An American in Chengdu

Birthday | December 2, 2009

My 30th birthday was Sunday, but I did most of my celebrating on Saturday. Cecilia and her mother had me over for a

Cecilia's cake. The raisins on top spell "birthday" in Chinese.

birthday lunch, which was also attended by Cecilia’s girl-cousin (who has changed her English name from Rose to Phoebe), her boy-cousin, two aunts, and an uncle. Cecilia’s mother and one aunt cooked long and hard, filling the table with one vegetable dish after another. For dessert, Cecilia had baked her first-ever cake, which, she forewarned me, was “catastrophical.” I admit it wasn’t the most elegant cake I’ve ever seen, and it was a little too sweet, but quite edible.

For the evening I’d made a reservation (my first in Chinese, quite a test of the waitress’s patience) at Chengdu’s nicest vegetarian restaurant. Explicitly vegetarian Chinese food is quite different from what you get if you go to a regular restaurant and order vegetable dishes. It’s part of a tradition that grew out of Buddhist and Taoist temple food and involves elaborately-rendered fake meat dishes. My favorite on Saturday was the “Peking duck.”

After dinner we went to sing karaoke, or KTV as they call it here. Karaoke in Asia isn’t the ritual of public humiliation that it is in the States; instead, you get your own room with your friends and hope not to be privately humiliated. Also, Chinese don’t go to KTV to sing cheesy pop songs ironically. They want to sound good. In short, I think the foreigners and Chinese at my birthday party brought with them somewhat different KTV expectations. Fortunately no one seemed to get too annoyed, even when I and another American belted out the chorus of “No Scrubs” from memory (for some reason, no written lyrics were provided for that one), or when Cecilia and Phoebe nearly punctured our eardrums hitting the high notes on some cheesy pop song.

Another cultural difference that came into play that evening involved who pays for a birthday celebration. In the US, of course, the birthday person is the guest of honor, and usually doesn’t pay for anything on his or her birthday. In China, though, the birthday person is the host, and pays for everything. I was a little worried that this would lead to some awkwardness if my fellow foreigners tried to pay and the Chinese guests felt they should, too, so I tried to pay for dinner and KTV discreetly. It seemed to work well, though most of the foreigners insisted on giving me some money later.

Overall it was a fun and delicious celebration.

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    About me

    I've come to Sichuan in search of adventure, fluency in Chinese, and awesome vegetarian food. I have to concede that the baby pandas are very cute.
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