As far as I can tell the significance of birthdays in a persons life comes in cycles. When you're little birthdays are a chance for rules to be suspended in the name of fun and presents galore from friends and family. As you become a teenager getting older becomes a big deal because you hit important milestones such as being able to drive and vote and stay out past the city wide curfew. Once you go beyond 21 it starts to go down hill because yea you can legally drink but now you're expected to take on adult responsibilities like taxes and insurance and bills; all while struggling not to be perpetually broke. (and realizing that college was not nearly as helpful as propaganda led you to believe.) Thirty looms like a death knell for young adults because it marks the descent into middle aged. People don't really start looking forward to birthdays again until about fifty years old. Even then its the people around them that's super excited because they now have an excuse to buy tombstone cakes or litter the lawn with plastic flamingos and cheesy lines. (What the flock?! Look who's fifty!!) One hundred is a special birthday simply because at that point you can confidently claim to have outlived most of your enemies. (Even if it's out of sheer spite)
Some of you are probably wondering "why are you blabbering about birthdays when yours was months ago?" The answer to such a valid question is simple. Recently I have celebrated the auspicious milestone of one year for three separate children......... And not one of them had a smash cake. This is another one of those things that I have never questioned about the American lifestyle. Ask any American what a smash cake cake is and I am confident that they will say 1st birthday party. I never realized that this tradition was confined to the United States. I have asked my British, South African and Korean friends about smash cakes and every single one of them have given me blank looks.
"How can you celebrate a 1st birthday without a smash cake?!" My readers cry as they clutch sticky children to their chests. Have no fear my distressed audience. It can be done. For in this land where everything is traditional, birthdays have their own procedures.
Before I expound upon the ways of celebrating year one of life I should first relate the details of what happens leading up to the actual birth of a child. Surprise! Baby showers are a western concept. I felt an enormous amount of pity for new parents when I was told that family and friends do not gather together and shower expecting parents with diapers and onesies. Doesn't happen. Instead the new parents buy gifts for EVERYONE else. It's a good day in the office when someone is expecting because food is the go to baby announcer. Last year a man in my main school handed me this massive rice cake. Everyone got one. I'm honestly afraid of asking how much new parents spend on announcing to the world they are expecting.
I thought rice cakes would be the end of it but it keeps going. (prompting this blog post) This year the rice cake teacher gave me another gift. A monogrammed dish towel celebrating his daughters first birthday. A MOnoGrammED DiSh ToWEL! For everybody! In Different colors! My mind was blown. No smash cakes and presents were given to the guests; not the baby of the hour. I'm not gonna lie, for me this was an "Aha.......I'm not in America anymore" moment. I'm sitting over here in my corner stewing in guilt for not having at least a gift card and the rest of the office is like "Oh sweet a birthday! I needed a new dish towel."
A few other things of note besides the lack of smash cakes. When a baby is born day one equals year one. The 9 months germination is counted as one year. On New Years everyone is a year older regardless of when your actual birthday is. so by Korea's standard I am 27 years old. On January 1st I will be 28 years old. Doesn't matter that my birthday is in August. That's one of the reasons people here will ask you what year you were born in. It's not considered rude to ask a persons age here; it's merely establishing where you are in the hierarchy.
Birthday cakes are just all over a western tradition. While it's possible to buy birthday cakes here and it's becoming more common to have a cake...............A party's not a birthday party until the seaweed soup has arrived. I asked my co-teacher about this (I love springing random questions on him, he always looks so bewildered.) and he said the reason is women eat a lot of seaweed soup because its chock full of nutrients needed for a healthy pregnancy. So seaweed soup on your birthday is actually a reminder and a wish to be healthy for the year. (fun side note: It's bad luck to eat seaweed soup on exam day because it's so slippery all the information will slid out of your brain.)
My co-teacher told me one other thing of interest about how first birthdays are celebrated in Korea. On a child's first birthday their parents will line up a series of items in front of them. I did a little digging and this practice is called Doljabi. It's purpose is to predict the future of the child. The item or toy that they choose is supposed to reflect what the kid will most likely care about in the future. Many parents like to place several different objects that represent promising careers in front of their child to choose; like a gavel or a toy stethoscope.
Did any of this surprise you as much as it did me? what do you think about seaweed soup? Should American parents try Doljabi? Tell me what you think in the comments :)
This is not going to be in the same vein as my previous posts. As a general rule of thumb I try to avoid politics and interject humor into all of my stories. That is not the case today. A line has been crossed and I am not going to gloss over the details. I was angry. I was disgusted; and I was afraid.
It's been the running joke among my expat friends that if something weird is going to happen it's going to happen to me. It's true, I'm the queen of strange and awkward encounters. When it comes to hordes of tourists feeding me like a petting zoo animal and dudes dressed in drag I try to handle these situations with grace because it could be an amusing story later. I thought today would be no exception.
I had a very typical day. I worked; I walked to the bus stop. The old couple who run the ticket counter very sweet. I bought my ticket and went out to wait for the bus. As I walked out the door an older man sitting nearby said HELLO in a very loud voice and in English. This is a daily occurrence for me so I said hi and kept walking. I sit down in the waiting area for the bus across the way from two other older ladies. I'm texting my friends. I was asking for their opinion on a certain haircut I was considering.
I hear some yelling so I look up. The same old man was still waving at me from the other side of the parking lot. I realize at this point he's drunk but its still not an unusual situation. He see's me looking so he comes over to talk to me. This is slightly stranger than the usual drunken encounters but still not outside the realm of probability. After all this has happened before. At this point I'm watching him but not encouraging him. I just want him to go away. I'm annoyed but still slightly amused.
He comes closer and is standing over me. I can smell the soju. I'm no longer amused but highly irritated. He was telling me to call him Oppa (It means big brother but it's also used by women who are flirting.) I told him no. He told me I was beautiful. I said thank you. (It's polite here to say thank you when someone says you're pretty.) A conversation I have had before at least half a dozen times. He ducks down, wraps an arm around my shoulder and leans in for a kiss.
Now I'm alarmed. This had never happened before. I pushed him away and went to sit next to the other two ladies. They didn't even blink. The one lady patted the bench next to her as an invitation for me but that was it. This was still their normal. I was so confused. I look around for the bus. The man was still following me. He continued to loom over me. Still wanted me to call him Oppa but now he was asking me to go to Muju with him. I told him no way. The lady next to me told him him to go away and some other things I didn't understand. He said he was sorry and offered to shake her hand.
He grabbed her the wrist and hauled her to her feet. She was yelling that it hurt and swatted him on the chest. He just grinned and asked if it hurt before letting go. I was angry. I could feel my nails in my palms. He asks the other lady if she wants a handshake. She shakes her head no. He comes back to me. He wants to shake my hand. I looked him dead in the eye and said no way. (Sadly my language skills go from no way straight to F*** off. I didn't want to escalate to that.) We have a staring contest. He asks a question. I say no. We stare some more. I was scared.
No? He echoes. I tell him to get lost in English and make shooing motions. He looks shocked. The lady next to me jumps to her feet and shoves him in the chest. He starts stomping his feet and yelling. I see the bus coming down the road. A couple of other men near the ticket building across the parking lot yell something. (As they remain seated on their bench.) The bus pulls up. We jump on, leaving the man behind. The two ladies appear to continue on with their previous conversation. I'm shaking in my seat. I texted my friends.
From buying my bus ticket to getting on the bus took less than 10 minutes. In fact it took 6 minutes. That's the amount of time between messages to my friends. Some of you reading this are probably thinking well that wasn't so bad. It could have been so much worse. You're right it have been. For some people it was. 6 minutes. That was all it took to go from faintly amused to honestly scared.