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 :)
My name is Arielle. (Not actually named after the mermaid, but a character from Thundar the Barbarian) I am an English teacher in South Korea.