I’ve never been good with birthdays.
What are you supposed to do on your birthday? I blame my parents. They are very unenthusiastic people when it comes to following social conventions. I always empathised with Scout Finch when she complained that Atticus wasn’t like other dads who drank or smoked or (in my case) watched football and had a favourite soccer team. When I asked how come we didn’t get huge extravagant birthday celebrations like the other kids, my dad simply replied with another question: why should you? It’s just another day what.
I was stumped.
I still don’t have a convincing answer, nearly two decades after I’d posed that question to my father. As a concession, Mum would always get me a birthday cake, but by then it was too late: my dad had punctured my balloon, and the myth of self-entitlement had been deflated. And birthday cakes from the neighbourhood confection shops always tasted more of cheap cream and sour, unripe mangoes more than anything else.
Things to Do on Birthdays
I never know what to do on my birthdays. I’ve, in theory, celebrated twenty-four of these days. In a few hours, one more will be added to the number. But the truth is, I’m not exactly sure how one day in the calendar is supposed to differ. As my mum says, “it’s just another day what…life goes on”. And as Phil Collins sings, it’s just another day in Paradise.
Life goes on. The planet turns, the hours slip away, the seconds tick away. You can have your party, you can even drink yourself senseless. But at some point the clock swings its hands another way, or the digits click into another configuration, just as they had when you did the silly, senseless countdown to your birthday twenty-four hours ago. At some point, the party, if you had deigned to have one, has to finish. The music stops playing, because the neighbours are going to complain. Someone has to do the washing up. Someone has to pack the food home. Take down all the hearts you made your friends put up on a huge wall for you as part of “well wishes” (someone once made me do this). The huge shiny balloons xiaomeimeis are so wont to get their friends leak air and become deflated at some point too. Then you dump them in the bin, where it ends up in ashes (probably in Semakau, because this is Singapore), after a visit to the incinerator. The dawn breaks on your birthday, but it also breaks on the next day, and the one after that.
The Unassailable Logic of Birthdays
Apparently, the logic of birthdays is that you are “entitled” to one special day where you are allowed to feel special, or it’s socially expected for other people make you feel special.
I’ve always had many issues with this so-called logic. We do many things and go through many motions because the societies and cultures and communities we live in perform many actions and values out every day. Our bodies become habituated to these things, until it sounds strange, even deviant to question assumptions. Today, it sounds almost offensive to ask, even sincerely, why I should get friends something for their birthdays. But indulge me a little here, since it is my birthday after all…
To begin, why should there only be just one day where I’m allowed to feel special? Because it’s your birthday, friends admonish in a watertight, circular argument.
Oh, trust me, there are enough days in a year, enough moments in a month for me to feel special, blessed and loved. When you get a vindicating grade for that paper you worked so many sleepless nights on. When your lover holds you in her arms, on a rain-swept river bank. Atop a mountain summit with good friends, singing the ODAC song, even in driving storm. The unadulterated, quiet pleasure of having a dog (or a cat!) trust you enough to lie down and let you stroke its belly. The sunlight slanting down the trees on a brilliant sapphire morning. There are many days to feel special. I feel like having just one day in a year to ‘feel special’ awfully narrows down the scope and scale of the moments for epiphany and exhilaration.
It also puts far too much pressure on me. Several well-meaning friends have already asked me what I’m going to do on my birthday. The expectation is that I have something mind-blowing and amazing to top off the day. Some people book a hotel room, or ballroom. They have an army of planners and do-ers. They send out invitations by Facebook and by letter, informing you it is their birthday and will you come. They sweetly and helpfully provide you with a “gift list” in case you had no idea what to get them, and you want to de-conflict with other people who may be getting them the same thing. Apparently spending lots of money on people is supposed to indicate you care for them.
My Birthdays are Boring
Let me tell you some of my more memorable birthday celebrations. On my twenty-first, at a time when (Singaporean) children are expected to Book a Chalet and host a reception (I’d love to read an Honours thesis studying when this phenomenon erupted and spread like a shiny mould over our bourgeois, middle-class expectations), replete with pretty pictures and balloons – I booked out of camp after DOO duty and had a good long sleep in the safe, muggy heat of home. It was the first good sleep I’d had after days out in the field and in the office clearing paperwork (because there is an ‘office’ in ‘officer’). In the evening I had a quiet dinner with good friends. It was so quietly satisfying because it was so simple and so mundane – and yet so wonderful, to luxuriate in the easy company of old comrades.
But don’t get me wrong, especially if you are a friend of mine who, at one point in time or other, has/have/had given your time, your breath and your thoughts to me. I’ve been deeply touched by the things friends have done too, in the lengthy business of growing up.
But my issue here again is one of expectation, albeit turned inwardly. Just as society imposes, even with words and laws, certain expectations on us, my general lack of ambition and vision leads me to feel rather embarrassed sometimes at how my friends exceed those expectations, sometimes spectacularly. One time in college friends lured me away from my room and then proceeded to try, rather endearingly, to fill my room hurriedly with balloons. I was so touched that they literally wasted their breath on me, and then even proceeded to present me with a card full of loving thoughts and kind words. As was the point that night, I felt truly moved, loved and affirmed as a human being, albeit embarrassed people thought me so worthy of their time.
That’s part of this “problem”. Over the years, I have gotten very used to being independent, proud of my solitude and autonomy. I’m not a cool kid in your playground-sandbox kind of way. I’m not the jock in the spotlight, making lots of noise and making fun of people, the one everyone wants to be friends with because they are popular and shiny. It took quite some years, and much emotional turmoil in the process, but I have grown very much used to being happy on my own, or on the periphery of great noisy parties.
The intensity of attention paid to me on birthdays, where people actually gather to sing me a song or write me messages or buy me a cake mortifies. For someone who is generally very happy mooching around in his little bubble, having this kind of attention is paradoxically mildly stressful. I never know what to do… And as a Chinese person, there is a vague sense that I will need to pay all these people back at some point or another. I hate owing things, even if the thing here is genuine goodwill.
Again, don’t get me wrong – I deeply appreciate the effort and thought put into wishing me a happy birthday. And as you can see by my social media presence, I’m something of an attention whore. I just don’t know what to do, where to look, what to say, with this focused beam of attention blasted at me every year on this one particular day.
A Prize for Growing Up?
And finally – who gets a prize for growing up? There is a price to growing up, certainly. But why do you get a present for being born? Don’t you think, if you stepped out of y/our conditioning for a moment, that it all sounds rather silly?
To not only be rewarded for being born, but to even expect presents for the simple act of being squeezed out, or cut out of your poor mother’s vagina?
If anyone should be having celebrations, parties planned in their honour, dinner treats, gift-lists,and walls full of affirmation letters, it should be our long-suffering mothers. I say mothers because she not only literally carried and made me for nine months, she went on to give her whole life up for me. How she lived, how she thought, how she carried on with her life after I came into her world was dramatically altered forever. Her insides must have felt like a mess after that. And yet she loved me enough even on her bad days and her good days to give me a stable home, a good education, food to eat and books to read. My entry into this world literally left marks on her physical body.
Now imagine all of us little entitled brats, yelling at our parents to conduct huge birthday celebrations for us. As if giving their entire lives, their freedoms as individuals and a significant portion of their time and incomes on us were not enough. Birthday parties, especially extravagant ones, sometimes smack of stupendous amounts of waste and self-entitlement.
Growing Up in a Scary World
What right do we have to demand to feel special? In a world where vast polar expanses are melting away, and polar bears, frogs, coral reefs are vanishing at a depressing rate, as we enter the lonely Anthropocene; where nuclear annihilation is just a few buttons and angry madmen or terrorists away; where children are being butchered or bombed or mutilated – what right do we have to demand to feel special? I was struck by the words I’d once come across, either in a book or a newspaper, taken (apparently, since I had to re-find it on Google) originally from a Denver judge in 1959, who declared that
“Your town does not owe you recreational facilities and your parents do not owe you fun. The world does not owe you a living, you owe the world something. You owe it your time, energy and talent so that no one will be at war, in poverty or sick and lonely again…In other words, grow up, stop being a cry baby, get out of your dream world and develop a backbone, not a wishbone. Start behaving like a responsible person. You are important and you are needed. It’s too late to sit around and wait for somebody to do something someday. Someday is now and that somebody is you…” | Judge Philip Gilliam
In an earlier time, when i was still susceptible to bad writing and self-improvement books, I came across “Mutant Message Down Under” by Marlo Morgan, who wrote a New Age genre kind of self-improvement book about going Walkabout in the Australian outback with a bunch of mystical Aborigines who kept the old ways. Reading it now the racist undertones are really pungent and uncomfortable, not to mention the trite cliches. But one thing that has stayed with me is a remark about how we should not celebrate getting older. We should celebrate getting better. And it is for the individual of that “tribe” to decide when that time of celebration is.
But perhaps a convenient marker of time is our birthdays. The day where we fully and actually come into a full year, as individuals, than the societally or culturally celebrated ones. It is the time to mark when we are truly x years old; when the old year is most definitively sloughed away – for a given value of definitive, because all words and time-markers are human constructs blah blah blah.
Selamat Hari Jadi
I am learning Bahasa Melayu now, although my command of any language besides English is usually a bad joke. But because I am a meaning-making animal, I liked how Selamat Hari Jadi, understood informally as happy birthday, is literally rendered as “Happy Day of Becoming”. And although I know someone is probably going to come up and tell me I’m wrong, I haven’t read things in context, I will simply say I like the richness of the connotation here.
Why do we celebrate birthdays?
Maybe because we want to celebrate our becoming. In a physical sense, of course, we come into this world. We want to celebrate the birthday as the day our friends came into the world, and into our lives. We want to remind them that without them, life would be very different, and likely a lot grayer and sadder. We want to tell our friends they mean something to us, something special and beautiful. And indeed that is something worth celebrating; that is worth some time, some thought, some effort and some words.
But more than that, i think the birthday is a day of be-coming. Short of any other significant milestones (maybe because there are too few; likely because there are too many), the birthday can be used (well, technically, it can be used for anything, we are all autonomous meaning-makers) to celebrate ourselves, to celebrate our be-coming. To celebrate our coming into our own. To celebrate and exult in our selves: fully formed and yet still forming, flawed and nevertheless fantastic, confirmed and contradictory.
And so, on this day, i wish to celebrate my Self.
(Of course it sounds egotistical. But what is social media but a massive, extravagant exercise in egotism? Did you think sharing ‘objective’ news articles on your feed is supposed to show how ‘neutral’ you are, and how non-egotistical you are? Of course not. Everything we put up to the world is a performance. We are all masks, all beautiful, flashy performances. I am just more careful with the performances I watch these days.But indulge me, since it’s my birthday after all. You don’t even have to buy me anything just read)
An Ocean in a Drop
On this day, I wish to celebrate my self, and the process of becoming. Twenty-five years is one quarter of a century. In the grand frame of things, it is perhaps just a water molecule of a water droplet in a great, immeasurable ocean. But as the 13th century poet Rumi once said, you are not the drop in the ocean. You are an ocean in a drop. And I believe that these twenty-five years have been beautiful years, because I have become a better person.
I have struggled: through mud and rain, through failure and rejection. Many people have told me how awful I am. To some, I am remembered as selfish, hypocritical monstrous, sarcastic and cold. The only things I regret is the trail of pain I have caused in my wake, to the people who once meant something to me, and those that still do, but decided to hold on. My only mitigating plea would be that maybe we inevitably hurt each other because we are human beings. And human beings are complicated, complex. Inevitably, we leave scars on the songs of other lives simply by existing, simply for slipping into their galaxies.
But more than that, I have survived. I have endured. At Machap yesterday, en route to climbing Gunung Datuk, Mr. Lim pointed out that local schools love to declare how “resilient” their students are, without understanding what “resilient” really means. It’s difficult to be resilient if you don’t even allow your kids to fail. Why? Because “resilience” literally refers to the ability of a material to reform after it has been de-formed.
[the ability of a substance or object to spring back into shape; elasticity. | Google search]
It is the ability for a thing, a person to bounce back, to keep trying, to keep going, even in the face of utter defeat and failure. And i am proud of my tenacity, my resilience, to keep going. Admittedly, this applies to less areas of my life than I would like. But I have come back from defeat again and again, sometimes even to snatch victory. Most times to learn valuable lessons. I think I am a better person not despite, but because of my numerous faults, my painful falls and my devastating failures.
A Celebration: of People & Person
I’m never been good with birthdays.
In fact, I am awful with them. It’s like having a fat slippery fish in my fingers. I don’t know what I’m supposed to do with it, and then after a while it flops away. There are too many expectations laced to birthdays, both culturally and socially. I never know where to look.
So I look inward, and I celebrate: my friends. And I am thankful. For the me that I am, in this geographical location, at this temporal moment, and the friends and family who have decided that I am good enough to spend a bit of time, a bit of love, a few kind words and a few lovely thoughts on. The ones who have decided to stand by me, despite seeing the me that I can be in my moments, hanging on across the arc of time. The ones I have shared a surname, a family, a house, a moment, a few beers, a few mountains with.
And when I think on them, I already know, even without the benefit of cakes or hotels or cards or letters or expensive gifts, that I am already rich and blessed and loved.
I celebrate: the person that I have become. Ruizhi in all his offensive, stand-offish rudeness, the one who doesn’t suffer fools; the one who gave up long ago after climbing just one Gunung Liang; the one who didn’t know how to watch his words and temper. But also the Ruizhi in his kindness and his warmth and his curiosity and his gentleness. His way with words and messy lines and cats and dogs and (on rare occasions) other human beings in his community. People are myriad-faceted. People change, continually. The wave form is highly unstable. A caricature is unsatisfying, even an essentialisation of good points.
25 Years Young
And so, I bless the winding roads and blinding lights that led me here. I bless the steep slopes and burning cold and stinking mud that honed and sharpened and strengthened me. I am lucky enough to have reached the grand quarter-century mark. It is not a privilege to be laughed at. Many monkeys, and even gorillas, don’t live to be that old (Harambe was 17). Many people don’t live to be this young.
“Today you are You, that is truer than true. There is no one alive who is Youer than You.” | Dr. Seuss
As I turn twenty-five, I revel and exult in the sheer joy of living. And I hope to continue doing so, in the weeks and months and years to come. To continue a lover’s quarrel with life. To seek humbly the magic of the world. To exalt in the grandeur and majesty of Mother Nature. To love the souls I will meet; to be as much of a blessing as I can to them all. All this is grand, star-high rhetoric, of course. But it is marvellous to have something to hope for, and aspire to.
The evening murmurs. The frogs are chirping lustily, somewhere in the distant darkness, even as the crickets establish a whirring orchestral backdrop. The fan overhead sighs, as I finish these last lines. Only yesterday, I had been 817m in the sky with old comrades, on a summit in Negeri Sembilan, singing the ODAC song. Tomorrow, there are already more things to do and people to meet. And so i celebrate.
It is astonishingly lovely to be alive.
I cannot rest from travel; I will drink
Life to the lees. All times I have enjoy’d
Greatly, have suffer’d greatly, both with those
That loved me, and alone; on shore, and when
Thro’ scudding drifts the rainy Hyades
Vext the dim sea. I am become a name;
For always roaming with a hungry heart
Much have I seen and known,– cities of men
And manners, climates, councils, governments,
Myself not least, but honor’d of them all,–
And drunk delight of battle with my peers,
Far on the ringing plains of windy Troy.
I am a part of all that I have met;
Yet all experience is an arch wherethro’
Gleams that untravell’d world whose margin fades
For ever and for ever when I move.
How dull it is to pause, to make an end,
To rust unburnish’d, not to shine in use!
As tho’ to breathe were life! Life piled on life
Were all too little, and of one to me
Little remains; but every hour is saved
From that eternal silence, something more,
A bringer of new things; and vile it were
For some three suns to store and hoard myself,
And this gray spirit yearning in desire
To follow knowledge like a sinking star,
Beyond the utmost bound of human thought
The lights begin to twinkle from the rocks;
The long day wanes; the slow moon climbs; the deep
Moans round with many voices. Come, my friends.
‘T is not too late to seek a newer world.
Push off, and sitting well in order smite
The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die.
It may be that the gulfs will wash us down;
It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles,
And see the great Achilles, whom we knew.
Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are,–
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.
– Ulysses by Alfred, Lord Tennyson