Guilt Multiplied or “Shine on Harvest Moon”

I have a busier social calendar than that of all of my Readers–  except for my new friend, Lindsay, whom I met at the Hazon Food Conference– and it’s not that I have more friends.  It’s because I attempt to juggle three different calendars and yesterday, I overlooked some cultural and familial milestones.

Everyone in the U.S. was observing (or at least was aware of) the 10th anniversary of the willful destruction of the World Trade Towers on Sunday.  Then, what happens the day afterwards?  I forgot that September 12th is my brother’s birthday and the date that my father observes as his American birthday— easier to remember than the 12th day of the 9th month of the Chinese calendar— and it’s also the Harvest Moon Festival.  When I spoke with my parents on Sunday, they never mentioned any of the three, but why should they?  Would they think their grown-up, middle-aged daughter would forget?

The problem stems from the fact that the Chinese and the Jewish calendars, although both are based on the lunar cycle, are not coincidental.  In a common year, the Harvest Moon Festival comes at the same time as Sukkot— on a full moon which appears on the 15th of the month.  However, this year Jews observed a second month of Adar in the spring.  The Chinese calendar also has leap months, but it is “added according to a complicated rule, which ensures that month 11 is always the month that contains the northern winter solistice.”  [Wikipedia].  Not having examined the calendar that my parents had given me, I did not know when was this year’s Harvest Moon Festival.  I did get a clue earlier, in retrospect, when I visited my parents in late August (to see Anything Goes!, a fabulous show on Broadway) and they offered me some moon cakes.  Why so early, said I, and my father answered, it’s not early.  Still mentally and emotionally stuck on the coincidence of Harvest Moon with Sukkot, I didn’t even consult the calendars until it was almost too late.  And how did I find out?  Not from my siblings (although my sister did alert me to our brother’s birthday with her good-wishes message).  I found out when I got an e-mail message from Asian Suppers, a website that features recipes from the diverse Asian cultures, saying:

Today marks the 15th day of the 8th month of the lunar calendar, also more popularly known as the Mid-Autumn Festival (aka, Zhong Qiu Jie, Chuseok, Otsukimi, Moon Festival, and many other names) — an important holiday across several cultures in Asia, and marked by moon-viewing, family gatherings, thanks and celebration, commemoration of those who have passed on and … eating special foods.

In China … moon cakes are the name of the game, but in certain regions, so is eating river snails (Guangzhou), duck (Fujian) and taro.

In Taiwan ... moon cakes are popular, but so is BBQ!

In Koreasongpyeon, a type of rice cake, is widespread. Fillings range from chestnuts to different kinds of beans.

In Japantsukimi dango – rice dumplings – and other tsukimi-ryori (moon viewing cuisine) are enjoyed while gazing at the moon.

Are you celebrating? Share how you’re doing it or what you’re eating with the rest of the gang over here

Traditional Chinese

月餅

Simplified Chinese

月饼

Hanyu Pinyin

yuèbĭng

Moon cakes are not made in the home. It’s a complicated pastry left to the professionals, although my friend Lindsay owns a set of antique moon cake molds, acquired when her family lived in China. They are round or rectangular in shape with a rich, thin crust and filled usually with a paste of red beans or lotus seeds. Another popular filling is a mixture of “five kernels” (五仁, wǔ rén), consisting of five types of nuts and seeds (such as walnuts, pumpkin seeds, watermelon seeds, peanuts, sesame seeds, or almonds). The fancier ones include a salted egg yolk— or even twins— to represent the full moon. They are offered as gifts to family and associates and they’re served, sliced into small wedges, with tea.

In conclusion, I could use a software program that reminds me of notable dates on the Chinese calendar. Here’s a heads-up to my Readers and my siblings: the Chinese New Year will come on January 23, 2012, and it’ll be the Year of the Dragon or 4710.

Keeping One Foot in Each World

In the three-and-a-half years since I’ve started this blog, I’ve written about issues from the Chinese, American, and Jewish perspective, but I’ve never yet written about what it’s like to be Chinese in a Jewish community.  I didn’t feel ready, since identity is an ever-changing phenomenon, but an article in this past Friday’s New York Timeson a summer camp for Jews of color as well as its on-going series on race in America, made me stop to reflect on my experiences.

While I’ve heard of incidences of prejudice both overt—  a family not wanting their daughter marrying into a family with a giyoret (female convert) or a Kallah teacher abusing a young bride with non-Jewish parents— and subtle, I’ve been incredibly fortunate.  Maybe, it’s because I am of Chinese heritage–  one generally regarded positively by the Jewish community— or that I was already an educated adult who could choose my own community and establish a network of friends.  One cherished comment came from one of my oldest friends in the Jewish world, who told me that it would be alright with her even if I didn’t go through with the conversion process (as the Orthodox bet din is more strict than others).  (As I’ve written earlier, I have a personal mission to eradicate the term, “Chinese auction,” but its usage stems not from outright racism, but rather from the insularity of some Jewish communities.)

Another important fact is that to the Orthodox, the only badge of membership that matters is one’s observance of the mitzvot (commandments).  A secular Jew might have other means of identification, including having Jewish grandparents, or sillier ones like understanding the kind of blended Yiddish (Yinglish) spoken by most American Jews.  The journalist, Samuel Freedman, wrote: “As the largest group of Jewish immigrants to the United States, those from Eastern Europe have set the cultural tone since the early 1900’s.  Their folkways— bagels, Yiddish, New Deal politics, Borsht Belt jokes—became a virtual religion.  Which meant that nobody from outside could ever get completely inside.”  Fortunately for me, my religion is Yahadut (Judaism), not cultural folkways.  Besides, I love the subtle spiciness of Sephardic cuisine over Ashkenazic gefilte fish and brisket, which I don’t eat anyway because I’m a vegetarian.

The children attending Camp Be’chol Lashon (In Every Tongue) felt marginalized in their home communities.  For a while, I’d worried about how my children fared, in cultivating both of their dual heritages.  Recently, I was startled to learn that my college-graduate daughter does not think of herself as “white,” being as she’s been raised by Chinese and Jewish parents.   On the college campus, she experienced more quizzical looks and inquiries into her ancestry:  Mexican?  Filipina?  Puerto Rican?  She was more than pleased by the country having its first mixed-race President.  My conviction is that the only heritages that matter are the ones that you honor by your values and the customs you maintain.

So, just as the first wave of Korean adoptive children benefitted from the Korean culture camps created by their white American parents— this tradition is continued today amongst the Chinese adoptees— maybe these Jews of color do need a camp of their very own.  Maybe one day, they too will feel comfortable negotiating the dualities of their life.  The Torah has 70 faces, teaches my Rabbi, so no one Jew has to feel or do exactly as the next.  As the world gets smaller with world travel and Internet communication, a Jew should feel comfortable within her own skin.  We too can feel as if we’d stood at the foot of Har Sinai where Moshe delivered the Ten Commandments.

Saying Farewell

Today I walked into my neighborhood Catholic Church to attend the funeral mass of a family with multiple points of connection with my own.  The only other time I’d attended a mass was during college with my Irish girlfriend, but this was a vastly different affair from that low-key service in a non-denominational chapel.  This was a service with an organ, both male and female soloists, and incense, which caused some non-Catholics to cough but I was fine because I had been responsible for lighting the incense for the family altar as a girl.  All this was in a devotional space with stained glass windows, a vaulted ceiling, and numerous statuaries.  The combination of organ music, superb vocals, and fine acoustics is spine-thrillingly exquisite.

An unusual aspect of this funeral was the decision of the deceased to be cremated, so a simple wooden box with her ashes was on display, but which I was not cognizant until the recessional in which the son carried out her box of ashes.  After a few weeks at home, her ashes will be buried in Valley Forge to join other members of her family, which dates from the American Revolution.

This was a funeral in which the only personal reference to the deceased was that she was the only girl in a family with six sons and that she sang.  There were no eulogies, with her husband reading two selections from the New Testament.  There was a partaking of the Communion wafer in which the grieving husband and son and ready members of the Catholic community participated  (some accepted this by mouth from the Monsignor’s hand, others accepted it in cupped hands).  Afterwards, the family lead a procession to their nearby home, where refreshments were offered to the visitors.

This was so different from the Jewish funeral and shivah rituals as well as the Buddhist funeral I’d attended for my grandmother.  Jews love to talk, so their eulogies can be lengthy and emotional, but everyone gets to hear details from the deceased’s life.  I guess Catholics focus on the afterlife, not the life on Earth.  Buddhist funerals are also relatively quiet, with silent rituals expected from the male children and grandchildren.

The grieving process is very detailed and prescribed for observant Jews.  For a period of a week, they neither work nor serve themselves, letting members of the community tend to them and show loving compassion.  I’m told that the shivah period is crucial for coming to grips with the death; a friend reported  that her non-observant siblings did not cope as well as she did, attributing her resilience to her observance of shivah.  Then for the next 11 months, a mourner recites Kaddish, the tefillah (prayer) of words of praise for God, and not a reminder of the human loss.  I’ve read that this focuses the mourner to the life here, one that may be bereft of a loved one but that we’re still here by the grace of God.

After my grandmother’s funeral, I asked my Rabbi if I may recite Kaddish for my parents when they die (as I’m a convert to Judaism).  He said yes, but he asked if there was another way to honor my parents, who would be bewildered by a ritual foreign to them.  This reminded me that funerals and mourning rituals are as much for the mourners as for the deceased.  Since then I’ve told my husband that upon my death, he and our girls may mourn me as they wish and dispose of my treasures as they see fit.  Our diverse religious customs help us manage our grief and steer us to life anew.

Survival of the Fittest

This weekend, my father-in-law startled me by saying that the assistance that I provide to my refugee clients may not be in their best interest, that it may even hamper the development of their own independence.  He urged me to interview my parents and ask them about the difficulties in their first year in the United States as immigrants.  No one helped them, did they?  No, no one or any agency did.  He continued: This country is great because of the immigrants who’ve come and succeeded– on their own.  We do a disservice to them when we pamper them to the extent of inhibiting their own initiative.

I was so perturbed by this conversation that I sought out my Rabbi for a perspective based more on ethics than on Darwinism.  How could I be doing wrong by my refugees?  His teshuvah (halachic response) is that there must be a balance.  Historically, the immigrants who have succeeded the most– the Jews, the Irish, the Koreans– did benefit from the assistance of their own communities.  They did not wait for government handouts.  Their brethren provided valuable resource in the guise of networking, interest-free loans, and employment opportunities.  Everyone had to undergo the agony of cultural assimilation and the foibles of alienation.  A family tale: My husband’s aunt came to visit her daughter in New York and because her Israeli accent was thick, the driver (who may have also been an immigrant and burdened with an accent of his own) did not understand her stated destination of Roosevelt Island, so he drove her to Riker’s Island, where the main prison is located and from where no taxis can be hailed!  No, no agency could have helped her with her situation.

During this graduation season, I am witness to the different kinds of parenting among my friends and acquaintances.  A woman from my shul told me she was renting a van to drive her daughter to Chicago and would I need anything brought home?  No, I don’t want anything brought back home!  Then, a dear friend told me she’d brought her housekeeper along to clean her son’s quarters upon graduation.  By dint of unusual circumstances as well as personal choice, my daughter left for college by herself with only two bags and she has never asked us to drive her to or back from Chicago.  She will be moving to her new apartment without our assistance.  Her father has given her money for her living expenses, but we have friends who told their children that they are on their own after college (or they could move back home).  I’m glad our daughter is motivated to being independent.

Babies thrive best when they have a safe and stable environment with nurturing caregivers.  We endow our children with the resources of our families.  They proceed to negotiate with the outside world on their own terms, drawing upon the family capital but also drawing on their own strengths and talents.

Immigrants are motivated for success by choosing to leave their families, their people, their land.  You could say that they are pre-selected for success.  However, as my Rabbi has noted, even individual hard work needs the benefit of si’ata d’shmayah (Heavenly assistance).  So, I am relieved to conclude thus: my refugees do need help while they are learning the language and mores of our culture (and more than the 180 days that HIAS is contracted to provide).  The Social Worker had cautioned me about not beguiling them with American generosity, however, she’s met refugees who came off the plane with so few possessions that they filled only two rice sacks!  So, I’ll try hard not to pamper them needlessly.  They will land on their feet and succeed, and I serve as their Advocate, the “angel” (if I could be so bold to say so) who could give them some assistance along the way.