I’m currently teaching American Cultural Studies online to both American and Chinese graduate students studying at Tongji University. My American students are both from Hawaii – both “hapa” mixed- studying abroad as part of their architecture doctorate program. The system is an exchange between the two universities in which the American students spend a year at Tongji taking classes and then the following year the Chinese students spend the year in Hawaii.
With language barriers, cultural barriers, and the epic Chinese firewall, it has been tricky to find material and assignments to entertain and engage the entire class. Because the two American students had spent little or no time on mainland US, I’ve tried to focus our attention on 3 themes: 1) Parsing broad generalizations of America, 2) Providing a basic introduction to Hawaii, and 3) Getting the students to share their own reflections on what national identity and culture means. When I first Skyped into the course at the beginning of the fall semester, they were all bright-eyed and eager to soak in everything about each other. We’ve talked about the presidential election and American film genres, but mostly we just fight with the wifi signal and the firewall.
With still a month left in the course, I wanted to begin sharing excerpts of what they had submitted because they’ve been a beautiful self-reflective tool for me to think about American culture and identity.
One of our classes took place on Halloween which is Hawaii’s Mardi Gras. Tens of thousands of costumed adults flock to the streets of Waikiki for a weekend of drunken revelry. Using the help of my two American students, I tried to explain Halloween customs, at least from my experience, as being born out of two cultural fascinations with death in the US: Puritanical fear of witches and the devil via Salem witch trials and Mexican Day of the Dead culture and the honoring of ancestors via playing with skeletal imagery. I told them that I’m sure there are more influences – I mean, every culture has to have a visual and performative way to experience death – but being from Albany, GA, these were the two influences that I grew up knowing about.
So I give them the gist and tell them that there are essentials to the holiday: You dress in costume (sometimes scary, sometimes funny, sometimes inappropriate), mostly kids walk around with their parents showing off costumes as an excuse to ask for candy (I told them adults by themselves can’t get away with this), and that we also carve faces into pumpkins and put them outside as a decoration at night.
“But WHY do you carve pumpkins into faces and light them?”
Great question. We just do. I’m sure there’s an original reason WHY Americans started doing that, but no one talks about it anymore. Like everything in America, we take an aspect of culture, put our fun DIY spin on it, and then sell tradition as a form of authenticity, self-making, and national consumption. Carving pumpkins is a sticky, wet, smelly process of disemboweling a perfectly good vegetable. You carve a face on it and then make it a lantern for about 3 days until it looks like this:
We have electricity and we now have better ways to create a lantern and scare off pesky tricksters. In this case, it is fun tradition of family-bonding because it often occurs at a kitchen table with siblings (because parents wield knives) with considerable cleanup afterward. Designing your own pumpkin is fun for both the non-artistic (a few triangles will get the point across) and those that are real designers. Although it is not an experience shared by all Americans due to cost and accessibility like high school prom or white picket fences, jack-o-lantern iconography has become a staple of American ephemera. Years from now, when climate change has killed all the pumpkin fields, our children will look confusingly at the archaeological traces of jack-o-lanterns and say: “But WHY did you carve a face on a pumpkin?” I don’t know kid. Everyone did it.
Trying to orchestrate this familial moment of pumpkin carving with my online class as a form of experiential American Studies was impossible – I couldn’t tell my students living in dorms to walk to campus with a pumpkin, a knife, and cleanup equipment so that we can all huddle around a small screen. Likewise, I’m also teaching the class online while conducting archival research in San Diego, so I would be as equally ill-prepared for such a task. I couldn’t even guarantee that they would find a pumpkin where they buy groceries. In America, we know when to carve pumpkins not because we’re surrounded by fields of ripe gourds, but because the grocery store tells us when to buy them with “on sale” signs. We fetishize the carved pumpkin months before Halloween when you are supposed to display them. You can buy all kinds of candies and baked goods that just look like a carved pumpkin. You can even buy a plastic jack-o-lantern to save you the time of carving it in the first place.
So the assignment for my students was simple: Go and find literally any fruit that you can disembowel, carve something into it, and light it from inside. Then send me a picture of a before and after shot. And I got awesome submissions! I was surprised that no one took me up on the “any fruit,” but I am so pleased we could share this experience. One student remarked:
I was excited today that I carved a pumpkin for the first time of my life. It took [me] 3 hours to finish but I am proud of it even though I actually did the carving stuff one step by one learning from a video. Hope you like it, too. Lol.
Here are images of just two that I received – the first from an American and the second from a Chinese student. Compare and enjoy! More transnational American Studies to come soon.
PLUS! Here’s another Chinese student’s watermelon jack-o-lantern. The student explained, “The idea comes from the monster eyes of FENDI. I find it evil but cute.”