Thursday, September 22, 2011

Why my refrigerator is full of moon cakes and pomelos

Here in Taiwan, the 15th day of August in the Chinese Lunar calendar is the Moon Festival. This year, that day lined up with September 12 on the Gregorian calendar.

So what is the Moon Festival? For me, the Moon Festival means a day off school, lots of friendly people giving Christine and I moon cakes and pomelos, and getting the opportunity to attend a real Taiwanese style backyard family barbeque with my awesome host family.
My refrigerator contents: cereal, soda, 4 pomelos, and
more boxes of moon cakes than I care to count
In case you were wondering what a moon cake looks like,
here's a picture from one of our many moon cake eating parties.
They're all filled with different things.
From a slightly more cultured perspective, the Moon Festival celebrates the Mid-Autumn harvest. It falls on the day that the moon is fullest and closest to Earth. There is, of course, a fun myth that goes along with the Moon Festival. There are a lot of variations of the story of Chang'e, the woman on the Moon, but it generally goes something like this:

Chang'e and her husband Houyi were immortals living in heaven. One day, the ten sons of the Jade Emperor (the Emperor of heaven) transformed into ten suns and began to scorch the Earth and cause a severe drought. Having failed to order his sons to stop ruining the earth, the Jade Emperor summoned Houyi for help. Houyi, using his legendary archery skills, shot down nine of the sons, but spared one son to be the sun. The Jade Emperor was obviously not pleased with Houyi's solution to save the earth: nine of his sons were dead. As punishment, the Jade Emperor banished Houyi and Chang'e to live as mere mortals on earth.

The whole nine yards: Chang'e, the Jade Rabbit,
and some moon cakes.
In an attempt to regain their immortality, Houyi went on a quest for the elixir of life and eventually found the pill of immortality. You only needed to take half the pill to gain immortality. However, Chang'e ended up taking the whole pill because, depending on the version of the story, either Houyi became king and turned into a despot or Houyi's evil archery apprentice tried to steal the pill for himself. Or perhaps she was just curious. Either way, taking the whole pill caused her to fly out the window and up to the moon, where she's been hanging out ever since. While Chang'e became lonely on the moon without her husband, she did have company. A jade rabbit who manufactured elixirs with his mortar and pestle, also lived on the moon. But even if the rabbit succeeds in making another pill of immortality, Chang'e has no way of getting it to her husband, who is said to have built a palace on the sun since his wife floated away. 

One more fun random fact about Chang'e for all my relatives from Titusville. She was mentioned in the conversation between Houston Capcom and Apollo 11 crew just before the first Moon landing (compliments of Wikipedia):
"Houston: Among the large headlines concerning Apollo this morning there's one asking that you watch for a lovely girl with a big rabbit. An ancient legend says a beautiful Chinese girl called Chang-o has been living there for 4000 years. It seems she was banished to the Moon because she stole the pill for immortality from her husband. You might also look for her companion, a large Chinese rabbit, who is easy to spot since he is only standing on his hind feet in the shade of a cinnamon tree. The name of the rabbit is not recorded.
Collins: Okay, we'll keep a close eye for the bunny girl." 
Okay, long tangent. Back to my experience with the Moon Festival.To celebrate, most Taiwanese families like to get together and barbeque outside where they can see the moon. So, since my family is all back home in America (and also has no idea what the Moon Festival even is), my host family here was kind enough to invite me to a barbeque with their next door neighbors at their house.

A quick introduction to my host family:
Jane, who teaches fifth grade at Dong Sing, and Jason, who works at the
Yilan Teacher's Center. They're pretty much the nicest people ever!
Candy, she's adorable. She can't understand most of what I say in my broken
Chinese but we've bonded over cat's cradle, the awkward sea turtle, and my
other random tricks.
Candy even helped to make dinner
I have my own apartment here in Taiwan, so I don't actually live with my host family. They're just really awesome, friendly people who are willing to hang out with me, show me around Luodong, and help me work on my bad Chinese.

The moon Festival barbeque was delicious but unlike any American barbecue I've ever attended. Here's some of what we grilled:
Tofu stuffed with pork and cilantro. Jason dared me to eat one. Of course I did.
Only when he was sure I had swallowed it did he inform me that it was in fact
a smoked pig snout. 
Pork, you wrap it in lettuce or wonderbread when you eat it.
Squid balls!
More squid. These guys were slightly more lifelike but equally delicious.
Fresh shrimp! It was like being back in Florida.
And here are the chefs hard at work:
Despite their young age, the boys from next door were grilling pros
Happy feasting!
Long story short, it was a good night, my host family is awesome, and Christine and I will never finish eating all of our moon cakes!

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