My roommate Vivian had a birthday. Vivian is also the director of the preschool. I walked to the supermarket to buy a cake for her because I realized she had not told anyone else that it was her birthday. It didn’t occur to me that I might have trouble buying a birthday cake. I sometimes forget that I have this language barrier.
One of the teachers had a birthday a few weeks ago and I was surprised to learn that the Chinese have birthday cakes like we do for birthdays (the teachers came to my apartment that night with a piece of her cake–how sweet!). I was surprised because not much is baked over here (the bread is boiled or steamed–yuk) and I haven’t seen an oven yet. You can get baked bread at the supermarket, though. The birthday cake was beautiful, but both the cake and the frosting were not very sweet. The Chinese don’t eat many sweets over here. (I brought candy as gifts but they don’t appreciate candy the same way Americans do. ;-)) The frosting really tasted like cream.
So, I walked to the supermarket (two loooooong blocks away) and went to the bakery section. There were many beautiful cakes on display. I picked one out and thought I’d be able to just take it with me like I would from Dillon’s. No. The display is just that–display. You have to order your cake. The bakery staff and I worked through this–me speaking English, they speaking Chinese–and using sign/body language. The bakery staff eventually called someone from the back who spoke a little English. They finally understood that I wanted the cake. Then they kept asking me “shen?” Which I’ve learned is “what?” I wasn’t sure what they wanted to know but someone started to write down “what time” and then crossed it out. I realized they wanted to know when I wanted to pick it up and I said “right now.” I kept saying “now” and pointing to my watch and they finally understood. They gave me a ticket for it and motioned that I would have to go up to the register to pay for it first.
I continued shopping and went through the checkout paying for my items and for the cake. The checkout lady kept telling me something–I thought she was wanting me to buy a bag for my cake but I’d brought plenty of sacks so I kept saying no. What she was really telling me was that I would have to leave my other groceries with her while I walked back to the bakery to get the cake and she would keep them safe behind the counter on the shelf which happened to be by the sacks (they charge for sacks here–boy do I wish I’d brought the bags and bags of plastic sacks I threw out at home before I left). So leaving my groceries, I went back to the bakery with my receipt.
They were busy decorating my cake when I got there. It was a fun thing to watch–wish I’d taken a few pictures. [They are quite artistic over here–beauty and art seem to be very important. All the public spaces and areas lining the streets are beautifully landscaped in every city I’ve been in.] When the cake was finished being decorated, they put it in a beautiful red hat-type box with a gold lid, wrapped ribbon securely around it so it would be easy to carry, added a paper crown and candles to the package and sent me on my way. I headed back to the checkout and the girl happily handed my groceries over to me. And then I walked home.
We have a small refrigerator in our apartment with a freezer on the bottom half and the fridge part on top (each half is about the size of a dorm fridge). I had to take out a few shelves and rearrange all the things to get the cake box to fit. I hoped that Vivian would not look in there so I could surprise her with it on her birthday. My plan worked. She had even forgotten that it was her birthday in the morning when I shouted “Happy Birthday” at her.
Later that day, we lit the candles and cut the cake to share with the five adorable students and the staff. Ms. Vivian wore the gold paper crown. The teachers led the children singing “Happy Birthday” in Chinese using the same tune that we use. Then they sang it again in English. Ms. Vivian folded her hands together and made a wish and all the children folded their hands and made wishes. Together they blew out the candles on her cake. Even worlds apart, some things are still the same.