These Minnesota college students get an A+ for adventure. Follow along as they explore the world while studying abroad.
Made in the moon’s image, the most famous Mid-Autumn festival food are the dense, round pastries known as mooncakes, or yuè bĭng 月饼, given as gifts between family and friends.
It had originally been the tradition to hand-make mooncakes. I live in a dorm. I have no oven and no idea where to start making a mooncake. This year, I joined the majority of people in opting to purchase mine pre-made. From the traditional lotus seed paste and salty duck eggs (the roundness, again), to sweeter flavors like taro and pineapple paste, there are an unpredictable variety of fillings to choose from.
Beyond their role as snack and traditional gift, mooncakes are something of a cultural icon. Legend has it that secret military plans baked into mooncakes helped in a Han uprising against the ruling Mongols during the Yuan dynasty, letting the Ming revolutionaries spread messages coordinating their attack. This year, the Wall Street Journal ran photos of pandas in Guangzhou province being fed special bamboo-powder mooncakes for the holiday. Even merchants like Starbucks and Häagen-Dazs have gotten in on the game, creating for sale their own versions of mooncake-shaped sweets.
Mooncake-giving has also become linked to status, and in some cases, corruption, when incredibly lavish cakes are given to politically and socially influential figures in the hopes of gaining favor. Gifts to officials in past years have reportedly included gold-encrusted cakes stuffed with sharkfin and other expensive delicacies, and beautiful boxes with room for hiding bribes. This year, demand for these most luxurious mooncakes is said to be down following the new president’s emphasis on cracking down on corruption. Mine were a more garden-variety, picked up from the grocery store, shoved into a flimsy plastic bag and weighed by the gram. It was a little more than 14 yuan for the dozen I got, or about two dollars - nowhere near the highest-priced boxes that sell for hundreds.
All this and despite my best efforts, I still have no idea what the majority of the filling flavors were.
This week marked 中秋節 (zhōngqiū jié), or the Mid-Autumn festival. Celebrated in several Asian nations, Mid-Autumn festival falls on the fifteenth day of the eighth lunar month, when the moon is full (September 19th this year). The same as the Northern hemisphere’s harvest moon, it falls during the full moon closest to the autumnal equinox. Given the importance of the full moon, the holiday is also referred to as the Moon festival.
The history of celebrating the autumn harvest is very old, and the accompanying veneration of the full moon also goes back several thousand years. The festival in its more organized form seems to have gained popularity during the Tang dynasty (618-907AD).
Today, Mid-Autumn festival is a public holiday in China. Traditionally a time for reuniting with family and giving thanks, most people spend the holiday with relatives. The moon in its roundness is said to symbolize family unity.
I spoke with my Chinese roommate about her plans to spend time with relatives for the holiday. Not having enough time to get back to her immediate family, she is spending time with other relatives, including an uncle. The word she used for “uncle” led us to a discussion of vocabulary for relatives, which is far more complex in Chinese than in English. There is one word for “uncle” used when speaking of one’s father’s elder brother, and another for one’s father’s younger brother, and yet other words for maternal uncles and uncles-by-marriage in what seems to me to be an almost endless variety of combinations. In this case she explained the relative is really her mother’s cousin, but since it’s her mother’s side of the family she used the word for maternal uncle. We briefly digressed into the many words for “cousin.” Having some forty-odd first cousins, this particular family vocabulary complexity has always plagued me. I am usually reduced to describing the relationship (the daughter of my father’s younger brother, who is younger than I am) instead of using the proper word.
In addition to the different words for cousins on your father’s and mother’s side, she also reminded me that the correct term also depends on whether your cousin (male or female, elder or younger) is born to your father’s brother or sister. Essentially, there is one category of words for the cousins who share your last name, or “belong” to your family, and another for the category of cousins born to female relatives who “belong” to someone else’s clan/household and have other last names. She said though that sort of thinking is outdated, the words are the vestiges of the idea that girl children are born to be “given away” and after marriage, she will no longer belong to your house, and any children born to her belong to husband’s family.
Of the many fables surround Mid-Autumn festival, one of the most popular is the story of Houyi, the mythical hero who saved the world from drought and famine by shooting down nine of the ten suns in the sky until only one remained, and Chang’e, his wife. Houyi was rewarded for his efforts with an elixir of immorality, which he gave to his wife for safekeeping. Once when Houyi was away, an evil disciple came to Chang’e and demanded the elixir. To protect it from falling into his hands, she drank it herself and floated away in the sky, coming to rest in the moon. Heartbroken, Houyi lined up her favorite cakes under the moon, hoping to bring her back. Others in sympathy joined him in setting out offerings. Chang’e’s outline is said to be seen in the full moon.
This story has many variations, one of which was acted out by my classmates in shadow-theater style.
Chang’e is also known as the moon goddess, or the goddess of immortality. The first spacecraft in the Chinese Lunar Exploration Program was a lunar orbiter named “Chang’e 1.” Chang'e 3, China's first lunar rover, is set to launch later this year.
For those who cannot see their loved ones, the festival is also a time for “expressing the strong yearnings for family and friends who live afar,” with whom we share the same moon, no matter the distance. Poetic, and fitting for the many foreign students who are my classmates, all of us far from home.
This weekend I embarked on one of the loftiest hikes of my life; the location was Croagh Patrick. Croagh Patrick is a 2,507 mountain found in County Mayo not far from Westport. When our group was originally asked if we would be interested in going many of us did not know what we were getting into. We did not understand why people standing at the beginning of the path were wishing us good luck. It did not take long however for us to find out the meaning behind their remarks as the path quickly became steep and rocky. The path was wide at first, but narrowed as we made progress towards the top. There were other hikers who were joining us on our way up and some who had made it to the top already and were coming down. This caused problems as the path became so bottle-necked that no more then 2-3 people could pass at a time without being on the edge of a several hundred feet drop. To make this scenario more precarious the incline was close to 70 degree slant.
Once we made it to the top the view was a letdown. This was because we were so high that we were actually in a cloud. We decided to wait to see if the cloud would pass and it did, rendering the most spectacular views I have ever seen. One could look out for hundreds of miles. The town where we started was all but a dot in the distant landscape. After some time we reluctantly made our way down the rocky slants and arrived at our hostel for a much needed rest.
The next day we went to Kylemore Abbey, a Benedictine order of nuns. It is more known for the castle which was built by a man named Mitchell Henry. He built the castle for his wife who fell in love with the land. It is a story not too different with that of the Taj Mahal. It is a spectacular piece of architecture with a view straight from a fairytale.
Once our time was done at the abbey we went to Connemara National Park. This region of land is known for impressive winds and extensive bogs. We hiked around the base of a mountain and again were rewarded with great views of not only landscape, but unique flowers as well. One in particular is known as the Sundew. It is a plant that eats insects as the bog land is not nutrient rich. This visit to Connemara National Park ended our weekend and we began our way home, many of us passing out on the bus ride back.
The Burren, a colossal limestone landscape found in the County Clare, is where my most recent jaunt has taken me. The endeavor started long before my group and I arrived at the Burren as the roads were not generous. Imagine a standard road that is a single lane; now draw a line down the middle and presto it is now a two way road! This created several a circumstances of close calls as our sizable bus would skim the edges of the road and the oncoming car. Needless to say the drive consisted of sudden braking and swerving, which in turn caused those prone to motion sickness not happy.
The next day we hiked back out to view Dún Eochla. It is yet another fort on this island used as a watch tower for invading ships. Again the spectacle was amazing as we were blessed with another clear day, despite a strong wind giving many of us wind burn. Soon we found ourselves walking back to the ferry as we were exhausted from the past days of adventure. We had to say farewell to the Aran Islands, but welcomed our warm beds waiting at our cottages.
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