The China Birthday Enthusiasm Gap

Happy birthday cake
Happy birthday meant something completely different to John, my Chinese husband (photo by Brandon Rittenhouse)

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?

10 Replies to “The China Birthday Enthusiasm Gap”

  1. One day in July last year my husband and I were in the process of moving out of a house before the tenants came to move in. We were in the garage up to our ears in boxes and Buddy suddenly said he wanted to go to Todai for lunch, which is this expensive restaurant that’s way across town and we only go there on birthdays because the birthday kid eats for free.

    I was so mad at him for suggesting that because we were way behind on our work and this was no time for kidding around. He just stood there looking at me, smiling, like he could see a tidal wave behind me that was about to crash over my head.

    And suddenly it hit me, it WAS his birthday! I had completely forgotten. And he was trying to gently remind me. 🙂

  2. It’s a Western thing. It amazes me how obsessed Westerners are with birthdays. The secretary I have here even seems to spend a good amount of time compiling and sending out birthday-of-the-month lists of faculty members having a birthday in some particular month. For decades my mother was forcing me and my brothers to do something for each other’s birthdays until I very bluntly told her to stop being our birthday bookkeeper because quite frankly it wasn’t getting fun anymore.

    Yet when I ask my Chinese friends when their birthdays come, they all shut up and won’t say anything. I notice that if I ask a Chinese child when their birthday is, their parents seem to become anxious and change the topic quickly. So I’ve learned to just ask the age, never the birthday date. Asking their animal year is always ok though.

  3. Both my husband and I have birthdays in November, and the last couple of years I’ve planned parties to surprise him. This year he made me promise not to do anything on his birthday. I think us Westerners want to make people feel special on days like birthdays. And you need people around to make it feel like a celebration. I know his parents didn’t really have any parties for him when he was young, I feel like its my job to make up for it. But obviously he doesn’t feel any loss. With our daughter growing up in the U.S. it will be different. If she sees all of her friends have birthday parties and she doesn’t have any what will she think? I guess I hold on to my American viewpoint on this subject. This year I promised not to do anything but I never said anything about the future…..

    1. @melanie, that’s so funny your husband tried to throw in a subtle reminder about his b-day, instead of just telling you directly.

      @Bill Campbell, thanks!

      @Li Lan, it is true we can go a little overboard on b-days here. Interesting observation about Chinese parents and b-days, too.

      @Laura, thanks for sharing your experience. I feel the same way at times, that I need to make up for something John didn’t have — but of course, that’s because I would miss it, not him! Culture runs strong, especially when it comes to holidays.

  4. No wonder when it was my friend, Li’s birthday, I asked him, “Are you doing anything special for your birthday?” he replied, “Nothing.” I actually gave him a card(that I made myself) and she said to me, “This is the 2nd gift I have received for my birthday.” The next day, I asked how his birthday was, he said, “Just like any other day.” I think, Chinese New Year, is more of a celebration for birthdays? I know in the Vietnamese culture, kids do not really sometimes remember their birthdays, or they don’t celebrate them.

    Jocelyn, thanks for posting the cultural views on the Chinese, and the differences of culture in China and America. It’s really helping me a lot, to understand my friends.

  5. My boyfriend birthday is this weekend. A few months back when I saw that his birthday was coming up I asked him: what do you want for your birthday? I will definitely make you a cake, but what do you want to do?, it’s your special day, choose whatever you want and we will do it. (I was actuall thinking of throwing a nice birthday party) He told me that he wanted to go to Hangzhou and spend the day drinking tea…
    Then this week when I asked him; are you exited about your birthday? He told me that he had forgotten that his birthday was this weekend. Then got all exited about the cake that I’m going to make and revealed that he never really had a birthday party and that since he was 9 years old he always spent his birthday alone, doing nothing special, like any other day.
    Now he seems genuinely exited that he is going to have a “special” birthday. And I hope he likes the cake 🙂

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.