Today’s my birthday.
As I get older, I start caring less and less about birthdays–but I still loathe to spend them alone. Luckily, my husband always spoils me on my birthday with a nice dinner, a just-what-I-need present or a surprise vacation.
However, I must admit, the most memorable birthday I’ve ever had happened before his time.
This is the story of the best birthday I ever had–in Shanghai.
How I Turned 28 in Shanghai
“I hate to sound demanding,” I said to my Chinese-Italian friend, Leona. “But I really need to do something on my birthday. Can we get our friends together and have a quick dinner or something?”
“Oh my god, Mary!” Leona yelled at me in a thick Italian accent. ” You think so lowly of us! You don’t need to ask!”
Although Leona was Chinese on the outside, she was all Italian on the inside. She slammed her hand on the coffee table and chastised me for even thinking that I needed to plan my own birthday.
“Ok,” I laughed. “Just wanted to play it safe. And don’t worry about doing anything big, we can just get the friends together and have a dinner.”
“Yeah, of course.” Z said from across the coffee table, calm and collected as ever. “We’re all busy with work, since your birthday is on a Thursday. Just leave it to us, we’ll figure out dinner.”
I invited all my close friends (about 13) who promised to come to my birthday dinner. Z told me the day before that she booked an Indian restaurant in Tian Zi Fang. I was excited.
The morning of my birthday seemed to be going well. Takada-san gave me an amazing present. My coworkers all wished me happy birthday in Chinese or Japanese. The day was off to a great start.
Yet as the day wore on, my birthday seemed to be falling apart.
“I’m slammed with work Mary,” Taguchi told me at lunch time. “I don’t think I can make it to your dinner, I’m so sorry.”
“Oh my god, one of my students insisted he meet me at 6:00 pm tonight… I’ll try to make it to the dinner, but I can’t promise anything!” Alan texted me in the afternoon. “I’m sorry Mary, let’s make up for it this weekend!”
“Please don’t hate me,” Chen called me. “We have a big project due and if I don’t stay with the team they will kill me. I can meet you after dinner for a drink?”
My birthday dinner of 13 dwindled down to four: J, Z, Leona and myself. I told myself that I should be grateful to have so many friends who were even willing to go. That, even on this very busy and cold Thursday evening in February, I had at least three dear friends by my side to wish in the big 2-8. I shook my head and told myself that life doesn’t stop for my birthday and I had to deal with the cards I was dealt. I had to be positive.
Yet when the four of us sat down at our big empty table for thirteen, I have to admit that it was hard to stave off that feeling of disappointment. I tried my best to smile and be positive for the three girls who sacrificed so much to actually come to my birthday dinner–but it was hard. It would have been nice to have everyone get together.
“Don’t be down, Mary” Z gave me a hug. “How about we go get a drink? I think Alan said he can join us in a bit.”
“Ok,” I sighed. “I’m sorry girls! I’m really happy you’re here. I mean it. I think a cocktail will do the trick.”
“That’s the spirit,” Leona laughed. “We need you drunk on your 28th birthday!”
I didn’t really care where we went, so J suggested a new bar she tried the week before in Tian Zi Fang, since it was nearby. I never heard of the place, but I shrugged my shoulders and said anywhere would do. Close and convenient seemed fitting.
“This bar is in a huge attic,” J said. “It’s super cool.”
We climbed the stairs of a lao fang zi (antique home) turned bar and found our way to the entrance of The Bell Bar. I opened the door.
And I had never been so surprised in my life.
About 20 people–all of my friends and acquaintances in Shanghai–were crowded around the room wearing a red piece of clothing and sporting a short, bob-style black wig. It was the signature Mary look in Shanghai–and the reason I’m the Ruby Ronin.
In other words: there were twenty Marys in the room, with a birthday cake, screaming happy birthday as I entered the room.
I started to cry. I couldn’t believe this was happening. I looked to see Alan wearing a black wig with a red button up shirt; Taguchi in a black wig with matching red dress, Chen in a black wig with a red coat—even one of the senior designers from my company was there, donning a black wig and red cape. It was unreal.
“Surprise!” Taguchi ran up to me and embraced me in a hug, laughing. “So just how shocked are you!?”
“Oh my god,” I shook my head and wiped the tears away. “You got me. You got me good.”
“You should have seen how disappointed she was,” Z emerged from behind me, now donning a red dress with a black wig, “I shoulda took a photo of her sad face at dinner, haha!”
“Come over here, I made you a cream puff cake!” my Italian friend Mark cried from across the room. “You gotta make a wish!”
They lit the candles. Everyone began to sing Happy Birthday in four languages: English, Chinese, Japanese and Italian. As they sang, I looked around the room with such love, joy and appreciation. It’s moments like these that make you realize just how wonderful it is to have people in your life. To love others, and be loved in return.
When I blew out the candles, I didn’t wish for much. All I wished for was the happiness of my friends and that someway, somehow, even after I left Shanghai–we could still have moments like this in the future.
“This was all Taguchi’s idea,” J said to me afterwards over champagne and cream puffs. “Of course, we all wanted to do something for you. But she thought up of this surprise party, prepared all the wigs, and coordinated the effort to actually make it happen.”
Later that night, half-drunk on champagne and happiness, I hugged Taguchi in tears and told her it was a birthday I will never forget. Being Japanese, she often didn’t show her true emotions–but that night, she hugged me back with tears in her eyes. She didn’t say anything. It was the first time I saw her cry.
The second time I saw her cry was one year later at my farewell party. Again, half-drunk on champagne and the atmosphere of a Shanghai life we would never forget, we embraced each other in tears. Even then, she didn’t say anything. But she didn’t need to.
We promised to see each other again.
And we did.
Four years later, she flew all the way from Japan just to be in my wedding as a bridesmaid.
And I mean, come on, after planning such a heartfelt birthday bash…. her bridesmaid spot was totally secured.
Four years later, even though my Shanghai gang has scattered across all continents (literally), they still manage to text me on my birthday.
This year I may not be surrounded by Mary-look-a-likes, but I’ll have my husband with me in Texas–and that’s all I need.
Wishing everyone a Happy February 21–as well as a Happy Year of the Dog!