On Halloween and Hospitality

At Congressional Cemetery in Capitol Hill. Only half of the children in this photo are mine.

There is something special about Halloween.

Of course, anytime that you knock on strangers’ houses and instead of getting glares and puzzled looks you get candy and smiles, that’s pretty damned special right there. For how comfortable and identified with American culture I feel, there is still that small but significant part of my psyche that is, in fact, NOT American.

That part of me often wonders, is amazed, and  downright knit-brow puzzled by Americans and their arms-length friendliness (or lack thereof). You can walk down the same streets; pause in the same street corners; play in the same parks; take your children to the same schools; do the same grocery shopping in the same stores FOR YEARS, and some (AMERICAN) people will barely nod in your direction with the faintest glimmer of recognition somewhere around year two, or four (if you’re lucky), or never.

I used to think that there was a problem with me, and with the way I interact with people. Maybe the way my eyes are brown or the way my hair is just a little frizzy, maybe that puts people off? Maybe the way smile sometimes until my face falls off… could THAT be scaring people away? Or maybe it’s the way I wave eagerly in their direction on occasion… perhaps that scares people? (Answer from my neurotic self: yes, dumb-dumb. Also that staring thing you do? Just stop.)

As it turns out, it’s really that simple: I am not American. I was born in a culture where people are quick to be loud and friendly and overly polite, in general. It’s not a virtue: it’s really just part of what happens. People greet; people buss; people hug. It’s seldom-to-never socially awkward, unless you’re attempting to buss someone who comes from a different culture. Americans hate things like the dreaded Social Kiss for a reason: they did not grow up doing it, and therefore they feel super-duper awkward doing it.

(This is why I am never going to show up to a wake with food: I think it’s super-duper creepy to get gifts of food when all I would want to do is cry my eyes out because someone just died.)

(“Then again, that macaroni & cheese sure smells delicious…” <—actual words uttered by me when someone showed up with food to our house upon the passing of my step-father.)

(I also did that with some cookies when my grandmother died.)

But the culture I grew up in is a shallow culture, too: people never truly get out of the pleasantry phase. So you may be walking down a veritable musical theatre ensemble piece of greeters and hailers when you live in a Latin American country (though this is not exactly true everywhere), but perhaps you may find that you don’t really know your neighbors, and that you never will. That you won’t ever be able to rely on your neighbors, because though you may greet them on a regular basis, you have not slowly, over the years, made a lasting bond with any of them.

That American hesitation is actually somewhat comforting: the day you say hello to me, I will know that you will honestly and truly mean it. It will be a bond. I will know I can trust you, beyond the fancy of a smile and a wave. I will trust you with my house keys and maybe even with my problems. And one day, food and sorrows will be shared, and we will break bread together.

(And I will still think it’s a little creepy but my amoral stomach will be totally cool with it.)

And on the one ghoulishly happy day of the year where it’s okay for me to ring your doorbell and make outrageous candy demands with my children, I know that you will be prepared and generous, and that you will mean it, too.

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This entry was published on October 23, 2012 at 2:50 pm. It’s filed under Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

5 thoughts on “On Halloween and Hospitality

  1. This was really wonderful, and gives me a lot to think about. As someone who is an outsider in my town (even though I’m from the same country…sort of), I can relate to a lot of what you said. I have now lived in my town for 13 years, but only really started to get to know people and make friends a little over a year ago.

    (Also, like you, I smile too much.)

    • Isn’t that amazing? I also find that within the American mindset, there are subcultures that approximate the Latin American experience more, and cultures that are even more closed off. I think it’s safe to assume that this is true the farther North you move, and the smaller the community is. But 13 years? Wow. What was the definitive ice-breaker for you?

  2. It’s interesting how this changes from neighborhood to neighborhood in the US. It’s not my custom to wave and say hello to everyone I pass on the street, but having moved into Ward 5 and thus having a front-row seat to the gentrification wars, I was honestly surprised at how offended some of my African-American neighbors were that when white families moved into the neighborhood, they didn’t say hello to people on the street. They took it as a snobbish refusal to acknowledge them, rather than just a different set of habits. So now I make it a point to say hello to people in my neighborhood; sometimes it’s returned and sometimes it isn’t.

    FWIW, the idea behind the food when someone dies is just that you are too busy crying your eyes out to feel like cooking or taking action to obtain food, but nonetheless you WILL need to eat and when that happens, it would be good if there were already some lasagna or mac-and-cheese around so you don’t have to fuss. (Stuff like that keeps/sits well, reheats well, and everyone likes it.) And something I realized when a friend’s girlfriend died suddenly: there will be people around who came to help out who don’t feel the loss as keenly, and certainly don’t want you to feel like you have to feed them but they WILL be hungry, so having food around is good for them, too. It’s intended to be a very pragmatic way to care for someone who is grieving. Though yes, it can totally come across as a creepy sort of, “Someone died? Let’s have a potluck!” thing if you aren’t accustomed to it.

    • Wow, thanks for the thoughtful comment! And yes, I have seen firsthand that cultural disconnect between the older African-American mores and the younger white people moving in and not saying hello. And I believe that part of what cost Adrian Fenty his reelection bid was the fact that he behaved more like the gentrifiers than the gentrified, or so it was perceived (it could have also been that he just didn’t play it very smart).

  3. Canadians, especially coasters, east or west, are very friendly.

    When we moved back to Moncton, we had met our neighbours in less than a week and had been offered the use of our upstairs neighbours backyard furniture. We rent the bottom half of a house and the neighbourhood is mostly the same way, a lot of duplexes and only a few single family dwellings. The next door neighbour on the left now owns the cat that the former renters of our place used to have and the neighbour on the right loans her snow blower to our upstairs neighbour during winter. They guy across the street has a dog that actually likes cats even though he barks at them and one of the neighbours just down the street walks every day with her granddaughter in the afternoon and with the little girl she babysits in the morning.

    And we’ve been back here for 14 months.

    Around here there’s no such thing as smiling too much. 🙂

    The idea behind bringing food is as Tiffany said, it’s to help out the family and friends so they don’t have to worry about providing food during the grieving time. Especially if there are kids around as kids get hungry easily. I think part of it also goes back to the fact that a lot of Maritimers at least have Celtic blood in them so this has been a natural evolution of the concept of holding a wake for the deceased.

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