I turned twenty-two last week. It was on Monday, the doldrums day of the week, and that’s how it was as I sat through work. My coworkers (bless their hearts; they’re wonderful people) did not remember it was my birthday despite the automatic reminder sent out by our office calendar at the beginning of the month. I’m not saying that to elicit some pouty-mouthed pity or to make a passive-aggressive snap at my coworkers. I say that because it conveys my general attitude towards celebrating my birthday: I don’t think it’s a big deal.
It’s just something I grew up with in my Korean missionary home in Uganda. Our family didn’t host extravagant birthday parties with balloons, a large cake, candles, and friends. I had friends over for sleepovers and soccer games, but not for my birthday. No, we kept birthdays in the family.
Our celebrations followed a regular, low-key tradition that revolved around what we’d eat. Every year, a few days leading up to the day, my mom would ask me if there was anything special I’d like to eat on my birthday. I’d feign indecision, which I understood as the proper Korean way to display my maturity by letting the adults decide, and tell her I didn’t care. My mom would usually find me and ask me again, “How about steak? Or do you just want some dwen-jang jjigae [soybean paste soup] or how about kimchi jjigae [kimchi soup]?” I’d scratch my head, pretend to be distracted, and tell her as I walked away that they were all fine, but… I guess steak, since it’s been a while.
On the day of, my mom would prepare seaweed soup for breakfast, the traditional Korean birthday dish. One by one, my family members would tell me happy birthday. I’d nod and slurp down strands of hot, steaming seaweed. I could feel my mom’s eyes watching me. She’d sigh and remark that she wished she could have added some dried clams to the soup. I’d tell her no, no, no, it’s still delicious the way it is, and she’d just pat me on my bottom and tell me how big her baby had become.
At the end of the day, my mom and I would cook steak and our special mushroom sauce to eat with cabbage salad and white rice. We had a tiny kitchen: a two-burner stove, a single-tub sink, and a small counter. But this was a special space we shared, my mom and I, where’d we let go of our mutual sensitivities and cook together.
After supper, we would gather around for family devotions time. We sang a song or two and read the next chapter of whichever book of the Bible we’d been reading. Then we’d pray. As we took turns praying, my father, mother, and brother would say a special prayer for me. Hearing them say sentimental things about me was embarrassing, but I tried to keep my eyes shut and told myself that they were talking to God, not to me. But sometimes I’d take a peek at my dad when he prayed, and I can picture how he would sway back and forth and chop the air with his right hand as his voice rose and fell with passionate outpour. I remember my mom’s small, calloused hand suddenly clasping mine when it was her turn to pray. Whenever she did that, I pinched my eyes shut as though somehow I was the one praying.
When it was finally my turn, I’d offer a prayer of thanks for my parents. I thanked God for what a blessing they were in my life. I thanked them for raising me and putting up with me all these years.
My grandmother taught me to do that. I remember when I was in the fourth grade, and my family was visiting Korea for a yearlong missionary furlough. She sat me down after the birthday supper, and told me that on my birthday, I must thank my parents. They brought you into this world and raised you with devoted love and sacrifice. The day of your birth, she said, marks another year of their care for you.
That’s how I’ve felt about my birthday ever since. Yes, I’ll gladly accept the cake my coworkers bought me the next day and I’ll awkwardly smile through the “Happy Birthday to You” singing. But my birthday will always be a day, first and foremost, to celebrate the blessing that is my parents.
Greg Kim (’14) graduated with a BA in history and international relations. He lived in Grand Rapids for a year and has since moved back to South Korea to fulfill his mandatory military service.