A birthday wish – thoughts on happiness, gifts, and giving

This is a work-in-progress musing about the nature of birthdays, what they mean, and how I enjoy them. Bare with my stream-of-consciousness thinking and topic leaps!

Sunrise Seto Inland Sea
Sunrise over the Seto Inland Sea

I went to sleep at 2am because I was working on my birthday. I was inspired to. I never know what to expect for my birthdays. They are pretty inconsistent. This year, I also just went with the flow on the day. It went roughly as:

Caught up on sleep (after a few days deprivation)
Woke up with a still-bruised big toe (still don’t know where I got it!)
Made coffee (the Vancouver Moja beans are still ok!)
Went to work (had fun, lots of laughs, and warm wishes from colleagues)
Michelin-Starred ramen for lunch (my first whole meal after 3 days)
Bought myself a new camera (2nd hand, yay!, and after searching for 3 years)
Saw the happy birthday wishes (that I’ll reply to!)
Made pizza for dinner (the usual cooking for sister)
Went to sort 500+ and edit 333 photos.

Sunrise Seto Inland Sea Hotel Baygrand Kunisaki
Looking over at Ehime Prefecture

Anyhow, I was working because I was excited to go through the photos. Instagram sunrise photo on Facebook had the highest reaction numbers I’d ever gotten, which got me thinking. I was sharing – inadequately on a camera phone – a breathtaking moment. Just one moment. But maybe, I may as well share my birthday-gift-to-self.

Over the weekend, I went to Kunisaki in Northern Kyushu with over 1000+ years of history and a bewildering network of temples circling the hillsides of Mount Futago. I had come to this forgotten peninsula to be forgotten, and to mostly forget about the world for a few days.

Partially, I wanted to walk and be in the rural areas again. The other reason I like walking is because it frees me from thinking. I tend to reflect a lot over my birthdays. It often yields great insights, but just as often is a little depressing (Not age related. How could I, given people still think I’m in high school?!).

One year, my reflection lead me to send thank-you messages on the day of to everyone I was grateful to. In university, the epiphany was that I could get the Thomas Haas’ sour cherry tart I loved rather than the obligatory cake. One of the best birthdays I had was in London because a friend had arranged a lunch get-together and a thoughtful photo album.

One of the things I’ve learned is that I cannot expect other people to give, but I can give something to myself.

To me, the essence of a good birthday begins with waking up feeling great.

This means I work backwards to build up to that moment. Last year, I decided one of the most consistently satisfying feelings was a well-deserved break (which meant climbing 3 mountains and going to an onsen after). The year before that, I walked a block to get Stumptown Coffee in the early morning and fell in love with the ways the gold and emerald leaves shimmered outside the window.

Now, my birthday is about depriving myself, climbing mountains, enjoying an onsen to make up for all the sores, and waking up at a time that makes me happiest, to look outside, and think: my, this is a gorgeous day. It’s good to be alive.

Coincidence gives awesome birthday gifts.

My birthdays are rarely planned because no-one plans them. I’m also at fault, of course, because I didn’t grow up with that habit and it seems indulgent to demand something on an arbitrary day. Still, this arbitrary day has always gifted me with a receptivity to how beautiful life can be.

My first year in Hong Kong, my boss told me about a new coffee shop, Holly Brown since she knew I was a coffee fanatic. A few years later, my birthday morning miraculously coincided with one of my best friends actually having time for a Whatsapp conversation. One year, I had family and friends over for a birthday BBQ on the deck and “our” owl visited (usually it shows up every two years). This year, the coincidence was my colleague selling his old Fujifilm X100 camera and letting me test it out over the weekend. I’ve been searching for a digicam with a soul for 3 years, plus I was able to take this awesome gallery of Kunisaki photos with it.

Full circles.

My life is about running around in circles. I fly around the world between homes I’ve made in different cities and never quite left in my heart. I revisit projects and hobbies dropped 5 years ago (like photography). After years of lost contact, I become fast friends with old acquaintences thanks to one message. One of my favourite words in Chinese is yuanfen 緣分, a word between fate, circumstance, and coicidence. The word imagines that invisible thread that binds two people together for as long or as short their yuanfen last. I meet many people this way: friends of friends via Facebook, hosts recommended by other hosts, people I’ve heard about from others and then excitedly spout out, ‘I know you! I’ve heard about you from xx person for ages!’

My birthday is a time where I think about the past 365 days, what I’d done on previous birthdays, and the people who come to mind. This year, I serendipitously ended up watching sunrise overlooking the Seto Inland Sea. As a place of mystery and history this major waterway is both captivating and intriguing. The island on the horizon is none other than Shikoku, where I walked in similar weather for 40 days. I was just desperate to get a hotel after 2 days baking in the sun and not enough sleep. A hotel room view was the last thing I’d thought of. Often, the last thing I thought of is what delights me most and reminds me how I’ve gotten to where I am now.

It’s special, and it’s not.

Seto Inland Sea Hotel Baygrand Kunisaki
The sky in Kyushu is a turquoise blue, different from the shades in northern Japan.

One time, I spent my birthday debating with a Christian friend about the Bible and the new perspective I gained from her still informs how I look at faith today. She’s my best friend from elementary and told me last minute she was in town. It was only after we finished dinner and were debating into evening coffee that she suddenly asked, ‘Isn’t it your birthday?’ The intense discussion was gift enough, but it was so much more special just because she remembered.

The day itself isn’t special unless someone else makes it so. I made it special by getting up thinking that today will be a good day – because of all the things I’d done before. This year, it was special because I was killing myself walking and then got to reflect and write with a gorgeous ocean view – a luxury I normally wouldn’t appreciate as much inside because I’d want to be outdoors instead!

It’s a day to ask what will I do, not what others will do for me.

A birthday is special because of all the fuss. A birthday is just another day because it has the things that make me happy on any day.

As a normal person, I’d like the fuss – it shows that some people care enough to do something. It’s an excuse to treat someone. A coffee given on a birthday seems especially wonderful.

On the other hand, the daily happy rituals are grounding. Happiness to me isn’t pent up expectation for one moment of extravagance. Happiness for me is that time in the morning where I grind my beans and make my coffee; it is the morning breeze that carries the overnight dew with the scent of grass; it is feeling the grass under my feet, a well-cooked meal, a lucky capture, a wonderful conversation, an exquisite line in a book. Today, it was also just simply figuring out dinner because I had no plans. In the end, I did what I normally did: cooked to feed my sister who was glued to her computer.

Homemade margherita pizza
Homemade margherita pizza, with salami slices because my sister is a meat-lover

I want to be happy on my birthday. I’ll do what makes me happy first. Since I do these things every day, I can be just as happy every day.

Gifts and Giving.

My parents were never big on birthdays, but eventually, we settled into a routine of asking where the birthday person wanted to have dinner. Some years back, I had a debate with my mom about gifts. To me, a thoughtful gift means more than an expensive dinner. To her, I was impossible to buy for because it seemed like I never wanted anything, or was too specific. When we were kids, it settled into us choosing something that was within a specific monetary budget. It felt like training us to max out an opportunity and took the magic away from giving and receiving.

When my youngest uncle used to visit from Hong Kong, we’d always be the ones to open his suitcase as he passed out on the couch. His Santa Clause gift-case introduced us to a world of things we’d never seen or would have known to want. They included books, collectible pens, Chinese paintings, jade pendants, seals, and other random things; some we picked because the item looked cool and some he chose because of what he thought suited us, or what he hoped we’d aspire to be one day.

Gifts, perhaps because of what I wish I had, have huge significance to me. Giving is something to do reflexively, not just on birthdays, because it can make people happy. It’s one of the reasons I write postcards (good prints and postage are amongst my highest travel expenses). It’s also the reason I look for excuses to treat people or to pick up things I know friends will like. I don’t presume that everyone will care about the things they’re given, but the thought in and of itself is a good anyway.

Usually, when I mull over birthdays, the thought isn’t really about the day. The thought inevitably slides into giving and wondering why people don’t give more. It is so easy to make people happy: a smile and thank you at the register, a quick hello message, a coffee treat for a stressed friend, picking up that collectible you know someone was looking for (even if you get them to pay you back!). My small question is, if people can’t be bothered to do something that’s marked socially as a special day for you, then when will they?

A small wish

I’ve realised I have a pattern. I tend to do something rather than ask for it. I’m not good at wishes or prayers because I’m already trying to make that something happen. For birthdays, I’d rather figure out something for myself. I can rely on myself and avoid the disappointment. But there are some things we cannot create for ourselves. It takes at least two to create a tango delight. I’m not into having ‘things’, so most people would find it hard to ‘get’ me something. The thing is not as important as what the act represents.

Giving is not a one-word act. Giving requires remembering, considering, wanting to follow through, and finding something before actually giving. A gift comes as a Facebook message, a gesture in someone’s busy day. It could come in the form of a cake, a favour, something to be treasured for a while (a book, or a card). It can be as permanent as a tool someone really needed, or as momentary as a single elegant lily.

I didn’t have a candle to blow out on a cake this year, so I don’t need to make a wish secret. This year I’ll make a public one. My small wish for next year is to get a surprise gift from someone. 🙂

Sunrise Seto Inland Sea Hotel Baygrand Kunisaki
After sunrise, and my 6;30am onsen, cloud theatrics.

PS: I credit a friend who heard me out and said simply, ‘I get your point, but I’d still ask anyway if I wanted something.’

Please check out my photo essay of Kunisaki’s lost temples!

Athena Lam

A content marketing strategist and consultant. Passionate about storytelling for great teams and products. Co-founder of Business 3.0 (https://b3p0.org), LGBTQGlassdoor.com. Personal blog at https://thecupandtheroad.com.

2 thoughts on “A birthday wish – thoughts on happiness, gifts, and giving

  1. I feel like birthdays can be really horrible or really amazing. For some reason that one day in the year you are focused on everything that happens around you and to you. It’s a great time to reflect and be thankful. I’m glad you had a good birthday and got to stay in a nice hotel. You deserve it!


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