Thursday, October 3, 2013

Episode 4: Mooncakes for All!

Moon Cake Festival
It is Mid-Autumn Festival for those who follow the Chinese lunar calendar, although I have a hard time believing there are any farmers who are finished harvesting. Even the apples are still coming in. I asked my students, “If this is the harvest festival, who exactly gets to celebrate if the farmers are still working?” They said the farmers get to take a day-off. Then they get back to work. Never underestimate the Chinese work ethic.
The tradition for Mid-Autumn Festival is that you give your loved ones “moon cakes,” little pastries with lovely ornate designs on the top and a marzipan-type stickiness on the inside. Think of a golden hockey-puck with a surprise inside.
Zeph with bags of mooncakes
We are eye-deep in moon cakes, lest you thought we were not loved in China. Boxes and boxes of moon cakes keep coming our way, packaged ornately with ribbons and gold-embossed containers. Z takes one bite out of each new delivery and rejects it as “too sweet” (when a nine-year-old says “it’s too sweet,” you know something is amiss). He keeps thinking he will find one that tastes as good as it looks. Consequently, we have moon cakes with bites taken out of them lining the kitchen counter. I can’t bear to throw them away, but what else can one do with a used moon cake?

Tiantian brought over some of her homemade moon cakes that were delicious. One was savory (salty, nutty filling, with chives and other herbs).
But the store-packaged variety that is the most popular are an acquired taste, I think. I have been polling the Chinese: “Do you like moon cakes?” It is about a 50-50 split so far. It also gives me great data so I know to whom to re-gift our piles of moon-cakes. Or we can make ornate towers with them. Or give them to the next temple we visit. Monks gotta eat, right? Maybe they like moon cakes.
We have seen people carrying bags and bags of moon cakes home from shopping these past few days. Today is the official moon holiday: gaze at the full moon and think of the people you love.  We can
see the moon from the courtyard of the apartment. Because of the pollution in Xi’an it has a lovely orange cast. Ah, the benefits of poor air quality.

This week’s field trip took us to The Temple of the Eight Immortals, a Taoist temple that is tucked into a corner of the city just outside the old city wall. In the spirit of Taoism, it took us forever to find (the Taoists: it is all about the journey). In fact, we walked around for two hours in the morning looking for the bus 503 stop and couldn’t find it. We tried to find a taxi. Three taxis at three different locations stopped and when I told them where we wanted to go, they drove off. That happens in Xian. You think you have finally found a taxi, but not really. Because they don’t want to take you where you want to go. I have had enough of taxi drivers and their disappointed head shakes followed by “Nali, nail” (Nope, nope, nope and nope again). Next time I hear a “Nali, Nali” come out of a taxi-driver’s mouth, I am going to throw a moon cake at their head.
After our failed morning attempt, we went back home, me determined; z ready to give up. Oh, the agony of having a strong-willed mother.  We had lunch, we had a rest, we called Tiantian (who knows every single bus stop and route in the city . . . there is no comprehensive bus map/schedule in English). Tiantian is my savior (repeatedly; who needs Jesus? We’ve got Tiantian).

This time we actually found the buses without a problem. Finding the temple once we got off the second bus was another story. I kept asking people, “Where is the Temple of the Eight Immortals? (Ba Xian Na Zai Nar?)” General hand waving and wrist flicking, “Over there. Over there.” “Over there,” turns out, is quite relative. I expected to see it when people waved “over there,” but only if I had the super power of seeing through several blocks of walls, houses, and merchant stalls would I have been able to see “over there.” We were steered through winding and narrow alleys and streets, twisting and turning until I had no idea which way we were heading, certain I was leading Z through the minotaur’s labyrinth. The monks in the temple could be no other than Daedalus. I only hoped that we were heading “over there.” Periodically I would stop to ask again. Always they had the same answer:  a general gesture and “over there.” I kept saying to Z, “If we ever do find the temple, do you think we will find our way out of here? Maybe we should leave bread crumbs or something.” Not a good plan. The miscellaneous dogs would eat them. There are always miscellaneous dogs, wandering around, looking hot and hungry and skittish.

Of course, we did finally find the temple. And a lovely little bazar. It was all worth the journey, but what a journey it was. The temple is still being used by Taoist monks and they are more than happy to welcome visitors, no small wonder since it is so difficult to find. “Hey! You made it, you buck-nutty
Monks in the Temple of the Eight Immortals
tourists! Welcome! Welcome!” Z, ever the curiosity in China, was a favorite of the monks. We would walk into an altar area and whoever was in there would motion to Z and then hand him something that had been left on the altar by a previous visitor, pilgrim, or worshipper: an apple, an orange, a . . . moon cake. Yup. He even got moon cakes from the monks.
While we were wandering around looking for the bus stop on the first (aborted) attempt to find the temple, I had Z pose against some of my favorite Chinese government “slogan” posters. These rotate out every few weeks and are replaced by other government posters. These two are my favorite of the season. The chubby girl is “Dreaming of China” and the little boy is asking everyone to “not waste food.”

I want the Chinese government to make a slogan poster that says, “Stop driving like a maniac” and “Do not hit people with your car.” Pedestrians definitely do not have the right of way in China. Ever. So don’t even try. You will die. I am regularly sitting in a bus and gasping, cringing, and closing my eyes at how close a bus will come to side-swiping a scooter with a baby perched on the back of it (inches).

Incidentally, there are no such things as car seats or helmets. At least I have not seen them. There are baby/child seats on bikes and scooters, but they simply keep the baby/child sitting upright. No belts. No padding. No head gear. Babies learn early to grip the sides of the seat and hang on for dear life, wobbling around back there like bobble-heads on parade. Bad carnival rides in the states have more safety features.

The photo below was taken during a 8 a.m. rush hour traffic. I was on the bus going to school. The scooter was at the edge of five lanes of traffic. At one point the scooter was so close to the bus, the toddler standing on the seat was waving to me in the bus and trying to get her parents to look at me. That night going home on the bus, I saw a grandpa with a baby about eight-months old. The baby was riding in front of the grandpa on the seat. The only thing preventing the baby from being road kill was a tight grip (the baby’s, not the grandfather’s).

All is well for us here in China. But neither one of us is a baby on a scooter.

Week three of school was much easier than week two for Z, so everything is moving in the right direction. The mounds of homework each night is daunting. I don’t have Z do much of it. He can’t do the Chinese, but he can copy/learn new characters and he likes the challenge of drawing the characters neatly and correctly. The math he can do, but we both bore of the repetition. The Chinese educational system is big on repeat it, repeat it, repeat it until you want to cry you hate it so much. I don’t understand the pedagogical theory behind it, but he will bring home math work books (four different ones) and they all have the same types of problems and if he did all the homework assigned, he would be doing at least three hours of the same sort of math problems every night. Ditto for Chinese.

An example of a recent Chinese assignment for fifth grade was: “Read the next five passages in the book (each “passage” is a different story about 5-7 pages in length). After reading the passages, copy three of the passages (that is: copy it word for word/character by character). Once you have copied the passages, go back over each story and write down all the words you don’t know. Then write the sentences. Look up the words and write the definitions. Finally, go back over the passage and find the most beautiful sentences in each passage. Copy those sentences and then state why you think they are beautiful.” Even reading the assignment I want to bang my forehead on the desk. Remember: the child does this not for ONE passage, but THREE passages. That is one night’s assignment. For Chinese. Math is equally redundant and arduous and brain-melting. Scream.

I regularly remind Z, when he is fussing about having to do the wee bit of math/Chinese homework that I have him do every night, that his classmates are sitting at desks for hours and hours doing their work. Juan’s son Simon, who is 10, comes home from school at 5:30 p.m., eats dinner, and then spends from 6:30 p.m. to 10 or 11 p.m. at his desk doing his homework. Every night. The work load required of these children is unfathomable to me. But they aren’t picking rags. And they aren’t working in factories. So, I guess it could always be worse. Still, I wonder what this all means for these children. Parents lament the homework and the fact that their children have no time to play. But the parents seem helpless to do anything about it.

Last week there was a parent’s meeting at school. I didn’t go, but Juan went and she said the teacher told the parents there were three types of parents: Parents of top students, parents of “every student” and parents of lazy, bad students. In effect, the message was “your child’s performance in school is a direct reflection of your parenting skills.” I thought about that. In the states, we seem to have flipped that equation to an equally problematic model where we blame teachers for the lack of a student’s success. In the states, politicians are talking about linking a teacher’s pay to student performance (and it has already happened in some places). The complexities of how/why a child learns or succeeds is much more complicated than foisting the burden of those outcomes on either a parent or a teacher. A family or a school. Yet here we are, on two different sides of the world, perhaps both of us trying to lay blame to relieve ourselves from the responsibility of figuring out the more complicated issues of equity, struggle, ability, poverty, privilege, economy, and individual hopes and desires.

That is enough philosophy for one day. Want a moon cake? I bet they ship well.

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