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>;