wool suit in the United States, not to mention ill-fitting shirts off the rack. In fact, everything seemed so expensive and outrageous, two or three or four times the price for half the quality, because I had no control over the sourcing or the production. It took me a year to really find my way again in the U.S. I realized I had ceased to think like an American, and was a little mad that provisioning my family was hogtied by what I could find to buy, and no longer about what I could create.
Life in the United States is more convenient, it’s true, and honestly, there are things I don’t miss about China, like having to convince the clerk to sell us more gas so we could heat our house for the whole month, rather than just half. But this weekend as I was pulling my hard-won decorations from their boxes, I couldn’t help but look at each piece, and remember the hunting and ingenuity required to pull it all together in a place where Halloween is kind of weird. Today I go into Michael’s Crafts, and everything is right there, so easy, possibly 40% off, canned, shrink wrapped, ready to go—fun in a box . . . and a little depressing. I love Halloween, but I’ve figured out that I will probably always prefer to be a witch who bubbles her own brew.