As an ETA, I spend a lot of my time in classrooms fulfilling my role as a Teaching Assistant: planning activities to help students actually use English in realistic ways, working one-on-one with students to help them improve their English writing and speaking skills, and explaining the pain-in-the-bum subtleties of the English Language that sometimes puzzle even my co-teachers, not to mention native speakers.
However, the other part of my role as an ETA is that of a cultural ambassador. This role has led me to share some of my personal experiences with the small cultural anecdotes found in the student’s textbooks, to have long conversations with students over plates of nasi or mie about the similarities and differences between America and Indonesia that I have noticed thus far, and to give presentations to entire campuses about diversity in America.
One of the aspects of American culture my students seem to be most interested in is the holidays that are somewhat unique to America. I have probably answered hundreds of questions about Independence Day and Thanksgiving, but the holiday with which my students seem most fascinated is Halloween. So when October came around, I decided I needed to find a way to bring Halloween to my students.
It is important to note that my even being permitted to plan any kind of event for Halloween is a testament to how privileged I am in my placement. Many ETAs were not permitted to introduce their students to Halloween, because it was perceived as contradictory to the standards of their area’s most prominent religion, be that a form of Islam or of Christianity. This is not limited to Indonesia, of course, and I had a number of wonderful conversations with various students and teachers throughout the month of October about how, due to the diversity of religions and other belief systems in America, not all Americans celebrate Halloween, and those who do celebrate Halloween do not do so in the same way.
Because I was initially worried about how Halloween would be perceived here, I merely proposed the idea of carving Jack O’ Lanterns with students. However, when I brought my idea forward, the students, as well as the adults, who are part of the dorm committee begged to be able to have costumes and scary stories as well. Though I worried I would not be able to put together such additions in time, I could not bear to tell them no. And so my small Halloween celebration grew.
The day of the Halloween Party came. I had not had time to shop for a particularly complicated costume, so I dug into my closet for ideas, and eventually utilized the many scarves I had brought with me, as well as a deck of Harry Potter playing cards, to become a fortune teller. It is not the best costume I have ever developed, but considering the tiny size of my wardrobe here, I’m quite proud of how it turned out. I quickly practiced a favourite scary story from my childhood, grabbed my shopping bag full of candy for trick-or-treating, and headed to the party.
Of course, our Halloween celebration was not identical to those found in the United States, but the spirit of Halloween still permeated the event. We were unable to acquire pumpkins to carve, and so used watermelons as an alternative, and my students’ artistic abilities were able to shine, quite literally, though the Jack O’ Lantern carving. I was secretly quite glad that I was unable to carve my own in between helping groups of students, for my haphazard carving skills usually produce a terrifying result, even if I’m aiming for adorable. I would have been embarrassed to place such a disaster next to the work of my students. It was hard to believe that they had never carved a Jack O’ Lantern before, the way they expertly sketched and carved out classic Halloween faces.
Those students who dressed up had costumes that put mine to shame. They had put together amazing outfits, and even used home-made face paint and marker to create scars, hollow eyes, and even dripping blood. While many students came to the festivities dressed as vampires and zombies, a number of them also came as traditional Indonesian ghosts, such as Pocong (pronounced “Poh chong”), which I have often heard called the Indonesia jumping ghost. Some costumes were adorable, and some were terrifying. Many of the students also utilized their costumes later on, while they were telling scary stories, most of which were original compositions that combined Eastern and Western influences.
I had managed to create enough activities to include the entirety of my second campus, and my site mate even came to the party, and I found myself more than once just standing with a stupid smile on my face, so grateful that my students’ eagerness to participate in Halloween was able to create a magical experience out of what—due to various complications, changes, and setbacks—was mostly last-minute planning on my part. Throughout the night, students thanked me again and again for their “first Halloween Party!” but I told them honestly that is was they who needed to be thanked. I’ve had the opportunity to attend a number of wonderful Halloween celebrations in America, full of fright and fun and in the company of friends that I love; but I have never before seen the kind of enthusiasm for Halloween night that I saw from my students, and they may have managed to do Halloween better than many Americans. I will never again be able to go into the Halloween season without thinking of my incredible students here, and the greatest Halloween experience anyone could have asked for.