I am not normally an emotional person. Ok, apart from welling up at the end of romantic films, or watching athletes see their dreams come true in the Olympics, or chopping onions for that matter. But I don’t usually cry on my birthday! I’ve always been a big fan of any celebration. Even when I was ten, somehow I managed to have two parties, two cakes, and at least two weeks of showing off my birthday cards! I loved the attention and I suppose I still do now, just this year, I wasn’t expecting it.
It’s easy to get into a routine here. Get up, go to school, see lots of faces you don’t really know but who all know you, teach a few classes, mark many books, come home, relax and then start again. Saturdays and Sundays are obviously a bit more exciting than this! But birthdays are an exception, a red-letter day, and usually my favourite day of the year, but not this year.
The night before my 24th birthday, Steve came round. He found me making cakes to take to school to share with my teachers. (In Japan the custom is that, whoever has had a birthday, wedding or new baby should bring edible gifts to share with everyone else. I’ve eaten enough of their beautifully crafted and ridiculously over-packaged gifts to owe them something in return.) Steve had brought round a handful of beautiful wrapped presents and a card, all from the Echizen washi paper village. I was not expecting to receive anything that night and was so surprised that I burst into tears! Steve thought I didn’t like the presents, but I loved them and it wasn’t that at all.
I suppose it’s because for four months I’ve been living alone, and been single for three of the months. I see my good friends in Fukui often enough but it just isn’t the same as living in dorms like at university. I’ve also had limited communication with my friends and family back in England. I usually Skype my parents and grandparents every week and send messages to my close friends on a regular basis, but it’s no substitute for someone handing you a present with your name on it or giving you a deep-felt hug. Those things cannot be said over the Internet, even with a video camera. It’s a lot easier to talk about the weather, strange foods or faux pas I’ve made, rather than say ”I really miss you!’’, if I did I’d probably cry a lot more and crying doesn’t exactly make interesting conversation! I’m not lonely, definitely not ‘home sick’, but my birthday realised that I’ve become unaccustomed to these outright displays of affection. Maybe Japan’s closed society has something to do with this too!
So on my birthday, I was afraid to open the cards my family had sent me whilst at school, in case the equivalent of the Three Gorges Dam broke open and flooded my desk! But I did open them, and trying to hold back the tears, put the colourful cards on my desk. The cards and cake attracted attention in the office and teachers who normally say nothing more than the obligatory ”Ohayou”, were wishing me a happy birthday. They liked the cake too!
The best congratulations I got was from my favourite class. They are an ichi nen-sei class full of bright eyed students who love learning English, or at least enjoy having me in the class. A JTE is their homeroom teacher and always persuades me to come to an extra class with them each week, and they’re so much fun, I can’t say no. I’ve even got to know a few of their names! They are very well disciplined, or come across so, mainly because the boy who says the introductory greeting to the teachers could be a future army general! This twelve year old always looks round to check everyone is standing behind their desks and isn’t holding anything, before shouting at the top of his voice, ‘‘Hello Ms Matsuyama and Sophie’’. I can hardly keep my face straight as the rest of the students repeat after him in unison, ‘Hello Ms Matsuyama and Sophie’ in the same army-like fashion, even though they are just saying ”Hello”! I pull myself together to say ‘’Hello everyone, how are you today?’’. The answers are always a jumbled ‘’I’m sleepy/ I’m hungry/ I’m fine. And you?’’. On that day I replied ”I’m happy as it’s my birthday today!”. Once the phrase had sunk in they all started clapping, whooping and shouting ”Tanjobi omedeto gozaimasu!” like the best thing in the world had happened! I looked to my JTE and we both laughed at the students’ enthusiasm! I was happy at this comical display of excitement from the class and am always going to remember this moment with a smile.
All day the birthday messages kept flying into my inbox and I had a constant stream of new notifications on Facebook. All these old friends that I hadn’t spoken to for months still thought of me! I was very touched. I also loved spending time with my host family and my new friends here. Everyone made me feel so special, especially when I got to eat the chocolate decoration with my name on it on the cake!
So what is my message? It is simply this, when your next birthday comes round let people celebrate it. Don’t keep it a secret or brush it under the carpet, but go all out and shout it on the rooftops, as people love celebrating birthdays! Even if you’re turning 30, 40, 50 or 60 and want to keep it hush-hush, why not enjoy it instead of hide it? I believe we need to celebrate every good thing that comes.
Thanks to everyone who made me feel special, even from the other side of the world.