Writer's Block

The USA is the place I was born. Canada is the place I was raised. Taiwan is the place in my heart.

Saturday, November 01, 2003

Birthday Surprise

How many surprise birthday celebrations does one get in a lifetime? I think that I’ve definitely gotten more than my share. Okay, if I had to count, I think I’ve had four in total. One thing for sure is that I’ll never get tired of it. I love surprises and spontaneity. It’s the thought and effort that counts. The experience of being surprised is priceless. I might even appreciate that more than most gifts. Not that I don’t appreciate gifts… any of you who are carefully reading my blog- *wink* *wink*…gifts are always nice. But surprises are definitely memorable and each one is unique.

On Friday mornings I teach an adult English conversation class and my students knew it was my birthday. So when I arrived on Friday morning they stalled me in the lobby and surprised me in the dark conference room -where I teach them two times a week- with some birthday candles before class started and sang me Happy Birthday- which was really so thoughtful since I'm not sure this sort of thing is very customary here. Plenty of photos were snapped; they all signed a card that one of the students had made and another student had made me a simple necklace of a few beads strung on a leather strap.

Later that night, I had invited a few close friends over so that I could cook paella for them and my parents in celebration of my birthday. Our building had also organized a Halloween party and trick or treating for children, so I had bought some candy and welcomed the kids over- they came a knocking as I was putting the last touches on dinner- some of them had really had adorable costumes- one kid who was maybe 5 years old or less was dressed in the most adorable full body, green dragon costume. It was a nice to see- I kind of miss the fun of dressing up for Halloween.

Birthdays and age

My birthday happens to fall on a very memorable day so it rarely goes by unnoticed, and I usually do something to mark the occasion- though I nearly forgot about it the first year I was in Taiwan. Birthdays and age are a strange thing, come to think of it. Birthdays are an annual excuse to celebrate one’s self, be remembered by others or perhaps more likely, a test of that certain someone’s thoughtfulness or memory; it can also be a time of reflection, evaluation, anxiety, and insecurity as one takes stock of his or her accomplishments and is reminded of his or her mortality.

Why all the importance and emphasis on birthdays? For many people in the world, birthdays may be of little or no consequence at all because they don’t even know their exact date of birth or age. This always seems to come up in conversations that I’ve had about astrological signs. In Taiwan, I’ve come across several people (all over the age of 30) who have told me that they don’t know their exact date of birth. It may be that they know their date of birth according to the lunar calendar but not according to the Gregorian calendar, or that their parents didn’t keep accurate birth records and/or local government agencies did not keep proper birth records. In some cases, living in rural locations or a family’s literacy level contributed further to this tendency. The fact that these individuals didn’t know their exact date of birth didn’t seem odd at all- that’s just the way it was. I wonder how it changes or influences one’s perspective on life. I was particularly amused by one older gentleman who told me that in his family, his parents simply wrote their children’s birthdates on the wall and that probably one day, when nobody noticed, that particular piece of wall just crumbled down.

My mother’s date of birth was a double digit number that became a single digit number because it was recorded inaccurately by her local birth and records department in Taiwan. This wasn't discovered until she reached the age of 13 and received her official citizenship card. She jokes that she’s entitled to celebrate her birthday twice a year and that we now have two chances to remember her birthday.

Birth dates that were forgotten, lost, or unrecorded would later to be fabricated or approximated, perhaps even for convenience’s sake to meet certain age eligibility requirements for the military, school, marriage, work permits, etc.

Certainly this is not unique to Taiwan… and there are even so more many possible explanations… as is the case for refugees or migrant peoples who had to flee from the war, instability, corruption, and/or poverty of their homeland- and such journeys are often a matter of life and death- so much is sacrificed and put at risk, lost in transit along the way… personal effects and valuables, relics of one’s personal history, identity papers, documents and entire “lives” are left behind and new identities are forged in lands of opportunity and possibility. Or less dramatically, new immigrants may have their birthdates inaccurately transcribed, or numbers transposed, due to clerical errors or a language barriers. Even funnier still I’m sure are stories of how people names have been incorrectly “translated” in to English or romanized. I’m certain that many immigrants have their own stories like this or one a relative to tell.

Even a person’s age may not be universally agreed up on, depending on your beliefs or the calendar used. I was reminded of this with the recent death of Madame Chiang Kai-shek aka Soong May-ling . Chinese languages newspapers reported her age as 106 and English language newspapers reported her age as 105. In Taiwan a baby is considered one year a birth and subsquently another year older on Lunar New Year's day. So by these calculations, a person's "age" in Taiwan might end up being as much as 3 years more than that person’s chronological age!

Then I wonder how seriously I should take my birthday or how much importance I should assign to my specifically assigned date. After all, I was delivered by Caesarian section, so perhaps my date of birth was supposed to be earlier or it could have been later depending on if or when medical intervention was needed or taken.


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