My wife Savvy is loath to mark her own birthday. Over nearly two decades of marriage, rarely have we even gone out to dinner to celebrate the occasion. This has nothing to do with age, but rather how she received her date of birth. Since she was orphaned during the Cambodian Civil War with no knowledge or record of her past, the authorities at the refugee camp said, “You look about 5,” and assigned her a birth date. No surprise then that she doesn’t feel any particular attachment to her government-given birthday.
Despite her lack of enthusiasm for her own birthday, Savvy loves planning parties for other people. Because I was born on Halloween, she made it her mission to throw me an annual surprise costume party in the years before we had kids. In the beginning, she had difficulty keeping the surprise from me and would actually end up revealing her plans. Eventually she managed to keep a tight lip, but something would happen every year to give the surprise away.
One night, I came home only to find our street filled with cars – cars that I recognized. She almost had me when we lived in Haifa, Israel, but I spotted the extra shoes outside the door. Then there was the time in Shenzhen when a security guard, desperate to practice the few words of English he knew, pointed up to our floor and said “you friends” with a big smile. I threw open the door and yelled, “Surprise!” which no one else thought was funny. Word of advice: If you do uncover a surprise birthday party in your honor, it’s a good idea to play along.
For the past six years, Savvy’s interest in my birthday has waned as our brood has grown. In the early years, Reina had so many expat and Chinese friends that we hosted two separate birthday parties for her – one in English and another in Chinese. The parties were a great way for us to catch up with a lot of friends. Savvy would bake cakes, plan themes, and send me around Beijing to locate suitable birthday supplies.
After Reina’s fourth birthday, we started limiting the number of attendees as the plans got more elaborate. When the festivities started winding down, we would round up Reina’s closest friends and their families and go out to dinner so that we could spend more time together without having to referee children.
After the twins arrived on the scene, Savvy didn’t have the time nor the energy to make elaborate birthday plans. For two years running, Fundazzle has saved the day by giving the kids ample space to run around and burn off their cake-induced sugar highs. It was fun for the children and we didn’t need to clean up afterwards.
In my own childhood, birthday parties involved half a dozen friends or so. We ate cake, played games, and broke open a piñata or went on a scavenger hunt. I rely on these memories as an excuse not to escalate birthday parties into bigger and better celebrations every year. Birthdays are meant to mark an occasion and allow everyone to have some fun; I don’t think they need to impress anyone.
As a result, we had a quiet family party for Bryson and Ryder when they turned 2 this year. They each got their own little cakes and Reina helped them blow out their candles while holding their hands; she was convinced they were going to burn themselves. We sang “Happy Birthday,” after which they buried their faces in cheesecake and came up with big mouthfuls. They didn’t have hordes of friends “celebrating” with them, and they didn’t care – they got to eat their cake and wear it too.
This article originally appeared on p48 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 firstname.lastname@example.org
Illustration: Crystal Liu