Celebrating Birthdays

Today is my birthday. 1st May.

I’ve never been one for celebrating my birthday. The last time I blew out candles on a cake and had Happy Birthday sung to me was in high school. It has been a few years.

Candles on a cake spell out the invisible letters 'Happy Birthday' | Weekly Photo Challenge: Letters.

Candles on a cake spell out the invisible letters ‘Happy Birthday’ | Weekly Photo Challenge: Letters.

When my birthday rolls around each year, I insist on having an ordinary day and my friends baulk at this. To them, birthdays should be a time when you have a good party. Or a time when you stick by fanfare-esque birthday traditions.

Both of these are quite alien to me. Have I lost touch with my Asian roots when it comes to birthday traditions and the spirit of celebration altogether?

In Chinese culture, red hard boiled eggs and noodles are often served to the birthday person on their special day, particularly to one month old babies. These crimson coloured eggs are symbolic of prosperity – “roundness” equating to happiness – and noodles long life. On one of my past birthdays, an international student friend asked me, “Are you going to eat an egg today?” I replied with a confused “No”. Never done so on my birthday. My parents never enlightened me about it.

Then there is the instance of having two birthdays in a year for some Asians. Many Chinese follow the Lunar calendar which doesn’t match up with the Western Gregorian calendar; they can choose which day to celebrate their birthday. Lunar calendar dates change each year and honestly, I’ve always been befuddled over my exact lunar birthday dates.

As part of Chinese-Malaysian birthday celebrations, money-filled red packets are given as presents to the birthday person. I feel embarrassed accepting them from my parents each year mainly because I like working for my money. On the subject of gift-giving, I begged my parents to buy me a clock in the shape of a frog for my eighth birthday. They grudgingly relented – a clock is an unlucky birthday present in our culture. Once again, my ignorance towards my heritage clearly on display.

Western birthdays are something else altogether (interesting list of birthday celebrations around the world here). Growing up as an Asian Australian kid in Melbourne, I went to birthday parties thrown by my Caucasian classmates: barbeques, dress-ups, Fairy Bread aplenty. We played hide and seek and although I had fun, I noticed my Anglo classmates keenly played in racial clusters of their own. With cat whiskers painted on my face, I almost, just almost felt like a “normal” kid, not an Asian kid, at these shindigs – in costume. I felt the same way during my sixth Aussie-styled birthday party with lamingtons, ice popsicles and lonesome hide-and-seek.

Maybe these memories are partly why I don’t warm towards celebrating my birthday and finding out the Asian-side of it. Then again, I’m shy and introverted, not a fan of social occasions involving more than five people. Birthdays are a time when attention is pretty much focused squarely on us. And that’s something I’m very uncomfortable with. What exactly are we supposed to do when people sing us Happy Birthday?

Birthdays carry universal meanings across cultures. A birthday is a celebration of life and age. Commemoration of birth. A window to a chance of a lifetime. It’s a milestone signifying how far we’ve come, what we’ve achieved and what else we’re capable of. A time to reflect on who we are.

So am I really too “white” in the context of celebrating birthdays? Seems that way. But it’s unfair to assume we understand and connect with our culture the moment we’re born. We’re all brought up differently, some of us exposed to our heritage and mother tongue more than others and some less. We’re all different, just as each of us likes to celebrate our birthday in our own way. We all learn as we grow. Writing this post, I’ve touched base with my culture once again.

What am I doing today? Nothing too fancy. Donating money to a charity as I do each year on this day is the most exciting thing I can think of.

How do you celebrate your birthday? Do you follow birthday traditions?

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107 thoughts on “Celebrating Birthdays

  1. As I get older I celebrate less. There are Jewish calender birthdays too for those who want to be religious/cultural. But I don’t think it’s necessary to be completely authentic and traditional, the mainstream Gregorian calender is fine and easier for friends to keep track of.

    As for red pocket money, it’s less personal yet it’s so much easier than thinking of gifts for others. I’m always bad at choosing presents. I for one like that aspect of Chineseness.

    Happy May Day as well, you share a birthday with my best friend. I’m usually bad at remembering bdays but this day is always easy to keep track of 🙂

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    • Thanks for sharing, Ray. You’re right. There’s definitely no law that says we need to stick to tradition in regards to birthday celebrations. We can celebrate this day however we like, if we wish. But I do think it’s worthwhile knowing the traditions. They bring an interesting perspective to birthdays. Seems that a lot of cultures think it’s a significant occasion.

      Agree with you on the red pocket money. It’s like telling the lucky birthday person, “Here’s some money. Spend it however you like” 😀 And you would think they’ll buy something they like.

      Happy May Day too! This day is a public holiday in Singapore and Malaysia (Labour Day). Unfortunately this is not the case in Australia.

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  2. Birthdays were always a bit of a big thing growing up, because it meant doing fun things with friends and family…an excuse to just play hard. As I got into business and work, then they became annoying because it seemed to become more of this rigid date…weird expectations whether the day should be celebrated or not. These days, I really do not even think about it…and it is nice that way. 🙂

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    • Interesting you say that birthdays are annoying when it comes to work. In one of my previous work places, if it’s someone’s birthday, one of the staff will buy a cupcake and put a lighted candle on it, then bring it out and surprise the birthday person with it – in song. At my current workplace, whether or not we want to celebrate our birthday here is up to us. Most of my colleagues do since it’s a chance for them to get away from work for a bit. I don’t find it appealing celebrating my birthday at work…like you, I don’t think too much about my birthday. Today I got the day off work and stayed home most of the day. Well, it was cold outside 🙂

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    • Thanks, Randall. These days I don’t really know what to say when someone wishes me “Happy Birthday”. Not because I’m age conscious, hate celebrations or anything like that. When people say those two words to me, I like to respond, “But it’s just another day!” And they will give me a funny look.

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      • It really is interesting to notice how the feeling of having a birthday changes over time. In youth and school is was just so much fun, and now ~ very similar to you ~ the last thing I really want is to acknowledge a birthday because “it is just another day” and just not worth celebrating. There could be other great things to do/celebrate and these days a b-day just seems a little to trivial 🙂

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        • I think you hit the nail on the head when you say, “the feeling of having a birthday changes over time”. Yesterday I really didn’t want anyone bringing up my birthday. Apart from my family (annoyingly), no one else did which was great. Birthdays trivial? I too think so. It pains me to see a fancy room being rented out for a birthday – decorated in balloons, one of a kind china, gourmet food…I’m sure the money could all be used wisely elsewhere.

          On a side note, I feel that this birthday post turned out sad, which wasn’t my intention at all 🙂

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  3. Happy birthday Mabel! I’m a bit like you – I don’t really like a big fuss made over me on my birthday either, especially now that I’m entering my late 20s. Yikes. Birthdays were only fun when we were kids, I think. And Lunar Birthdays are soooo confusing. My family was talking about my Appa’s Lunar birthday a few weeks before his actual birthday and I freaked out that I’d gotten the date wrong. But my Korean tutor says that while older Koreans still recognise their Lunar Birthday, young Koreans tend to just celebrate their birthday nowadays – like Westerners.

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    • Late 20s…it’s never too young to celebrate birthdays! I remember when I was a kid, I was more excited about eating Fairy Bread than opening my presents. Yes, Lunar Birthdays are very confusing. It’s even more confusing when our parents or relatives explain it to us in their language or mother tongue, which we may not be entirely fluent in. It’s interesting to see how more and more of us aren’t following birthday traditions anymore. I’m sure a lot of us are aware of it. Western birthdays seem to be more “cool”.

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  4. Happy birthday. I used to love celebrating but things change as you get older so I’m content with low key family dinners these days 🙂

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    • That is so true. I guess as we grow older, we become more focused on others around us. So when it comes to our birthday, we don’t feel too comfortable celebrating it, or at least don’t feel the need to. If anyone were to throw me a birthday party, I would feel embarrassed, but appreciative at the same time. Low key dinners sound like a fuss-free way to toast to another year – cozy with the ones you love.

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      • That’s exactly it. Mine this year was spent at a koala & wildlife park as I wanted my daughter to have a fun day, as that makes me happiest. Hope you did enjoy your day though. It’s good to feel a bit special 🙂

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        • A koala and wildlife park sounds something very enjoyable. It’s a bit cold here in Melbourne at the moment, so going to a park like that wouldn’t be too nice…it could be fun with a big coat, though. Sounds like your daughter had a good time there with all the animals. Hope you took a lot of photos.

          Today was an ordinary day for me. Got the day off work and stayed at home writing. Not too shabby!

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  5. I’m not a type for celebrating my birthday as well. Usually, we will do a merit at a temple on any day during my birth month, no need to be on the same day as my birthday. And we might go outside to have lunch at a restaurant. We in this consist of my parents, my younger brother and me. Anyway, I have this tradition to exchange a birthday gift with my best friend who was born before me two months. So we generally wait for my birth month to come, and we will meet up, chat and swap a gift. Nothing fancy though.

    Happy Birthday to you, Mabel. Wish you have a good health and happy life 😀

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    • That is very interesting to hear, Cotton. I’ve not met anyone in a long time who says they go to a temple on or near their birthday. Swapping presents sounds interesting too. It must be challenging for you to buy a gift for her each year. But then, you’re best friends so you should know what she likes. I always feel embarrassed accepting presents, feeling I never deserve them, haha.

      Thanks for the well-wishes. I definitely want good health and a happy life. You know me too well 😀

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  6. Happy birthday 🙂
    1 of May is at least in Europe a bit special. From the night of the 30th of April till the 1 of May is over are normaly big celebrations. It is also called “Walpurgis Night” and in Finland it is called “Vappu” probably the biggest celebration of the year

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    • Thanks, Timo. I googled “Walpurgis Night” and wow, it is indeed a celebration over there. Growing up I had a fascination with witches but I don’t think the celebration has got anything to do with it.

      1st May in Singapore and Malaysia is Labour Day and it’s a public holiday. Not the case in Australia sadly. Hope all is well with you, your wife and Nathan. I’m sure you’ll throw your son a birthday bash at some point 😉

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      • Oh, ofcourse it is also Labour Day here, kind of forgot about it :p
        There are some celebrations in Germany which are directly related to the witches/ witchcraft/ supernatural during Walpurgis Night, especially on the mountain “Brocken” which is featured in Goethes “Faust”

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        • How can you forget that it’s a holiday… Never knew there were celebrations surrounding witches and the supernatural. I’ve lost interest in them, but these celebrations sound interesting. Makes me want to pop over your part of the world someday. Who doesn’t like a good celebration? I would expect Westerners like celebrating with drinks and dancing, while some of us in Asian countries prefer light shows or something more low-key like dinners. Just a random, late night thought.

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  7. Happy Birthday! (Again 🙂 ) Thanks for writing about all this, there were many things I didn’t know. My mum says that the Chinese people that she knew that live in Indonesia (ok their generation is now Indonesian) say that on your birthday you should eat noodles that represent long life 🙂

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  8. Happy Birthday, Mabel! I, too, don’t really enjoy birthdays for many of the same reasons that you gave. On top of that, my birthdays in college coincided with mid terms or a large project looming and I even had a female roommate lose her mind and try to push me down some stairs when I asked her to clean up a mess she made.

    Now that I am older, there aren’t anymore fun milestone birthdays to celebrate, so they are very low key affairs. I think it’s awesome that you donate to charity for yours! I may have to steal that idea! 🙂 All the best today and hereafter!

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      • Fairy Bread and lamingtons are very much Australian foods. Many non-Aussies always ask “What’s that?”. We still have cake at our birthday parties. But usually it’s the Fairy Bread everyone looks forward too. Even the adults, no kidding 😀

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    • Thanks, Marcus. And thanks for sharing your birthday celebrations too. My birthdays at school always clashed with study periods and exams too. By the time the semester ended, everyone took off for their vacations. Last thing on their minds was birthday celebrations. Haha, you sound like a neat person. I sympathise with you – I clean very often.

      I think as we get older, our priorities change. We’re not so preoccupied with ourselves anymore. We might choose to celebrate our birthdays more meaningfully – like a simple dinner with the ones we love. Go ahead, steal my idea and donate on your birthday. Never hurts to share some of what we have 🙂

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  9. Pingback: Birthday Wishes to the sweetest blogger friend I know | littlegirlstory

  10. Hey! Happy Birthday. If I knew where you were I’d send you some chocolate cake and a pinata, because that’s I roll out here 🙂 Hope you had fun 🙂

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    • That’s very generous of you to offer to send cake and a pinata. If you did, don’t know if Australian customs will let the cake through. I had a relaxing birthday not doing much, relaxing indeed 🙂

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  11. Happy Birthday! Mahalo for stopping by and leaving your nice comment on my blog. I love combining cultures as you may have guessed from my blog. Both of my children are half Chinese American, but neither one eats an egg on their birthdays. We do more traditional Chinese celebrations for the older generation on my husband’s side, but even they do not do the red eggs.

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    • Thanks, D. Your photos on your blog are very eye-catching and it definitely shows you’ve been places. Interesting to hear your children don’t eat eggs on their birthdays. Maybe it’s a dying tradition. But I’m inclined to think many of us have heard of this tradition at some point in our lives. Thanks for stopping by, really appreciate it 🙂

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  12. According to Chinese superstitions, a clock is regarded as putting a timer on someone’s life or to put it more bluntly, counting the time before the recipient’s death. Another reason why gifting a clock is interpreted in a negative way is because the phrase “to give a clock” in Chinese is pronounced “sòng zhōng” in Mandarin, which is a homophone of a phrase for “terminating” or “attending a funeral” Some may even consider such a gift as a curse.

    Last daylight savings, I changed all the clocks in the house – around 15. 🙂

    My only tradition is to take a week off around my birthday and do things I like to do. Happy birthday to you.

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    • That is what my parents used to say about gifting clocks in Cantonese to me as a kid, which I interpreted as: if you give someone a clock on their birthday, you’re “sending them to heaven”. I was a bit spooked by this as a kid but I still wanted my green Kerokerokeroppi frog clock. Which I eventually got.

      15 clocks. You must love clocks! I actually took a few days off around my birthday this year. Sneaky. Thanks for the well wishes 🙂

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  13. Happy birthday & thanks for sharing your thoughts. I think making a donation is an excellent way to celebrate, especially with a birthday that falls on Labour Day, its’s a good time to be thinking about others beside yourself. I often think our western birthday traditions, fun as they are, can encourage a lot of selfishness and self-absorption, I think it’s good you’re able to be a bit more detached.

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    • Thanks, Maamej. Yes, in many parts of the world May 1st is Labour Day – and a public holiday! I have the same sentiments as you. There’s just so much focus on ourselves. When it comes to celebrating occasions, a good party is usually on people’s minds, and it’s usually either at a club or a fancy house party where you’ll spend tons on food and decorations. Hope you’re well 🙂

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  14. Happy (belated) birthday then.

    I usually don’t celebrate my birthday much anymore. I can’t explain it, but something about celebrating my own birthday makes me feel uncomfortable.

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    • Thanks, Domenico. Great to hear from you again 🙂 I’m with you on birthdays. Celebrating it, like having a cake, candles and oh no, a party, makes me feel very uncomfortable. Sure, the food is nice and everything, but the attention on me…I don’t like it. This is also the case if someone throws me a birthday party. A simple ‘Happy Birthday’ is great with me. A small gift, that’s okay too. But anything other than that, I’m never too keen on.

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    • Thanks, Lucid Gypsy. What a nice thing to say. There’s an endless array of ideas and things we can learn from other cultures…it’s never boring reading or talking to someone of a different background about!

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  15. So sorry I’m so late in wishing you a Happy Birthday, Mabel! Let me guess — people guess you younger than you are? Haha. We’ve talked about that before. I find the way birthdays are celebrated in different cultures to be so interesting! We certainly don’t have as many thoughts on eggs and traditions, etc. in the States as they do in Asian cultures. When I dated a guy in Hong Kong, his family didn’t recognize his birthday at all. His parents didn’t even tell him Happy Birthday. I thought that that was so sad, but I realized that this wasn’t cross-cultural. Many of my other Asian friends celebrated their birthdays. In the States, it’s the usual party with cake and cards and presents, etc. These days, many people view birthdays negatively because no one wants to get older. We often don’t have the same respect for age that they do in Asian cultures.

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    • You’re absolutely right – people still guess I’m way younger than I am. Which is always amusing and I like it. That is interesting to hear that your Hong Kong friend’s family didn’t acknowledge his birthday. A lot of my Asian friends celebrate birthdays too – usually with expensive dinners and parties.

      Getting older and birthdays. Very good point. In general, society expects us to grow up and be more mature each year we get older, and so celebrating birthdays and acting all kiddy and young is frowned upon. Which I think is ridiculous. If we lose the kid in us, we lose our sense to have fun, to be creative, and to live.

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  16. Hey Mabel, I know I’m far too late but wish a Happy Birthday 🙂 Hope you enjoyed your day even when you didn’t have a big birthday party.

    In Germany it’s very common to celebrate your birthday with your family, friends and many gifts especially as a kid. But as you get older birthdays are less important except of the special ones .. these with a “0” 😛 To my last birthday I invited my friends to come along and we had an italian evening because me and my boyfriend have been in Rome before. So I cooked for them and we had a funny and relaxed evening. Better than any big party. Unfortunately my birthday is in winter so I can’t celebrate outside. Otherwise I would like to have a picnic or a BBQ in a park 🙂

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    • Thanks, Anja. I had a relaxing day in the city and at home, very peaceful 🙂

      That sounds like a low-key birthday you had. You even cooked for them…they should’ve cooked for you! But nothing beats fun with those we love, glad it was a good time. You can always travel to Australia to have your birthday in the summer, if you’re up for it 🙂

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    • Thanks, D. That frog clock is now sitting on my bedroom shelf, an arm’s length away from me. It still looks good after all these years.

      Love that attitude, “stay grateful”. Appreciate the finer things in life. Smile at every greeting, handshake and hug 🙂

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  17. Happy Birthday, Marble! The clock, noodles, eggs… are all so familiar 🙂 Thank you so much for introducing the Chinese traditional birthday celebration to your followers. Well written!

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    • You should read the thread, if not the post! Good stuff all there. When I started this blog, I chose not to reveal my age. Not that I’m embarrassed about it, but because I don’t see the need too. Age is just a number, and I’d rather people judge me by who I am, what I say and what I do, as opposed to how young or old I am. With that said, every year on my birthday I turn twelve at heart and I actually feel twelve every day. No joke. If you do meet me in person, you’ll understand why 🙂

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  18. Because we rarely celebrated birthdays in our family, I almost always felt so shy when classmates sang “happy birthday” to me in class. It was a weird feeling.

    On another note, I always looked forward to the birthdays of my Chinese – descent colleagues because then I would be able to have the birthday noodles. They were tasty.

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    • Hahaha, I couldn’t agree more. When people sang Happy Birthday to me as a kid, I wanted the floor to open up and swallow me whole. If someone sang me that song today, I really wouldn’t know what to do…

      Ah, Chinese food is always a treat, it usually always tastes good. Lucky you you to have colleagues who will actually bring in noodles on their birthday 🙂

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