I grew up in a Chinese family that didn’t do birthdays. Even as a child, my birthday was just another ordinary day, sometimes marked by a meal with noodles but more often, not even that. I never had a birthday party, nor do I recall getting presents even though I’m sure I must have received some along the way. The message was that getting older was nothing to be proud of - so don’t feel like you are entitled to anything special.
My grandparents would sometimes have a celebratory meal for their birthdays, but would just as soon skip that if they were feeling particularly superstitious. Some Chinese actually believe that milestone birthday celebrations can be unlucky, because attracting attention to oneself can make the spirits jealous.
I was embarrassed to share my age with people, unfairly projecting my own agism on them
Of course I had friends whose families would celebrate their birthdays, but I just figured families were just different that way - ours was kind of weird when it came to birthdays. And I must say that I don’t remember being envious or wishing that my birthday would be special.
When I moved to the US in the 1980s, I was a bit surprised to learn how most people make a big deal of birthdays and that it was even sort of offensive not to be excited about friends’ birthdays. I gradually even began to enjoy birthday celebrations, but often with a sense of embarrassment, and I only did it to give others the excuse to have a party or night out.
It wasn’t until I had my own kids that I began to feel differently. I wanted my kids to feel special on their birthdays and of course they got to enjoy celebrating anyone’s birthday, so mine was no exception.
My friend taught me that celebrations are a mark of gratitude
My attitude towards birthdays changed back to being avoidant towards my late 30s, when I began to wish them away again. I was embarrassed to share my age with people as I approached forty, probably unfairly projecting my own negativity and agism on them. And of course I was bad in good company with birthday weirdness in the family, as my parents and brother had continued hating on birthdays and acting grumpy whenever people wanted to celebrate them.
A few years back, a friend who was the same age as me, taught me that birthdays and other celebrations are a mark of gratitude. She had had a tough year of cancer treatment as a single mother to her young child, and her approach to her birthday was a carefully planned and orchestrated event that was all about celebrating life.
I’ll admit that I’ve been a slow learner in many respects, perhaps because I was unlearning decades of tradition within our family culture. But I have come to appreciate the importance of ritual and celebration, in attending my friends’ birthdays and anniversary celebrations of cancer-free survivorship.
I’ve come to see that hating on birthdays is a form of agism
Who was I to take life and health so much for granted, that I could simply ignore or even wish away these important milestones in life? After all, no one can say how many birthdays they have left.
Every birthday is a gift. There is no guarantee that we will be able to be together, to be healthy, or to be able to celebrate next year. I have come to appreciate that life is precious and that we make our own fun and memories by enjoying special moments with each other.
And I’ve come to see that hating on birthdays is a form of agism, as in hating on getting older and resisting the relentless march of time. Because somehow if we don’t acknowledge our aging, we can overcome our own humanity or vulnerability. Which makes no sense at all. Wouldn’t we actually want to have more compassion for ourselves and others for our humanity and vulnerability?
I still don’t love being the center of attention, no matter the occasion, and eschew performative or inauthentic displays. But I welcome my birthdays and all the opportunities to get together with loved ones to celebrate. My own experience of aging is that personal growth engenders the emotional maturity that it takes to step into acceptance. And the wisdom that I’ve gained in so doing is absolutely worth celebrating.