January 12 had me celebrating my 57th birthday.
I awoke in the morning to find the above display, set by my mom.
The birthday bear plays “Happy Birthday to You”. It’s our tradition to bring out this musical stuffed animal for any birthday in our family. This is the second year I’ve been able to celebrate my birthday in America with my mom. Usually, I’m in China but Covid restrictions in Sichuan Province still aren’t allowing schools to apply for foreign teachers’ visas. My college continues to ask but so far, no word has been given except, “Please wait.”
Of course, I’d much rather be at my college in Luzhou but I did receive birthday wishes throughout the day from friends, colleagues, not to mention my current and former students. Made me both overjoyed that I hadn’t been forgotten (I’ve been waiting for 2 years) but also homesick that I haven’t been able to return yet.
Posting for My Chinese Friends to See
To commemorate the day, I made sure to take plenty of pictures to send to others through my WeChat account, located on my phone. (WeChat, if you didn’t know, is China’s equivalent to Facebook or What’s App)
Here were my offerings: A slew of cards mailed from friends, a very pretty store-bought ice-cream cake and the January 12 Dog-a-Day calendar page.
Of course, no birthday is complete without the birthday song. Voices heard are me and my mom.
A Note about My First Birthday Cake Experience in China
Speaking of cake, let me share this story concerning the first birthday party I attended in China. It was 1991, in October, and I had just arrived at Nanchang Normal University in Jiangxi Province. I spoke no Chinese and knew very little about the culture or customs of the country. A teenage girl, whom I met by chance on the street, practiced her English with me for quite some time and then suddenly invited me to her home for her birthday. She had already contacted numerous friends to join us at her house, all of whom were very excited to have their first ever foreigner in their midst.
The cake her parents purchased for her was huge and looked spectacular with heaps of fancy colored icing lathered all over it. This 2-layered wonder seemed to promise a magnificent taste. After candles had been blown out, I remember the birthday girl putting a gigantic slice for me in a porcelain rice bowl (I found quickly that plates were not used for individuals but more as serving dishes for woked-up stir fries). She next gave me chopsticks to use in place of a fork and, smiling all the while, watched with amusement as I tried my best to manuever the dessert into my mouth. (I wasn’t yet very adept at using chopsticks.) I finally managed a huge bite, which caused the group to clap at my success.
As for me, the success was short-lived as I suddenly panicked to swallow.
I was anticipating something wonderful but the surprise came when my mouthful proved to be what I would deem as inedible. It was undeniably truly awful, especially the whipped- cream frosting, which had no taste other than a slick, lard-based, nasty texture that stubbornly adhered to the roof of my mouth. There the slug-like concoction refused to dislodge itself no matter how much tea or water I drank to wash it down.
The entire experience, from the sickly heavy coating to the extremely course, mustard-colored yellow sponge, almost scarred me for life. Nor was I the only one at that birthday party who strained to grin through a mouthful of this birthday “treat.” The Chinese in my midst wouldn’t eat it, either. I quickly found it was the enacting of the foreigners’ birthday tradition, along with blowing out candles, that entertained everyone, not the consumption of the dessert itself.
For many years, I wouldn’t touch a Chinese birthday cake, no matter how many times I was invited to do so. It wasn’t until I returned to the mainland in 2001, after I had been teaching in Taiwan for 3 years, that bakeries across China finally discovered adequate recipes, with overseas ingredients to match, which made for more enjoyable cake indulging on my part.
As for my January 12 here in America, I opted for an ice-cream cake, which is very difficult to find in China but one which I certainly prefer and treated myself to.
A Birthday Swim Has me Treating Others
Aside from pampering myself, I followed the Chinese custom which is to treat others for your special day.
Four times a week, I swim at the Terre Haute Aquatics Center for their public lap swimming. I couldn’t resist sharing 40 mini assorted candy bars, placing them on the table entrance to the pool, with an invite for staff and swimmers to pick a favorite.
When I ended my work-out, 2 hours later, not a single goodie was left. Now that certainly was a treat, knowing that my small offerings were appreciated.
I couldn’t resist this show-off video as a finale to my special day, along with an “I miss you!” to my students, friends and colleagues.
Yes, it was a fun day but I truly hope that my 58th will be celebrated at my Chinese college in Luzhou, with birthday parties galore and another swimming post but this time, in the new pool on our new campus. That was my birthday wish as I blew out my candles.
Be looking at this space a year from now to see if that birthday wish came true. I have faith that it definitely will.