I totally didn’t expect it when I was invited to a birthday grab party last December. It happened when I was visiting my parents in north China. Surprised, because I thought such parties are out of date and no one is really doing it anymore.
A birthday grab is a celebration held when a child turns one. It is more than ANY birthday celebration, but a celebration of a milestone, an achievement. That child has overcome a lot of challenges at infancy and has reached a stage more like a transition, or the coming of age. It means she had made it!
For most Westerners, coming of age calls sweet sixteens to mind, certainly not at the age of one. In American culture, for example, the age of sixteen is often the reason for a big celebration. Many Hispanic girls in the United States and elsewhere celebrate their Quinceañera, in which they are showered with gifts and attention. It is a turing point in their lives that marks the beginning of their journey as a woman.
In China, however, the coming of age celebration is quite different.
The ceremonies here, known as the “birthday grab” are held at the FIRST birthday.
Given China’s high infant mortality rate, especially in the past, this ceremony is based on the belief that infancy is the most difficult stage of a person’s life. If a child is able to make it to a year old, she has passed one of the most difficult hurdles of her life. That’s why this first birthday is more important than any other birthdays.
Back to the party I was invited.
One of my cousins had his first granddaughter about a year ago, and last December marks the first birthday. So all the families, including me were invited for the celebration.
As with all celebrations in China, food is a must of the fanfare. A long table was loaded with delicious looking dishes, pleasing to the eye and the palate. It had everything from the bright colored stir fried veggie dishes to a good variety of meat delicacies.
While the adults were eager to chow down their favorites, the birthday child had to be fed first, so she could stay happy and content during the party. Her special food on this occasion was a stewed egg (or egg porridge). Everybody cheered when she finished the whole egg, which is an auspicious sign.
After everyone was fed, adults and baby alike, the most important dish of the day was bought out from the kitchen. Yes, birthday noodles! Or “long life noodles” literally, as they are considered to represent long life.
These noodles, decorated with egg toppings, are more symbolic than filling. In China, eggs, like the moon, represent roundness. If the child eats it, it symbolizes she will have a wholesome and productive life.
Now here comes the tricky part – the noodles have to be slurped whole! The tradition goes that the noodles must not be cut or bitten off, all to ensure the long life of the birthday child.
While trying to enjoy the festive cheer, I became very worried about the child’s safety. What if her life was cut short by the slurping of the long life noodles? Isn’t that a choking hazard? Can a baby actually slurp? Maybe there is a magic trick that will just make it happen somehow. Regardless, I was so nervous that I couldn’t look when the grandmother tried to put one long piece of string noodle in her mouth. The child tried to push it aside, but couldn’t fight off the elder lady’s persistence. She gagged and cried. And her mother had to eat the noodle for her!
I really wonder how many one-year-olds can pass the noodle slurping contest at such a young age. Indeed an achievement!
The birthday grab began after the hearty feast and much noodle slurping.
So what exactly is a birthday grab?
When a child turns one, a number of items are presented for her to pick and then give it to her parents. The most popular items for the occasion are: abacus (in the past) or calculator, pen (pencil or highlighter), stethoscope, a stalk of celery, oranges, red eggs, food items, etc. Most of these items are symbolic and easy to understand. For example, an abacus or calculator indicates a career in Accounting, while a stethoscope points to a medical career path. Other items may be nonsensical for someone with no knowledge of the language and culture. An example may be a stalk of celery. When the celery is picked, it does not indicate the child may become a chef in the future, as common sense would suggest. Instead, it represents traits of hard-working, simply because they both share the homophone qin, as in qin cai (celery) and qin lao (hard-working). Another popular item is seal or stamp, whose connotation is familiar to all Chinese because it is used everywhere in the country to accredit documents. Picking that out means the child is likely to be on the way to own power and prestige as a high ranking government official.
Some parents who are really into this may play a little unfair game by making certain items stand out to lure the baby to grab it. But the “right” way is to make sure all the items are equally and fairly placed.
So after the noodle slurping incident, the child made her move with much fussing. Seeing so many objects before her, she was in a daze at first. She felt, touched, skimmed, scanned and held almost every item, not being able to make up her mind which one was the very best. Maybe everything looked interesting or equally dull. She tried to bite the stethoscope, and then fixated on the orange, drooled on the celery, then lost interest in all; she sat, looked at everyone and crawled to other items, and then started a close examination of the red egg, put it down, turned it over. Seeing the egg move and roll made her chuckle. Delighted with the red color and shape, she was finally able to make her pick!
Everyone was happy with her choice. A red egg means she will have abundance of good luck in life and is likely to lead a wholesome and full life. Even though no “clear” indication was given as to what kind of career she would be in, a writer, accountant, or a doctor, at least she would lead a happy life.
But here is the thing. I don’t know what to think of this, do you? When my parents held a party like that for me when I was turning one, I picked the abacus. God knows how awfully bad I am with numbers! As for that child, we’ll see …
At least she survived the dangerous noodle slurping, and managed to grab the right object! That is a good sign!