I had never heard of Party City before, but a Trustworthy Source told me it’s the most American place she’s ever been. She was born and raised in Westchester, New York, so I took her word for it.
I am on a mission to see the most American places because that seems like the best way to enjoy a country one has recently moved to. On paper, I am American, but my passport is thick with visas for the fifteen years I spent growing up abroad. You can think of my quest as an attempt to make up for lost time—while most of my peers have had more than twenty years of the American Experience, I have only had five, three of which I spent looking at America from a baby stroller. So I have a lot of catching up to do.
When my friends from work heard that I was going to Party City, they all wanted to go, too. Great, I said. I will have some Native-Grown Americans to accompany me. It will be an ethnographic field study. Of my four subjects, two of them are from Immigrant Families, which are common American occurrences. Out of respect for the subjects’ privacy, I will refrain from using their real names, and instead I will call them the Filipino American and the Chinese American, because Americans always refer to minorities by their ethnicities. There were also two white Americans of unknown ethnic heritage. One of them grew up in Minnesota, so he will be dubbed the Minnesotan American. The last guy, well, I do not know where he came from - I didn’t even invite him. I only know that he is obsessed with mountains, perhaps because he grew up around mountains. Let’s just call him Mountains.
The location of this field study is the Party City store on West Fullerton Avenue in Chicago. It is located in a shopping center called Riverpoint Center, which sounds like a building with a lot of shops. If that is what you are thinking, let me tell you, you are wrong! In America, one shopping center can be a few separate buildings surrounding a large space for parking cars. This is because most Americans traverse their land in cars, not on foot or the mass transit systems of the advanced cities of the world. I am ashamed to say that driving is a skill that I have not yet mastered. While I know many things that the average American does not, like Linear Algebra, every American I have met over sixteen years of age has this skill that I don’t.
This field study occurs on October 18, 2019, approximately two weeks before Halloween, a popular holiday in America celebrated by threatening your neighbors on their doorstep. On this holiday there are also costume parties, a gathering of acquaintances who are all pretending to be someone they are not. In fact, I will be going to such a party as part of my Sorority, a separate ethnographic field study of a mysterious social tradition that is costing me hundreds of US dollars.
“Welcome to the Party,” a Party City Employee greets me as I enter.
I find the Filipino American and the Chinese American by a wall with hundreds of photos of costumes. The “Humor” section interests the subjects—they point out the “Illusion Bathroom Jon, $59.99,” which looks like a man reading a magazine on a toilet with small legs dangling in front of him. His real legs, dare I guess, are hidden in the very tall base of the toilet. It is an original, humorous, and clever illusion, and its purpose is to convey that its wearer is also original, humorous, and clever. But if I see someone wearing it, I will not find them original, humorous, and clever, because I know all they did was spend $59.99 at any of the 850 Party City stores across the USA.
“Ooh, gamer costumes,” the Filipino American points to a section of the costume wall labeled “T.V. / Movie / Gamer.” He scanned the images, featuring characters from Descendants, Stranger Things, and Rainbow Butterfly Unicorn Kitty. “But where are the gamer costumes?”
“It’s the girls’ section,” the Chinese American points out. They say that in America you can be anything, but apparently you cannot be a video game character if you are a girl.
A Party City Employee hands me an orange flyer labeled “Accessory Checklist—We’ve got you covered from head to toe.” I read off the list: “Let’s make sure we get hats, wigs, hair spray, masks, make-up and remover—"
The subjects chuckle. “No, when I put make-up on I want to keep it on,” the Filipino American informs me.
His attitude is in accordance with the capitalist ideologies of the West. “You would be getting more value out of it, right?” I ask.
“Exactly! Put it on once and have it forever!”
At the toys section, Mountains hands me a miniature blue camera, no more than one inch in height. “Do you know how it works?” he asks.
“Yes, I know how it works,” I reply. “Chinese children play with such toys too.” I place the viewfinder to my eye and click through the snapshots of Mickey and his canine friend, whose name I cannot remember(1). The toys section is reminiscent of cheap underground markets in China. Underground, as in attached to an underground subway station. Take these underground markets, expand them into a national chain, and you get Party City.
There is a wall labeled “Party Favors(2),” and hanging off it are packs of small objects: twelve animal-shaped erasers, twelve paratrooper monkeys, and twelve Play Money Pads. The Play Money Pads feature twenty-, ten-, and five-dollar bills. I flip the package over. “Made in China,” it reads. I come to the grave realization that I am holding counterfeit bills. According to moneyfactory.gov, the legal tender of the United States is manufactured by the Bureau of Engraving the Printing in the US, not in China.
The subjects surround a bin of toys. The Minnesotan American fishes out a pink rubber shark. On squeezing it, the shark emits a pig-like honk. “That is totally scientifically accurate,” he observes. The rest of the bin contains Squeeze Me Chickens, Squeeze Me Alpacas, and—to our bafflement—Squeeze Me Sumo-Centaurs. The Sumo-Centaur features a plump torso of an Asian man connected to a pink equine body. His mouth forms a round “O,” as if he were emitting a battle cry. He honks softly like a duck.
The Minnesotan American picks out four squishy Chickens, which he will tuck under the cushions of his couch, and a squishy Sumo-Centaur, which he will present to his coworker as a gift. Then, the Minnesotan American leans into the bin and pushes downwards with the weight of his body, squishing all the toys at once. They let out a collective groan of anguish. The scene reminds me of how the profit-seeking bourgeoisie oppresses the masses.
I find a blue T-shirt that says “I ♥ NERDS.” The heart has a pair of glasses over it, because Americans think poor vision is a prerequisite of intelligence. The package features a blond girl wearing the shirt and a matching blue bow tie. “Look!” I call out to the Minnesotan American, who falls under the category of nerds because he wears glasses and loves computers. (Or is he a geek? I have yet to understand the difference.)
“Oh no,” the Minnesotan American groans.
This confuses me. Does he not want to be loved? Does he object to being loved in general, or just being loved by the smiling blond girl in this T-shirt?
“Well, when it’s put like that,” he explains, “it’s like I like nerds because it’s cool to like nerds.”
I understand now. The Minnesotan American wants to be loved, but for more authentic reasons than the social value that comes with liking nerds. He does not wish to be fetishized, or to become the vehicle of someone else’s social advancement.
1. Realizing the gap in my knowledge of American culture, I googled “mickey dog” and found that the character’s name is Pluto. Its Wikipedia page reads: “Together with Mickey Mouse, Minnie Mouse, Donald Duck, Daisy Duck, and Goofy, Pluto is one of the ‘Sensational Six’—the biggest stars in the Disney universe.” I am ashamed that as an American I did not know the names of the Sensational Six, the biggest stars in the Disney universe.
2. Wikipedia: “A party favor or party favour is a small gift given to the guests at a party as a gesture of thanks for their attendance, a memento of the occasion, or simply as an aid to frivolity.”