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


Simplified Chinese


Hanyu Pinyin


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.

Book Chat

As a Chinese-American, I am neither white nor black and I am privileged to observe the nuances of race relations in this country as a bystander (except when my own racial heritage is a source of grievance).  I wonder if an academic awareness of an issue allows one to appreciate the inherent complexities?

I read Kathryn Stockett’s The Help and I was riveted but very perturbed by its central issue of race relations.  Set in 1962 in Jackson, Mississippi, a young white woman interviews and edits the painful narratives of black maids about their relationships with their white employers.  I wanted to identify a black perspective.  A friend cautioned me that I cannot generalize to all blacks, as African immigrants and people with Caribbean roots do not share the same experience as those descended from slaves brought to America.  No, indeed, but I was sure that a black person would respond differently to the book.

I spoke with a black staffer at my local library, someone whom I’ve known for the 21 years that my family has lived in this community.  She did not enjoy the book as did the white readers who have praised The Help, launching it onto the bestseller lists.  She could forecast how the plot would go, and she skipped over parts.  Her niece was bored by it and never did finish the book.  I asked her if it would have been a better book if it had been written by a black author, but she demurred at that.

Could the difference lie in perspective?  Events resonate more when they become personal, as Jews are instructed to imagine that they themselves are leaving Egypt during the Passover seder.  Issues become more painful.  It took me a few years before I could follow a friend’s recommendation for Anne Fadiman’s The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, because the central character, a child, dies from an epileptic seizure and my child has the same disorder.

I’ve read that people like horror films because they find it cathartic, a vicarious experience that leaves them relieved to be safe and ordinary.  I wonder if readers of The Help become more understanding?  Are some readers smug that they are not racist and do not harbor any prejudicial intent?  Or do they have a renewed sensitivity to insults to human dignity?  Do they speak out in protest?  My Rabbi has noted that we do not feel pain to the same degree when a tragedy, a violation,  happens to someone else.  However, the challenge is in the striving to maintain sensitivity and that is a hallmark of a compassionate person.

I attended a book discussion along with my friend who grew up in the South.  She found the novel realistic, and told me later that the others (all white women) did not appreciate the fact that though the overt theme of the book was racism, the same kind of prejudice and peer control exist in other times, other places, including our own.  I attempted to point out that the new theory on bully-behavior management, is not to address the bully directly, but to educate the silent majority, that they can take control of a situation by speaking up.  The queen bee, Hilly, from the novel could not have continued in her role, if the others did not let her do so.  However, most people were too afraid, ignorant, or blind to the racial divide in a society in which they had a comfortable perch.  I wonder if readers would become more conscious and sensitive to injustice around them?  I made a reference to To Kill a Mockingbird, which is now a classic.  Did readers of the time immediately take to its message?

The film version, starring Emma Stone as the ingenue reporter, Eugenia ‘Skeeter’ Phelan, Viola Davis as her source, a black housekeeper named Aibileen Clark, and Bryce Dallas Howard as their nemesis, the controlling Hilly Holbrook, will open in the local cinemas on August 10th.

Ethnic Irony

By Hannah Lee

In our relatively enlightened times, it is the heedless individual who utters a blatant pejorative term, be it a racial, sexist, or any other challenging aspect of life.  We have sensitized ears and it is unseemly to appear prejudiced.  There is even an attempt to erase past grievances in the misguided campaign to replace the word, “nigger,” with “slave” in Mark Twain’s classic The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, although the climax of the story would be lost on the reader when the character of the black man, Jim, realizes that he’s been free all along.  Good teaching requires putting history and culture into context with all its flawed and malignant chronicles.

There is a companion shadow world of indirect slurs, in which terms are coined with the negative traits attributed to a particular ethnic group.  Amongst linguists, this usage is called “ironyms,” a compound word representing “lexicalized irony.”  Researching this sordid aspect of language development, I came across the fairly unfamiliar terms of Dutch courage (bravado under intoxication), Welsh rabbit (a cheese dish made without meat), and Irish twins (siblings born within the same year).   The more familiar ones in contemporary usage are notably all about monetary use: to gyp (cheat) someone, to welsh (renege) on a bet, and to jew someone down (bargain hard).  The terms incorporating Chinese— Chinese ace, Chinese anthem, Chinese cigarette, Chinese fire drill, Chinese handball, Chinese landing, Chinese puzzle, and Chinese whispers— all connote items or events that are confused, disorganized, or difficult to understand, according to the British usage of the adjective during World War I.

I have long known that Chinese checkers were not really Chinese, but I have since learned that it is a game developed in Germany, whose original name referred to its star-shaped game board.  When the Pressman company introduced it in the United States in 1928, they initially called it Hop-Ching checkers, later settling on Chinese checkers, presumably to refer to the erratic hopping allowed of the gaming pieces.  Other usages of ethnic terminology are maybe less benign, but you could be sure no Frenchman would call his fried potatoes, French fries, (derived from the presumed custom of poor French-speaking Belgians who served fried potatoes instead of fried fish when the rivers were frozen) nor would a Dane refer to the breakfast pastry as a Danish (in actuality, of Austrian origin).

As an immigrant to the United States, I did not encounter Chinese auctions until I came into the Orthodox Jewish community.  It seems to be a popular low-cost fundraiser amongst churches and synagogues.  Not Chinese and not even an auction, it is a lottery in which the bidder purchases tickets for specific prizes within different categories.  It has become my campaign to lobby against its usage, but by the time I hear of such events, the organizers have already spent money on the publicity and are loathe to change the wording.  It’s inconceivable to me that any organization would allow itself to be perceived as prejudiced these days.  Prejudice when it becomes commonplace is even more insidious, because well-meaning people become complicit.


The refugee family arrived during a cold, windy, rainy night.  They’d flown from Indonesia to Frankfurt to JFK Airport, then ground transportation to the Philly Airport.  I wonder what time their body thought it was?

What was most noticeable about their apartment was the stairwell, which was at a steep 75 degree (is it possible?) incline, almost as if you leaned a ladder against the walls.

We had to hold the handrails to climb the two flights.  However, the family now has a living room, an eat-in kitchen, two bedrooms and a bathroom.

The Social Worker was ill with the flu, so they were met by the Office Manager (herself a refugee from Laos) and the Social Work Intern.  An ample dinner had been prepared by a Burmese family and several Burmese were on hand (at the apartment) to welcome them.

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!

I packed a box of winter clothes for them: new fleece hats, new knit gloves, 3 raincoats, two pairs of rain boots, 2 pairs of snow boots, several sweaters and a short down coat from a friend.  I threw in a package of new sturdy plastic hangers  and some colorful new hair ties.  (Unfortunately, the girls’ hair look as if someone had hacked at them with a dull knife.  Luckily, hair grows out fast.)  In a smaller box were some kitchen supplies, including new towels, chopsticks, and a large cutting board.  Finally, a Welcome Basket was packed with yesterday’s Inquirer, some magazines, some caramels and a new wooden mortar and pestle.  I also gave them two colorful calendars with which to decorate the walls, as do my parents.

The next few days, the family and the Social Worker would have to go to the appropriate offices to process their papers.  So, I plan to meet them on Wednesday to help with their cultural transition.  The Director has requested that I teach them about financial responsibility– opening a bank account, writing checks, etc.

The girls are young enough to enroll in school, but the mother has to find work ASAP.

When my husband and I returned home, I looked in on our sleeping daughter and the lifetime of books and mementos all around our house and reveled in our blessings.