Stick to the normal candy and nobody gets hurt


Hallowe'en is a family affair at Microsoft. It typically starts at around 3 or 4 o'clock, with costumed kids roaming the hallways collecting treats from offices. One year, one of my colleagues decided that the kids deserved more than the usual candy bars and chocolates. Even though he is Caucasian, he went to the local Asian foods market and stocked up on all sorts of Asian candies. Lychee-flavored gelatin, rice crackers, spiced watermelon seeds, you name it. It's a holiday and a cultural learning experience. He dumped all the candies into a big bowl and set them out for the kids.

The kids didn't quite know what to make of it. They'd knock on the door, say Trick or Treat, reach for the bowl and... freeze, or possibly even recoil.

"It's okay, Johnny. Just take one," Johnny's parents cajoled.

Little Johnny remained unconvinced.

Many kids would hesitantly pick out a candy. Some would back away slowly and move to the next office.

One reaction came from some teenage girls who said (probably in reaction to the rice crackers), "You cheapskate! You just went to the cafeteria and took some crackers!" He was unable to convince them that, no, these aren't soup crackers; they're Asian candy.

The day wound down, and my friend still had a lot of candy left over. I wandered over to check on him and brought another Caucasian colleague (let's call him Bob) so we could marvel at what those wacky Asians consider candy. We sifted through the bowl, and Bob shouted out, "Hey, I remember these!"

My friend and I were kind of surprised that Bob recognized an obscure Asian candy. Bob explained, "Yeah, I had a Chinese roommate in college, and he would sometimes eat these." Bob cracked open the package and popped one into his mouth. "Yup, it's the same stuff. I wonder what it is."

We looked at the package. It identified itself as haw flakes. What are haw flakes? We didn't know. Maybe the ingredients panel will give us a clue.

"Ingredients: Haw, sugar."

Okay, that didn't help much.

From then on, my friend bought the normal candy to give out on Hallowe'en.

Comments (26)
  1. Nathan_works says:

    Different tastes, different cultures..

    At my old company, our PMs would get boxes of trade-show type gear and candy from our Japan office. It’d go out on the table, and over time folks would take some here/there.. The candy always looked tasty, but since none of us could read the packaging, it was always a gamble on what flavor you picked up.

  2. Chris says:

    They’re made from the fruit of the Chinese hawthorn.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Haw_flakes

  3. SM says:

    Chris: Of course, one could have just followed Raymond’s links in the story to find that out.

    I heard that in Hawai’i on Halowe’en they celebrate at the Optional Apostrophe Festival.

  4. mvadu says:

    But its always good to know about another culture.. e.g. in my office we are having a Pot Luck Lunch Event to celebrate both Deepavali (Indian Festival of Lights) and Halloween together. Hopefully it will be a fun event..

  5. Tom says:

    That’s not an apostrophe in Hawaii -- that's an okina (written with an open single quote).  A Hawaiian once made a big deal about it to me.

    I find that college freshmen are quite willing to eat Asian candies.  Teenagers just need to outgrow that "phase."

  6. xix says:

    I recently had the experience of being offered candy from a similar pile, and sifted through them trying to find ones I’d want to try.  Of course, most of the writing was chinese, but occasionally some english would be in there, most usually the word "Flesh".. but in that case, it was referring to some fruit’s flesh.

    I tried guessing what it would be by the mostly unidentifiable fruits on the labels, but I never did venture to try the candy with the cow-label.

  7. MikeWasson says:

    re Hawai`i: Yes, because it’s not a contraction. It’s closer to a glottal stop. (hawai-ee, not hawayee)

    xix: I wonder if the candy with the cow-label was milk candy.

  8. David Brooks says:

    Another feature of Halloween on campus is that, if you leave at a fairly normal quittin’ time, it can take the best part of an hour to get from some parking garages to the open road. Just those few extra cars leaving at much the same time (in time to get back to the neighborhood for the regular T&T) jam everything up.

    Wonder how that will impact getting to the Connector this year? Fortunately the RedWest shuttle leaves from the nearest possible spot to the escape chute.

  9. No One says:

    How does a Texan laugh sarcastically when a woman tells a joke he doesn’t find funny?

    "Haw, sugar."

  10. NULL says:

    So that’s what they’re called!  I had them many years ago when I was younger, and they were great, but of course, I never learned their name.

  11. Shinobu says:

    I guess kids are different everywhere. Where I used to live long ago, we didn’t have Hallowe’en, but we had a similar folksy holiday: Saint Martin, 11 November. The Chinese restaurant always had things like kroepoek and strange nut-like candy, which we enjoyed for the surprise of it.

  12. Mr Cranky says:

    @David Brooks:  Shouldn’t that be T|T?

  13. Worf says:

    Ooh, I love haw flakes… ate tons of the stuff when I was young, and only in my teens did I managed to know what they were called.

    Hallowe’en at my company is interesting. We’re encouraged to put on costumes (participation is low most years, but a couple of times it spiked). And there’s always the core group of people who get all decked out (one of our VPs, notably – always fun to find out what funny costume he’ll use).

    Me, I had my usual (enough for one of my coworkers to comment that it’s supposed to be a costume, not something you’d want to wear to the office) – I’d grab one of my flight suits off the shelf and put it on (helps to have a few of ’em, and some NASA ones, demo teams, top gun, etc. – so it’s not just same old boring green ones).

    One small joke that ran throughout the office started when I was browsing Xbox Live for free stuff, and remarking to another coworker (project manager) about Xbox360 packages to replace my old Xbox360. He spied one, and what did I see first? Master Chief costume… joke of the week since I did want that, but the price… (and how much time wasted conjuring up plans on ways of using our Microsoft contacts to get one to send on over. No, I didn’t ask him, though I think I might he next time I’m on campus…

    And hey, it fools some of the other offices. A couple of years ago, I donned one of my NASA suits and someone from the other office asked another coworker what we did with NASA… great fun.

    Alas, Hallowe’en celebrations look like they’re dying out at the company – few people did the pumpkin carving. And a blessing that I’m not in a customer-facing position so participation is easier.

    No trick-or-treating in the office though, but most people leave early so they can go home and take their kids out.

  14. Yummy says:

    Haw is awesome!  I could eat haw flakes all day.

  15. Smackfu says:

    Brings back memories of *my* Chinese roommate in college.  His parents would visit and leave him tupperware containers full of unidentifiable skinned and cubed white fruit.  All I could get out of him was "Chinese apple" or "Chinese pear".

    It also reminds me of the jamaica flavor that is everywhere in Mexico.  It’s just not a flavoring you see in the US.

  16. Ken Hagan says:

    "@David Brooks:  Shouldn’t that be T|T?"

    T||T, surely?

  17. Cheong says:

    Haw Flakes(山楂餅) tastes good. It’s usually be sold with Chinese medicine when the patient is children.

    You know, Chinese medicine formula usually give you some bitter / strange taste liquid that children never like. This "candy" is used to compensate the bad taste. And it’s medication properties (I don’t know how to properly say it in English) is known to be "won’t have negative effect when mix-used with most medicine herbs".

    Out of medical usage, it’ll make you less thirsty when you’re running out of water in summer… :P

  18. porter says:

    > "It’s okay, Johnny. Just take one," Johnny’s parents cajoled.

    "It’s okay, Johnny, blackmail is good".

  19. Igor Levicki says:

    …we don’t celebrate Halloween. Problem solved :-)

  20. Cheong says:

    Talking about Halloween as "Ghost Festival", There is interesting differnce between Chinese and Western ones.

    The Chinese Ghost Festival is at the whole month of July in lunar new year. In the traditional tales in that period the gate to "the other world" will be opened and the ghosts will have a free time to visit their family. So we’ll also doing a favor for those without a family by preparing good meals and "spare money" for them. There’s by no means to horrify anyone, but somehow the tales are growing more horrifying now, and we have sayings like "don’t go out at night on lunar July", many many ghost tales, etc.

    The traditions of Western Ghost Festival, on the other hand, was to decorate yourself as ghost so they won’t harm you (At least that’s what I heard). The tradition grew to the happier way that you notice people use the word "celebrate" on it.

    Isn’t it kind of funny to see two variation of the same thing goes different way? :P

  21. Jonathan Wilson says:

    With all the news lately about tainted chinese milk products (and candy containing said tainted milk) I wouldn’t touch any chinese candy with a 10 foot pole (or any candy with chinese writing on the packet for that matter)

  22. Aaron G says:

    I’m Caucasian but I can’t get enough of those bean cakes (the white ones with yellow filling).  I always have to pick one up whenever I’m at the Asian food market.  I have no idea what’s in them but it can’t be much worse than what’s in a Mars bar.

    Most people here (Toronto) are pretty comfortable with Asian food.  Must be due to our high Asian population, because when I meet people from more remote/urban areas, they also tend to recoil in terror.  I wonder sometimes if it’s actual exposure that makes the difference or just cultural values.

  23. Maurits says:

    Weird candy is very much in the spirit of Hallowe’en, even if it tends more toward the "trick" side of things.

    Many kids would hesitantly pick out a candy. Some would back away slowly and move to the next office.

    Wusses.  Wonder what they would think of the Cricket Lick-it?

  24. Phaeron says:

    It’s been a long time since I’ve eaten haw flakes, but the coolest part about them is that they’re flat, thin discs about an inch in diameter which are brownish and have a bit of a sandy texture. This means that when you eat them around unsuspecting engineers, they get this strange look on their faces because to them it looks like you’re eating a sanding disc from a Dremel tool.

  25. Xepol says:

    Pocky.  That’s all I have to say on the subject.

  26. Nicole DesRosiers says:

    On the topic of Chinese medicine: I don’t know whether Japan’s theories or blends are similar or not, but I had the unfortunate experience of taking my first Japanese powdered medication a month ago.

    It was this strange mixture of a hint of apple/cinnamon and horribly horribly bitter.  I almost couldn’t get it down.  If Chinese medications are anything similar, I’m not surprised they feel the need to employ haw flakes to make the experience slightly more palatable.

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