Our first Mid-Autumn Festival in China was very memorable for a number of reasons, including a nice big #Chinafail.
I was mostly having a blast learning about what would quickly become my favorite Chinese holiday. We learned about Chang-E, the Jade Rabbit, moon gazing, pomelos, all of it. Of course, we also learned about mooncakes, which are kinda like Fig Newtons, but denser, richer, fancier, and more expensive. Oh, and traditionally have an egg yolk in the middle.
It didn’t take long to figure out that our family preferred the all-fruit mooncakes. While not the most traditional, they pleased our palates more than the smoked walnut + ham + sweet lotus paste + mystery ingredient + egg yolk kind.
Since Mid-Autumn Festival focuses on being with family, and longing for the family you can’t be with, we thought we would share some fruity mooncakes with our families back home as a way to say “we miss you!” and introduce them to a little Chinese culture.
So, we prepared. We spent way too long at the store, carefully picking out the fruit-only mooncakes with our barely-there Mandarin reading skills. (It didn’t help that 果can mean either ‘fruit’ or ‘nut.’ Don’t worry, we’ve since overcome that literary obstacle.)
Then came the challenge of packing the mooncakes. Preparing a box for shipping is one of those skills you have to re-learn in another country. What type of box is acceptable to use? And where would you get said box? Where do you put the label? Does the sender’s address go above or below the recipient’s? Which post office can handle international mail?
We eventually got the boxes ready to go, and headed to the post office. We allowed plenty of time, knowing that filling out the customs forms in handwritten Chinese would take us a painfully long time. (Unless the postal workers finally got tired of waiting, and, like a mom who really just needs the 5-year-old’s letter to grandma to be done already so she can move on to dinner, which she’s already 20 minutes late on starting, grabs the paper and finishes writing it herself. The Kindergartner might be miffed, but the foreigner is incredibly relieved.)
Then came the hiccup.
“These are mooncakes?” The clerk asked, pawing through our boxes. “All mooncakes?” We at least knew that much – that the clerks would need to visually inspect the contents before we sealed the boxes, and that they would do the sealing with staple guns, not with packing tape. So enculturated.
“Yes, all mooncakes,” we affirmed, proud to understand the conversation so far.
“You can’t send mooncakes,” she frowned.
“You cannot send mooncakes to the U.S. It’s your country’s regulation,” she explained, as though we clearly should have been familiar with the U.S. postal service code about Chinese baked goods. I mean, aren’t you?
We were perplexed that there would be this rule. The mooncakes were baked and factory sealed. How was this different than shipping any other food product, which we had done successfully before? The avian flu crisis hadn’t happened yet, but we still guessed the objection might be the egg yolk, since it was an animal product.
“But these are the fruit kind. No egg yolks,” we explained. The clerk wasn’t going to budge. I was actually kind of surprised that she cared that much about a government regulation from a country half a world away. Bigger rules had been ignored many times before.
I tried a different tactic. “We are apart from our families on Mid-Autumn Festival, and want them to eat mooncakes while we think of each other. They can’t get mooncakes in America.” Have some sympathy, lady. These poor people will have to observe Mid-Autumn without mooncakes if I don’t send them these packages! How sad! (Actually, I think Chinese supermarkets in large U.S. cities do carry mooncakes around Mid-Autumn Festival, but they are all the traditional egg/nut/weird kind. Let’s just agree that this was irrelevant to my pleas to the postal clerk.)
“No, that’s the rule, and it’s your country’s rule.” Clearly she agreed that the rule was ridiculous, but it was our country’s fault. Her tone’s composition included one mole of accusation that it was our own personal fault, too. We were not getting anywhere with her.
So, we gave up. Maybe if our Chinese had been better, or had we had guanxi with someone in the higher ranks of China Post officials, we could have won this battle to have our families experience the fruity wonder of non-traditional mooncakes. But it wasn’t to be.
In the end, they had to gaze at the moon that night, sigh deeply, and miss us without the aid of pastries. (Actually, I think it was a very normal, unpoetic Friday night for them, and they were possibly completely unaware that they were supposed to be missing us extra-hard that night. Let’s just do some more agreeing on irrelevancy.)
As for us, we took our boxes of mooncakes home, not really that sad that we’d have to eat them ourselves. Mmmmmm…mango…
P.S. If you are thinking of bringing back some mooncakes to loved ones in the States, here’s the official regulation from U.S. Customs. No, seriously, there is a separate entry on their website entitled “Importing Mooncakes.” Apparently, your best bet is to buy them in Canada and bring them that way. Good luck, and 中秋节快乐！