It’s the Mid-Autumn Festival also known as Mooncake or Lantern Festival. It’s the 3rd most popular holiday in China and its origins go back 3,500-years. The festival falls on the 15th day of the eighth month of the Chinese lunar calendar which translates to September 8th. It’s a happy occasion celebrating the harvest, family and friendship.
One of the most important elements of celebrating the Mid-Autumn Festival is to buy and give mooncakes to your friends and family.
Eating slices of mooncake together signifies that those present will be reunited in the future. If you eat mooncakes given to you as a gift by other people, it is another indication that you will meet them again.
Mooncakes are also a reminder of a time in ancient Chinese history of great strife and crisis, in particular the overthrow of the Mongol Yuan dynasty, which ruled China for over a century from 1271-1368 AD.
A piece of paper was baked into thousands of mooncakes to incite rebellion, saying, “Kill the Mongols on the 15th day of the eighth month”, which was distributed by rebels to the Chinese families under strict military rule.
To commemorate the rebellion, mooncakes have been baked in special molds which imprint between three to six Chinese characters onto the cakes.
Today the Chinese characters refer to the flavor of the cake. Some of the more popular flavors include: date, red bean, mung bean, pineapple and nuts. Usually a single or double egg yolk is baked inside to further signify the moon.
The Mid-Autumn Festival also honors the legend of Chang’e who lives on the Moon and is immortal, while her husband Houyi is stuck on Earth, and the two can only meet during the Mid-Autumn Festival’s the full moon, when the milky way is easier to cross.
To honor the story, it is traditional to light lanterns outside your home during Mid-Autumn Festival. The oldest style of lanterns are pink, blue, yellow and green paper lanterns which hold a candle and have a tassel hanging beneath the lantern.
May is Asian Pacific Heritage Month — how are you celebrating?
Cultural influences are all around us. Maybe you experience them and don’t even realize it. Here are some simple things you can do in your hometown to expand your understanding:
1. Try a new ethnic cuisine – either at a restaurant or by cooking a new recipe. Most of us are familiar with Italian pizza, Chinese sweet and sour pork, and Mexican carne asada… how about trying an Ethiopian stew (wot) or Indian tandoori chicken? Note the different tastes. How does it compare with the way you prepare stews and chicken?
2. Listen to music from another culture. You can spend time exploring your radio dial. Here in Los Angeles we have Spanish, Mandarin, Vietnamese stations. See if you can make out what they’re saying. Another way is to go online and tune in.
3. Watch a movie with a different point of view. Some suggestions to get you started include: The Help, Letters From Iwo Jima, Hotel Rwanda, The Color Purple. You can also check out films made by another country—Hong Kong, France, and Australia to name a few.
4. Of course as writers, reading a book will enhance both our writing and awareness skills. books in this area include: The Color of Water (autobiography) by James McBride, Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand by Helen Simonson, Rules for Virgins by Amy Tan, The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini, Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford, Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress by Dai Sijie, , and many others.
5. Visit a different neighborhood. If you live near an area ethnically different from you own, go into a grocery store in the area. See what’s similar and different from the items stocked in the store you usually shop in. What kinds of different vegetables, fruits and meats do they carry?
Becoming aware of different cultures opens your eyes to the differences, similarities and influences within our own lives.
Until next time,
The Cultural Lens
When I was young, my parents warned me about mixed marriages – how such relationships were to be avoided at all costs. Consequences included estrangement, intolerance and even violence. Worse, children of such unions would suffer further social rejection.
At the time I thought my parents cruel, even prejudice. What I didn’t understand then, was the cultural lens that shaped their point of view.
What is the Cultural Lens? It’s a widening of one’s perspective–taking into consideration influences that aren’t fully visible.
During my parents’ generation, a social stigma against mixed marriages did exist. There were even hostile laws enforcing such views.
In 1922, American Caucasians were essentially punished for marrying immigrants of Chinese descent. Those who did had their citizenship revoked. It wasn’t until the late 1950’s that this law broke down and marriage views began to change.
In 1958, Richard and Mildred Loving married in Washington, D.C. to evade Virginia’s anti-miscegenation law (the Racial Integrity Act). Richard was Caucasian, Mildred was of African-American and American Indian descent. Having returned to Virginia, they were arrested in their bedroom for living together as an interracial couple. It was finally repealed nine years later by the Supreme Court in 1967.
So within my parents’ lifetime they’ve seen a drastic perspective shift regarding interracial marriages. In our own family, we have three mixed marriages. Today the rate of America’s interracial unions continues to grow. A recent study found that 8.4 percent of all current U.S. marriages were interracial, up from 3.2 percent in 1980. And the debate continues with same-sex couples now battling it out in the courts.
I’m a Chinese American married to a Jewish man in the 21st Century. Yet a mere fifty years ago, such a union was illegal.
My novel, Shanghai Love, honors my own interracial marriage.
During World War II, Peilin, a trained Chinese herbalist struggles between duty to her dead husband’s family and her own quest for personal identity. Her path crosses with Jewish doctor Henri–a refugee who flees Germany after Hitler’s hostile attack known as Kristallnacht (Night of Broken Glass).
I explore these two cultures forced together by war. Openness and love bridge their outward cultural differences.
Today mixed relationships are much more socially acceptable. Yet racism and bigotry still exists. How does a world which tends to cast people in black-and-white identities evolve? How will future generations identify with their past? Will we again become more separate? Will global society become homogenous mix? Or is there a way to embrace all that uniquely defines us?
As writers we can weigh in on the discussion. Walking in someone else’s shoes and seeing the world through their eyes cultivates humanity. Historical and cultural details add emotional intensity and further deepen your characters. Awareness builds understanding.