I’ve never been a fan of birthdays. Not because of the “they remind us of our mortality” line. For me, quite simply, I shrink from the limelight. Those faces (friendly, even beloved) gawking at you as you make the wish, blow out the candles, slice the cake. The thought that people have taken time out on account of you. I don’t know. It embarrasses me. I don’t know. Maybe it’s a defense mechanism: it’s easy not to cry when you have no proof that people care.
Whatever the case, by the time my 31st birthday rolled around, I thought I’d done just about everything possible to minimize potential hoopla. I made a point of not publicizing the approaching day. I changed my birthday in Facebook to avoid the cyber memory-jog that has come to typify our 21st century recall-dependence. Heck, I’d moved halfway across the world, as a Peace Corps volunteer, to the Philippines. The closest family member was thousands of miles away. I thought I’d paved the way for obscurity.
I was wrong.
Because in the Philippines, your birthday is beautiful and so are you. In the faculty office of the university where I work, the names of the month’s celebrants are printed in faux-calligraphy and hung on the wall. As your birthday approaches, your co-workers remind you of the upcoming date (as if we could ever forget), and ask about your plans. On top of this, it’s custom to wear a red shirt on your birthday to remind your friends and family that it’s your day. (Consequently, even now, even if it’s not your birthday, if you’re wearing red, you’ll get a string of well wishes). It’s nice if you provide a cake, or ice cream, or even dinner for your friends.
I did my cultural duty. I bought the cake. Two, in fact. Chocolate, and marble. I did not wear red, however. Because I had no red shirt.
Even before I was out the door of my boarding house, the Filipino warmth and love began. “HAPPY BIRTHDAY SIR MARK…Best wishes” came the text at 6:06a.m., from Faith, my co-teacher. Moments later “Gudmorning!hapy b-day!” and then “Happy Birthday Mark! May you have many more birthdays to come! God bless!” from two more.
And the moment I walked through the door of the faculty office, I was greeted with a birhtday chorus from half a dozen teachers. The rest of the day, as I shuttled from class to class, students’ usual chorus of “Good day, Sir Mark” had a coda: “Happy Birthday!” The usual joke about me needing to get married was tailored to the day: “Sir Mark, if you propose to a girl on your birthday, it is her duty to accept!”
It was just the beginning. At three-thirty, I was informed that I needed to report immediatedly to the dean’s office for a closed-door meeting. With typical obliviousness, I grabbed my notebook and marched over, hurriedly scribbling agenda notes as I walked.
There was one item on the agenda for the closed door meeting: Happy Birthday, Sir Mark! The dean, Dr. Maria Lopez, a petite matron of untiring energy and hospitality, made chika-chika with me for the next hour and a half over chocolate cake and decaffeinated coffee. We talked about my family, we talked about the history of the Eastern Visayas State University, we talked about the price of jeepneys fifty years ago, and we talked about birthdays.
“Haven’t I heard that there is an old birthday tradition in the Philippines,” I asked at one point, “where people in the community go to a person’s house in the morning and sing birthday songs?”
“Ah yes,” Dr. Lopez said, not quite making eye contact with me. “That is called the mananita.” Her voice was measured, uncharacteristically distant, and almost encyclopedically dry. I understood why, moments later, when, gathered at the door of the dean’s office, no less than twenty faculty members clustered around a single guitar and grinned conspiratorially.
“Ah, they are here!” Dr. Lopez beamed, no longer distant.
And though my prescient comment had made it sound like I knew what was coming, the following chorus was as unexpected as it was touching. Standing there in their school uniforms, beaming as if they’d known me for a lifetime, one videocamera and two point-and-shoots trained on my overwhelmed smile, they sang:
How beautiful is the morning
As we come to waken you
With God’s early morning blessing
With pleasure we sing to you.
On the day that you were born
All the flowers came into bloom
And at the baptismal font
All the saints broke forth in song.
The dawn is now appearing
The rays of the sun break through
Arise, early this bring morning
As we sing hello to you.
How I wish I were St. Peter
How I wish I were St. John
As we bring this salutation
In the very early morn.
With a bouquet of carnations
We have come to sing our song
To make your day full of color
So that you may carry on.
From all the stars in heaven
How I wish I could get you two
One to tell you “Good Morning”
And the other to bid you “Adieu!”
We are here to greet you
On your natal day
We are here to sing you
A birthday round the lay
It’s a Happy Birthday
We are happy too
So we sing with all our hearts
Because we love you so
It’s a birthday round the lay
Round the lay-oh-lay-lay
The phrase “to be humbled” is abused, overused, misused. But that afternoon, as my co-teachers sang those morning birthday wishes, I looked at the face of Ma’am Divine (with whom I’d spent the previous Saturday conducting a skills workshop, and who, I knew, had spent many late nights preparing for the event even though it was extra work), I looked at her husband, Sir Jhun (who was manning the videocamera, with whom I’d spent hours proofreading his master’s thesis), I looked at Ma’am Faith (who endured countless jokes about being the single female who would marry Sir Mark), I looked a Ma’am Bilia, Sir Riel, Ma’am Evangeline–all of them–as they sang “with all our hearts, because we love you so.” And I was truly, basely, profoundly humbled.
Text-message birthday wishes continued throughout the day, my fellow Peace Corps volunteers chiming in, inviting me to afternoon nachos and beer in the neighboring town, toasting me and roasting me: “31 means nothing, but you’re amazing, sort of. Happy birthday!” And then, “You are actually amazing in so many ways and you have the cutest butt, so, happy birthday!”
But it was not over. After class finished at seven that night, Dean Lopez treated me to dinner at the posh Hotel Alejandro, feasting on sinigang na isda, crunchy pata, lengua, and rice. And I was truly, basely, profoundly humbled.