The Unimportance of Birthdays

Amanda Langan - Ecuador


February 3, 2014

I was teaching the months in English to my students, and I thought I would incorporate each of their birthdays to make it slightly more fun. With all of the months translated on the white board, I explained the activity and received smiling faces, a sign of approval – so I thought. Without hesitation, I began with the first student and asked him his birthday. I was greeted with a nice blank stare. Keeping my cool, I asked him two more times and reexplained the activity. Finally I heard a quiet, “Senorita, entendemos pero no sabemos.”

I didn’t believe that not one of my ten year old students knew when they were born, so I asked.

“Suba su mano si sabe cuando es su cumpleaños,” I asked, a tad frustrated at myself and the students. I was shocked when I only saw two tiny hands float above the rest of the embarrassed 35 faces.

I realized then that there was no language barrier in the way, but a cultural one. In the States birthdays are known as soon as one can talk. Five-year-olds know their birthday as well as their names. But,  I realized that this wasn’t the case in el campo Ecuador. Needless to say, I wasn’t able to teach the months by way of birthdays, and maybe my students didn’t learn a lot that day, but I did.

That night at merienda I asked each of my five siblings their birthdays. My two sisters told me that their birthdays had passed a few weeks ago. When I asked why they never said anything about it, they both just shrugged. There are other things to worry about here, and a birthday is just another day that could be spent working on the farm or in the store, not celebrating.

When I asked Tupac and Martín, my two youngest brothers they both said the same date, “quince de Enero!” My family started laughing as my brothers, three years apart, shot each other death stares and started arguing about who was right. Soon it became apparent that this needed sorting out. After their ages were decided, my mom declared that Tupac was born on the 15th and Martin was born on the 29th. My brothers were not satisfied with this answer, so they ran and got their identification cards. According to the card, Tupac was born on the 19th and Martin was born on the 31st of January. My mom wouldn’t admit that she was wrong and decided that the government who issued the cards misheard her, and put the wrong birthdays.

In a culture where birthdays are anticipated for months, this passing of events made me think about why my culture in the States values birthdays so much. People are obsessed with the anniversary of the day that they were brought into the world. Did we do anything to deserve being born? The mere chance that we exist is nothing to be proud of. It’s just a part of life. The more and more I thought about it, the more ridiculous it is that we celebrate ourselves extravagantly one day each year.

And as much as this shock of culture made me think differently, I wouldn’t mind a nice cake with vanilla frosting on my birthday, as hypocritical as that is. And on December 2nd, I got it.

Amanda Langan