Mooncakes in Manhattan

By Sonya Rehman

On a drizzly Friday night in early October, with no moon showing in New York, one bar here opened its doors in celebration of the Mooncake Festival.

In China, families traditionally get together at home to observe the moon when it is full, round and chubby, and eat mooncakes, round and chubby.  And in China, the festival fell the following day, but that was inconvenient in New York.

In New York, the Mooncake Festival is a meet-and-mingle at Ainsworth, on 26th St., a wood-paneled bar with  few echoes of the old country but  a lot of introductions.

While one portion of the bar was comprised of youngsters cradling drinks and watching  baseball on numerous flat-screen TV’s, the other portion consisted of a large, cozy bunch of people, most of them Chinese, engaged in conversation amidst drinks and mooncakes.

‘Mooncake Madness’ was put together by ‘Mandarin Mondays’ – a group of over a thousand Mandarin-speaking members based in New York City – and organized by ‘ConnectionZ Promotions’, an event-management company that aims at promoting peace through cross-cultural understanding.

In addition to  Chinese Americans who were present, a sprinkle of individuals from other ethnic backgrounds was also present – all mingling busily.

In New York the Mooncake Festival is a meet-and-mingle (Photo: Sonya Rehman)

“This is more of a meet-up,” said Peter Hong, a  smiling, middle-aged man. “It’s a gathering of people just to practice their English and Mandarin. It does help me re-connect with my roots because in America the Asian holidays are rarely celebrated – so this is one chance for Asians to get together and remember their own holidays without getting lost in the US.”

Biting into a small slice of mooncake (a pastry filled with lotus seed paste), Stephanie Bechtale was pretty candid; “This event is a little different from what I thought because I thought, ‘okay they’re going to celebrate the Mooncake Festival and we’re gonna watch the moon.’ But this event is more like just to make friends.”

And lowering her voice, she added; “I also heard that most of the people here are single and are enjoying making friends. Probably this isn’t right for me! I’m not single but I came here because it’s a holiday.”

Lee Abbey, an American doctor who has lived in New York his entire life, has been a non-Chinese member of Mandarin Mondays for four years and believes that through events like this, one gets to meet Chinese people and learn Chinese. “Every Monday we have a meet-up in a restaurant and the first Monday of the week it’s usually a large group, and there’s a buffet. The other Mondays, it’s a smaller group and we all share dinner together. It’s basically a mixture of people of all levels of Chinese and people who’ve either lived in China or studied there. And we come together to discuss our experiences and get to know each other.”

Scott Chan, a Chinese American who has been living in New York for 20 years, thinks that it’s refreshing to be able to meet with other Mandarin speaking people through events like the Mooncake Festival.  “Also, as you can see”, he says gesturing towards the crowd of people, “There are not only Chinese people here…”

Having moved to America with his family when he was only 4-years- old, Kevin Yeung goes to school in Manhattan and has lived in Queens all his life. He thinks that the event tonight has its flaws, “But the very fact that we’re organizing this festival and celebrating it, yes, it does somewhat help me to get in touch with my culture, but in my opinion if you really wanna be connected to Chinese culture, you would actually have to get into the culture! Because right now it’s being held inside a bar – an American bar! And a Chinese cultural event being held in a bar seems to me, very foreign.”

Amidst the loud, blaring music, the clink of glasses and beer bottles, the flow of conversation and occasional outbursts of cheers from the other side of the room when a home-run was hit, the Mooncake Festival at Ainsworth was celebrated a bit differently from how it would look the next day, in China.

Class assignment – Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism

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