My mom’s birthday is just two days before mine, and my birthday is just a few weeks before my dad’s. Baba passed away more than 25 years ago, and Mama lives on the other coast, but I always feel close to them around my birthday.
Birthdays weren’t a big deal when I was a kid. We had cake, candles, and presents, but these weren’t an important focus of the day. What I remember most clearly was that we would have noodles, a hard boiled egg, a chicken drumstick, and an obligatory lecture: “work hard, be good, be thankful for your parents.” My parents told me, “It’s the way we do it.” For Chinese people, noodles represent wishes for a long life, a whole egg represents birth and wholeness, and a chicken drumstick is a symbol of prosperity.
My parents were working-class immigrants who stretched every penny they earned, and they never spent money on things they considered extravagances, like birthday parties. Maybe they figured that with four of us kids, we were always already a party, no extra guests needed. Maybe they never felt like they could pull off an American-style party. Maybe they were too tired just getting through the day to think about birthday parties. But they leaned on Chinese tradition to justify it: “Chinese people don’t celebrate children’s birthdays.”
I guess the idea stuck, at least in part. We’ve had our share of parties—I think I’ve recovered from staging Swan Lake for the DD’s 5th birthday—and sleep overs and special weekend get-aways. But birthdays are intensely food-centric for my family. At the core of our birthday celebrations is a week of special food for the birthday guy or gal. I still always serve noodles on each of our birthdays. I like having a hard boiled egg, and a chicken drumstick, too — even if it’s served as fried chicken! And the special birthday meal grew to meals over a week. We get a special breakfast, a restaurant meal, a cake or pie, and whatever other favorite dinners we want.
And a week can really be 7 days, or it can be more like 14 days, depending on what else might be on the calendar. For instance, this weekend, the kids have a big swim meet, and it’s right after my birthday. In preparation for the meet, they are sticking to a healthier diet than usual for a week or two beforehand. They even got special permission from their coach to have a slice of birthday cake! So my birthday week will trickle on for a couple of weeks, and it’s not over until I get my fried chicken!
But love of fried chicken aside, abiding recollections of my parents’ dreams and hopes for me and how they wanted us kids to know something of our Chinese heritage even while planting us in the security and promise of American soil inspire my birthday wishes. So, for my birthday week, I choose lots of what I think of as Chinese celebration foods: dim sum, hot pot, wonton noodle soup, and Peking duck. And when I called to wish my mom happy birthday a couple of days ago, she told me that she went out for dim sum, and I told her I was going to have dim sum too, and that I made steamed azuki bean buns. She asked what I was having for dinner on my birthday, and I said noodles. But I know she was hearing me say, “Thanks, Mom. I love you.”
What are your favorite birthday traditions?