Updated: Mar 7

I grew up in a family that didn’t do birthdays. Even as a child, birthdays were marked only by a meal with noodles and sometimes a small gift. The message was that getting older was nothing to be proud of - so don’t feel like you are entitled to anything special. Some superstitious Chinese actually believe that large landmark birthday celebrations can be unlucky, attracting attention can make the spirits jealous.   

Cultural norms

I learned to enjoy birthday celebrations after moving to the US, but there was often a sense of embarrassment, like it somehow was not okay to make a fuss. It wasn’t until I had children of my own that I began to feel differently. And even then I wanted my kids to feel special but not too entitled, so we did not do birthday parties every year. Of course kids love celebrating anyone’s birthday, so mine was no exception. 

There is no guarantee that we will be able to be together, to be healthy, or to be able to celebrate next year. 

I remember looking forward to birthdays pretty much throughout my third decade. It was fun to get carded when ordering or buying alcoholic beverages (and I still love it now). But my attitude towards birthdays changed again after turning forty. I began to 

avoid planning for them, and wishing them away. I was fearful of people finding out my age. I think I was worried that my younger friends would think I was uncool, or not want to be my friend. I felt like I couldn’t relate to older people and I certainly did not want to be considered one of them. I realize now that I was unfairly projecting on them my own attitude towards aging and middle-aged people.

What’s different

About six years ago, I accompanied a friend of mine for a consultation at the local public hospital oncology clinic. Of course I had taken care of many patients with cancer, but somehow having a friend of the same age made it so much closer to home for me. She had a tough time of her treatment, as single mom to a young child at the time. So I am glad to say that she is doing extremely well today.  I’m so grateful to this friend for having taught me many valuable lessons, the most important of which is to never take life or health for granted. After all, how do any of us know how much time we have? Who can say how many birthdays are left?

I’ll admit I was a slow learner in many respects, perhaps because I was unlearning decades of tradition within our family culture. But as I have attended her birthday celebrations and even the 5-year anniversary celebration of cancer-free survivorship, I have come to appreciate the importance of ritual and celebration. 

No guarantee

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 deserves to be celebrated with gratitude. 

We live in a youth-oriented culture that devalues age. But we can choose not to buy into that narrative. Attitudes towards

aging are social constructs that we create for ourselves. I believe that age brings wisdom and experience that can only come from years of hard-earned lessons in life. And that is absolutely worth celebrating.


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