By Roger H Lam
Told at The Moth StorySlam open mic on Oct 13, 2022 at Housing Works Bookstore Cafe. Scored 8.97 points out of 10 and won first place.
Invited to perform again at the SLAM! Showcase on May 10, 2023 at Music Hall of Williamsburg in partnership with The Moth Senior Director, Jenifer Hixson.
Prompt: Costumes. Prepare a five-minute story about playing the part. Holidays, parties or the school play. Stories of wearing the clothes to conform or stand out. Imposter syndrome or uniforms that itch. From ComiCon to Mardi Gras— Santa Clause to Spock, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle to Sexy Zombie Cat. Reveal yourself!
I grew up watching a lot of cartoons about superheroes. I loved any character who went on daring adventures, fought for what they believed in, and never backed down, from Spiderman all the way to Pokemon trainers.
My parents and I immigrated from China when I was 1 year old. In our first year, on October 31st, I found hundreds of bite-sized superheroes patrolling my neighborhood streets, and eventually, the Avengers were knocking on my door, asking for candy. People don’t celebrate Halloween in China, so my parents thought this was a home invasion. But I thought it was the coolest thing ever. I too wanted to pay homage to my favorite superheroes by dressing up as them.
The next year, Mom and I visited the Spirt Halloween Store and we quickly realized how expensive superhero costumes are. All of them came with fake muscles that were apparently padded with dollar bills, and each piece was sold separately. To become Batman, I would need to buy the onesie costume itself, but also the plastic mask, the toolbelt, the cape, and the armor.
Instead, Mom bought me a baggy T-rex costume at a fraction of the price. She said, “We can’t afford to spend a fortune on an outfit that you only wear once a year on Halloween, especially if you’ll outgrow it in a year or two!”
Fair enough. I had seen my mom pouring water into our soap dispensers to make them last longer. I could accept that we couldn’t afford these. My American dream was not to own a superhero costume: it was to simply own a t-shirt that had one of my favorite superheroes printed on it. These weren’t cheap either, but at least it would be socially acceptable for me to wear them to school once a week instead of only once a year.
But whenever I asked Mom to buy me one, she said “You already have so much clothing.” And by clothing, she was referring to my hand-me-downs from distant family friends I never even met before, with pilly fabric and faded colors. Some did have superheroes printed on them, but they were always characters I didn’t recognize. Ones that were popular in Asia but weren’t mainstream in America yet, like Ultraman and Doraemon.
I got really tired of repping these B-list heroes, but what bothered me more was that another kid had already lived a whole life in these outfits. Every time I wore them, I felt like I was pretending to be someone I didn’t know. I hated these costumes.
Some of these hand-me-downs weren’t even intentional. One day in preschool, I wet my pants during naptime. Thankfully, every parent had supplied a backup pair of underwear with their student’s name written on it on the first day of school, but instead of giving me my spare tighty whities, my teacher gave me a pair of briefs with Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles printed all over them that I had never seen before.
I was conflicted. On one hand, I knew these briefs were definitely not mine. On the other hand, Leonardo, Donatello, Raphael, and Michelangelo were my favorite boy band! Finally, I had some superhero swag! But it still didn’t feel quite right.
Five years later, I outgrew the hand-me-downs and Mom finally bought me my own, brand-new Yu-Gi-Oh t-shirt. This black shirt had Yugi Mutou, the King of Games, printed near my belly button and my guardian angel, the Dark Magician hovering above. I couldn’t wait to show it off on the first day of fifth grade.
But when I got to school, I looked around and NOBODY was wearing superhero t-shirts. Now, they were all wearing these solid color tees with boring, popup letters on them that read “Property of Abercrombie and Fitch, est 1892”. In retrospect, I understand what happened over the summer: puberty. Kids stopped admiring heroes because they were too distracted by all the photos of teen models plastered across every A&F store in the country! I could imagine these two supervillains, Abercrombie and Fitch, in their evil lair, twirling their mustaches and counting their cash after brainwashing an entire generation of tweens.
I thought this was going to be the year that I would finally fit in. I hoped my classmates would recognize me as someone who liked the same heroes that they liked. But alas, everyone was dressed in these ugly, expensive, Abercrombie & Fitch costumes.
I felt betrayed. But I wasn’t going to betray myself. I looked DAMN GOOD wearing that Yu-Gi-Oh t-shirt to school every week as I had always dreamed of doing. After all, my childhood heroes taught me to stand up for what I believe in and never back down. And I was not going to become the “property of Abercrombie and Fitch”, or anyone else for that matter.