More Languages Spoken Means More Holidays to Celebrate

My kids are never ones to miss a party.  When I tried to clean house (and enlist their assistance in putting their dirty laundry in the hamper) on Labor Day they protested that it was a holiday and that, at the very least, kids should get a pass on chores of any kind–especially if their parents were such wet blankets as to not bother to mark the importance of the day beyond sleeping in.

Now that they’re learning Chinese, we have new holidays to celebrate.  The “new” holidays are not optional in our secular, Judeo-Christian-influenced household.  The Moon Festival has become as important as Easter.  Chinese New Year is just a notch below Christmas on the priority level.  But alas, I have a hard enough time remembering to plan for the holidays I grew up with, and my poor children are consistently disappointed with my failure to satisfy their need to observe the Sino-celebrations.

So they’ve started taking matters into their own hands.  When my kindergartener came home with some lovely Moon Festival-inspired art Tuesday afternoon, I was informed that the Moon Festival was the next day and that we would be celebrating it.  His older brother concurred.  I had 24 hours to acquire moon cakes, and we would be having a parade (in which said art would be carried).

When I hadn’t gotten moon cakes by pick-up time on Tuesday, the search was on.  I pedaled our bike, kids on the back, through the Mission looking for a Chinese bakery.  Score.  I locked the bike on the sidewalk and sent the kids in to enquire.  “Ask if they have moon cakes, and do it in Chinese,” I said.  Moments later my older son came out.

“They DO have moon cakes, but it’s only a really big one, not just two like you wanted.”

“And did you ask in Chinese?” I asked following him in.

“I didn’t have to ask at all, see?” he gestured to a large moon cake display in the center of the room.

They were all packaged, beautifully, in metal tins, four to a box and labeled in Chinese.  Each of these cost between $25 and $30 depending on the flavor of the moon cakes within.  The truth is, I don’t really care for moon cakes, and the last time we got excited about marking the holiday, we overbought and had them sitting around until Christmas.  I had made up my mind that our family of four would share two of them, which is perfect because, cut in half, the moon cake does what it does best: represents the big yellow harvest moon as depicted by a boiled, salted egg yolk buried in the center of the cake.

“We need to find out if we can buy them separately,” I told my son (his little brother was lost in the cake display watching for the cake with the motorcycle to make its way back around).  We approached the counter, and I expected him to ask in Chinese.  No dice.

“We want some moon cakes,” he said to the Asian woman behind the counter who raised a finger and smiled as she walked away to get something.

I realized my son was uncharacteristically nervous because he couldn’t remember how to actually say “moon cake” in Chinese at that moment and I decided to let it slide.  The woman returned and showed us a paper with the different types of moon cakes and their prices listed out–in Chinese.  She began gesturing to it, then laughed. “Oh!” she said smiling and, raising a finger again, walked away.

“She brought us the Chinese price list,” I explained to my son.  “She’s going to come back with the English one.” And in a sudden display of bravado, my son calls out to her “I can read Chinese!”  This, I think to myself, is a stretch, but you go, boy!

Fortunately, this was not the moment to put his bilingual literacy to the test.  She returned with the English price list, and I noted that several of the cakes were listed with an individual price next to the full-tin price. “So,” I asked, “can you buy just one or two of these?”  She looked at me a little blankly and made an effort to answer–in Spanish.

Normally I would not shrink from such a challenge.  My Spanish is OK, and if I had to communicate with her in this circumstance I would have done it, but it seemed silly given that I had a four-foot Chinese interpreter to my left.

“Do you speak Mandarin?” I asked.

“Mandarin OK.  Cantonese OK,” she replied.

“All right Isaiah,  you need to handle this.”

In a couple of minutes I was paying for the moon cakes–two of them, mixed fruit and nut flavor.  “Your son speak very good Chinese,” the woman told me.

“Thank you,” I said, “Xie-xie.”

After dinner the kids waited for the moon to rise over the supermarket across the street.  We all went out on the stoop, the kids in pajamas, to eat our moon cakes (not bad–I prefer this flavor to the traditional bean paste) and mark the change from summer to fall while taking a moment to marvel at the fullness and beauty of the moon.

I never knew what I was missing growing up with only one set of holidays.  How do those of you in bilingual/bicultural homes mark the extra holidays in your lives?  I’d love to hear your stories.

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5 Responses to “More Languages Spoken Means More Holidays to Celebrate”

  1. Judy Sawyer says:

    Hey Abby, I so enjoyed your story. I can just picture the four of you out on the “stoop”! The autumnal equinox is one of my very favorite times of the year. Glad you are writing!!

  2. Thanks for all of the wonderful comments.

    BernalMom, I am especially touched by your family’s observation of the Moon Festival. I hope to do a post about international adoption and language immersion programs in the near future and encourage anyone interested in contributing to please drop me a line: blogger(at)speakingintounguesfilm(dot)info

  3. BernalMom says:

    What a great post. We love the Moon Festival! My daughter was adopted in China and we take the opportunity to honor her birth mother at Moon Festival time. We used to host up to seven families and their babies, set up the altar table for offerings for the birth moms, light paper lanterns with glow sticks and go up on the deck to watch the moon rise. The kids have gotten older and bigger and we can no longer squeeze that many folks into the house. It’s usually just one or two families now and the kids’ offerings are more sophisticated: carefully arranged flowers or a letter to birthmom now. It’s a sweet celebration and quieter than Chinese New Year; my daughter asks for it every year and would be heartbroken if we skipped this particular holiday. Thanks, Abigail.

  4. Fleur says:

    I could not stop laughing as this story was unfolding. Great, great post and wonderful story telling.

  5. Joanne says:

    Great post, Abigail. We make some efforts at the Sino-celebrations, but we’ve concluded that mooncakes are a lot like fruitcake. Not worth eating but passed around at the holiday nonetheless!