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Lost in Translation: American Halloween

As Halloween approaches, I am once again haunted by the cultural ghosts I accidentally released in China.

The school year had begun at Jiangxi Normal University, where I was teaching English to 40 Chinese English teachers from rural secondary schools. The teachers were eager to learn, knowing that the intensive one-year language study would increase their English skills and introduce them to new teaching methodology.

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But soon, October arrived. The damp, autumn chill invaded our unheated classroom and everyone's spirits plummeted. Cheerfulness was replaced by the homesickness of men and women, far from family and friends. Even I felt the tug of loneliness. I began dreaming of sunny fall days in my hometown and evenings curled up on the couch with a cup of hot chocolate.

In mid-October, a package arrived. Inside it were festive Halloween decorations. A card read, "Have fun with your students! Love, Mom."

Her advice was not taken lightly.

After an evening of planning, I created a series of Halloween lessons bound to put the pizzazz back into our classroom community. But more important, I wanted to model an innovative English-language unit that the teachers could use with their own pupils.

The last week of October was devoted to All Hallow's Eve in our classroom. I zealously whisked my students through language and hands-on activities centered on American Halloween traditions.

FOR the unit's finale, the students came trick-or-treating to my decorated apartment Halloween night. I greeted them in an improvised black cat costume and handed out candy-filled trick-or-treat bags. Everyone enjoyed the visit. After posing for pictures with a jointed cardboard skeleton, they departed with great laughter and stories to tell.

I was confident my Halloween unit had been a success, but I knew some form of evaluation was necessary. I asked my students to come to class prepared to write about a Halloween tradition they would like to teach their own Chinese pupils.

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On the assigned day, the students arrived with paper and pencils. They sat at their desks, diligently composing their essays. Their pencils moved nonstop. Such intense concentration only bolstered my confidence that the Halloween lessons had been worthwhile.

When the last essay was collected, the students returned to their dormitories. I eagerly headed back to my apartment to read what they had written.

It was a teacher's nightmare.

American Halloween "traditions" came flying off the pages of their essays and whizzed about my head like confused bats: All adults wear masks; frightened children run madly through the streets; and candy becomes the staple food. Ghosts are seen and wolves are heard. Pumpkins are "craved" and houses are "hunted."

But only when our most practiced Halloween activity crumbled before my eyes did I admit defeat.

"At 8:20," one student wrote, "we knocked at the door. The door opened and out came our foreign teacher. Then we shouted the famous Halloween words:

'Strike-or-Streak!' "

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