Birthdays Have No Language

Birthdays are not generally of importance in Cambodia. However, I’m a self proclaimed birthday fanatic. Can these two truths coexist?Imagine moving into a home where you still speak the baseline level of a language and you don’t know your new family but you both know that you will be around each other for two years. You don’t want to seem awkward so you both start asking basic questions to get to know each other.


Names: Check

Ages: Check

Jobs: Check

Relationship to each other: Check

Foods you like: Check

Establishing that you don’t use whitening cream for your face: Check

Cautiously expressing your dislike for MSG because you really don’t want to eat it for 2 years: Check

Birthdays: ………unknown?

“I don’t know my birthday. Girls don’t celebrate birthdays” – Mai

*blow to the chest*

I made my puppy dog sad face to show how I disagreed with my Mai’s statement. Either that facial expression doesn’t translate here or she just didn’t know how to respond. So instead I responded with “I love birthdays!” To which she gave a half smile of discomfort.

I came to terms with the fact that I would just never know my families’ birthdays and would probably need to throw myself a little birthday celebration come May. If I learned anything during PST it is that we cannot become doormats during service. We need to verbalize things we want and do things for ourselves despite our communities skepticism of our weird American antics.

Yesterday presented itself with a new surprise. It was a seemingly normal day- I went to the health center in the morning, bought my Mi Cha for lunch, went to the upstairs balcony and did my yoga and TRX, did some Peace Corps reflection assignments about adjustment to site, took a shower and then went downstairs to do some light reading when my mom so randomly said “you aren’t going to tutoring today” I said “why?” To which she said “because we are going to celebrate your nephew’s birthday be ready between 4 and 5”. That response hit me with both excitement and a little annoyance. Why was I being told this at 3PM when my tutoring session is at 5PM? So I scrambled to find my tutor’s phone number to give him a call and neither of my phones were making calls out so I put on my shoes walked up the dirt hill to the private school he teaches at and walked through hundreds of kids just to tell him I can’t study because my mom said I need to go with them to celebrate a birthday. Even my tutor had a puzzled look. I said it in English and Khmer so I knew he understood. After trying to rid myself of that somewhat embarrassing memory, I went home. I got ready and was downstairs at 4PM before anyone had even showered. But I knew we were on Cambodian time and probably wouldn’t leave until after 5PM so I hunkered down in a hammock and watched YouTube videos until it was time for photos. Cambodian people love photos when they are dolled up so we posed and smiled for a few and off we went. My family on motos and me on my trusty bike. I put my helmet on my freshly washed and dried hair and got going as the day’s daily quota of rain decided to fall. At the end of my 3km bike ride we arrived at the restaurant which was equipped with floor seating and hammocks to rest in afterwards. I was soaked but a little rain never hurt anyone.

My nephew turned two and two-year-olds are the same everywhere they get tired and cranky quickly so my family was strategic in taking photos before we ate or drank anything. With a Frozen party hat on my nephew laid his eyes on his cake then reached and grabbed and came away with a handful of icing. But a little icing never hurt anyone. After capturing his adorable toothy smiles my family decided I took the best photos and proceeded to have me airdrop the photos to them. I asked them if they wanted all of them warning them that I took a lot. They said yes and I sent them 96 photos to which my sister giggled and said “it’s almost 100!”

Dinner was lavish with a chicken soup to start, then seafood fried rice. It was all delicious and I was full by the second course. I shouldn’t have been shocked when my mom said “there is another dish you need to eat”. The final course was grilled beef, squid, shrimp and veggies. So I stuffed myself to the brim and finished well before the rest of my family so they sent me to the hammock to ‘ankujleng’. Then came the best part of all- lighting the candles for my nephew’s cake and my Mai said “sing Happy Birthday” and so I did, again and again and again. After a zillion more photos the singing ended, the candles were blown out the silly string came out, my nephew wailed when he felt the gooey string on his skin and everyone just laughed because it was supposed to be silly.

This is why I love birthdays. I felt a feeling of togetherness that I will not forget. There were so many smiles and laughs surrounding this happy occasion and the magic of birthdays can be felt across cultures. Even if I didn’t speak any Khmer this still would have been a great day- all of our smiles still would have meant the same thing. A part of me hopes to someday find out the rest of my families’ birthdays because I really want to celebrate the beautiful lives they live.

From the Eastern Hemisphere,

❤️ Ren


2 thoughts on “Birthdays Have No Language

  1. Happy birthday to your nephew. Such a beautiful glowing smile. What a wonderful celebration of life. Enjoy all the beauty & fellowship with your family.


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