Birthday Bonding

Written by Rachel Glasser, (University of Pittsburgh) Student Correspondent CET Harbin  Spring 2017

When the clock struck midnight in China on my 21st birthday, I immediately received an email from my dad congratulating me on reaching unrestricted, legal adulthood. In his email, he attached an mp3 file, signing off, “I’m not the only one who wants to wish you happy birthday.”

The enclosed recording began with the long beep of an answering machine and a brief pause. An elderly woman started to speak. “Hi, this is Phoebe calling for Rachel’s birthday…”

Phoebe? I thought. Phoebe who?

“I want to sing to her, so put her on so she’ll hear it.”

After listening to the beginning of the recording three times, I finally realized the woman wasn’t named Phoebe, but rather “Bibi,” the name we called my late great-grandmother.

Me and my roommate Sun Si Yao

She passed away in 2006, about a month after my 10th birthday. My father saved this particular voicemail from my fourth birthday.

In a pleasant New York Jewish accent, my father’s father’s mother sang “Happy Birthday” to me for the first time in a long time.

Tears rolled down my cheeks as I listened. My Chinese roommate, Si
Yao, sitting adjacent to me at her desk, noticed my silent heaving as I tried to suppress sobs. She handed me a tissue, and when the recording concluded, I explained to her what I had just listened to. Although my roommate and I only speak Chinese to each other, she understands English, so I unplugged my headphones and let her listen.

I held my phone between us and as the recording played once more, she too, began to cry.

“I think this is so meaningful,” she said in Chinese as she grabbed a tissue for herself. She said the sweetest thing was that my father saved the recording and on my 21st birthday decided to share it with me.

Birthday cake from a local Korean bakery

“Fathers sometimes seem tough on the outside,” she said. “But then they’ll suddenly do something thoughtful.”

Family, love, and loss seem to transcend cultural boundaries.
This moment — in addition to discounted karaoke complete with a complimentary birthday fruit plate, a surprise cake and cards from my lovely CET classmates, and two full days of heartfelt birthday wishes due to the 12 hour time difference from home — made my 21st birthday in China the most memorable one yet.