Ode to Halloween Costumes, Plus a Warning about Bad Ones

As I child, observing the world as it was presented to me by the mainstream, I often decided to shut doors myself before anyone actually told me to.
Growing up in the age of Farrah Fawcett, I knew that one had to be blond in order to be beautiful, by definition. My horseback riding friends and I knew from statistics that at 10 years old we were already too tall to ever become jockeys. Common sense told me that I could never become a country-western singer, no matter how many pairs of cowboy boots I owned. Even school assignments like, “If you could live anywhere in time, where would it be?” were problematic because I knew that as a girl, and as a Chinese girl, I would not be able to just “drop in” anywhere in the western history that I knew. People would notice.
However, once a year, I could be whatever I wanted to be, construct whatever image or story I wanted for myself, travel backwards and forwards in history and literature, creatively cross over any social barriers. It was also a chance to pretend to be pretty and show off how smart I could be. One night a year–Halloween.
As a child, I was a blackbird, a clown, a jockey. As a young adult, I was Princess Leia, a black widow, Lady Chatterly (I had a sign on my back: “Help Wanted: Gardener…”). My children and I also spend quite a bit of time figuring out how to represent their favorites—Chang Er the Moon Lady, Sun Wu Kong the Monkey King, Sailor Moon, Hello Kitty, Michelle Kwan, Hermione from Harry Potter, Arya the elf from Eragon, Saki Hanajima from Fruits Basket, The Ottoman Empire and Chibi Hong Kong from Hetalia, a Spam Musubi, and a bag of Kokuho rice. I love thinking through the details, the adaptations, the representations.
I would never buy a store-bought costume, there is no craft in it. Besides, instead of allowing me to show the world how I want to see myself, many of these store-bought costumes reveal how the world sees me. Oftentimes, I did not even know.
Every Halloween, activists and writers in the ethnic media catalogue and protest the year’s most egregious offenders of taste and racist stereotyping. One year, it started when the “Pocahottie” costume crossed my desktop, “Is that an ear of corn in your pocket or are you just glad to see me?” Then came the “Illegal Alien costume” complete with green alien eyes, orange prison jumpsuit, and a green card. The “Illegal Alien mask” adds a big bushy mustache to the green alien eyes, making the implications quite clear.
There is the “Barakula” latex mask turning our respected president into a vampire — sucking the lifeblood out of the health care system? The “Fee Ling Yu” mask of an “Oriental” man sports a creepy buck-toothed smile, “If you’ve ordered take-out and you see this fortune cookie at your door, keep it locked.” There are more.
Several years ago, I helped local activist Linh Song with her national protest against the offensive “Kung Fool” costume, a gross latex mask stamped with every “Oriental” stereotype, topped off with a headband with the Chinese words for “loser.” Every year, as the Halloween catalogues show up in the mail, I rush to recycle them before the kids come home from school. They do not yet need to know.
Asian American blogger, Angry Asian Man, captures the absurdity best when he describes the “Teen Asian Dragon Lady” costume: “Yes, your teenage daughter can dress up like a Suzie Wong-like prostitute, complete with Oriental fan.”


  1. Great post, Frances, and a very timely one. My young son woke up this morning with Halloween on the brain. On the plus side, as you write, Halloween is that rare opportunity when young kids (and young at heart adults) can play at taking on a different identity. But your point about the cultural and ethnic stereotypes that are depicted in some customs is well-taken. Yet another parental dilemma. I’m with you on do-it-yourself costumes. It’s so much more fun and gratifying to make your own. On lighter note, please tell us more about your children’s costumes! What on earth did the Ottoman Empire costume look like? 🙂

  2. Oh yuck. I am cringing with you at those offensive costumes. I think *most* people would agree that the overtly offensive ones like the Kung Fool are inappropriate, but I have a harder time trying to explain why just dressing up as another race is not a costume.


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