Sunday was my birthday.
To Americans, this meant a lit-up face from those who found out and them offering a pat on the back.
“Hey! Happy birthday!” they said.
Why do we do this? Just ’cause. It’s someone’s birthday, and that’s what we do.
But this isn’t what people do everywhere. Travel has offered a couple of twists to birthdays I’ve had abroad. Here are two examples:
I was turning 30, so I invited friends and acquaintances to an East/West fusion cuisine restaurant with dim lighting, cushy tables and booths, and I remember stainless steel piping running across the ceiling to look “industrially hip.”
I arrived and sat in the middle of a long table which friends soon filled. As they arrived, even people I didn’t know well handed me gifts–some quite nice. One gifted me designer sunglasses from Macau. Another offered a set of cutlery.
“Gosh, birthdays in China are pretty sweet,” I thought to myself.
Then I opened the menu and chose a pricey steak and planned for dessert. “It’s my birthday, so my friends will pitch in to cover my tab,” a thought told me.
The night proceeded with the socializing of friends I had made over the previous nine months living there. Eventually, after dinner, one acquaintance stood, bid me a good evening, and left. A few minutes later, another friend took her leave. Then another and another. As the friends dwindled to those who were my closest, a thought struck me: “The waitress never presented checks to any of my exiting friends.”
I asked a remaining Chinese friend, “Did the people who left pay at the register?”
“It’s your birthday. You pay,” she replied.
My eyes popped open with the realization that all I had been doing to bolster my birthday bash–go to a nice restaurant, invite several people–had worked against my bottom line.
“Hold on!” I said to the remaining folks. “I didn’t know about this custom, and I didn’t bring enough money.”
Thankfully I had enough to pay for the four who had left–and my steak and dessert. I guess I literally paid for this cultural lesson, but experiences are priceless gifts–and I still have those sunglasses.
Two years ago Sunday, 200 at-attention, green-uniformed Tanzanian adolescents stood on a dirt path under blue skies listening to announcements from Headmaster Mgongolwa. Moments later, he turned it over to me. I walked up and offered my usual updates to the students about my computer classes and the latest news from my pupil’s pen pals in America. Then I let them in on the biggest announcement of all: today was my 33rd birthday.
Their lack of response led me to believe they misheard. But they didn’t. They just didn’t care. It wasn’t personal. They didn’t care about anyone’s birthday. They don’t celebrate birthdays. As I spoke, one student nonchalantly announced that it was another student’s birthday as well. He pointed over to Dickson Kalinga.
“Dickson, how old are you?” I asked.
“15?! Dickson, it’s your golden birthday!”
The collective response was, “So.”
I’ve spoken to immigrants from all over Africa and parts of Southeast Asia, and have discovered that birthday apathy is quite common in these parts. In fact, many of these people don’t even know their birthdays. They mark their birth with a weather trend or season–born during that bad rainstorm or born during that good harvest.
When such people come to America, they need to invent a birth date that’s likely in the ballpark. Perhaps the product of a society less concerned with the individual and less concerned with specific dates, I nonetheless wanted to acknowledge Dickson’s and my shared special day, so did so with a picture: a selfie for my birthday. How very American of me.
But I do like birthdays. To answer the question of why we celebrate them, I’ll refer to what I wrote about our celebration of another anniversary: the New Year. We celebrate to acknowledge all that’s happened in the past year, the desire for a better upcoming one, and in the case of the birthday, an annual recognition of a person who is unique to the world–who offers a one-in-seven-billion combination of that which they can, to whom they can.
For the birthday recipient, it’s uplifting receiving those “pats on the back.” Cards, tokens, plenty of Facebook friend nods, and maybe a meal from loved ones. This was my experience over the weekend, and every acknowledgement I received was another little shot of warmth, reminding me of all the people I know, the people who make my life special–and so the people who remind me what life is all about.
On that note, I think I understand the Chinese tradition that took me off guard five years ago. Why not use this annual recognition as a chance for the individual to acknowledge all those who make his life special? I’ll do so in the simplest way I can right here, right now to all of you for being on the receiving end of this post, as well as all my posts, motivating me to continue discovering and sharing all the life and truth out there.
For all you who touch my life, thank you for making mine worthwhile and special.