Today, no other vegetable will do
She wants a what?" barks the fruit seller standing next to the vegetable lady.
I am in one of the many street markets of Luzhou, a small city located along the Yangtze River in China's Sichuan Province. Already, a crowd of curious onlookers is gathering: white-haired grandmas, toothless old men, mothers shifting squirming infants. Everyone is waiting, wondering what the foreigner wants that is causing such a fuss.
I take a deep breath. The crowd leans in.
"Nangua!" I explode in my best Chinese. "A pumpkin! Do you have a pumpkin?"
Faces brighten with comprehension, but, alas, no nangua here, and I am forced to move on to yet another market in my search for Halloween.
As an American English teacher in China, the urge is strong to explain my country's cultural traditions to my students. I have had plenty of success in teaching the Chinese about significant United States holidays and events, Halloween being one of them. Yet I am now in a new teaching position, in a different region of the country which seems to boast every kind of produce known to man except the one I want for Oct. 31.
I have learned that in teaching about Halloween, there is no substitute for a carved pumpkin. Explanations produce blank stares. Drawings are misinterpreted. Pictures only puzzle.
Sure, I can forgo showing a real jack-o'-lantern to my students. I can lecture on the history of this druid-based tradition. We can bob for apples, have a go at wearing masks, and role-play trick-or-treating.
But nothing elicits the childlike excitement I associate with All Hallows' Eve than a darkened room with a lit candle glowing from a pumpkin's cackling face. For that reason, I am willing to go through just about anything to find a pumpkin for my students.
In another section of the city, I make my way down another alleyway into yet another outdoor market.
"Do you have a nangua?" I ask the first seller I see.
"A what?" the woman snaps.
"A nangua," I repeat.
The seller surveys her table's tidy display of produce.
"How about a xigua?" she offers.
No, I don't want a watermelon. I want a pumpkin.
"A hamigua?" she tries, lifting up a ripe muskmelon and thumping it with a smile.
I shake my head.
"A donggua!" she beams, shoving a winter melon into my hands. "These are good for the health, you know?"
Yes, I know, but, no, I don't want a winter melon.
"What about a nangua?" I persist.
My seller thinks I am deliberately being difficult. "Pumpkins?" she snorts. "Don't have those."
I sigh. Perhaps this year I will have to make do without a jack-o'-lantern after all.
A barefooted, sun-browned farmer waves to me. He has a huge wicker basket full of something.
"Foreigner! Come, come."
He beckons, smiling so invitingly that I am sure he has what I am looking for.
"Nangua?" I question excitedly, peering into his basket.
"Houzi!" he announces with pride. He pulls out a subtropical citrus fruit the size of a soccer ball and holds it up for me to see.
"Oh," is all I can say. My disappointment is so apparent that the man takes pity on me.
"You want a pumpkin?" he says. "Go to that place, to the left. Not certain, but maybe that seller has a pumpkin."
I thank him and head in the direction he has pointed, but I hold little hope that I will find what I want.
The market stand I approach is overburdened with a variety of earthy yields.
"Do you have a nangua?" I ask the woman sitting with her goods.
"A pumpkin?" she repeats, thinking carefully before suddenly rising from her chair.
After some time digging through nearby baskets and sacks, she pulls out a rather pathetic representative of the vine-crops family. It's not very big, nor is its greenish-orange hue a desirable color. Nonetheless, it is a pumpkin, and I am ecstatic. I've found it!
On the bus ride home, I stand, protecting my pumpkin from the tight press of passengers. As usual, people are staring at me, one of the few foreigners in a city of 4 million. Their eyes alight on the thing I clutch to my chest. They are curious, wanting to know what the foreigner has bought that she guards so carefully.
On most occasions, I ignore them, but today, my inner goblin gets the better of me.
I hold up my find, this Halloween sprite soon to be released as a jack-o'-lantern for my students.
"Nangua!" I announce triumphantly, then smile while my Chinese audience looks on in utter bewilderment.