This year I have had the privilege of attending the birthday parties of two local friends. It is an honor for me to have them in my life, to call them my friend and be invited to help them celebrate this big day. So I was stunned to find out that for both friends, this was their first ever official birthday party. Both of these women come from the countryside where it is not common to celebrate birthdays. Both women received gifts from family members and ate their favorite meal on their birthday, but there was no party like we think of in the West.
I love living here and love all the things I learn in a different culture. I think Chinese culture is very good at honoring the past, of communally celebrating Chinese history and culture. There are multiple cultural festivals and holidays through the year and China is very good at celebrating the holidays. For most people, it is not just a long weekend but a day to remember the past and connect with family. Chinese culture is very good at creating community and corporate unity (two qualities I think are lacking in many Western cultures). On the opposite side of the spectrum, Western cultures (particularly America) is very good at celebrating the individual. Singular achievements are celebrated and acknowledged, which is good and healthy in appropriate doses. The longer I live overseas the more I feel convinced that we need to find a health balance between celebrating individuals and acknowledging the importance of connection and community.
It was surprising to me to hear that two dear friends have never had a birthday party like I had growing up. I made it my mission to throw them the birthday party of their dreams. When I ask each person what they wanted to do they replied, “What can I do for my birthday?” I responded that they can do whatever they want. It is their special day and their party should reflect their personality and interests. It took multiple conversations to get them to fully embrace the idea that they were in complete control over the celebrations agenda and the people attending really, truly did not care what they chose. It took a while for me to realize the culture clash. They were coming from a perspective of putting their friend’s needs above their own. When I framed it from the perspective that in American culture a way we show respect is by honoring each person’s individuality and unique interests, the women were more comfortable with the idea. I was able to help them realize that my only goal for celebrating their birthday was to make them feel special, loved, and honored. Whatever we did and whatever we ate where not important.
In the end I attended two birthday parties that were a real reflection of each woman. During the parties I heard multiple times from each woman that they felt so honored to have people celebrate their birthday. Both of my friends said that their parties were a day they will never forget. Felicity said that she almost cried multiple times from happiness. As I reflect on their words, I do not think it was the birthday party itself that struck such a deep chord. It was the celebration of them as an individual, the honoring of their unique wiring and created design that resonated with each woman’s heart. The birthday party was a vehicle to honor each woman. In a culture that is all about community, seeing into the heart of the individual was the most important thing.
I am blown away that something that is so natural for me was able to so deeply impact my friends. It also served as reminder that no matter what I do, I want to communicate honor and respect to each person I encounter. While this is not an everyday example of honoring someone, it is a good reminder that each of my actions should reflect this desire.