Saturday, March 6, 2010

Happy Birthday-Chinese Style!

I love celebrating birthdays in China. They are usually fun and festive, plus when we celebrate with Chinese friends we get to mix cultural traditions and you never know what you're going to get. Last Friday night, some friends and I celebrated with my friend "Vera" as she turned the big 30! Generally, Vera is pretty career driven and intense in her interactions with people. She has to think, think, think all the time....but this was her birthdays so we decided to take her out to play. Her best friend bought a beautiful looking bakery cake decorated with fruit fish and other delicious looking dainties. Actually, Chinese cakes look amazing, but they are nothing like western cakes in taste. They are rather bland because most Chinese do not like a lot of sweet tasting foods. The first time I had baked goods in China I was sorely disappointed with the lack of sweetness. I really expected it to taste as good as it looked. The Chinese characters written say 'Shengri Kuai le!' meaning 'Happy Birthday!' and a lot of the add on things are made out of dark and white chocolate so you can eat them. Sometimes there is an unusual Chinese-style candle that is placed on the top of the cake and when you light a single wick, it unfolds into a big, pink plastic flower and plays the happy birthday song over and over until you want to grab it off the top of the cake and stomp on it...OK, not really, but it is pretty annoying! We got to sing the Happy Birthday song to her in both English and Chinese, but there were no candles to blow out. In this case, Vera really wanted to blow out a candle because she had heard that you get to make a wish and apparently she had a big wish she wanted to ask for. We weren't sure if it was cute, funny, or sort of sad when she asked my friend and I how she should fold her hand and close her eyes to get her wish. So much of Chinese culture is tied up in rituals of 'praying to the right god/goddess' in a specific way to get your wish, that it seemed a pretty typical question to ask. We told her it was just for fun and not like a prayer, so she relaxed and pretended to blow out her imaginary candle anyway. In Chinese tradition the person having the birthday must eat long noodles boiled or rolled in sugar to signify long life. Great care must be taken to slurp them down whole without biting them to make sure that your life is not cut short. People eat peach shaped buns filled with lotus pate or red beans, which tradition says will bring long life. Jiaozi (dumplings) are also eaten which will make ones womb futile for child bearing. Like most people in the US turning 30, Vera lamented this milestone as a sign that she was growing old. In Chinese culture, turning 30 marks the age of being a 'true adult'... and that's when the real seriousness begins. The pressure to marry and have a child starts between the ages of 24-28 when young people have finished their university or graduate studies. Parents begin complaining, badgering, and hounding their children to find a suitable mate and give them a grandchild. It intensifies from there-so by age 30, it can be unbearable. Vera was especially concerned because she didn't have a boyfriend or any possibilities in sight. We assured her that she wasn't old and said this was something we could pray with her about. Even though prayer a new concept for her, she is learning more and more about these ideas and is closer and closer to taking them as her own. After we ate dinner, we made a spontaneous decision to go to Karaoke! You have never seen anything like Chinese Karaoke and the crazy videos that go with it! Everyone has to sing and everyone has to clap for the singer no matter how ear piercing the sound is! That's part of being in community and everyone knows it's all in the name of fun. We had a blast that night and I got to see a side of Vera I hadn't seen before. She actually seemed to be a happy person, instead of the 'ever-serious thinker.' Maybe she needs to celebrate more often...Maybe we all do!