The title above, literally translated is “middle autumn festival happy”. Also known as “the moon cake festival” or simply, “Moon Festival”, this occasion was very different for me last year.
Last year I went with two guys from my intake (training) group—we’d known each other only a couple of months by that point—and one of the guys’ friends, another woman. One of the guys lived close to the center where I worked, and had done some exploring. He’d found Daxue Lu –daxue literally means “big study” and actually is used to mean “university”--Road. Modeled after University Avenue in Palo Alto, California, this street was full of cute little shops like Sipping in Time Café, a cake shop, several little bars, a Pancake Day, some fancier restaurants and boutiques, and a place called Togo Taco, where we did lunch.
Later, three of us got cans of Asahi (the fourth not being a drinker) and wandered up and down the street at a pace one only uses on holidays. We took a few silly photos, ate a few moon cakes the woman had stashed in her bag, shared a horrid cigar, and strolled aimlessly until the full moon came out. Before the metro shut down, we hopped a train for the French Concession and ended the night with dinner and a couple of drinks at Shanghai Brewery.
This year was different because one of my students invited me to her home for a real Chinese celebration—a unique opportunity to see first hand how a typical family might celebrate this important traditional holiday.
Although my student lived near the center, and it would’ve been easy enough for me to take the subway and meet her somewhere, she and her husband braved the 20-minute road trip (in Shanghai holiday afternoon traffic) from their place to pick me up—then made a u-turn and took me to their place!
I feel, in all of my complaint-filled blog posts about pushy Shanghainese, that I’ve failed to mention one thing about Chinese culture: when they get to know you, they are the most kind and polite people ever.
Their nice car, a VW SUV, reminded me of my mom’s Subaru, with its GPS display screen and tan leather seats. On the drive we listened to some old school U.S. music—I’m talking about easy-listening country my parents had grown up with—and then some Elvis: “Are you lonesome tonight?” Apparently, Elvis is not just The King here—he’s The Cat King—as in, Mao Wang. Hilarious!
When we arrived, my student’s parents said “Qing jin”—please come in. I offered my gift with both hands—a gift bag full of five apples (because four is an unlucky number—luckily, I’d unknowingly covered all the members of the family as well); cookies from Costa coffee (two different kinds, eight each, because eight is a lucky number); and an American eagle silver coin my mother had brought from the U.S.
I also saw a familiar face—Jack, the English name for my student’s son, a young man of about 13 who’d been to the center for some activity (it was either the Halloween party or the Christmas party last year).
The first thing they wanted me to do was sit on their couch in the living room. I was used to this after my stint in the Peace Corps—being a guest, being waited on. As an independent American, this is sometimes hard for me, but I was chill enough to handle it today. Cubed watermelon sat on plate, a few pieces with small plastic forks poked in them.
Almost right away Jack sat next to me with Yeries (his mother, my student) and took a deep breath. He began, in careful English, to tell me the story of their trip to Wuyi Mountain, near Fuzhou (south of Shanghai) for his mother’s class reunion. The trip was two years ago, but it seemed that Jack had rehearsed the story, possibly for some kind of class presentation. On top of river rafting (which sounded familiar to me, being from the Pacific Northwest), the group had visited a famous cliff face where only three oolong tea trees grew. This tea, called Da Hong Pao (long red robe), is worth more than $35,000 (yes, USD) per ounce due to its incredible uniqueness.
As I asked some easy questions and Yeries looked on with a proud smile, Larry, her husband, carefully added boiling water to a fistful of wet black tea leaves in a small lidded cup. “Gong fu cha,” he said. “Kung fu tea.” He let it steep about a minute before pouring the tea into a tiny teapot, and then into our four tiny cups. The flavor of this tea was exquisite.
I learned later that gong fu cha isn’t a kind of tea, as I’d thought, but a kind of ceremony that means “making tea with great effort”. Had we in fact been drinking da hong pao tea instead?! I’m dying to know, because the tea was fantastic!
When we’d had a couple of cups of this tea, Larry and the grandfather got out a huge piece of white paper.
“Jack will show you his…ka…kagraphy? His writing homework,” Yeries stumbled. This was rare for her, as she was an upper level student, and I quickly reminded her: “Calligraphy.”
The men stood at the table, starting to fold the paper and then one stopping the other, arguing softly. Yeries shook her head. “Men are the same everywhere,” I started, smiling. “`Do it like this, man! No, no, no, like this!’”
“My parents majored in German,” she answered. “And my husband is a mechanical engineer with a German company.” I rolled my eyes, nodding in a knowing manner.
Finally the men agreed on the folds, and Jack began his writing: a vertical column of characters, top to bottom on the right, followed by a second column on the left—writing in a way no one writes anymore. The finished product said something like, “If you intend to study well, you must work hard and walk the narrow path.” I thought it was beautiful, really, the whole thing, from the meaning to the strokes of the brush, but Larry looked at it later and shook his head. “Jack could do better,” he said.
Afterwards, it was time to make jiaozi, my favorite Chinese dumpling. Jiaozi are made with round wrappers and boiled. Huntun (wonton in Cantonese) are made from square wrappers, and baozi are steamed. There are many more dumplings in Chinese cuisine, and we discussed the sad fault of English in expressing these different types. I told them that my family simply used the Chinese words, since we’d lived in China before and were familiar with each.
One of the tricks with making jiaozi (similar to making tacos) is not to overfill. Next, you wet the outer edge of the wrapper (the entire circle) with water on the tip of your finger, and close the wrapper tight, pressing hard with your fingers—as if to make the seam invisible. The other trick involves holding the horizontal fold downward, each corner in the web of your hand (between thumb and forefinger), interlacing your fingers, and squeezing. Most of mine looked a bit clumsy, of course, but none of them exploded in the water!
Later, the table was full of steamed Indian corn, boiled peanuts, and edamame; lotus root stuffed with rice; Peking duck sliced to go into small pancakes, with shredded cucumber and onion and the thick brown sauce; chicken; and Chinese kale. It was hard to control myself, knowing that the jiaozi would be served last, especially as Larry and I drank our huang jiu (yellow wine—the rest of the family had apple juice). Repeatedly we toasted all across the table, saying “Proust!” Another international experience in Shanghai!
The jiaozi, steaming hot, were as fabulous as I’d hoped, with two different kinds of fillings and three different sauces. There was also xilanhua, broccoli, steamed, with a dipping sauce made by Jack and his grandpa. It was made of avocado, lemon, and honey, and was fabulous. I could also imagine it being good on tacos, or tortilla chips!
If I’d been eating like this on a daily basis, instead of eating fried dumplings, KFC, and tons of rice or noodles (not to mention beer), I doubt I’d have gained as much weight as I had in the past year! Real Chinese food is fresh and full of vegetables, with lots of flavors, from garlic to ginger, from salty to sweet. This is one of the reasons why the teachers at my center will go to Wai Po Jia (Grandma’s Home) on the 6th floor of the mall anytime we get the chance!
Off and on the whole afternoon we’d been playing Go Fish, a card game that had actually been the focus of one of our classes at the center. Mother had taught son, and so we all played a few rounds, as well as Crazy 8s. Jack turned on the Tivo (or Chinese equivalent) so we could watch “The Voice of China”. I found myself rooting for a man from Xinjiang, who almost looked like Russell Crowe’s cousin, if a bit rougher. He played guitar and had a rough country look about him. Apparently he’d had quite the difficult childhood but had traveled and performed all around Europe. I was impressed by the singers—Mandarin, Cantonese, and English (with varying levels of intelligibility) were the common languages used.
Between TV, card games, a bit of wine and feeling stuffed, it almost felt like a holiday with my own family.