It's a fight to get through the lower levels of the Mouer Department Store in Luzhou, China. The entire population of this Yangtze River town seems to be here. I press in close and peer over the customers, who are sampling and discussing some item of great importance.
What's the big draw? China's Mid-Autumn Festival is upon us, and with it comes the yue bing, or mooncake.
The festival is a night of reunion for the Chinese. Friends and relatives gather outside under the full moon to enjoy each other's company and share the traditional Mid-Autumn Festival dessert, the mooncake.
Much like Christmas fruitcake in the United States, the mooncake is not really a cake at all. It is a heavy mass of pasty substance, usually the size of your palm, encased in either a soft dough or flaky crust. Fillings abound, such as hard-boiled egg yokes, shaved dried beef, sweet red-bean paste, coconut, minced walnuts, sesame seeds, and pine nuts.
Each year, thousands of yue bing make their way into every shop, grocery, market and department store across the country. And each year I'm in China, it seems that thousands find their way into my home.
I have been teaching English in China for nine years and never have I been able to escape the bombardment of yue bing. In China, mooncakes descend upon the foreign teacher with a vengeance. In my small apartment on the campus of Luzhou Vocational and Technical College, the mooncake pile is rapidly growing, much like a persistent fungus.
"We want to share our culture with you!" my students and colleagues call out as they thrust into my hands boxes and bags of this festival snack food. Even the school administration officials get in on the act. On a formal visit to my home, they are laden with regional mooncake specialties presented in ostentatiously decorated boxes.
I appreciate their kindness, but at the same time, I am at a loss for what to do with my nightmarish hoard.
Strangely enough, like the Christmas fruitcake, mooncakes are something of a joke. My beaming well-wishers proclaim them "delicious," but when the Chinese are questioned, their responses are not so complimentary.
"Too sweet," students say with a frown.
"Too fattening," my colleagues declare.
"Too many!" my friends groan.
So, while it seems that everyone gives these things away as gifts, no one really likes to eat them.
I have found this especially true on the campus of our college. Many of the students are from poor farming families. Due to money constraints and their distant countryside residences, they can return home only at the end of the semester. Their Mid-Autumn Festival night is spent with their classmates. Everyone camps out on the school's sports field to watch the moon roll slowly across the starry sky.
Last year, I joined them in hopes of getting rid of my mooncake stash with a give-away. Little Flower, my Chihuahua-mix pooch, accompanied me on the distribution rounds.
Each cluster of students we approached broke into applause.
"Welcome! Welcome!" they shouted, making room for us to sit in their circle.
By midnight, all the students had been visited and all the mooncakes were gone. I would have considered the evening a success except for one small matter. While the students had gleefully snatched up the goodies I brought, after one or two small bites, they tossed the remaining yue bing on the ground. The next morning, when the dog and I went for our campus walk, I surveyed in horror the neat and tidy field now littered with "my" mooncakes and all the individual wrappers they had come in.
Little Flower benefited most from my magnanimous spirit. Her belly grew twice its normal size from her gorging on what the students had discarded.
Now I am once again confronted with the mooncake disposal dilemma. The prankster in me is being pulled toward the ancient Buddhist temple, located across from our school and overlooking the Yangtze River. I imagine myself standing on the temple's outer walls, raining mooncakes down on passing barges and fishing sampans as they slowly cruise by on festival night.
"Mid-Autumn treats from Buddha descend on worthy river vessels," media headlines would read.
Of course, that's just a foreign teacher's humor. But if reports do surface of a mysterious mooncake shower across the Yangtze, you'll know who's responsible.