Vantage point

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Halloween and Uncle Leo

Seven years ago this day was my first Halloween in America. I was a fresh PhD student still struggling with how much tougher the coursework was than I had expected. I had been in the country for a little over two months. That evening, after I finished my Stats homework at school and got on the bus to go home, I saw people in costumes all around me.

Ah, it's Halloween, I realized. Until then, most of what I knew of this country came from TV shows, movies, and books. So I knew that this was the night when kids accompanied by their parents roam their neighborhoods, knock on doors, and demand candy by yelling "Trick or Treat!!!". Oh great! So I will be expected to buy candy and hand it out? What a scam! But when in Rome, right?

Not wanting to be seen as a rude or clueless foreigner, I decided to take the necessary steps. I got off the bus at the stop in front of the grocery store. Bought lots of candy. Took another bus home. When I say "home", I mean a 3 bedroom row house I shared with two other Indian grad students who were both out of town that night.

At home, I put the candy in a bowl, turned the TV on and waited. The hours ticked by. Not a single knock on my door! I looked out the window. There were groups of kids and their parents dressed up in costumes knocking on doors around my building complex. So I guessed it was just a matter of time before they came to my door. But another hour passed by and there was no knock on my door. Before I knew it, it was 11 PM, the streets were deserted, and not a single person had come to my door trick-or-treating! All the candy was sitting there in the bowl. Except for the dozen or so that I had polished of watching TV.

The next day, I felt a little hurt. The neighborhood trick or treaters had ignored me! And as is the instinctive reaction for many of us, my first thoughts went to racism. It was because I was brown, I decided. These racist white folks didn't want to take their kids to an Indian guy's house. How shallow they are. And how bad I have it! I spent several hours indulging myself in the victim routine when everything that does not fit your expectations is due to racism. I became the Indian version of Jerry's Uncle Leo!

And then I got a reality check. I mentioned my shunning by the trick-or-treaters to an American friend, trying to sound as wounded as I felt. She seemed confused and initially a bit apologetic. Then realization dawned upon her.

She: Did you have a pumpkin outside your door? Or some sort of Halloween decoration?

Me: No.

She: So your door was completely bare?

Me: Yes, same as always.

She: Ah! That's the reason. In our town....and in most of the country....there's a simple code. Trick-or-treaters only knock on doors that have some Halloween decoration. That's the way a household signals that they want to take part in the candy thing. If a door is bare, it is meant to signal that you don't want to be disturbed.

Me: Really?

She: Yep, so kids and their parents saw that your door was bare, decided you didn't want to be disturbed, and went to the next house.

Me: Oh!

And there it was. A simple explanation for a phenomenon I had been too quick to put down to racism or xenophobia.

This is not to say that racism doesn't exist. But sometimes we need to stop being Uncle Leo and ascribe everything to racism.