31/10/2015 6:14 AM AEDT | Updated 15/07/2016 12:50 PM AEST

Halloween: An Australian Ex-Pat's Dilemma

Of all the things the Chinese invented, it never occurred to them to grow a pumpkin, hollow it out and stick a candle in it. They never thought to put on a skeleton costume and demand lollies from a neighbour under the threat of throwing a rotten egg onto his roof.

Catherine Delahaye via Getty Images
Halloween pumpkins

You say tomato, and I say tomato.

You say potato, and I say potato.

Tomato, tomato, potato, potato...

Ah. Doesn't really work in print, does it? We just sound like a couple of stoners trying to start a conversation.

The point is -- we're different. Who are we? Well our "we" is Australians. The other "we" is Americans. If it sounds like I'm going over this clearly and slowly it's because I'm going through what we basic uncomplicated cavemen like to call "an existential crisis".

I have one every October. I find myself wondering who I am and where I fit in this world as I ponder what in expat-land, Beijing, has become one of life's big questions: Do we Australians let our kids celebrate Halloween?

Halloween isn't a traditional Chinese thing, of course. Of all the things the Chinese invented, it never occurred to them to grow a pumpkin, hollow it out and stick a candle in it. They never thought to put on a skeleton costume and demand lollies from a neighbour under the threat of throwing a rotten egg onto his roof.

No, Halloween is something you find yourself pulled into as part of Beijing's large and diverse expat community. Each year in our downtown multi-tower apartment compound, as we celebrate the harvest, thoughts turn to the eve of All Saints Day. Shall we go to Mass to pray for the souls of the holy? Or should we dress our kids as the un-dead and go get lollies?

For years, I was the grinch, the old Scrooge, complete with bald head and everything. (Because of a broken leg I even used to hobble around with a stick!) I'm the one who says 'bah humbug'. My wife says it too, only in a more reasoned, less-sweary way. So our two girls didn't partake in expat halloween.

And didn't our American friends react? One of them, Stephanie, is chief organiser of our compound's festivities. She's not just a halloween believer. She's a halloween fundamentalist. Each year when I'd announce our family's stick-in-the-muddedness, her jaw would drop and her eyes widen as if I'd just decided to give our daughters crew cuts for the prom. She would fumble for words to describe my neglect. "B-but, the children," she'd whimper. "How could you?"

The issue with Halloween, I'd say, is it's just not us. It's an American tradition. It's fine for them, but we Australians have our own. I'm no screaming patriot. George Bernard Shaw put it well when he said patriotism is "your conviction that this country is superior to all others because you were born in it".

Still, we must have difference, or we all end up the same. It's more interesting, for example, if we don't all have perfect teeth.

Australia must cling to our traditions in the face of certain others that have infiltrated during pax Americana. Regardless of what anyone says, The A Team and The Dukes of Hazzard have not taken our nation forward. And equally disturbing are reports reaching here of oddly-dressed children in the streets of Australia stuffing their faces each October 31.

A child, an outfit, and a whole bucket of confectionery. Of course it's all fun and games until someone loses a tooth.

Still, Stephanie pleaded that sharing other countries' traditions was a great part of the cultural melting pot of Beijing's expat community. True, but I'd counter that if we did Halloween, I'd feel bad about all those other countries and cultures. I didn't observe Diwali last time it was on -- well, I turned on some lights, but I do that every night. On Bastille Day I ingested no snails and surrendered nothing. Last Ramadan I ate like a king.

At least Halloween is well timed for this argument, for it falls just before Australia's national day. Not January 26, but the one that really brings the nation together.

Nothing raises patriotic fervour more than telling foreign friends how, on the first Tuesday of November, all Australians stop what they're doing to watch to a horse race. (I also explain that they also stop what they're doing for several hours before and after that horse race, to drink alcohol.)

I tell them it's called the Melbourne Cup, and that it's far more than a horse race, but that's about as far as I get before choking up.

Yet will my Halloween-loving American friends do Melbourne Cup day with me? Oh no. They trot out their usual lame excuses, like they're "working at their jobs" or they're "injecting their insulin".

To illustrate the Cup's immense bigness I tell them how, aged five, I clearly remember our usually grave nun, Sister Gemma, stopping a lesson one Tuesday to conduct the class sweep. For two cents per child, we each drew a horse and then, like millions of boys, girls and adults across the country, huddled next to the radio and listened to Gala Supreme get the money.

Now, you can't tell me that little kids betting on horses isn't more heart-warming than children going round dressed as ghouls gorging sugar.

OK, maybe it's a photo finish.

Perhaps that's why I eventually caved on Halloween. For one thing, our girls got older, and I could no longer deny its existence. There's a big build-up at their international schools. Plus, kids here don't really care for concepts such as "countries", "national identity" and "trifectas".

And for them, it's all about the dressing up, not about the lollies. No, not about the lollies at all.

But when we move back to Australia, I'll put my foot down and insist the girls will go a'Halloweening no more. And when I lose that argument as feebly as all others, I'll at least deploy a strategy taught by an American friend here.

His mum would let her children trick or treat, but any booty left over the next morning would be thrown out. He and his siblings would duly eat their haul like there was no tomorrow, and Halloween soon became known as a time for getting sick -- the Feast of St Vomit of Barf.

The novelty quickly wore off.


This blog first appeared at