When I was a kid, I would always ask my parents what they had gotten me for my birthday.
“Your birth is your greatest gift,” My mother would say, her eyes leaving the short story section of the newspaper to give me a glance, “We worked really hard for you to be here right now.”
That was an understatement.
My parents met and fell in love at a McDonald’s. Somewhere between a deep fryer and the broken ice-cream machine, their eyes met. Neither of them were able to afford the route of higher education, and with only a high school diploma, they landed at the local McDonald’s.
My mother had just moved from a scarcely populated island into the big city, struggling to support her family back home and herself on a night shift’s salary. It was not the life in mind for any eighteen-year-old, but to my mother, it was her reality. Whenever she recounts her past McDonald’s stories, she tells me, “When you don’t have the chances like others, you work twice as hard.”
And so she did. That was the mindset she had in not only working as a teenager, but raising my brother and me.
We moved a lot as kids, and it took me four different schools to finally finish elementary school, but when I finally did, after being in four different cities and being taught in two different languages, my mother gave me a nod of approval. We didn’t have the same stability as other kids, so we worked twice as hard to stay at the same level as everyone else.
My mom doesn’t speak any English, but whenever I did my homework during my elementary and middle school days, she would pull up a chair and help me look up words I didn’t understand. She would tuck my hair behind my ears and tell me again and again, “You are so lucky.”
When I grew older, I would always ask my parents what they had gotten me for my birthday.
“This isn’t a day of celebration, this is a day of gratitude.” She would then recount passages of the Buddhist teaching to me. As it goes, “The child I birthed, held inside of me for ten months long, uncomfort exceeds like a sickness. The day of birth, the mother is in danger and the father is in great fear. Words can not describe the love within. ” (親生之子，懷之十月，身為重病，臨生之日，母危父怖，其情難言) In Chinese culture, your birthday is dubbed “the day of your mother’s suffering” for this very reason. As we age, we’re taught to reflect on how we got here instead of merely celebrating.
However, my mom would still take me to the bookstore to buy me a book for my birthday, even if it was the pricier hardcover versions.
When I turned 18 last year, she took me to a Thai restaurant. Between plates of phad thai and shrimp cake, she told me, “This is your last birthday.”
After 18, birthdays seem like less of a time to celebrate and more of an ongoing alarm that’s reminding of you of your limited time left. In Chinese culture, we are even discouraged strongly when it comes to the celebrating of one’s 19th birthday. The cultural belief is that every time you encounter a “nine” in your age (for example, nine, nineteen, or twenty-nine), you will face difficulties in your life. Thus, when we do hit the ages of “nine,” we tend to add one or lose one year when we report our ages to people we meet.
This year, I turn 19. Culturally speaking, there will be a lot of challenges and difficulties ahead of me for the next year, but because of my mother, I am not so scared of the road ahead.
She has been preparing me over the last few years, teaching me everything she wishes she had known when her late mother wasn’t around for her—reminding me to dry my hair so I wouldn’t suffer from a mean migraine when I grew older, making me memorize the multiplication table so I would be able to do math within seconds, the rice-to-water ratio for using a rice cooker. It’s the little things.
In my family, affectionate words like “I love you” don’t come easy. We are not even a family of huggers. We are not ones to express our love, affection, and care for others explicitly. It is the little things that we do for each other.
I love my mother a lot, even if I don’t say it aloud enough. She spent decades trying to make a life for herself, and years more to try to make life better for my brother and me.
For that, I’m forever grateful.