In the United States, summer time is the season for barbeques. And the holiday that is devoted to grilling food is the all-American, patriotic, Independence Day. Nothing to me is more American than searing meat over hot coals on the 4th of July. In Taiwan, BBQ season comes much later. The holiday where families gather around a charcoal grill flipping chicken wings, taro cakes, and porkkebabs, while wiping off beads of sweat and swatting away mosquitoes, is the Moon Festival, also called the Mid-Autumn Festival. It falls on the 15th day of the 8th lunar month, when the moon is at its brightest and fullest. This holiday is also celebrated in Vietnam and ethnic Chinese regions, but the practice of the celeration varies greatly. Like all other Taiwanese holidays, this day involves being with families and friends, and eating lots and lots of food. If eating were an Olympic sport, the Taiwanese would win the gold medal hands down.
When I lived in Taiwan as a child, the foods associated with the Moon Festival were moon cakes and pomelos. At some point in the past 20 years, however, this day had become all about barbeques. A few months before the Moon Festival, charcoals, lighter fluid, and grills dominate the discount aisles near the entrance of Carrefour, my local supermarket. While I love the smell and taste of seared meat cooked over an open flame, I sometime wish we could go back to the simpler times, like the times of my childhood; times when moon cakes were made by hand and didn’t have Hello Kitty on the crust.
I can still vividly remember the times when I was eating sweet moon cakes and admiring the bright round moon, my grandparents gathered us kids in their laps to tell us the story of Chang’e, the lady on the moon. There are too many different versions of the legend out there, but the one I was told goes something like this: there was once a tyrannical emperor in China who ordered his people to find him the elixir of eternal life so he could live forever. His men combed the earth, found the elixir, and brought it back to the emperor. The emperor hid the elixir so no one but him could take it. But his wife, Chang’e, was compassionate and wanted to save the people from her husband’s tyrannical rule. She searched for the elixir and when she found it, she swallowed it herself. By the time the emperor found out, it was too late. Chang’e began to float towards the sky and flew straight to the moon. Each year during moon festival, if you look closely enough, you can see shadows on the moon, and one of them just might be Chang’e hanging out there, having saved the people of China from an oppressive ruler for an eternity.
When Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, it was an enormous step for the history of mankind. For people who grew up with the story of Chang’e, however, his triumph dispelled a centuries-old legend about her living on the moon. Still, my grandparents always said that just because Armstrong didn’t find her doesn’t mean she isn’t there. For the Moon Festival this weekend, if you look closely enough at the full moon, you just might see a shadow of a woman. Every year I swear I could almost see her.