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MOON CAKES
September 2005

Today is the Mid-Autumn moon festival.  Although the festival technically celebrates the end of the summer harvest, the coming together of family, and the worship of the immortal woman on the moon, the festivities are manifested mostly through the consumption of bean-paste filled moon cakes.

 For the past few weeks, shops have been filled with brightly colored boxes containing the moon cakes.  The name alone was quite appealing, but I feared they were filled with bean paste, like most desserts here, so I avoided them.  Then someone told me they were actually filled with nuts and fruit, so I bought a package of them.  Just as I suspected, they were filled with bean paste.  Luckily, we managed to push them off on others when we inaugurated our new house by having a party for all the Chinese and western teachers at our school.

 Trying to avoid the bean paste confrontations once and for all, I learned to say the word and read character for bean paste at our Chinese lesson.  Every time I learn some new words, I like to play a little game with my Chinese friends called, “Guess what Sera is saying in Chinese.”  So I tried out my new word a couple days later, and my friend said, “You’re saying, ‘how much.’”  No, no, no, that’s duo shao, I’m saying dou sha.  “You’re saying, ‘how stupid’”?   No, no, no. I tried again.  After several failed attempts, I finally revealed that I was trying to say bean paste.  She coached me for a long time on the correct tones, since the words are the same for “how stupid” and “bean paste”.  I hate tones and I hate stupid bean paste.

I asked about the origins of the moon festival, and got several different versions of the traditional story.  They all revolve around a woman named Chang E and her husband named Hou Yi.  They were immortal, then lost their immortality as a punishment for something involving 10 suns.  After some time, Hou Yi got a pill that could restore their immortality.  However, he had to wait about one year to use it, while serving some penance.  Meanwhile, his wife Chang E found the pill, swallowed it, and started floating towards the moon from the overdose.  Hou Yi, a famous archer, came home just in time to see his wife floating off.  He was going to shoot her down, but decided against it.   When she got to the moon, she coughed up part of the pill.  The jade rabbit who lives on the moon and manufactures elixirs by pounding, is to this day still working on the medicine to let her fly back to earth.  In the meantime, the moon looks very beautiful on the 15th day of the 8th lunar month in the traditional Chinese calendar because on that day her husband can go visit her.  Or something like that.

 The moon cakes also serve as a warning.  Although it’s really only the beginning of autumn, we know the cold winter is coming soon.  We’ve been trying do all the outdoor things possible while the weather is still beautiful.  One day we walked for about four hours on Bing Hai Lu, a road that twists and turns along the sea coast.  It was a perfect day, with clear skies, a bright sun, and a nice wind.  We’ve also been exploring our new part of town.  We found a pretty cool open market about two bus stops from us, where we bought some more snails for our fish tank (the other ones didn’t survive the move), a new plant for my growing plant collection, and of course lots of fruits and vegetables. 

 Our new neighborhood is turning out to be much better than I anticipated.  Although our street is not filled with fruit vendors and shops likes our old one, and we have to walk for about 8 minutes to get to our nearest produce shop, we have found this location to be enjoyable. Our apartment is filled with younger people, and in the afternoons there are children outside playing.  The inhabitants seem friendlier and greet us normally, rather than just staring at us.

 We’ve also been enjoying our new kitchen and have had some friends over to cook dinner with us a few times.  The funny thing is that it’s really becoming quite apparent that it’s cheaper to eat out at a restaurant than have a proper dinner at home.  Before the party at our house for all the teachers, we all went out to a restaurant for supper together.  For 23 people, it only cost Y258 (about $30).  At one of those 4-table, hole-in-the-wall restaurants near our house, Zac and I can eat rice and a chicken-peanut dish for supper for just Y11 ($1.36).  So even with our wonderful new kitchen, we still tend to eat out a lot.

 Amongst the moon cakes, we’ve had our first two weeks of the new semester.  Zac’s teaching schedule isn’t too different from before.  Our school now has mostly male American teachers, with only one girl, named Sarah, who was also in the Peace Corps in Africa.  Having two Sa/era/h’s provides endless amusement for the Chinese teachers.  Another teacher, a guy from Ohio, was in the Peace Corps in Botswana doing HIV/AIDS work.  So we’re in good company.  My new job is ok; I’ve been training the late-arriving teachers one-by-one as they trickle in.  Last week I was also substituting at 3 different schools.  It was quite chaotic, but I’m glad to be doing something different and having more variety.  Last night I stayed the night in Jin Zhou because the manager there invited all the teachers and staff out to dinner to celebrate the mid-autumn festival.  It was really enjoyable, and I practiced saying “bu yao dou sha” (I don’t like bean paste) much to the amusement of the Chinese teachers.  I’m really quite horrible at Chinese.

 After the dinner, I walked home with the other foreign teachers (from Canada) who were putting me up for the night, and two Chinese teachers who lived nearby.  I was carrying a large clear plastic bag with a comforter and sheets in it, that the manager had given me, and the Chinese teachers found it absolutely hilarious.  They finally admitted that I looked like a refugee.  I think the manager gave me the blankets just for their amusement.  It was a beautiful night though, warm and quiet (in Jin Zhou, the buses stop at 7pm, so there are screeching brakes all night like here), and there was a clear full moon.  I looked at it on the walk home and imagined it was filled with dou sha.

Read more about moon cakes: an article from Reuters.

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