The rapid approach of Sukkos, so
close on the heels of Yom Kippur, took us [a Jewish couple in Taiwan on a Fulbright
scholarship] by surprise. We had not yet developed a routine for sukkah-building
and now we were confronted with the realization that we had only a few days for
our construction project. Fortunately, there was no shortage of materials since
an abundant supply of bamboo poles was available, and I immediately began to
erect the frame for the sukkah.
Each day as I worked on the structure,
Chinese passerby would stop to watch, scratch their heads and move on. As the sukkah
grew more complete, the number of onlookers increased. I constructed a roof
of small bamboo branches and leaves, making sure that there was enough open
space among them to see the stars at night. On erev Sukkos I moved the
kitchen table and chairs outside and set them up in the bamboo shack. Devorah [the
couple’s daughter] helped with the decorations and, like Jewish children the
world over, had a great time tying fruit to the overhanging limbs.
About an hour before candlelighting [time]
and the onset of the festival, Mei-Mei [the family’s Chinese housekeeper]
informed us that we had a visitor. A very serious looking university official
was waiting at the front door. After exchanging courtesies, the
official stated that he had been sent by the Dean of Studies who wished to know
what aspects of our assigned accommodations displeased us. The university would
do everything in its power, he said, to oblige us.
We stared at the official in
confusion. Several times we had expressed our gratitude to our [academic] hosts
for the truly delightful accommodations. How could they possibly have gotten
the impression that we were dissatisfied? We assured our visitor that the
cottage was ideal and that we were very pleased and appreciative.
Now it was the official’s turn to
look perplexed. “If that is the case,” he stammered, “why are you moving out of
this house and building a new one outside?”
Mei-Mei, as usual, was listening
from the wings. Before we could reply, she inserted herself into the
conversation and calmly explained. “Tomorrow is the fifteenth day of [the]
eighth lunar month. Chinese celebrate mid-autumn Moon Festival. Chinese eat mooncakes and walk in the light of the moon. [Mr and Mrs Schwartzbaum] are yoh-tai-ren.
They celebrate festival by eating and living outside, like old Chinese saying ‘to
wear moon on your head and use stars as your cloak’.”
“Oh, now I understand,” the official
said with a smile. “I did not realize that our customs were so similar! Gung
Hsi! Gung Hsi!”
“Chag sameach!” we replied.
Abraham Schwartzbaum, The Bamboo Cradle: A Jewish Father’s Story 120–21 (2d ed. 1989) (emphasis added).
Seth Barrett Tillman, ‘Courtesy (II),’ New Reform Club (Apr. 27, 2023, 3:06 PM), <https://reformclub.blogspot.com/2023/04/courtesy-ii.html>;