Beyond the usual dinner with friends (and perhaps some messy dancing), I don’t usually make much of a fuss about my birthday each year. However, I love making a fuss about other people’s birthdays and have organized several surprise parties over the past couple of years.
The first was for former Deputy Managing Editor Ellis Friedman. Her husband and I plotted together for two weeks, quietly ordering cupcakes from Fat Bunny Bakery and booking a mini-van to take us to Cuandixia, a Ming Dynasty-era village located three hours from Beijing. The plan was to surprise her on their doorstep and whisk her away for a day of food, friends, and countryside strolling.
By some stroke of bad luck, I had an allergic reaction to a friend’s cat the night before – I’d never been allergic to animals before – and my eyes swelled up like gumballs. By the next morning, I could barely see out of my sticky eyelids. I bumbled my way to Ellis’ place with sunglasses on, yelled “Surprise!” and told her I had to miss the trip to go to the clinic.
Over a year later this September, I finally made it to Cuandixia by repeating the surprise on my boyfriend. He’s known to be notoriously uncomfortable about his birthday; in the early days of our friendship, I bumped into him in Fangjia Hutong drunkenly giving the slip to well-wishers. He hadn’t mentioned it was his birthday despite spending the afternoon with me just a few hours earlier.
So it was with a bit of trepidation that I led him out the front door, around Chaoyang Hospital and through Worker’s Stadium to the waiting mini-bus. I stalled, walking slower or faster in step with our scheduled departure time. I threw a blindfold over his eyes just before our friends came into view; they spotted us from about 50m away, clapping their hands over their mouths to keep from laughing and snapping pictures with their smartphones.
When the blindfold came off, everyone yelled “Surprise!” My boyfriend looked momentarily dazed, then started laughing and looking around him in disbelief. “Oh wow! This is so nice,” he said. As I watched him hug everyone in turn, I was reminded why I like surprise birthdays so much, as cheesy as they are. It’s about lifting out the birthday boy or girl from the monotony of everyday life – the relentless succession of reports, deadlines, routines – to simply say “you are loved and celebrated.”
Growing up, my parents always made time to commemorate our birthdays, usually with a big dinner, a cake, and a limited number of presents, often with Le’s family in attendance. We never threw lavish themed parties or invited the entire class; my parents felt that birthdays were a family affair, a time to contemplate the passing of the years and of course tell embarrassing stories about the birthday girl.
As I get older, the birthdays I remember the most are not my own but other people’s. There was the time Nancie and I went scuba diving
for her birthday and she wouldn’t stop talking about it for the rest of the afternoon, or the time 15 of us surprised a friend at Haidilao, complete with red anti-splash aprons at our necks. I don’t know how Mom and Dad managed to pull off this trick of parent-fu, but I’ve come to believe it’s much more interesting to use your time and energy to plan things for others.
By the way, I would recommend going to Cuandixia at least once if you haven’t had been already; it was worth the wait.
This article originally appeared on p9 in the November 2014 issue of beijingkids. To view it online for free, click here. To find out how you can obtain your own copy, email email@example.com.
Photos: Sijia Chen