Lanterns are used to celebrate the Mid-Autumn Festival. Credit: Kin Cheung

After Chinese New Year, the Mid-Autumn Festival is the second-most important holiday for the Chinese and Chinese-Americans. It falls on the 15th day of the eighth month of the lunar year, usually in September. (This year, it’s September 24.) In Hong Kong, where I grew up, the temperature then averages 84 degrees—at night. In Chicago, it hits during the sweet spot following the wet, humid tail end of August, when it starts to feel like fall. Like Thanksgiving, the Mid-Autumn Festival is celebrated with reunions of families. Though I won’t be with my family this year, I’ve found elements here that ground me and give me a piece of home.

Chinatown bakeries and grocery stores—I like Chiu Quon Bakery and MayFlower Food—carry traditional special-occasion ingredients such as hairy crab and, most important, moon cakes, each densely packed with lotus-seed paste and a salted egg yolk and covered in a thin crust. Their roundness symbolizes completeness and togetherness.

In Hong Kong, my family and I lived by a river, where we celebrated the Mid-Autumn Festival by lighting candles and paper lanterns along the bike and pedestrian trail. Here, there’s so much public space along the lakefront and the river that Hong Kong would be jealous. But it’s participants that make a holiday. This year I was happy to see several Mid-Autumn Festival celebrations in Chicago. The Field Museum’s Roots & Routes Initiative program jumped the gun with a celebration on September 15 with the Chinese American Museum, the Chicago Park District, the Nature Conservancy, and the Coalition for a Better Chinese American Community. There were lanterns and a storyteller who told children the legend of Chang’E flying to the moon. In honor of the harvest moon, the Park District planted 1,200 native plants at the Set in Stone in Burnham Park, continuing a project it started last year.

I shouldn’t be so surprised that there are Mid-Autumn Festival celebrations here, considering Chinese Chicagoans began establishing themselves in 1870s—before the Chinese Exclusion Act. Being a minority in an American city I did not grow up in, I’m prepared if my cultural items and rituals are amiss—that part of my identity will come as an afterthought. The truth is, my heritage had already started to become something of an afterthought to me when my siblings went to college and I had no one to be a kid with. The wild moon goddess stories, the toy lanterns, and the Chinese songs and musical instruments lost their novelty. Fast-forward to now, when I’m grown up and far from home and hungry to be with people who look like me, speak my mother tongue, and share a similar upbringing. Maybe things that make me feel recognized and like I belong aren’t so childish after all.   v