Halloween Identity Crisis



415 Canal St Ny, 10013

Neighborhood: Chinatown, Lower Manhattan, SoHo

I haven’t dressed up in several Halloweens. I’ve been reluctant to do so since third grade when I came to school as Diane Keaton in “Annie Hall.” I blew my wad that year. This year would see no disguise.

The better part of the day would be spent with my friend Sabine killing time before our respective Halloween parties by shopping for her costume. We met at noon at our personal Mecca, Century 21. As we ascended the escalator to the second floor, I spotted a rack of Diane von Furstenburg wrap dresses, under a sign that proclaimed “$50.” I pointed them out and chuckled smugly,

“Not the best way to restart a business, methinks.” To my horror, Sabine shrieked, pushed me aside, and made a beeline to the rack. She began combing through the garishly colored wrap dresses like a squirrel foraging for nuts..

“You’d actually wear one of those?” I asked, half bemused, half horrified.

She stopped, looked up and said, “I’m gonna be Alexandra Miller von Furstenburg for Halloween…” Sabine was going to dress up as a socialite – a Brown-educated, duty-free princess who markets her mother-in-law’s wrap dresses. The joke of it was so specific that I knew it could only work within a very narrow social context, like a work party for a Conde Nast magazine. Fortunately, Sabine was going to a work party. And since she works at Conde Nast, her party did fall within the boundaries of said social context.

After trying on four dresses three times each, she picked a garish teal, blue and black number. Anticipation of the impending success of the costume had made us hungry and we hopped in a cab. We headed north to grab some chow at Hop Kee on Mott Street, and, as it always happens when I have dinner in Chinatown, the waiter addressed me to order for the table. I played along, because I don’t have the heart to tell them that I’m Filipino and not Chinese and therefore, a pretender. It’s nice to have someone look at you like you belong – even if they’re just bringing you razor clams in oyster sauce.

We spent the post-dinner section of our adventure combing the little emporiums that line Canal Street, hunting for the perfect faux designer handbag to complete her costume. When Sabine spotted it, I again put on my ruse de chinois. I bargained with the saleswoman, as I had learned from my mother when she brought me on shopping trips into Chinatown as a child. My mother had learned from the Chinese women who shopped alongside us how to negotiate the price she wanted to pay. I knew the skill would come in handy at some point, although this scenario hadn’t been one I would have anticipated.

Triumphant, Sabine and I walked west on Canal to the subway home. We parted at Sixth Avenue and as my partner in crime disappeared down into the subway station, I turned to look up the avenue. I saw the beginnings of what looked like the annual Village Halloween Parade. As I continued towards Varick Street, I caught glimpses of as many costumes as I could. There was a Catwoman (more Michelle Pfeiffer than Eartha Kitt), a couple of cows and a pretty good Austin Powers.

“EXCUSE ME…” Out of nowhere, a woman appeared in front of me. The cab she and her friend had just jumped out of peeled off with a screech. She was blond and dressed the way LA folk think New Yorkers dress when they take in the downtown nightlife – black, and shiny-sleek. She was frothing.

“EXCUSE ME – DO YOU SPEAK ENGLISH? She was panicking – all over the sidewalk and all over me. “That fucking cab driver! DO – YOU – SPEAK – ENGLISH?”

What? Stunned, all I could muster was a mumble: “Uh. Yes.”

“Do you know where- GRAND – STREET – is?”

“Where are you go- “

“GRAND – STREET… That fucking cab driver – Jesus! Do you know where- GRAND STREET – is? GRAND – STREET”

I couldn’t figure whether she thought I was Chinese or deaf.

“Where on-“


This woman clearly needed my assistance. I paused as her froth settled a bit, awaiting my response. Momentary moral dilemma. All of a sudden, she shot me a look that said, ‘why am I even asking you — how would YOU know?’ That’s when I gave her the answer she asked for.

“You have to go east. Grand Street is all the way east. You’re on the West side- you have to go EAST. Towards the RIVER.”


And just like that, she was gone. Not even a thank you. I stood there for a moment, less angry than disappointed. I was disappointed in her for being a bitch, but more in myself for being a bigger one. I crossed the street, looked around the corner and there stood the Soho Grand Hotel. It had been several years since something like that had happened to me. The last time was when a co-worker told me they thought my command of English was impressive. The fact that English is my only language hadn’t even entered his mind. I didn’t think to reply that I hadn’t picked up much Tagalog the one year I spent as an infant in the Philippines.

I walked the last block to my subway stop. It was ironic that I should spend the whole day delighting in constructing a false identity for a friend, only to perpetrate a false identity to others superficially like me, before being infuriated by someone for imposing that same false identity upon me.

Was it cruel of me to misdirect that blond woman? Was it just as mean of me to play Chinese when it gets me better service at a store or in a restaurant? Does it make me a hypocrite?

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