It’s an early morning in a food court near Sydney’s Chinatown district.
Sitting in the corner is Annie — earphones in and looking down at her phone.
Annie is one of the 500,000 international students who have come to Australia to pursue further education.
“Before I saw you, I just finished calling my mum…because today is my birthday” she says with excitement.
“She was wishing me a happy birthday and she asked me what I will do for this [Moon] Festival.”
‘The brightest moon’
The Chinese Moon Festival falls on the 15th day of the eighth month, according to the Chinese Lunar Calendar. This year it’s celebrated on September 24.
“That is the day you can see the brightest moon” says Dr Xiaohuan Zhao, a senior lecturer at the University of Sydney who specialises in classical Chinese literature, mythology and folktales.
“The [ancient Chinese] people thought, ‘Why is the moon so bright that day? There must be something special there.'”
The Moon Festival has historically been — and remains — an important time for family reunion.
The roundness of the moon symbolises completeness, which is fulfilled in reuniting with loved ones.
“People who live apart from each other will send best wishes to each other,” says Dr Zhao.
“But if there’s any possibility, they will try to come back for a family reunion.”
Mainland China, Hong Kong and Taiwan have special transport arrangements every year in an attempt to reduce congestion during the Moon Festival.
Last year, travelling in China became a logistical nightmare due to the festival coinciding with a national holiday. Expressways connecting major Chinese cities experienced gridlock on the first day of the holiday.
It’s believed almost half the population attempted to travel during this time.
In past years, Annie celebrated the Moon Festival with her parents in their hometown in China’s Shandong province.
But her short university break and demanding part-time job mean it’s now impossible to return.
“I really want to go back to China, but I have no time,” she says.
Annie has no family in Australia, but that doesn’t mean she’ll be staying home.
Over the weekend, she attended one of the many events in held Sydney suburbs — along with many other migrants and students unable to return home.
“This day, we will really miss home,” she says.
“You see the pictures that your friends post in the friends circle [on the Chinese app WeChat], they’re accompanied with their parents and celebrating the festival.
“But I’m alone here, and I feel really lonely.”
Annie’s generation grew up during the period of the One-Child policy, which was enforced in China for 37 years, only recently ending in 2016.
“These Chinese students grew up as an only child, [so they are] extremely precious to their parents,” explains Dr Zhao.
Even when Annie encounters difficulties or misses home, she hopes her parents won’t worry.
And when it comes to the Moon Festival, she doesn’t want the separation to spoil the celebration.
“[I will tell them] I hope they can have a really great day… and not be lonely without me,” she says.
Full moon, unfulfilled reunion
Dr Zhao agrees that many international Chinese students feel isolated during the festival.
“If there isn’t something to give them a sense of home or shared activities, they will feel very lonely” he says.
“At the University of Sydney, the Chinese studies centre and Chinese societies will always have activities on every year.
“The festival is extremely important for Chinese students that are here.”
While social media platforms can emphasise the distance, Dr Zhao says they can also offer a lifeline.
“[The students] will definitely video chat with their parents” he says.
“It’s a sorrowful situation [to be apart].”
Even for loved ones separated by physical distance, the moon still symbolises a point of connection.
“No matter where you are, you are all looking at the same moon,” says Dr Zhao.
“This is something that has very deep meaning in Chinese culture.
“Other festivals are often lively and bustling, with a lot of laughter and noise, but this festival is especially moving and poetic.”
By Hong Jiang