The messiness of mooncakes, tradition, and flaky connections
One writer explores her shifting relationship to cultural tradition and her Chinese heritage.
If I’m being totally honest, I never really liked mooncakes. Filled with egg yolk and lotus seed paste and traditionally served during the Mid-Autumn Festival, they always felt foreign to my American-born palate growing up — I was more accustomed to treats like cupcakes and cookies. Ironically, it wasn’t until I had a westernized, coffee ice cream-filled version from a Starbucks in Shanghai while visiting family that I began to appreciate the autumnal confections and the history and culture it’s tied to.
The Mid-Autumn Festival never falls on the same date every year, as it is timed to the full moon and celebrates harvest time in Chinese culture. On this day, it’s said the moon is at its roundest and brightest, so families gather around each other, give thanks, and pray for another prosperous year. Some mooncake are intricately molded with stunning geometric patterns and floral designs while others are not, but they’re always meant to be eaten with loved ones, sliced and shared to symbolize unity and reunion.
Across many traditions, the moon is a timekeeper, and like clockwork, the arrival of Zhong Qiu Jie (the Chinese name for the Mid-Autumn Festival) brings with it a familiar feeling. It reminds me that I’m still seeking answers I owe to my future self for how I’ll mark time and observe traditions, even as I sometimes experience cultural impostor syndrome and feel like a foreigner to my Chinese roots. Am I a person who dons a cloak of proximity to take part in a celebration that doesn’t really belong to me?
I was born and raised in the Chicago suburbs by two Shanghainese parents. My mother stayed at home, and in some ways, was more connected to her Chinese heritage than my father, who attended college in the states and has lived the majority of his life away from his birthplace. Our unit was small — my mom, dad, and me — and so celebrations never felt as grand as those of our family in China.
Am I a person who dons a cloak of proximity to take part in a celebration that doesn’t really belong to me?
When I think about my future with my white partner, these questions seem to loom larger and closer, imbued with the desire to connect my future children to their Chinese heritage and their grandparents, whom I fear they will find foreign. What happens when my parents inevitably pass? As I grow more out of sync with their traditions, I wonder if their death would sever my connection to elements of my heritage entirely.
It’s a feeling I may have to fight through if I decide to continue these traditions for posterity.
Most of my education about Chinese culture was through Chinese School on Saturdays. It was through this that I learned the meaning, stories, and purpose of traditions like eating mooncakes for Zhong Qiu Jie; or zongzi (glutinous rice stuffed with fat chunks of marinated pork belly) for Duan Wu Jie; and the exchanging of red envelopes, a symbol of good luck and prosperity, for the Lunar New Year. Lunar New Year was always big in our home, and we would put on red clothing while my mother would disappear into the kitchen for hours to braise meat, chop bok choy, and cut fruit into bite-sized morsels. But at the end of the day, it was still just the three of us, the occasional attendance of my grandfather and grandmother an exception rather than a rule.
Because our identity was primarily that of a fundamentalist Christian variety, many of the Chinese fables associated with these holidays were filtered through a Christian lens. My parents strongly emphasized that the deities I learned about in Chinese School were not real, but fictional characters.
When it came to festivities like Zhong Qiu Jie, our participation consisted of gifting and receiving mooncakes and hosting a dinner party with church friends. On rare occasions, my mother could be bothered to make the Suzhou-style mooncakes associated with the city near Shanghai, with savory pork filling tucked carefully away in layers of flaky pastry crust. These gatherings were often indistinguishable from other church potlucks, where attendees would give each other gifts of food, fruit, and red envelopes. Chinese holidays felt somewhat flat and less important than the Christian ones that we made a bigger to-do about like Christmas and Easter. Because these cultural traditions seemed like less of a priority, I felt removed from them as I got older and left the nest.
To celebrate Zhong Qiu Jie now as an adult, it would be up to me to procure the mooncakes or cook a feast. And who would be there to celebrate with me? My friends are a diverse bunch, but largely disconnected to Chinese culture. And I broke away from the people I grew up with, so that group is out of the question. Leading the charge to celebrate holidays like Zhong Qiu Jie makes it painfully obvious that I’m the only one grasping at the rapidly fraying rope tethering me to the culture I was born into. As an only child, I feel simultaneously burdened by the responsibility to carry on these traditions to honor my parents while also knowing that I don’t necessarily have to. I wrestle with the questions about what traditions are mine, what my connections are, and whether I want to continue them in my life.
I know I’m not alone in deciphering what traditions of my parents I’d like to keep. Whether it’s tied to race, religion, or region, there are traditions many people are breaking down and reforming to exist in a way more meaningful to themselves. Even mooncakes have taken on new forms with flavors that run the gamut, from egg custard to chocolate to ice cream fillings inside mochi and even cookie exteriors. Many of these are made by second-generation Asian Americans, who are also redefining their relationship to this traditional food and its holiday. Some people are even creating them as a form of solidarity and pride to combat the wave of anti-Asian sentiment that has hit our communities during the pandemic.
Breaking down, examining, and rebuilding is a muddy process. And like the moon, I go through phases. Sometimes I forget a holiday is happening until the internet reminds me and other days I’m planning the exact outfit I’m wearing and the things I’m bringing to visit my family for the date penciled in my calendar.
I haven’t decided yet what I’m doing for Zhong Qiu Jie. The only thing I can commit to is looking up at the moon and quietly acknowledging the passing of another year without concrete answers.