I was sitting on a bench in Los Angeles when I saw two college girls walking down the street. Why not take an instagram photo of them? As I pressed the button to the cameraphone, I saw one of the girls looking directly at me.
“Aw, crap. Caught,” I thought.
But it wasn’t what I thought. They approached me, singling me out as a potential victim.
“Hello,” said one of the girls in broken English. “We are ESL students from Japan. Our assignment is to find an American person on the street and ask him questions about the American holiday of Halloween. Can we impose on your time and ask you questions?”
“Sure!” I answered, always a strong believer in helping strangers in a strange land.
They bowed to me, then giggled. I was touched, and confused.
The more extroverted girl, with long brown hair and large glasses, stepped forward. She was holding a piece of paper in her hand. It was her homework sheet. On the sheet were Halloween terms they needed to learn.
“What is Trick or Treat?” she asked, pointing at question #1.
I was frankly surprised that these girls were so clueless about Halloween. Doesn’t the world watch Charlie Brown?
Trick or Treat. How was I suppose to explain Trick or Treat to two girls with a limited knowledge of English?
“Well, you know kids go house to house on Halloween and get candy, right?” I asked.
“Yes,” said the extroverted girl. “You get candy on Halloween.”
Perfect. I was half way there.
“The candy is the “treat.” I said. “But if the person doesn’t give a treat, then you are allowed to do a “trick.””
“It’s like a joke. If you don’t get any candy — the treat — then you are allowed to do something like put toilet paper all around the person’s car — the trick. You understand?”
The two girls exchanged confused glances, not getting the toilet paper reference.
“It’s an either or thing. If there’s no candy for kid… then the kid can do something back.”
“Out of anger?”
“Well, it’s not really anger.”
“So if no candy, the child shoots person with gun?”
“No. No! Not so extreme!” I insisted.
Is this how the world views America — shooting each other over candy?
“Just a funny trick,” I continued. “Like toilet paper on the car! Understand?”
They didn’t understand. I gave up.
“Let’s go on to the next one,” I suggested.
It was Jack O’Lantern.
OK, Jack O’ Lantern. This would be easier. And less violent.
“Do you know a pumpkin?” I asked the girls.
“Pump it?” asked the shy girl, the first and only time she spoke during the entire conversation.
“No. A pumpkin? The big orange thing. The vegetable. It grows in a pumpkin patch. Like on a farm. Like in Charlie Brown. Big. Orange.”
“Oh, yes. Big Orange Vegetable. Pumpkin.” said the extrovert. “That’s Jack o’Lantern?”
“Not exactly. The Jack o’ Lantern is what you make from the pumpkin. The face.”
I pointed at my face.
“People make a face on the pumpkin.” I said. “With a knife. They cut out a face with a knife.”
The girls looked horrified.
“They cut people’s face with knives?”
“No. They cut the face out of the pumpkin.”
I made a cutting motion with my hand to better explain things. They moved a foot away, as if I was brandishing a samurai sword.
“How many more questions do you have?” I asked, feeling hopeless.
“Just one more,” said the extroverted Japanese girl. “Superstition.”
“Ah, yes. Superstition. Superstition is when people believe things that are not true.”
“Every culture has superstitions. In Japan, do you avoid walking under ladders or black cats?”
“I know there are ghosts in Japan. I’ve seen Japanese movies about ghosts.”
“Yes, ghosts in Japan!”
“Do you believe in ghosts?”
“But some people do. That is superstition.”
“Superstition is ghosts.”
“Well, it can be. But more than just ghosts. Could be zombies, too.”
“So, all Dead People? On Halloween, Americans dress up like dead people.”
I was getting bored with the conversation.
“Yes. Exactly,” I said. “We dress like dead people.”
I sent the girls back to their ESL class, clutching their notes, thinking that in America, the holiday of Halloween means dressing up as dead people, stabbing each other in the face with knives, and shooting those who don’t give you candy.