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Celebrating a Birthday in China

It was a real birthday party.

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Pinata in ChinaIt was a real birthday party. There were a dozen little kids, and probably two dozen adults milling about, running around, playing games, and stuffing their faces with junk food in the special events room of Clong’s new kindergarten in Taizhou. Most of the people there were Chinese, but a good portion of the city’s expat crew also showed up. Petra turned three years old last weekend, and there were enough people there celebrating to call it a full-fledged birthday party.

Why was I worried?

Because birthdays can be the most lonely day of the year for travelers.

When you’re traveling the world, going from place to place, there are many times when you don’t know anybody besides your immediate travel companions. There is perhaps nothing sadder than a kid turning another year older without any friends to celebrate the event with, only getting birthday cards from loved ones that they haven’t seen in months. So our travel rounds revolve around the date of August 11th, as this is the one time of year that we want to have as many friends around as possible. These first three years of family travel have been a success:

Birthday #1 was when my wife and I were working at the Finca Tatin in the jungles of Guatemala. There were plenty of other coworkers and people around who liked and cared for Petra, and her birthday was something truly special as her grandmother and uncle were also there.

Birthday #2 technically occurred in Bogota, Colombia, but we were able to celebrate a couple of days early in Bangor, Maine with my wife’s family. Another success.

Birthday #3 in China was the biggest one yet.

So far celebrating birthdays abroad has been pretty good.

Petra Shepard

Petra Shepard

My wife picked up some work in China. She designed and now runs a Montessori style kindergarten class. This means that our family is entangled in the social web of Taizhou life: my wife has coworkers, Petra goes to school with her and hangs out with the other teachers, and we all have friends around town. Many people around here seem to care about and my kid and enjoy her company, they get excited when she comes around, and seem to over-joyed play with her. My wife is actually encouraged to bring Petra to work with her: “Don’t worry, we’ll take care of her!” the other workers assured her. And they do. The babysitter hurdle never existed here in China, when one of my wife’s co-teachers needs to go into class they pass Petra off to another who is on break. Nobody complains, they actually seem to like it.

On Petra’s birthday everybody came. My wife’s employer gave us free run of the banquette room in one of their schools and purchased the cake. My wife’s coworkers showered my kid with presents, their children came and played games, everybody ate cake, and they all gave my kid the kind of day everyone is entitled to receive on their birthday.

It was the type of party that sedentary kids have, not the type I would have ever imagined for my daughter when we first set out on the road when she was eight weeks old.

A lot of presents

birthday presents

As each guest entered the room they found Petra and immediately gave her their gift. There was no wrapping paper, and, in most instances, nothing for her to open.  The guests just handed her their present real quickly and then went off to do other things as nonchalantly as handing someone a napkin. Nobody waited around for Petra to gawk at their gift or to shower them with thanks. The presents were almost given with a touch of embarrassment, and there was neither name tags nor cards attached. China is a face culture, and it’s my impression that there is a touch of face that could be gained or lost through gift giving, and most of the guests seemed to want to get through the procedure as quickly as possible, wipe their hands clean, and to leave no trail of what they’d given. But this does not mean that their presents were substandard in the least.

We set aside a long table for guests to leave their presents for Petra on, but quickly found that we would need more space than that. Two tables and the top of a piano ended up being covered with gifts. We expected that maybe a few people would bring some small gifts, we were not expecting much. What happened blew me away:

Not only did everyone bring gifts, but they brought amazing gifts. Most were not cheap either, and many came from people earning relatively meager wages. It’s one thing for someone to buy by kid a birthday present, it’s another when it cost them an entire day’s chit. These gestures knocked me back on my heels a little, and when I recovered that stupid warm and fuzzy feeling enveloped me. I was not alone in this. Looking at the pile of presents my good friend Steve Mendoza and my wife kept saying over and over, “Wow, that shit cost a lot of money.”

There was a kid’s cooking set, a bath time Barbie, a scooter, an ice cream maker, a big teddy bear, a remote control car, blocks, art supplies, not one but two giant, three foot tall Happy Sheep stuffed animals, and tons more.

Come on, guys, I’m trying to teach my daughter the value of simple living without a lot of possessions here.

So much for that.

It is my goal as a parent to try to make sure that my kid has people around her who like and care about her, but here in China this has gone to the extreme: these people have taken my daughter in like nowhere else in the world we’ve been yet.

The only problem was that Petra received far too many presents for us to even think of carrying them on with us to our next destination. All this stuff is clearly not going to fit into a backpack, which was a running joke of the party: “Hey Vagabond, how are you going to carry all this shit? You’re going to have to get a truck haha!” It’s a good thing my daughter has already come to view most of her possessions as temporary acquisitions that she can play with for the time being but will eventually leave behind. Outside of a few choice toys and her books, the emotional attachment to things is something my daughter has yet to cultivate.

Culture sharing

pinataThe pinata is said to have been invented by the Chinese. But, like the clock and many other things, they eventually forgot about it for a couple of hundred years before it came full circle and was reintroduced from the West. We take responsibility for reintroducing the pinata to Taizhou.

Nobody but the Americans and British knew what the paper-mache sheep head with the hanger coming out of the top of it and the big cardboard number 3 were.

“They’re pinatas,” I tired to explain to rest of the party.

“What do you do with them?”

“Well, you tie them up with a string and kids hit them with bats until candy falls out.”


It was clear that we would have to teach the ins and outs of pinata smashing.

“Lets run the string across to each other to hang the pinata on so we can hit the kids with it like they do in Mexico,” my Mexican-American friend, Steve, suggested.

Good plan. The Latin American way of the pinata is different than the USA way. Where we are accustom to hanging a pinata from the ceiling and pulling it up and down as a blindfolded kid tries to hit it the Latinos run a rope horizontally from a tree or between two adults and tie the pinata to the center of it. This gives the manipulator of the line the ability to move the pinata up and down AND side to side, which enables the pinata to “fight back” and rail the kid who is trying to smash it. Excellent.

I stood on a foot ladder and Steve held the other end of the line. The paper-mache sheep head pinata — which I spent a week making  — was tied in the middle. My wife explained the rules of hitting a pinata in English over a loud speaker and a Chinese friend translated for the kids. All the Chinese people looked confused, adults and children alike. So we’re suppose to beat the sheep’s head with the stick and candy falls out??? Precisely.

Petra, a pinata veteran, showed them how it was done. She took a few swings at the swaying sheep head with the bat, and it didn’t take long for the Chinese kids catch on. The next kid in line knew exactly what to do, and by the time the sheep’s head exploded its sweet shrapnel all over the floor the Chinese were pros.

We also taught “pin the tail on the donkey” and “musical chairs” to varying degrees of success.

The activities of celebrations are some of the most culturally contagious of traditions. The ways that people party are often easily appropriated by other cultures all over the world. Perhaps the only things more culturally contagious are art and weapons. I have no idea if any of these party games we introduced will be incorporated into the birthday party lexicon of Taizhou. I actually doubt it, but the fact that we showed the kids an “American style birthday party” without being corny about it perhaps means something. At the very least, they will be able to jump right in and clobber the next pinata they find.

“We usually don’t have parties like that,” a Chinese friend later commented. “We usually just come and give presents, eat cake, and talk. We don’t usually play games. It was nice.”

Cultures are like germs, you touch them and there is no way that a little is not going to rub off on you. Cultures affect and infect each other upon exposure. You don’t travel to the other side of the planet without being infected, and, likewise, you don’t do so without infecting others.

Being exposed to the ways that other people do things sticks in the mind for the long term, and it’s not only the literal actions that are remembered but the approach and feel of such traditions as well. This is why I want my daughter to grow up traveling between the cultures of this planet. This understanding is all part of mastering the Great Game.


Petra birthday partyBirthday #3 was a full on party — just like the ones my parents would have for me when I was growing up (well, minus all the Chinese people). Petra was beaming throughout the day, it was the first time that she really understood what a birthday means:

A birthday is the day when the people who care about you tell you so. It’s the one day of the year that is all about you.

In Taizhou, the people came out and made my kid feel special, and she responded with smiles that I hope will be transcribed into memories.

“Who’s going to be there to hit the pinata on Petra’s birthday?” my wife once asked in despair while watching kids at a birthday party in El Salvador. Well, it’s been three birthdays since then, and for each one there has been a long queue in front of Petra’s pinata.


Filed under: Celebrations, China, Culture and Society, Petra Hendele Adara Shepard

About the Author:

I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. I’ve been traveling the world since 1999, through 90 countries. I am the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China and have written for The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3689 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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VBJ is currently in: Papa Bay, Hawaii

4 comments… add one

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  • Rory August 15, 2012, 8:51 am

    “Birthday #3 was a full on party — just like the ones my parents would have for me when I was growing up (well, minus all the Chinese people)”


    Glad Petra had a bash of a birthday and that there were lots of friends for her to celebrate with. Leaving things behind isnt bad, especially if she can give some nice things to nice kids.

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    • Wade Shepard August 15, 2012, 9:16 am

      Thanks Rory,

      Wish you could have been there. You’ve yet to be there for one of her parties. Maybe next year?

      Yeah, she has grown use to the idea of “You have this to play with here and that to play with there.” It’s an odd thing that she’s accepted which other kids growing up in more sedentary circumstances more than likely wouldn’t tolerate. She has yet to want to hoard possessions, and she seems happy with whatever she has: whether it’s a few books and a handful of toys or an entire room full of play stuff.

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  • André Vieira August 15, 2012, 4:10 pm

    Excellent post. This is why I like this website so much. It is very different and unorthodox in comparison to other travelling websites. Congrats for the party’s success! Now, thanks to this post I have to ask my foreign friends how to they celebrate children’s birthdays so that I can compare them.

    I just wish I could have seen the face of chinese people when they were faced with all those “party innovations”.


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    • Wade Shepard August 15, 2012, 11:16 pm

      Thanks Andre,

      Haha, yeah, they were a little confused, but they adapted quick. One of the great things about Chinese culture is that the people are often not very self-conscious and they are unafraid to try new things. It’s refreshing to be able to share elements of your culture with other people and to have them jump right in and try it with fervor rather than just standing on the periphery being spectators. It’s an aspect of Chinese culture that I imagine has existed for a long time, as they’ve always been able to absorb the ideas, practices, and technologies of other peoples and make them their own. This culture is nothing if not innovative.

      I’ve been looking for a long time for a slogan for the site that pretty much means just what you said: “different and unorthodox in comparison to other travelling websites.” Now how to put that into a clever three or four word catchphrase?

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