Sunday, November 7, 2010

When in Rome... do we still celebrate birthdays?

I was born in Singapore and spent nine balmy years growing up on the island nation. Then, when I was nine, it was decided that we would move to Australia and that was that. I didn't know that much about the land down under. We visited Brisbane for a vacation when I was six, and I knew that Australians were blondes and brunettes, and had broad accents and freckles. I knew that much. And I thought they were very tall.

My parents and relatives and other grown ups told me all sorts of things about Australia to make me feel better about leaving all my friends behind. Apparently everyone lived in the hinterlands and had tennis courts and swimming pools, and it snowed and the schools were pretty and full of stain glass windows, giant lawns and winter uniforms - nothing like the concrete box institutions of Singapore. My brother also told me that the kids rode kangaroos to school, but then again my bro also set me back several months as a youngster by teaching me the vowels (which were, apparently, P, S, R and M).

When I actually started living in Australia, I was a bit scared. Things were strange. The sun came out at five in the morning in summer. The beaches were clean. People actually drove in the prescribed lanes (this doesn't happen much in Singapore). The shops closed at five thirty, and people didn't live with their grandparents. And to my surprise, the construction workers and cleaners were mostly white. That sounds incredibly racist, but kids have strange minds. I also discovered that no, most people didn't have tennis courts and that my brother lied about the whole kangaroos-as-a-viable-mode-of-transport thing.

So when I was invited to my very first birthday party, I was terrified. I remember wondering if Australians had birthday cakes and if birthday cakes here had candles and cream, and asked my mother a million times if Australians really exchanged birthday presents. I didn't want to be the dork that brought the birthday girl a present (or a "pressie") if they didn't swap gifts. And then when it came time to sing Happy Birthday I was silent in case I sang the wrong version of the song, and was very alarmed when they started cheering, "Hip, hip, hooray!" because I had never heard that in my life.

Note to adults: the things you say don't often make sense to kids.