When my birthday came along this summer, my Chinese husband orchestrated yet another in a long line of grand “birthday programs” — mining the rainbow gleam of opal; breathing in the azure beauty of a pristine trout stream filled with river otters; and savoring the fragrant delight of coconut curries at a Thai restaurant downtown. The entire day felt as precious and beautiful as the double rainbow we glimpsed from the highway, arching in twin perfection against the tumultuous gray skies behind.
Two months later, when his birthday arrived, along with the new semester, I imagined a day of birthday revelry fit for the one man who captured my heart and soul. “Maybe we could go to the hot springs. Or a planetarium in a science museum. Or what about visiting a state park?”
But John shrugged, as if I was just discussing the week’s shopping list with him. “We don’t really have the time,” he said, referring to his heavy workload this semester. “You can just make me a chocolate cake,” he smiled.
“A chocolate cake?” I replied, with incredulity. “That’s all?”
“When I was young, I used to get two hard-boiled eggs for my birthday. Chocolate cake sounds even better.”
No gifts, no fuss, no big party. I could never imagine a birthday marked by hard-boiled eggs. But, then again, I didn’t grow up under the kind of hard-boiled conditions John did in his countryside town, where meats and eggs appeared only with special holidays and occasions — and where most people declared themselves a year older on Chinese New Year day.
Yet, John knew just how important birthdays were to me, even before we began dating. He heard me talk of planning that 2002 birthday bash of mine at a Hangzhou teahouse, where I dressed in a cherry-blossom qipao and entertained my friends over Dragonwell and dessert in a place named the good moon. He even saw the tricolored gold pendants and hummingbird earrings I received in the mail in the runup to my special day. So he offered to plan me a “birthday program” — where he romanced me over vegetarian delights, and beside the starry skies reflected in the West Lake; where we became a couple in hearts and minds. Two years later, on my birthday, we promised to love each other forever, at the Shanghai Marriage Registry office.
I don’t know if John and I will ever close the birthday enthusiasm gap — and, maybe, I don’t want to. Because, to me, there’s something special about a guy who thinks hard-boiled eggs equals birthdays, and who sees my birthday as a time for “programs.”
Have you ever been surprised by how the Chinese celebrate birthdays? Or, if you’re Chinese, are you surprised by customs you’ve experienced overseas?