In America today, I officially turn into human wallpaper. It’s my birthday, or 生日快乐 shēng rì kuài lè, in Chinese. But no Barbie dolls or pin the tail on the donkey games this year. I turned sixty. The big Six-O.
In dog years, I’d be dead.
In America, childhoods that pre-date Google means you have become as desirable as panty lines. Birthday gifts are no longer pink boxes from Victoria Secret, but root canals and colonoscopies. You wander over to the Clinique counter in hopes of a free makeover, and walk away with an arsenal of wrinkle cream. I’m as shocked as everyone else that I’m sixty, or as I like to think of it, my rerun of thirty.
But in China, aging is a sign of honor, turning sixty, is extra special.
Turning sixty has extra special meaning in China, as this means a person has completed the twelve signs of the zodiac cycle, each linked to one of the five elements: earth, fire, metal, wood, and water. I’m an ox and have survived every year from the rat to the pig, all sixty “element linked” variations.
Usual birthday customs in China consist of eating a bowl of long noodles or 寿面 (shòumiàn). Actually, it’s one long noodle for longevity that you slurp and slurp and slurp. I wasn’t able to find a bowl in Kunming. Actually, I didn’t look. It was too hot for noodles.
Instead, I feasted on fruit, starting with want for Yang Mei. (the blue tubs below). Imagine if you crossed a kiwi fruit with a cherry. That’s what Yang Mei are like. Bumpy velvety skin on the outside, a blood red center, complete with a pit.
The mangosteen. The “don’t-wear-white-because-the-flesh-will-stain” fruit tastes like Vietnam to me. Vanilla, passion and mango. You don’t eat the red part of the mangosteen, but the juicy brain like seeds. They are slippery with the texture of fruit cocktail peaches and definitely worth a trip to the dry cleaners.
Fresh potato chips. If you thought Lays were addictive, wait until you try these. You can get a huge bag of plain, herbed or BBQ for under two bucks. Oh. On birthdays, calories don’t count.
Fancy Eggs. I think Martha Steward would buy eggs from this farmer. You can pick from a selection of white, blue or brown chicken, duck and goose–all organic.
Steamed Rice Cakes These are not like the styro-foam disks you nibble when you are on a diet. Rice Cakes in Yunnan are steamed, slightly sweet and sticky, making them a light and tasty treat. Be sure to eat rice cakes the day you buy them as they dry out just like a sponge.
Durian. Now this was my birthday treat. Durian has a bad rap because of the smell, and because it looks like the embryo of a lab rat, and because it’s ridiculously expensive, and because it’s nestled inside of a porcupine like shell, but, the pods are nature’s creme brulee. A robust vanilla custard with the texture of guacamole. It is my birthday tradition.
So what’s the next Chinese milestone birthday?
Seventy-one, men earn the right to wear an official robe and hat with a copper button. Plus, they get an official walking stick with a dove carved on the handle, as the dove is a sign of longevity.
As for the ladies? They just get a little Chinese proverb:
属生姜的越老越辣 Born to be like ginger. The older, the spicier.