“You’re more Chinese than we are!” That’s not the reaction I was expecting when I told my Chinese friends that I’d made lotus paste mooncakes from scratch. They were delighted to find out a foreigner would dive so deep into a Chinese tradition.
Mooncakes are a central part of Mid-Autumn Festival, the second biggest holiday in China. In the weeks leading up to the festival, stores are filled with displays selling mooncakes. You might guess that everyone is looking forward to eating these sweet pastries, but to be honest, plenty of people hate them. They’re the fruitcake of China. You’re obligated to buy them for all your employees/family/close friends, but you’re not required to actually enjoy eating them. Mooncakes are certainly not something most Chinese people would choose to make from scratch as I did that year.
I wasn’t sure why I was so motivated to put in all that effort to make mooncakes. It was a long process. I had to soak the lotus seeds, boil them, mash them to a paste, make the dough for the crust by hand, and shape the mooncakes with a special press before baking them.
Maybe I wanted to do it because I like baking. I like a good challenge. And, unlike many of my friends, I actually enjoy mooncakes. (Haters, just hush and pass me yours.)
More than that, I really like Mid-Autumn Festival. In fact, it quickly became my favorite Chinese holiday after we moved overseas.
A little background for those of you who’ve never heard of the holiday. The legend behind Mid-Autumn festival involves ten suns, an archer, his wife, and the Jade Rabbit who makes immortality pills on the moon. It’s a fun read if you’re interested.
Mid-Autumn Festival usually falls in the last half of September. If you’re living in southern China, that’s right around when you’re despairing that the weather will ever be anything besides a miserable 90 degrees Fahrenheit, 90% humidity. Then along comes a holiday with “autumn” in its name, promising that cooler temps are on the way. It gives you hope.
You can feel that hope in the air as families gather to celebrate. Mid-Autumn Festival is a holiday that’s joyful and happy, but without the raucousness of Chinese New Year. Besides eating the loved/hated mooncakes, it’s traditional to eat pomelos, a big grapefruit-like fruit that’s round like the moon. Our friends taught us how to carve the pomelo rind into a lantern, and string it to be carried on the obligatory after-dinner stroll on the night of the festival. Parks would be filled with families out walking with lanterns, mostly modern plastic and paper ones instead of the pomelo rind version, but still beautiful. Cities would erect giant lanterns, big as Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade floats, but lit up from the inside. The city would be glowing, full of soft lights and smiling faces.
But along with all the autumn cheer, there’s a ribbon of sadness woven through Mid-Autumn Festival. During the evening stroll, everyone ‘moon gazes’ – looking up at the full moon and thinking of all the loved ones who are far away, knowing that they’re gazing at the same moon. (Fans of An American Tale, I see you. I’m singing the same song right now.)
Not many holidays give us space for sadness, but Mid-Autumn embraces the feeling of homesickness and longing. Maybe that’s why the holiday burrowed so deeply in my heart. It was the perfect holiday for celebrating where I was while mourning where I wasn’t. I could be happy that I was in China but still be homesick for the U.S. Perhaps that’s why Mid-Autumn Festival meant so much to me. Maybe even more than it did to many of my Chinese friends, whose families were across town instead of an ocean away.
Maybe that’s why I dove into mooncakes so hard.
It’s been a few years since I celebrated Mid-Autumn Festival in China. I can still picture the glowing lanterns, and I usually get a hankering for pomelo when September rolls around. On the day of the festival, I gaze at the full moon, thankful for the friends and family I’m with here in the U.S., yet missing those who are far away, still feeling that bittersweet tug between joy and homesickness.
As for the mooncakes? My practical side has won out. I just order them on Amazon now. Somehow, I think my Chinese friends would still be proud.
What local holidays or traditions have resonated deeply with you? Are there any ways in which your friends think you’re “more local” than they are?