Every year as fall rolls around, East Asian and Southeast Asian communities gather to celebrate. Whether you know it as the Mid-Autumn Festival or Chuseok, September is a time to give thanks for the harvest and for harmonious reunions. This year, we asked our editors and staffers to see what this time of the year looks like for Princeton students and their families.
In my family, Mid-Autumn celebrations begin early, often around late August when mooncakes start flooding the supermarket aisles of my neighborhood’s G-Mart. The traditional food for China’s Mid-Autumn Festival, mooncakes are a reference to the bright and full moon that appears every year on the 15th day of the lunar calendar’s eighth month. This year, that corresponds to the Gregorian calendar’s Sept. 29.
In contemporary times, the Mid-Autumn Festival, like most Chinese holidays, has become primarily an excuse to gather family together. While some people still hang glowing lanterns in door frames, the focus of the holiday is almost always sharing a meal with both close and distant relatives, some of whom you will not see until Lunar New Year, four months away. But, thousands of miles away from relatives still in China, my family tries to find community in new places. Some years, we will flock to the houses of nearby Chinese people, dressing up in red sweaters (or red qipao for the more traditionally-inclined) to celebrate with new friends. More often than not though, we will spend the mornings using up international call minutes and then leave evenings for our small, four-person nuclear family. We will treat it like any other family dinner, just with slightly more complex dishes, and afterward we will take a walk around our neighborhood, flitting from topic to topic and pausing every now and then to marvel at the moon.
Contributing Writer, The Prospect
My family isn’t big on celebrating holidays. As much as I’d like to have felt the ineffable, incredible excitement that kids have when they peek inside their stocking on Christmas morning, or find a bright egg hidden in the bushes on Easter, or dig into a giant stuffed turkey on Thanksgiving, I haven’t. The only holiday that comes to mind when people ask me, “How does your family celebrate traditions?” is Chuseok, which takes place on the same day as the Mid-Autumn Festival, but whose origins have much more of an emphasis on giving thanks to family and ancestors.
I can’t even say that we celebrate Chuseok the same way that the most fervent celebrators in Korea do. In the morning, I say “Happy Chuseok” to my parents, and tell them thank you, but I never say what for. My mom has the day off, and we go to a little shop in Bayside, Queens to treat ourselves and my grandma to fancy hand-made rice cakes. On the way home I gobble $50 worth of rice cakes in five minutes. At home, there’s tteokguk, or rice cake soup (but not the same rice cakes I just downed, which are much sweeter), waiting for me, thanks to my grandmother, and my family eats together for probably the only time this year. It’s definitely not the most dramatic or tradition-y of rituals, but I find such warmth and comfort in these small routines.
Head Editor, The Prospect
Celebrating the Mid-Autumn Festival in Sydney, Australia with my mom looks a bit different from how we’d do it back in China. When it’s just the two of us, the food we eat is not necessarily traditional, but rather, our own special adaptation. We gather the essentials — minced pork, garlic, ginger, chives, sesame oil — and mix them together into a dumpling filling. We wet our fingers and crease dumplings one by one whilst chatting with the balcony window open and the night sky keeping us company. When all the dumplings are folded, we heat oil up in our wok and fry them to a crisp. We add them to our table of warm, savory lotus and pork rib soup; lotus mooncakes loaded with four salted egg yolks; chewy, gently crisped nian gao, or rice cake; and bitter and earthy pu-erh tea.
After we’re full, we pack away the leftover food and give some ribs to our cat. We sit on the balcony, open WeChat, and call those back home — our own type of family reunion. Although every Mid-Autumn Festival reminds me of the distance between me and my family, it also gives me comfort in knowing that, no matter where I am in the world, I can gaze up at the same moon that my parents are gazing up at, fill my tummy with the same food, and wish each other health and prosperity for the upcoming year.
Contributing Writer, The Prospect
Sometimes I forget that my parents lived half of their lives in China. When my dad proudly shows off his collection of Australian flag merch, it’s weird to think that there was a time when Australia was just a foreign land to him. So, every September when my mom announces that she has to buy mooncakes, my instinctive response is always, “What for?”
For the most part, Mid-Autumn comes and goes like any other day — except right after dinner, my dad will open the embellished tin of mooncakes, cut a slice, and ask me to try it. Every year he claims the one he bought is better than the last. “This is gāo jí mooncake — it’s that high quality stuff,” he says. The image is jarring — my mom in the bakery, calculating how many boxes to buy as gifts; my dad standing in the kitchen, eating packaged mooncake in his obnoxious Australia flag t-shirt. I’ve always wondered if they miss their motherland. I don’t think they do. These days I wonder how they do it — move away from home and not miss it. I miss mine every waking second.
Growing up, I hated mooncakes. The pastry crumbled in all the wrong ways and the saltiness of the egg yolk never sat right with me. This year, I would eat a hundred mooncakes if it meant that I got to do it in matching Australian flag t-shirts with my dad.
Head Editor, The Prospect