Birthday celebrations, and indeed key age milestones in one’s life, differ greatly between China and the West, as I recently discovered whilst attending an extravagant tenth birthday party. While the party I attended is perhaps the exception rather than the norm, it does shed light on cultural differences associated with birthdays and their significance in China.
A glimpse into an extravagant party
Expecting bouncy castles, pass-the-parcel and copious amounts of multi-coloured jelly; I was quite surprised when my husband stepped out of the bedroom in a suit and asked if I was ready to attend his boss’ daughter’s tenth birthday party. Ten is a significant age marker in Chinese society, akin to the Jewish Bar/Bat Mitzvah, and the celebrations were being held in a large private dining room at one of those big restaurants popular for business meetings.
The whole place had been decked out in massive Hello Kitty helium balloons and an intriguing table display of marshmallows in fruit bowls. As soon as we entered we were asked to stand in front of a webcam which would take our picture for an electronic guest book, after which we were shown to one of the tables with bottles of baijiu and red wine ready to go. The front of the room featured a cinema screen which was scrolling through a slide show of photos of the girl’s life from infant to present day.
Whilst the guests were arriving, there was a cake-decorating activity set up on the far side of the room to entertain the children. An MC had even been hired who, similar to at a Chinese wedding, introduced the birthday girl. She was paraded into the room in a puffy white gown and escorted by a group of sulky looking boys who had been assigned the duty of carrying the train. The girl gave a welcome speech thanking people for attending her party, and then introduced the parents, who made a speech wishing their daughter a happy birthday. After a round of singing to the birthday girl, the food came out. The menu was similar to Chinese wedding fare – lots of seafood and sweet dumplings. The party must have cost something in the region of a million RMB.
Expats’ experiences of birthday parties in China
Nick McBride, a Nanjing expat who has just launched his own birthday party business running sports-themed games and hiring out a bouncy castle, has had similar experiences of birthday parties in China. “Often the rich locals would have huge fancy affairs at hotels, which would be catered, have hired entertainment and gifts for all the guests. The Western children would have more home-made affairs. Food would be made by us – cake, sandwiches and treats etc. We would have some party games and possibly hire a bouncy castle, or take the kids to a park or the beach to play games. We are in fact just planning our eldest son’s seventh birthday and have decided just to have some friends over for a BBQ with some games.”
House parties are, however, uncommon in China. Michael Liu, a university student in Nanjing, thinks this is due to living arrangements: “Chinese people don’t have nice apartments like foreigners, they don’t want friends to see their houses. It is for privacy maybe.” Whilst this may still be the case for many older people in China, Nanjing resident Bryce Zhang (23) has been to many friends’ house parties in Nanjing. The problems come, he says, from people still living with their parents: “We don’t want to bother them. There may also be a generation gap.” It is more normal, he explains, for young people to go out and celebrate. “Parties are normally held at a KTV or a bar, where friends bring small gifts and cake,” says Zhang, who celebrated his birthdays in such style. “Normally there will be lots of singing and drinking. If there are parents, maybe we just eat with them in a restaurant.”
Significant birthdays in China
Significant birthdays in China are every ten years, whilst 18 years is celebrated as the start of adulthood, so children’s parties are usually just a meal with the family. “My family don’t really believe these things are important so, actually, I have never celebrated my birthday, but in the future I will give myself a party for 25, 30 years old and so on,” says Michael Liu.
Although the phenomenon of annual birthday celebrations is gaining ground, as the sign for Barbie themed parties in my local McDonalds suggests, the major celebrations of childhood occurs when you are too young to remember.
Babies as young as one month old are given a party (a milestone called “满月”), although traditionally a family will hold a party to celebrate a baby reaching one hundred days old. Gwen Huang, a nurse at SOS, told me: “It was really important to celebrate [her son’s] one hundred day birthday. We had a big lunch with family and friends. Some people celebrate one month old, but it is too early.” Much like the tenth birthday, these festivities usually take place in a restaurant and feature a cake, speeches and the giving of hong baos, which I’m told usually goes towards funding the party. One hundred days is significant because after this age, I am informed, the baby can eat rice and is more adapted and easier to handle.
Parties are perhaps less popular with the older generation, who traditionally only celebrate once they reach the age of sixty. My husband says his grandmother celebrated her sixtieth, seventieth and eightieth birthdays in a restaurant with family; whilst my mother-in-law, who is yet to reach that age marker, says she has never celebrated any of her birthdays except her 10th and 18th with family.
Meanwhile, Jackie Chan recently kicked off his sixtieth birthday celebrations with a “Peace & Love & Friendship” music concert at the Beijing workers’ stadium. The event had taken over a year of planning by his son Jaycee Chan and featured a long line-up of Chinese stars. If you have to wait sixty years for a proper birthday party, you may as well push the boat out.
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