I’d been in Japan’s sultry summer just a few weeks, if that, when I met her. Both newly hired by our esteemed international preschool, we met en route to the main school campus. I was clearly out of my element, yet she already knew the way. She was my first friend.
Merete is the one I “talked shop” with, collaborated with during shared breaks, and spilled my relocated, newly adventurous heart with, over after school snacks and through evenings of book group. She was first person (after my husband) whom I told I was pregnant, standing outside of Peacock supermarket with an armful of flowers and groceries, before even those first flutters.
Merete is a mentor. She’d already lived abroad, spending a great bulk of her formative years in Japan. She later raised her kids there, navigating a teaching career and being the solid, affirming mother for her three children.
She is not in Japan any longer, but we have this friendship. She has, after recently earning a heralded degree through Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, begun Nurturance, offering stream-lined, research-based ways to support parents and their children.
For this series, Merete shares a sweet birthday memory that embodies cultural sensitivity with all of the heart of a loving mom eager to celebrate her child’s birthday.
Enjoy Merete’s birthday post below!
Birthdays: a time to celebrate another year of life on this planet. A time to look back, reflect, remember and to be amazed at the passage of time that has slipped by, practically unnoticed through the haze of the never-ending, mundane, day-to-day routines. In our family, a birthday is a day that belongs to the person whose day it is: the entire day exists to celebrate the birthday child! Birthdays hold great significance for us, but we realize that that not every family shares our enthusiasm for marking the passage of time.
Our children’s early birthdays were carefully orchestrated with great fanfare. I spent hours thinking of the most appropriate way to celebrate. I carefully planned the menu, the guest list, the present, the cake… Oh my goodness – the cakes! I had stacks of books with ideas and photographic instructions for making birthday cakes. I researched foolproof decorating techniques that would result in cakes that were recognizable representations of my children’s current passions or interests, or maybe ones that simply looked cute and memorable despite my lack of creativity and skill. On Birthday-Eves (is that a thing? – it is in our house!) my husband and I would stay up late blowing up balloons and decorating the house with streamers and other birthday paraphernalia, certain that our child NEEDED to feel that their home was completely transformed in honor of her special day.
And yet, birthdays were fraught with conflicting expectations and varying levels of enthusiasm outside our immediate family. All three of our children were born in Japan, where it was not customary to celebrate birthdays in the big way we were apt to do. During the early years, we managed to keep birthday celebrations contained to family and close friends who were also foreigners. We held small, intimate gatherings that were not overtly visible or advertised to the outside world of our Japanese neighbors.
By the time our oldest daughter entered school, however, life had altered a bit. We lived in a high-rise neighborhood on the outskirts of Tokyo, with little to no interaction with anyone who was not Japanese. My daughter attended a local preschool/kindergarten, and when her 5th birthday rolled around, I felt that I had a dilemma on my hands. In the 18 months that she had attended her school, she had not been invited to one birthday party. This was not because she was left out, it was merely due to the fact that to my knowledge, not one child ever HAD a birthday party (for friends – I am not sure what families did at home). When she turned five I wanted to celebrate! I wanted fanfare! Cake! Streamers! Balloons! Presents!! We decided to forego having a party with her school friends opting instead to celebrate along with international family and friends who traveled quite a distance to be with us the weekend before her birthday. We had a fun time; complete with the birthday trappings we were accustomed to. However, she (understandably) wanted to also include her close school friends on her actual birthday.
I was particularly close to one Japanese mom at our school bus stop and her son was one of my daughter’s good friends. I invited them over to our apartment on the day of her birthday to have cupcakes. I tried to keep it simple and low key. I served cupcakes and juice but had no games planned. I tried to prepare my daughter for the fact that there would likely be no more gifts. This was to be a casual gathering, more like a birthday play-date.
After helping me serve the children their cupcakes and drinks, my friend pulled a beautiful box out of her purse. She called my daughter over and apologized for bringing such a insignificant gift. Opening the pretty box revealed a glittering heart pendant attached to a black velvet ribbon. It was not my friend’s custom to buy a gift for a child outside her immediate family. However, she knew it was a Western tradition to give presents at other children’s birthday parties. Instead of purchasing a present, she searched her home and found a small piece of jewelry that held meaning for her, attached it to a velvet ribbon and presented it to my daughter as a special token of her friendship.
My daughter will turn 17 on her next birthday. We live in Massachusetts now, and have navigated various birthday party cultures in several different settings and countries since the time she was five. I recently asked her if she remembers any of the gifts she received for her birthday as a child or if she recalls any of the cakes and parties we had. If it were not for photographs I doubt she would remember many details. When we spoke of presents she drew a complete blank until I asked about the pendant. Her eyes lit up. “I remember that! I KNOW I still have both the box and the pendant somewhere in my room upstairs!”
The traditions and expectations surrounding the celebration of children’s birthdays differ from place to place and from culture to culture. I have learned that I cannot presume to expect that birthday parties will look the same in any two locations. My children have attended parties where presents are opened on the spot, and others where presents are tucked away, opened privately and thank you notes mailed at a later date. Some parties have taken place in people’s homes with homemade food and games led and planned by family members while other families choose to support the professional birthday-party industry by holding the party at a bowling alley, movie theater, gym or ice rink. Sometimes adults are expected and encouraged to stay, while other times the parties are strictly “drop off.” In some settings the whole class must be invited while in others, birthdays are private affairs and remain within the family. Certain schools encourage classroom celebrations while others shun any disruption in the curriculum or the singling out of individual students for special attention.
I have have learned to observe and study the customs of those around me in order to know how to interact with people in my environment regarding birthdays. We continue to celebrate birthdays in a big way in our own home and to include close friends in our traditions although our customs may not mirror theirs. We have been pleasantly surprised by the enthusiasm and thoughtfulness of people who care deeply for our children and us and we have discovered and incorporated new traditions along the way.
My friend’s thoughtful act of giving, which was completely outside her cultural experience, remains a precious memory of our time in Japan for both my daughter and I. I am thankful that we were able to cross the barriers of cultural differences and build bridges of friendship and shared memories through the celebration of birthdays.
**Merete’s educational, multi-faceted, family-support website will be remodeled and back in business soon! For now, I’m a happy host!