Meeting the Family
I arrived in Taiwan on a Friday, two days before the Mid-Autumn Festival. My friend Yi-Nan, rising up to the reputation of the Taiwanese hospitality, invited me to spend the festival with her family in her hometown. Naturally, I agreed without hesitation.
The Zhong Qiu Jie or Mid-Autumn Festival, is one of the most important celebrations of the Chinese Tradition. It is celebrated on the 15th day of the 8th month of the Chinese lunar calendar, the calculations of which are a mystery to every Taiwanese person I asked, every one of them answering “it has something to do with the moon”. I still don’t get how it is they have no curiosity about these things.
“So what do you do during the Mid-Autumn Festival?”
“We make barbeque and eat a lot!” Yi-Nan answered, her eyes widening in anticipation. That was all the information I needed.
It took us about 40 minutes on Yi-Nan’s scooter to get from Tainan to Alian. It was mid-September but the weather reminded me of Greece in August. With a little humidity added. And pollution. And I should mention that since it was a semi-formal occasion and I hadn’t met Yi-Nan’s family before I had to look decent, so I put on a pair of jeans. Yeah, I wasn’t very happy, but I had to survive until the evening barbeque.
We arrived a little after lunch time. Yi-Nan’s mother was waiting for us on the front yard, her Golden Retriever running around her, excited by the sound of our scooter. She greeted us and welcomed me in her home. The interior was as simple as the exterior, a few chairs, a tea-table and a desk being all the furniture in the living room. My eyes paused on the heavy wooden front door with the carved Chinese Ideograms. Yi-Nan translated it for me: “Be happy with what you have”. Before she sat next to me, she took a few incense sticks, lit them and offered her respects to a small altar on a wall that featured a man’s picture.
“Every house has a little altar in honor of the ancestors. This day, like every other traditional festival, is a day of honoring the dead, so we…” she stopped to think about the words “bai bai we say” she added, putting her hands together in prayer and taking a bow.
“Pay your respects?” I asked.
“Yes!” she answered excited and went on, “In the morning we take the food that we are going to cook for dinner, and place it on a table in front of our house, as an offering.”
“An offering to whom?”
“The gods or the ancestors, it depends on every person’s religion. But traditionally this festival is about the moon. Legend has it there was this woman Chang E who married King Hou Yi. The King loved her very dearly but towards his people he was not as loving. One day the King was given an elixir that would turn him into a God. The King gave the elixir to his wife, to guard it until he was ready. Chang E, seeing how unjust and cruel he was to his people, drank the elixir herself to prevent him from assuming infinite power. She became a Godess and flew to the moon to watch over her husband. The moon festival is a celebration in honor of that woman’s sacrifice. And that is why we eat moon cakes!” she finished and turned to smile to her mother who was now standing next to her holding a huge box of cakes, urging me to try one. I had to be polite and there were so many to choose from. So I tried them all. There we so many different flavors, pineapple filling – which is also the filling of the traditional Taiwanese pineapple cake – red bean paste, taro paste, lotus flower seed, black sesame and my personal favorite, the very unusual pork floss filling, which is the sweet and sour result of a fried pork and Chinese gourd custard combination.
With my stomach satisfied I was now ready to go for a walk. That being a foreign concept to the young Taiwanese people, Yi-Nan suggested we ride her motorbike to the town center. Naturally, we had to stop for refreshments first, so she insisted I tried the dong gua ning meng, a sweet drink made of winter gourd and lemon juice, which turned out to be my sweet tooth’s all time favorite Taiwanese drink.
Our next stop was at the town’s temple. I have to say it looked a little bit out of place, like someone had accidentally dropped it among the rather depressing grey buildings. That was the first of many moments when I felt like I was in a movie. Among the foreign cultures of the world, where I come from the Chinese is probably considered the most distant and exotic of them all. Western Asia and Northern Africa have appeared throughout Greek history in many occasions, but China has only been part of myths and legends. So the only thought on my mind as I walked around the koi fish lake and into the pagoda was how surreal it all was – and , for a brief moment, what a great fishing spot that would make for my dad. But I didn’t say that out loud. Capital punishment is valid in Taiwan, so I didn’t want to take any risks.
It was 5.30pm when we finished our tour of the temple. Yi-Nan suggested we headed home since the guests were expected at 6.00pm, but first she thought I should try another Taiwanese delicacy, dou hua she called it or bean jelly. Basically it’s a very light white curd made of tofu and garnished with different kinds of sweet sauces. I chose lemon sauce and some tapioca bubbles, just for the fun of it.
The guests arrived and the grilling begun. Pork, seafood and all kinds of vegetables went on the grill and in the mean time we had some delicious soup that had a little bit of everything in it. I tasted taro for the first time and fell absolutely in love with it, chewed on some raw sugarcane and then filled my plate several times with whatever came off the grill. The night’s highlight was the smoked chicken Yi-Nan’s uncle cooked using a method that only survived in few villages. He tied one whole chicken in a large tin box and turned it upside down so the box’s mouth would face the ground and the chicken would hang inside. Then, he stacked wood around the box and set it on fire.
A couple of hours later the chicken was cooked all the way through, tender, juicy and smoky. We had a couple rounds of dong gua ning meng to wash everything down, and just when I thought I couldn’t take any more, Yi-Nan told me we had to go visit her best friend’s family. Of course they offered me more food there; of course I couldn’t refuse.
We ate, we drank, we sang, we laughed and even though I didn’t understand a lot of it I still didn’t feel left out because in its core every celebration of every tradition fulfills the same purpose. It brings families together to share their love for one another. And on my first week in Taiwan I felt like I was with family.