My First Halloween, or America Is the Greatest Country in the World
It was late fall of 1979. We had only been in America for one night. In twenty-four blessed hours, I had breathed in the crisp, cold air of Upstate New York and seen for the first time in my young life the dewy green grass, rolling hills and autumn leaves that had fallen from trees.
My family had emigrated from Bangladesh and we had heard stories of how wonderful Amreeka was. It was a country where electricity and water ran all hours of the day. People wore coats in the winter and swimsuits in the summer.
It was a place where there was so much money that people rode around in cars rather than rickshaws. They ate well, slept well and lived well. People lived so well they lived into their seventies. Their seventies! I didn’t know anyone that old. I hadn’t even heard of anyone that old.
Only a few days ago, I was bragging to the neighborhood waifs in downtown Dhaka about how quickly assimilated I would become once I was in America. Why, I would even marry a white man if I needed to.
“A white man?” they squealed in unison, indignant at the thought.
“He’ll make you eat pork! Your parents will kill you.”
“My parents will pay for the wedding,” I explained proudly. “You’re all idiots and jealous of my good fortune.”
I always reminded them how lucky I was. It was the small satisfaction that I got from playing with street urchins, who were without homes. I felt guilty because my words sounded much harsher than I had intended, but I didn’t have time to apologize. I was too busy planning my future. I was going to America. America! My father had already settled there a year before on a student visa. The paperwork for my mother, my older sister and I, only recently arrived. In the interim, we waited out our sentence in my mother’s parents’ home.
Though televisions were a luxury item, we had at least two in my grandparents’ home. I saw some commercials of American life in between the news programs that my grandfather was partial to. The car and soft drink advertisements photographed in this magical place called California, where it was perpetually sunny and glamorous. It looked impressive and terrifying. I made up my mind that no matter what happened, I would make the best of the situation.
The flight to London was the first that I had ever taken. As my mother checked us in, I noticed that my sister and I registered under her passport as neat entries in crisp penmanship.
I glanced at my mother’s beautiful face. She was travelling alone with two small children through foreign lands, but she still looked elegant and serene in her silk sari and wool shawl.
There was a long layover while we waited for our flight to New York, so mother took care to wash our faces and brush our teeth. She purchased a hot cup of tea and distributed coconut tea biscuits. Happily, we sat on cold metal benches, dipped our biscuits in the communal cup and watched people at Heathrow Airport making their connections.
Travel weary women pulled off their shoes and massaged their feet. It was the first time I had seen women wearing pantyhose. The flesh-colored, reinforced toes made the women appear as if they had webbed. I was so frightened that I asked my mother if all women get duck feet when they moved to America. My mother said she didn’t know, but then again this was the first time she had seen pantyhose as well. Maybe they did?
We were served Salisbury steak, mashed potatoes and peas on the plane. I folded the peas into the potatoes and marveled at how they disappeared, not unlike the plane disappearing into the clouds. The meat was not curried. It wasn’t even salted properly. It was so utterly bland and flavorless that I vomited. Twice. I was whisked to the bathroom by my exasperated mother and scrubbed down.
When the ordeal of travel was finally done and our journey ended, I was put to bed alongside my sister who attempted to sleep, but I assaulted her with endless questions.
“Are we going to go to same school?”
“Will we have to walk to school?”
“How long will it take to learn English?”
She didn’t answer. God, I wanted to smack her.
As tired as I was, I was too excited to sleep.
The next day, when I finally woke up in the afternoon, my mother had prepared a meal of buttered toast and jam. Delicious. I loved the orange juice that I sampled with it. I made a mental note that later, I would ask my father to purchase some Coca-Cola, as this was my favorite drink. They had Coca-Cola in Bangladesh, so they had to have it in America.
My father informed my sister and I that we were in for a special treat. As it was the last day of October, American children partook in a celebration called Halloween.
We were to go to each and every house in the neighborhood, knock on the door, say a phrase and we would receive candy. Free. The arrangements were made in advance. My father has already contacted the other Bengali families with small children and we were to be chaperoned by trusted adults. From outward appearance, my father seemed like the perfect host when in truth he had engineered two hours alone with my mother.
I was not distracted, however. This was unbelievable. I imagined myself back in my old neighborhood, bragging to all friends again at my amazing luck. I could hear the conversation now:
“Yeah so that’s all there is to it. Knock on the door. And there you go. Free candy at each and every house. Like chocolate and lemon drops and bubble gum. What? What’s the catch you ask? Oh that, I mean I guess it’s not totally free. You have to say something each and every time. Like ticker tape. No. Teeter-tot? Uh, no. Oh yes, trick or treat. What? How am I supposed to know what that means? Who cares? That’s all it takes to get the candy. Amazing. They don’t have anything like that here in Bangladesh”.
My mother was in a panic because apparently, in keeping with the tradition, children were expected to dress up in costumes.
As we had just unpacked and money was scarce, she dressed us up in salwar kameezes and liberally applied her Max Factor make-up that she reserved for special occasions. We looked like baby-faced Babitas in a Bollywood movie.
I can laugh at the naiveté of it now, but at the same time, it was ingenious of my mother to fashion these last minute outfits. I remember getting some appreciative, if not puzzled looks from the adults who came to greet us at the door.
“And what are you supposed to be?”
“Trick or treat!” I replied.
“I know dear, here’s your Snickers bar. But what are you supposed to be?”
“Trick or treat” I repeated.
“Yes, but what are you…?”
“Trick or treat?” this time without conviction.
That was the extent of my English vocabulary at the time. My sister and I broke off from the main group as we were escorted home. We peered into our paper shopping bags of candy.
“I’m going to eat the Hershey’s chocolate bar first” I said to her.
My sister was undecided.
“Isn’t America the greatest and best country in the whole world?” I asked her randomly.
Her brows furrowed quizzically.
“You know…” I said meaningfully to her.
“I know what?” she demanded.
After a long silence, I blurted out “how can a country not be the greatest and best country in the whole world if their children get free candy every night?”
My sister started to laugh uncontrollably; just like she always did when she knew something I didn’t or felt superior to me in some way.
“You moron! Halloween doesn’t happen every night! It’s only one night a year. Like a birthday. You have to wait a whole year before you get to do this again!”
“Still” I said, (hot shame flashing on my face from my ignorance) “America is the greatest country in the world!”