Going From War to Halloween
Baby Boomer, Debbie Nguyen, moved from Vietnam to the U.S. when she was six. These are her memories of the scary American ritual of Halloween, seen within the context of war.
by Debbie Nguyen
When I was six years old, I moved from South Vietnam to Washington, D.C. with my family. I did not know any English except for “Major Mutz, make monkey.”
Major Mutz was a family friend, an American in the service who was stationed in Saigon. He would amuse us kids by acting like a monkey, ooh ooh oohing and aah aah aahing while he pretended to scratch his stomach and ears.
Major Mutz tried to expose us to some American culture but I guess I didn’t understand much. He took our family to see Johnny Rivers and Ann Margret with Bob Hope. We were able to buy peanut butter at the PX and we taunted the neighborhood kids with it. We mixed the peanut butter with Ovaltine and made chocolate peanut butter balls that we sold to the neighborhood kids, hawking them as a specialty all the way from America that only WE were privy to, while they had to contend with their sticky rice balls. (To this day, I still think Reese’s owes us a license fee.)
In Vietnam, I was in a rigorous first grade program at a French school. I spoke and read and wrote French. I used a calligrapher’s pen for schoolwork that I had to dip into a plastic portable inkpot, which was always dripping all over everything. I had beautiful cursive handwriting. But I didn’t know the first thing about America or about being an American.
I Started Learning English When I Moved to America
We arrived in Washington in late summer. My parents enrolled us in the public schools and my elementary school automatically put me in the first grade instead of second because of the language barrier. I had to do a lot of sign language the first couple of weeks. Nobody understood me and I related little to my classmates. In the evenings, my father made us work with flashcards. “Dog. Cat. Dick. Jane. Run. Spot.”
I don’t remember where my father was on October 31, 1965 but he was not home. Perhaps a business trip, because he was always busy. How were we to know that we desperately needed him on that fateful night to explain to us that we were no longer in a war zone. He, the one who was college educated in America, would have reacted completely different from the way we did.
We must have finished dinner. We were probably cleaning up, washing dishes by hand, one bowl at a time. We weren’t aware of the convenience of that olive green machine yet.
Halloween After Dark
There was a knock at the front door. Octobers in the East coast have short days. It was already dark. As Vietnamese, having experienced black outs, tear gas and air raid sirens, we were instinctively suspicious of knocks in the dark. There was absolutely no reason to be receiving visitors in the night, especially without the man of the house at home.
At first, my mother shushed all of us. We waited silently for the knocking to go away. We stood frozen where we were, waiting for soldiers to come crashing into our home, but hoping that they would mercifully pass our house, move on to the next one and ransack elsewhere. The knocking continued. Panic and fright set in. We turned off all the lights in the house. My mother and all of us kids cowered in the dark kitchen, squatting on the floor, consciously avoiding all the windows. When the incessant knocking continued, my mother bravely decided to go see who was there.
She opened the door cautiously. We were standing behind her, hanging onto her dress, furtively peeking around her. There were many kids on the front porch, dressed oddly. Some wore scary masks and this frightened us even more. They were screaming out some jibberish.
We shrunk back as they all held out bags. My mother peeked into the bags. She sighed in relief. OH! They are looking for food donations! Quick, quick, quick. Hurry, hurry, hurry. Into the kitchen, see what we can find to give to this charity. We pulled cans of peas, soup, loaves of bread, crackers, dried noodles. And, so very eagerly, we put these in the strangers’ bags. They looked at us stunned, but left.
Uneasy chuckles went all around. How silly of us, just people doing charity work. More knocks came that night. More strangely dressed people. And, we exhausted our food supply in the pantry. We then searched the freezer for frozen vegetables and frozen pork chops. These we also gave away.
As the charity workers got larger and taller, it seemed they also got angrier and louder. When we were out of food to donate, they shouted at us and jeered at us. They rattled our screen door. We were forced to cower again. We secured all the doors and turned off all the lights. And we waited silently in the dark for the siege to end.
Outside, my father’s favorite dogwood tree had been covered with toilet paper. Raw eggs were thrown at our house, smashing into windows. We screamed in unison when we heard breaking glass thinking it was a Molotov cocktail. We all ran upstairs to see the damage, at the ready to douse any flames.
Instead, parts of a huge pumpkin lay smashed on my brother’s bedroom wall and floor. Someone had launched it through his window. There were broken glass, pumpkin pulp and seeds everywhere.
We all huddled together in the bedroom that I shared with one of my sisters because it was in the back of the house, away from the street. We asked ourselves why we were under attack? What had we done to insult anyone? I don’t remember getting much sleep that night but finally the noise subsided outside.
When my father got home, he laughed and explained to us the traditions behind October 31. We cleaned up the toilet paper and scrubbed the egg off our bricks. We replaced the broken window and picked up the pieces of pumpkin.
I still absolutely HATE Halloween.
Debbie Nguyen is a blogger and designer in the Atlanta area.
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