After only meeting with my freshmen students for 2 weeks, suddenly it’s holiday time.
We are on holiday at the moment for a full week commemorating the founding of the PRC on Oct. 1, 1949. This is what is known in China as Golden Week. From October 1 – 8, the whole of China is traveling, shopping, hanging out at home or gathering together with friends while enjoying their days off.
To encourage traveling, expressway tolls are waived, sending millions of private car owners out onto the highways to visit scenic spots. National landmark sites likewise are free with no ticket payment required. This boosts the crowds even more as excited families and Chinese tourists tromp their way to destinations that boast beautiful scenery, fascinating history and special drawing interests from food to specialty items in local areas.
An extra added bonus to this year’s Golden Week is that Mid-Autumn Festival, also an official national holiday, happens to fall directly in the pathway of this week. In other words, festivity excitement has truly doubled up this year.
Mid-autumn Festival is a lunar calendar holiday, which means it changes every year. Sometimes, we have this in September but this year, it is October 4th. Families are to gather together to watch the full moon, watch Mid-Autumn Festival TV galas commemorating togetherness, eat moon cakes (traditional pastries filled with all sorts of interesting heavy ingredients, both sweet and salty varieties) and the in-season fall fruit, youzi (In English, we call these pomelos, which look and taste somewhat like gigantic grapefruit.)
Where am I?
As always, I am in Chengdu, the capital city of Sichuan, for my 1-week break. This is my hang-out every year at this time. No traveling for me anymore. Spending hours in traffic, standing in lines at scenic spots, fighting the crowds at airports, bus and train stations are not my idea of a holiday.
For me, staying put and relaxing are my thing and Chengdu is my place.
Here I am enjoying meeting up with friends, swimming in the magnificent Meng Zhui Wan Natatorium , sleeping in late and shopping for items still hard to find in Luzhou. This is my time to stock up on Christmas baking items since I most likely will not be back again before Christmas. Butter is cheaper here (only $4 a cup) but in Luzhou, the price is now $10 a cup for the same brands we can get in Chengdu. Before, we were the same as the capital city but for some reason, that has changed.
$10 is a bit too pricey for me so looks like I’ll be taking home quite a lot of butter this time around. I usually freeze my stash until November when it’s baking time. (Sooner than you think, Christmas will be here, folks!)
Mooncake Mania: Past and Present
One of my favorite buying sprees at this time of year is mooncakes.
I love buying mooncakes! I don’t care much for eating them, but giving them away is so much fun.
Perhaps I mentioned when I first came to China in 1991, the mooncakes available were only the large, round ones and came in only about 4 different filling varieties: coconut, mixed pine nuts/walnuts/peanuts in red bean paste, dried meat strips in read bean paste and red bean paste with one cooked egg yoke (sometimes partially cooked — yikes!) in the middle.
They were disgusting, not because of the strange-to-the-foreigners’-taste-buds fillings, but mostly because of the sanitary conditions where they were baked. We foreigners would often buy them (very, very cheap –just a few cents or a nickel each) just to cut them open and joke about what sickness we’d get if we ate them. Inside, we’d find long black hairs of those who’d prepared them or dead, crystalized insects that had landed in the batter.
Most were lightly covered in thin dust, grim and grit from the nearby stands where they were sold. Mooncakes were not individually wrapped at that time, or even covered for protection, but often left out in the open along roadsides where the sellers would pick them up with their dirty fingers to place into a plastic sack for customers to take home.
Those of us who’d been in China for a year or so knew better than to eat them, especially when the students bestowed upon us gifts of these in great abundance. I remember warning the new foreign teachers to China: “Best to watch out when eating these. They have a strong kick to them after consumption so you might want to wisely pass them up.”
“Why?” many of our do-as-the-Romans-do newcomers would haughtily reply. “I don’t have a problem trying Chinese snack foods. I already ate the coconut ones. They’re pretty good. And the nutty ones are also nice. I did try the eggy one, just because I felt I should. Didn’t care for it much but it’s edible.”
Well, they might be good going down but not so much coming up that evening, or out the next day, if you know what I mean.
I learned my lesson about mooncakes my first year in China. Not to be repeated again.
But I must say, mooncakes today are a different story.
Sanitation has improved 100% over the past 25 years, not to mention packaging of these and also the variety additions. Traditional mooncakes are favorites but more interesting fillings have been added: strawberry, pineapple, melon, chocolate, and there are now even ice-cream mooncakes sold. Hagaan Daz, for example, has taken the Chinese Mid-Autumn Festival market by storm and created some very unique, and very, very expensive, ice cream mooncakes which are bought by big-city, upper class folk who have the money to do so. Those are a novelty item, for sure, but I never felt $5 US worth the money for just a meagre, tiny mouthful, which is about the size of them.
Mini-Mooncakes on the Rise
Now the favorites to purchase are the mini-mooncakes. These are smaller versions, individually wrapped for individual eating. Big mooncakes are usually cut into pieces and shared by family members but mini-mooncakes are much more convenient and more fun to pick through. You can eat several kinds without having to eat an entire big one before moving on to the next flavor or kind.
In the Walmart up the road from my room rental, I entered a few days ago to find the entire exit area filled with mini-mooncakes, all varieties, with a “Buy a pound; Get a pound free!” signs posted everywhere. Piled high in bins, the temptation to purchase these at such a bargain rate was too tempting.
The place was hopping with customers, shoving mooncakes into bags and having them weighed before getting their pre-weighed, pre-packaged free pound.
Some mooncakes were more expensive than others, depending on the brand. The cheapest sold for about $1.50 a pound and the most expensive was $8. Mooncakes are heavy, too, so it doesn’t take much to easily get a pound, or two or three before you know it.
My Mooncake Buying Spree
I mentioned before that I do love mooncakes but that’s as a give-away item.
It is my yearly custom to buy these up and then hand them out. I give them to taxi drivers, bus drivers, shop owners that I know (or even don’t know but buy something from them) and anyone else I meet or have a strong relationship with.
I have already loaded up with 10 pounds of these at the Walmart. 5 pounds I paid for, 5 pounds for free. You can see how addictive that “Buy 1, Get one Free” can be. I certainly didn’t intend to buy 5 pounds worth and take home 10 but . . . .
I bet those of you who have been to the Walmart have had that same experience. At the check-out, once things start to be rung up, you pass the $25 mark and comment, “You know, I just came here to buy one thing! How did I end up with all this stuff?”
Too much temptation.
My Give-away Has Already Begun
Yesterday, I gave away my first mooncakes to taxi drivers I took to and from the swimming pool. There was also the gateman at the apt. complex I am staying at. I of course handed over a small bag to the woman I rent from and her family. Also given away was to the animal hospital staff and Drs. Wang and Tong. This close-knit group has helped me with several Luzhou animal rescues in the past animals which I brought to Chengdu for treatment since our Luzhou vets are truly pretty awful.
Below you will find a few pictures of rescues which the staff at Wang and Tong’s Glory Animal Clinic have helped me with, including little Yorkie, Stinky, who was adopted by the vets themselves! Wang and Tong (the veterinarian couple who own the clinic) gave Stinky the complicated surgeries he needed (pro-bono) and now he is the clinic dog. Their little girl, whose named herself Monica, adores him! What a happy life for an abandoned special-needs little guy.
A current rescue is Little Beanie, seen here with me after her spay. Now we are looking for a home for her.
Of course, the pool staff will be getting a nice offering of these as well but tomorrow, Wednesday, which is Mid-Autumn Festival Day itself.
I always feel bad for those who work at the natatorium. Lifeguards, managers, front desk attendants and cleaning workers never get a day off as the pool is open every day, even during Chinese New Year. The pool opens at 6:30 a.m. – 1:40 p.m., then opens again later on from 7 – 10 p.m.
Not much time to enjoy with family for holidays so I like to bring a little extra treat to brighten their day.
This afternoon, I’ll be meeting up with two former students. The first is Jason (Ji Ke), who is a tour guide. Tomorrow, he’ll be heading out with a tour group of foreigners from several different countries and this will continue until the 20th, he told me. Today is about his only free day here in Chengdu, his home base. I haven’t seen Jason since before the summer so it’ll be nice to get the latest news from him.
The second is Stacey and her new baby boy, 7 months. She and Jason were in the same class together. I haven’t seen her since she graduated, 12 years ago!
Should be a very happy reunion for all 3 of us. The perfect way to spend the day before Mid-Autumn Festival, which is meant for family reunions and togetherness. Very appropriate timing, wouldn’t you say?
Until next report, many good wishes for the week. Ping An, everyone!