Day 16: Have Your Cake and Eat It Sparingly

A part of me laments the fact that I haven't celebrated my birthday in China. Last year, my 22nd birthday in New York was my last big send-off before embarking on this Fellowship, and this year, I was nearing the tail-end of a summer of travel in Southeast Asia with a bunch of strangers on-board a cruise liner floating through Halong Bay. What's worse is that next year, my plan is to be back home for my birthday so that my visa doesn't run out and I can start readjusting to American life again. Though it disappoints me in some ways, after experiencing a myriad of birthday celebrations over the last year-and-a-half, I at least have a good sense of what I will be missing out on.

Lighting the candles on James' birthday cake, generously provided by the Foreign Affairs Office (photo courtesy of Alexandra Sterman).

Even for young people in China, birthdays aren't nearly the raucous occasions that they are in the states. Especially since China doesn't have age requirements on drinking, the very concept of a 21st birthday party loses its sanctity and function as a rite of passage. Most times, a birthday is an understated affair—oftentimes spent having a big meal with friends or going out to sing karaoke. But despite its lack of pomp and ceremony, there are still some traditions that stick. One involves the ingestion of a heinously long noodle to symbolize longevity, while most of the others seem to revolve around the decadent and oftentimes unappetizing excuse for a birthday cake that's served up at every party.

I'm embarrassed to admit that I have a deep well of knowledge on Chinese birthday cake culture. It not only stems from repeated (and begrudging) samplings of the baked good and a handful of purchases for friend's parties, but on the couple of occasions that I have actually witnessed the entire process of it being made from start to finish. Chinese cakes here evoke memories of the worst cakes from Chinese bakeries back home in New York. It starts with the base—a squishy brick of yellow sponge cake neatly trimmed and molded into a perfect circle. Next comes the syrupy-sweet icing, which comprises about 3/5 of the actual cake. It is plopped in heaping paddle-fulls around and on top of the sponge cake and swished in place with a spatula. On the top is where things get really artisanal—chefs armed with pastry bags squirt bits of colored icing to shape into flowers, figures, animals, and the lettering used for personalized messages. Then, the entire masterpiece is packaged under a plastic lid, fastened with twine, and ready to distribute.

Just as we did last year, we celebrated Lynn's birthday just before the start of the semester.  We went first to karaoke and then bought her cake and dinner at an outdoor market in town (photo courtesy of Alexandra Sterman).

Ironically, my first real memory in China is of a birthday party. Not 24 hours after I arrived in Taigu, Anne invited me to go out to dinner with her and a couple of Chinese friends to celebrate her friend Lynn's birthday. Slightly jet-lagged but desperate for an amicable first impression, I agreed, and no sooner was swooped up in a cab and dropped off first at a karaoke parlor and then on to a restaurant for dinner. Since then, many birthdays have come and gone—all evoking the most infamous tradition of smearing icing on the birthday recipient's face for good luck. That, paired with the reality of eating such cake on tiny Styrofoam saucers with a fork designed for garden gnomes, it would appear that Chinese cakes are meant more for destruction than actually being eaten, which is fortunate given the taste. James, too, celebrated his birthday in the fall, and we pulled out all the stops in observing the Chinese traditions, icing and all. Because at the end of the day, it's all about cross-cultural acceptance.