All those years, I had it all wrong about maqiu, a traditional winter solstice food for my husband Jun’s family in rural Zhejiang province.
Whenever Jun mentioned the sesame balls he had eaten for the holiday while growing up, I had always imagined a version of tangyuan, those delicious glutinous rice balls stuffed with sweet sesame or red bean paste typically enjoyed in southern China. Except, he called them sesame balls or maqiu, not tangyuan. So I thought, maybe maqiu was just another name for tangyuan in the local dialect?
But then years ago, one night before winter solstice with Jun’s family, I watched my mother-in-law prepare maqiu in her kitchen and did a double take. She dropped inch-sized balls of glutinous rice dough, made from glutinous rice flour and cold water, straight into a wok of boiling water without tucking anything inside. Had she lost her mind? Where was the muss and fuss of filling the dough with sesame paste that I’d had to slog through all those years before, when Jun and I used to live in the United States?
Once the rice balls floated to the top, which took only a few minutes, she fished them out of the boiling water and then rolled them in a sweet mixture of toasted black sesame seeds and white sugar that coated every inch of the dough. That’s when I realized it－it was my mistake, not hers.
The late afternoon sun of winter warmed us as we bowed before the front door of that little whitewashed house in the mountains of rural Hangzhou, Zhejiang province. There we prayed to the ancestors, whose table before us carried a delicious spread of home-cooked dishes from my mother-in-law’s kitchen. The tempting aromas of chili peppers, garlic and ginger mingled with the faint fragrance of papermade ancestor money burning on the ground. As I stood together with my husband and his relatives, I had this strange feeling of deja vu, as if I had been there before somehow, somewhere in my life.
And in a way, I had.
Before I married into a Chinese family from rural Hangzhou, I had never known anyone in the United States who celebrated the winter solstice as an actual holiday. But once I moved back to China with my husband in 2013, I finally had the opportunity to experience a traditional winter solstice celebration in all its splendor.
When you straddle two different cultures, sometimes, you wish your holidays did too. Holidays like Christmas.
I still love and embrace the traditions of my childhood, growing up in a Catholic home with a fresh-cut spruce trimmed with tinsel, and lights and an Angel. We hung our stockings, exchanged presents by the tree, hung wreaths, shared Christmas carols, baked Christmas cookies, and decorated our doors with pictures of Santa and the Reindeer and Elves.
But now, with my Chinese husband John, I’ve enjoyed creating a few new traditions and twists on the old, to make the holiday reflect the international, cross-cultural couple we are.
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