What do you want to be for Halloween? Who do you want to be in life? Ira Sukrungruang on the costumes we wear.
My son Bodhi is two and obsessed with Halloween. He doesn’t know what the day entails. He doesn’t know about trick-or-treating or costumes. What he knows of Halloween comes from the toddler cartoon he watches—endlessly—about a boy and girl who go into a haunted house with ghosts and zombies and vampires and witches, and in each verse of the song being sung—endlessly—is Hello, it’s Halloween.
This cartoon sends my son into an ecstatic jumping frenzy. He says repeatedly one of the clearest words in his limited lexicon: “Halloween.”
I’ve watched this cartoon at least a hundred times, but I never tire of my son’s excitement, of his laughter, which is like a sort of enlightenment.
Fatherhood does this. It makes you love things you never thought you would.
American Boy would not pray to Buddha the way his mother taught him to… instead, he’d pay homage to Frankenstein.
October used to be a somber month. It wasn’t like December, when my Thai immigrant family transformed our suburban home into a winter wonderland of twinkling lights, and peeking from behind the curtains of our bay windows were the glowing figures of Frosty the Snowman and Santa Claus.
October brought a sense of dislocation. Autumn made the world colder. The color green disappeared, and what prevailed in Chicago was a constant state of gray. That gray lingered into our lives. That gray, I believe, made my family yearn more for the heat of their native home, made them miss what they left behind, what they longed for most.
In October we were on edge, my father double-checking if the doors were locked, my mother praying to the Buddha in our living room for protection. Because we were the first family of color on the block back then, our house was the perfect bull’s-eye for eggs and shaving cream, especially on the last day of the month.
Hello, it’s Halloween.
Halloween was another day my parents didn’t understand. But now they had a son in America, who went to American schools, hung out with weird American boys, yearned for American fast food and American things. Who wanted to be American, eviscerating the Thai Buddhist in him because the Thai Buddhist was what set him apart when all he wanted was to belong. The Thai Buddhist and his Thai Buddhist family did peculiar things, like setting offerings of coffee to the statue of Buddha every morning or saying Pali prayers—words sounding like gravel—which the boy never understood the meaning of.
American Boy was a costume he wanted to wear permanently. American Boy wanted to be like the other American Boys in the sitcoms he watched, where problems were solved in thirty minutes, where at the end of every show were smiles and hugs. American Boy was popular. American Boy was cool. Not Thai boy. Or Thai American Boy. American Boy would not sing the Thai National Anthem at sunrise; he’d start his day with the Pledge of Allegiance. American Boy would not pray to Buddha the way his mother taught him to, asking to be reborn in the same family, asking for safety in this strange country; instead, he’d pay homage to Frankenstein.
What were his parents to do when their son talked so excitedly about Halloween? What could they do?
They tried. They taped a cardboard cutout of a spider or a black cat in an angry arch in the window. They wrote the word Boo underneath Buddha. They put a pumpkin on the front doorstep, which would be splattered by neighborhood kids within days.
When October came so did images of the supernatural, the dark netherworld. The country turned orange and black, the grocery stores advertising infinite bags of candy. Skeletons were everywhere—on doors and windows and in stores and classrooms. In our neighborhood, some houses went all out: mechanical witches and coffins and Styrofoam gravestones. One house had an eerie soundtrack playing from hidden speakers and a fog machine that clouded the front yard. Meanwhile, cloaked figures and maniacal clowns scared the bejesus out of little kids.
All in good fun.
Worst of all, horror movie commercials aired between TV shows. When one came on, fright took over my body, my eyes wide and unblinking, as trailers of some film played on the old Zenith. These commercials were filled with creepy music and screams and the prospects of imminent death. Sometimes, I would wake my mother from her needed nap before the night shift at the hospital so she could tell me everything was all right, that no man with a hockey mask was going to get me. She would tell me to keep Buddha’s image in my head. If Buddha were in the mind and heart, he would protect me from any monster.
I did what my mother instructed, but eventually Buddha would transform into a dreaded werewolf howling at a full moon.
I was an only child, so my imagination made most days Halloween. I spent a lot of time pretending. I was the immortal Hulk Hogan, with twenty-six-inch pythons (biceps), wearing a yellow bandana and tattered T-shirt that could be ripped off my torso. Or I transformed into Michael Jackson and moonwalked across the turquoise carpet of our living room, singing “Billie Jean” in near falsetto. Or I was one of the doctors my mother worked with at the hospital, laying out surgical tools for a life-saving operation. Slipping into other identities was easy for me when I was in so much conflict with my own.
But there was one day you could definitely be someone else. One day you could wear a mask and no one would look twice.
Hello, it’s Halloween.
When I was nine, I wanted to be Larry Bird, Boston Celtic star, who could make a basket from anywhere on the court. I was enamored of him. Wanted his cool and calm demeanor. Wanted his don’t-mess-with-me attitude, like when he slugged Bill Lambeer because Bill Lambeer was a bully and there were too many bullies in the world.
“Always white people,” my mother said. She sewed another Thai dress she wouldn’t wear because there were no occasions to wear them. Her dresses clogged up her closet, but she couldn’t stop sewing them, as if the making of them was a way for her to dream, to see herself in some fancy ball, being some fancy person, doing fancy things a dress like that would dictate. These dresses were desire stitched into elaborately patterned Thai silk.
“Can’t you be Bruce Lee?” she said.
I shrugged. I didn’t say what I was thinking. That I had equated white with American, the same way some of the kids at school equated Buddha with the fat dude at Chinese restaurants.
“Larry Bird is too white,” she said. “Do you want to powder your face? Wear a blonde curly wig?” She laughed and looked out the front window. October. The leaves on the lawn reminded her of lost time. Reminded her that she wasn’t home. Now her son wanted to be Larry Bird, her son she felt she was losing.
I told her watching Larry Bird play was like watching magic. I made a shooting motion with my hands, tossing an invisible ball into an invisible basket. Swish.
“Why don’t you be King Mongkut this Halloween? You know King Mongkut, right?”
I knew King Mongkut, fourth monarch of Siam, who brought about science and modernization. His portrait was framed in the living room next to Buddha. I knew how revered he was, how beloved, how Yul Brenner portrayed him in The King and I, which was banned in Thailand because the king would never dance like a monkey.
“That’s dumb,” I said.
“Dumb is a dumb word,” said my mother. “Don’t say that.”
“Whatever,” I said.
“Whatever is also dumb,” she said.
My father came down the stairs. He wore his weekend costume, a grey sweat suit, and because he hadn’t shaved, his face looked rough like gritty sandpaper. On weekdays, he wore pleated slacks and a golfing polo with a pocket to keep his pens, his work uniform at the tile factory.
“Tell your dad what you want to be.”
“Larry Bird,” I said.
“Why not King Naresuan?” he said. “Do you know King Naresuan?”
Of course I knew King Naresuan, who rode into battle on an elephant to duel Prince Mingyi Swa, the Burmese heir apparent, and won, who wagered the freedom of the kingdom on a cock-fighting bet, who was a national hero, the top of the Thai echelon of piety.
“That’s dumb,” I said.
That year I went trick-or-treating as Larry Bird, wearing his number 33 jersey and his black Converse high-tops. People thought I wasn’t wearing a costume. Some houses didn’t give me candy.
I find the cartoon my son watches catchy and creepy. Hello, it’s Halloween echoes in my head. I say it without knowing I’m saying it. I hum the tune without knowing I’m humming the tune.
If I dwell on it—I try not to because it makes me think I’m a bad parent—the cartoon depicts a boy and girl entering a haunted house and encountering evil beings out to do them harm. Sometimes I wonder where are the parents of these two children and why are they allowing them to walk in desolate places. Sometimes I want to say to that boy and girl, Turn around. Do not go in there. Bad things happen in places like this: zombies will stagger out of graves; witches will boil something green in cauldrons; vampires will bare their pointy fangs. Boy and girl, there is danger in this venture, the possibility of death.
Perhaps I overthink this. Since becoming a father, I overthink a lot of things.
Perhaps I should not shield my son from the notion of death, because death is inevitable.
Perhaps there is something beautiful in the celebration of the darker side of life.
Before Halloween was Samhain, a festival that celebrated the end of the harvest season and the beginning of winter. It was a time when the boundary between the living and the dead disappeared, and on that day the ghosts of loved ones, our ancestors, came for a visit.
The living. The dead.
The necessity of both.
For my family, ghosts followed them everywhere they went. Ghosts of parents and relatives and their former selves surrounded them, which in turn, surrounded me.
“Pray for your grandmother,” my mother would say. “Tell her to help you ace that math test.”
“Pray for your uncle,” my father would say. “Tell him to lay off the booze wherever he is.”
My immigrant family shouldered the weight of the lost. Daily, they memorialized them in front of the statue of Buddha, incense swirling, making the house fragrant. For them Halloween, the shedding of the self, the day to assume another identity, was no different from any other day. Their waking lives were a costume that weighed heavily on them. That made them sigh. That made them stare off into the distance. That made them start sentences with In Thailand…
Our dreams, our costumes, were a reflection of the world we lived in.
The Thai Buddhist temple in Chicago held a fall festival where the Thai community brought food and drink, and the day was filled with activities like a Muay Thai martial arts demonstration, classic Thai swordplay, Thai dancing, and a costume contest for Thai kids.
I was five. My parents entered me in the contest.
That year I planned to be Superman, wearing my Superman Underoos and a pink towel as my cape. It didn’t matter that I pranced around the house in red briefs. It didn’t matter that my stomach protruded over the waistband. Nor did it matter when I walked to the houses on my block a few days later for candy. Hello, it’s Halloween, and people—especially those in South Chicago—wore weirder things. What mattered was I possessed superhuman strength.
The temple was the Thai community hub. Before relocating to a bigger property in the suburbs, it was located off of Hoynes Avenue, in a former Greek Orthodox Church. Here was the place where my parents took off their costumes and settled into what I believe were their truer forms. It seemed a weight lifted off them. They smiled. They talked Thai. They laughed loud. They ate Thai food that was not the same as in Thailand, but they understood this brick building with tall echoing ceilings, with the shadowed remnants of crosses, was a simulacrum of home.
I couldn’t be Superman that day.
Instead, my father dressed me as a rice field worker. I wore brown tattered pants that went to mid-calf and a brown shirt my mother sewed that V-ed deeply at the neck and was baggy on my body. Around my waist was a red and white tablecloth, used as a sash. My father penciled a mustache under my nose and gave me a straw hat. I was supposed to be barefoot and carried a sickle my father made out of duct tape and a back scratcher.
I hated this costume.
The other kids wore typical ones: ballerinas, princesses, comic book heroes, werewolves, and ninjas. I was the anomaly.
“What are you supposed to be?” Fireman said.
One by one, an announcer called out names, and we were supposed to walk onto a raised platform, as if a runway model. When my name was called, I ran. I don’t remember why I ran but remember the thumping sound of my bare feet on the hollow stage. I remember the laughter in the audience, the pointing, the amused claps, the classic sound of Thai amazement Ohhhhhh hooooo.
Because I was five, because I didn’t understand anything, because then I was always laughed at, not with, I cried. I cried so hard my father carried me off the stage, laughing too. I could feel the chuckle in his chest against my wet cheek. I cried so hard tears smeared my mustache, and it looked as if I had rolled in dirt.
I won the costume contest. The prize: a gift certificate to a Thai restaurant in downtown Chicago.
I think now about that moment on stage. About that laughter. About the complexities that existed in that collective reaction. How that costume was a symbol, a connection to home. It incurred memories, perhaps, of Thailand and the long stretches of rice fields, the waving green that moved like gentle waves. How wearing it was an honor to Thailand’s most prized export, jasmine rice, how we were taught never to leave a grain uneaten because of the meticulous work to cultivate the rice, and the privilege of having it on our plate. That costume, I would learn later, was in honor of my great-great-grandfather on my mother’s side, who worked under the hot son, his feet always in the marshy land, his fingers collecting pellets of rice. In that laughter was community.
We kids didn’t understand this because we were kids and we were born here. Our dreams, our costumes, were a reflection of the world we lived in, a world where a boy could soar into the air, and shoot laser beams from his eyes, and blow a wind that toppled houses, his pink cape snug around his neck.
Halloween, to him, is not a day. It is a way of being.
On Bodhi’s first Halloween—he was about four months old—my wife and I dressed him as a dog.
My wife was the mommy dog. I bought a cheap fishing net at the hardware store and wore cargo shorts and a white T-shirt and was the dogcatcher.
On Bodhi’s second Halloween, he was an elephant. My wife was a monkey, and I was a gorilla, both of us wearing full body costumes that were agonizingly hot on a warm October day in Florida.
Our everyday identities: a beautiful biracial boy of a white mother and Thai American father, who still wrestles with what it means to be American (sometimes a Thai costume, sometimes a white costume), hoping his son will have a firmer sense of self, but knowing he is at the very beginning of a long journey.
This year we ask Bodhi what he wants to be.
“Hello, it’s Halloween,” he sings.
“Do you want to be a pirate?”
“Aye,” he says. He dons a paper pirate hat.
“Do you want to be a witch?”
He zips around the room on a witch’s broom his grandparents gave him.
“Do you want to be a pirate witch?”
Hello, it’s Halloween plays on the TV. He sings along, flying on his broom, raising in one hand a sword that is actually a back scratcher. It is the middle of summer. Everything is green and lush, the heat like a suffocating embrace. My boy is in the world of his creation. He is in control. Halloween, to him, is not a day. It is a way of being. A belief that you can be anybody and anything, even a pirate witch. That this world, right now, is ripe with possibility.