West Versus East: The Birthday Edition (#219)

In my childhood house of a thousand siblings, there was only one day more exciting than Christmas.

My birthday.

On my birthday, I got to sit at the head of the breakfast table and preside over a plate of powdered doughnuts with candles. Powdered doughnuts might not seem very exciting compared to the Krispy Kremes and Voodoo doughnut delicacies of today, but back then they were a huge treat. Especially to a kid in a big family on a budget.

I also got a pile of presents (i.e., three). If there was a birthday cake later (or brownies, in the leaner years), I got the first piece. And I got seconds.

I got the front seat in the car.

For an entire day, the overlooked middle child was seen.

And I was queen. And it was good.

This is how I thought all birthdays should be. But as Australian-Asian blogger Mabel recently pointed out, every culture and every person is a little different when it comes to birthdays.

My husband Andy came from a Chinese-American family. He was the oldest boy, which meant he got most of the attention and food. As his family actually practiced family planning, he had enough food, too.

But birthdays and holidays? Nope. Andy remembers exactly one shocking Christmas with a tree and a ton of presents. He was sure Santa had made a mistake until his mom told him to open his gifts. Andy’s family never wasted money on pumpkins, turkeys, or Easter Baskets, either.

And birthdays? Andy’s grandmother, Popo, who grew up in China before the Communists took over, told him that it was better not to celebrate birthdays. “If you celebrate your birthday,” she explained, “evil spirits will take notice, realize you are still alive. Then perhaps they will remedy that situation.”

The first year we were a couple, I asked Andy want he wanted to do on his birthday.

Andy shrugged. “Doesn’t matter.”

I was aghast. “It matters! It’s your birthday! You get to pick everything we do!”

“Really? I pick sex.”

I rolled my eyes and explained, “No, I mean, do you want to go out for dinner? Do you want me to surprise you or pick your favorite place? And what kind of cake do you want?”

“Uh, any cake that’s not from a grocery store,” Andy said.

“Are you kidding? I would NEVER! Who does that?”

“My mom. For my eighteenth birthday, she called me at work and told me to grab any kind of cake at Foodland on my way home.”

“It didn’t even have YOUR NAME ON IT?!” I screeched.


My horror was complete. That year, and every year after, I made Andy a cake. From scratch. I even bought a Wilton cake-decorating set so I could write “Happy Birthday Andy” on it in my own icing, rather than the bitter frosting tubes from the grocery store.

Leveling the layers of Devil’s food (about hour 3)

Andy’s favorite was the three-layer Devil’s food cake with poured ganache frosting. For short, we called it six-hour cake, because that’s how long it took to make the sucker. Every year, Andy would say, “No, no, you’re busy, it’s okay, you don’t have to!”

And every year, I’d think of his 18th birthday cake from Foodland and reply, “Oh yes I do.”

Post-crumb coat, mid-pour of ganache (about hour 5)

The first few years, I invited friends over to celebrate. Then I added his cousins and Aunt and Uncle. One year his brother was even in town, and he also joined us.

The following year, when I asked what he wanted to do, Andy asked, “Please can we have a party for just us?”

“You sure that doesn’t seem boring? You won’t get as many good presents.”

Andy snorted and said, “Their presents aren’t THAT good. And last year there was hardly any leftover cake!”

“Wait. It’s the cake? You just don’t want to share your cake?!”

Andy mumbled, “Well, it’s really good cake. And it’s not THEIR birthday. They don’t deserve that cake.”

Now we celebrate Andy’s birthday alone and Andy eats his cake for a week.

And he is king.

And it is good.

Published by

Autumn Ashbough

WF writing about the humorous perils of life with Chinese-American significant other.

22 thoughts on “West Versus East: The Birthday Edition (#219)”

  1. My mother baked every Saturday. The cake/pie/whatever would last until Mon-Tues or that was the plan. One year she made an angel food cake for my niece’s birthday but she didn’t tell me. I love angel food cake. I ate a third of it before my mother noticed. She wasn’t happy but we got to keep it for our “weekend cake” and she made another for my niece.

  2. Having to pick up the cake was one of the many elements of my 21st birthday trainwreck. Remind me to share the story sometime.

  3. You must make really good cakes. Yum! My youngest daughter sometimes surprises me with her audacity. Whenever she was able to get away with it, she asked for two cakes: a regular cake and a cheesecake. There’s something about being surprised by an audacious request that gets results with me. I made her two cakes two or three times.

    My husband’s family was fairly affluent, but he claims he never had any toys or birthday parties. I guess after his dad returned from 8 yrs. of fighting the Japanese, he wanted his son to be soldier-tough.

    1. Did any of your husband’s childhood friends get birthday parties? Or were they like Andy’s Popo, hiding from he evil spirits?

      Wow, your youngest IS audacious. But it’s a goos strategy — sometimes, the more self-effacing of us are so flabbergasted when someone is demanding that we just kind of go along with it. I’m surprised her sisters let her get away with it –no, wait, it meant more cake for them, too.

  4. Thanks for the shout out! It’s the first time I’ve heard anyone say Australian-Asian

    Hats off to you for making a three layer Devil cake for Andy each year. It must really be a very good cake. Hey, maybe consider making the cake a bit bigger each year.

    As a kid, my parents bought cakes from the bakery to celebrate me and my brother’s birthday complete with candles and all. These days no candles but they like to drop off some kind of artisan cake or cake slice at my apartment around my birthday when I’m out. Of the many places I’ve worked, the office celebrates everyone’s birthday if they put their birthday on the birthday list. And they celebrate with a cake from the grocery store – which is always some kind of dense mud cake. It isn’t half bad to be honest…

    1. At my old companies, you only got cake if you were laid off and didn’t make a fuss.

      Andy’s cake is big enough, I think. 🙂 Once my brother came to visit around his birthday and I made him the six hour cake, too. But he left before finishing it and Andy was all, “Leftovers! Score!”

      What is a dense mud cake? Is this an ice-cream cake?

          1. ARE YOU SERIOUS? Never heard of this cake :O You really have to let me know if you try it. This is pretty much the staple and winner cake at pretty much every celebration here. Sometimes there’s an extra layer of chocolate icing in the middle 🙂

  5. So you hot doughnuts with candles, and then after that a cake? Not bad, haha.

    C. also didn’t celebrate his birthday. I can understand why, as the tradition here is not to eat cake, but to eat noodles… ok, they are extra long, but still, noodles are a pretty common thing to eat.

      1. The noodles used in Chinese birthdays are extra long as they represent the wishes of people for others and for themselves for greater longevity. The Chinese have always been obsessed with longevity so this noodles thing actually is a very old tradition. (it is called 寿面 /shou mian/ which literally means noodle of longevity)

  6. Long ago, our birthdays were a pretty big deal in the family: mine at one time lasted a week or so. First might have been on the day of, then perhaps friends or so, and then with my grandparents. We typically celebrate birthdays on weekends. For grandparents my mom made delicious salads and food and cakes like day and night as well as Napoleon. Sometimes we did candles sometimes not.

    I think baby donor rarely cared about holidays or birthdays. Heck he never got me birthday gifts or new years gifts ( Russian equivalent to Christmas celebrations) I remember we just ate out on our birthdays.

    1. Napoleons are delicious! Hard to eat without making a mess, unless you get little ones, but yes, that would be a fabulous birthday dessert.

      Half the time we put candles in the cake and we don’t light them, because who wants someone to blow/ spit all over the cake?

    1. It’s actually Rose Levy Bernabaum’s Devil’s Food Cake recipe from her Cake Bible. I never checked to see if she had a website, but I love her book (although Andy insists that her Genoise recipe has crappy technique and he had to use YouTube videos to get it to be airy instead of rock-like).

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