Birthdays Abroad: Celebrating away from home

In my childhood, I was an only child for 6 years meaning that I ended up having a lot of presents from each of my extended family members. As I grew older and the number of children in the family began to grow, the presents became less and less. Yet growing up in a large extended family, there were naturally a lot of birthdays throughout the year. It wasn’t until I went off to college that the string of birthday parties, celebrations and plenty of food came to an end, or at least in large part. Nevertheless my birthday in late September allowed us to celebrate together as a family before the start of the school year, even if it was a few days earlier.

Growing up in a Mexican family resulted in a lot of customs and traditions from Mexico being the focal point of childhood. The ever present customs of singing or playing  Las Mañanitas (a Mexican birthday song), smashing someone’s face into a cake as is the customary mordida (bite) and breaking of the piñata were a big part of almost every festivity. Many of these traditions have over time come to influence other countries and it’s not uncommon to hear the iconic Mariachi-style rhythm of Las Mañanitas or the breaking of piñatas and the scramble to get the best candy when it breaks.

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Fun with piñatas

When I traveled abroad to Japan, I went in early September so for the first time the days around my birthday would not be celebrated with them. Unlike in Mexico, birthdays in Japan have different customs and cakes are a relatively new concept. Cakes in Japan are expensive with  large manufactures such as T-Berry having a monopoly over manufacturing. In place of the cake, a bowl of red sekihan rice is eaten; for one year olds an isscho mochi (rice cake) is carried on their back for a long-life.

Before the 1950s, birthdays in Japan were no big thing and  all birthdays were instead celebrated at the start of the New Year rather than the actual date of birth. The most important “birthdays” were 7, 5 and 3 (Shichi-Go-San) were celebrated to commemorate surviving another stage of life; in large part this is still done today as families visit temples and shrines with children dress in fancy new kimonos.

For me 2014 marked my 20th birthday and the age that Japan considers as being adulthood. I was even invited to a party with others who had reached hatachi (20 years old) as is customarily celebrated in prefectural offices to encourage those who have come of age. My birthday was spent with friends I had only recently made and in large part thanks to Meiji Gakuin University’s awesome Tomizuka-san who looked after all us UC students. She organized my friends and took us to karaoke where we spent 5 hours singing until our throats hurt and eating cake (from T-Berry of course) . Afterwards with empty stomachs we headed over to conveyor belt sushi where a friendly competition of who could eat the most sushi dishes went on.

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Rockin’ the birthday hat

Ecuadorian birthdays are similar in many aspects to those in Mexico but from what I’ve seen there’s not so much of a piñata culture here. In Ecuador though, there is an emphasis on drinking and having people celebrating together especially through dancing and singing, not unlike Mexico. Cake is also generally present as is pushing people into cakes for the fun of it.

My 23rd birthday occurred just a few days here in Ecuador and I hadn’t really planned on doing anything. As it turns out people tend to want to show their culture and understanding my position as a Peace Corps volunteer far from home, they celebrated with me. My students sang happy birthday to me in English (of which I’m proud of), fellow teachers took me out to eat lunch and my host family bought me a cake and we ate dinner together. To add to this my real family sent me a letter full of warm comments while fellow volunteers invited me to celebrate by eating Mexican food (even though Mexican food in Ecuador is not the greatest). I suppose it goes to show that you can’t ever truly get out of celebrating, even if you’re lazy.

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Celebrating with the host family

I even got my faced mashed into a cake again, as it turns out the tradition also has come to Ecuador. ¡Qué viva el santo!

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