A few weeks ago I celebrated my big 21st birthday. In the US, this occasion is marked by a [long awaited] chance to consume alcohol, legally. Usually this involves counting down the minutes to 12AM and then, with a herd of other revelers, migrating en masse to the Palms, or college bar of one’s choice. In my case, there was no bar around for miles. I was fast asleep by 10PM.
Perhaps the lack of significance of turning 21 is fitting for where I am. In China, 21 does not represent the second big step to adulthood (after turning 18, which really isn’t nearly as exciting). In China it just brings me one year closer to having to settle down and produce a child by the age of 24, which I have been told in many villages is the best time to have your first child.
Although 21 does not have much significance in itself, there are ethnic minorities where certain ages do hold importance. Last week I stayed with a couple of Mosuo families at Lugu Lake in northern Yunnan and southern Sichuan. Mosuo are famous for their matrilineal society and “walking marriages.” The eldest woman is the head of the household, and her children live with her in the same house they were born in. “Love friends” will come over to spend the night and return to their mothers’ homes during the day. The Mosuo have a special coming of age tradition that I was told about and shown pictures of. Celebrated by both boys and girls at age 12 or 13 during Spring Festival, they wear their traditional Mosuo clothes and wake up at 430AM to stand on a giant pig. It also marks the time when they can start participating in walking marriages.
I enjoyed living in a household with mainly women. We spent the days and evenings gossiping, giggling, drinking egg-red sugar-rice-liquor concoctions, and teaching me how to properly wear a headscarf, as women often do together.
I was able to experience a mainstream birthday celebration while I was in Kunming. A friend turned 20 and invited some friends, around 30, to sing karaoke with her. Karaoke is a popular hobby, if not the most popular hobby, in southern China, on a par with badminton and worshiping American basketball players. We rented a room and enjoyed 12 beers split between the 30 of us. Each person gave it their all singing Chinese pop songs as well as American songs, in particular any and all songs by Justin Bieber. My time at “Happy Karaoke” contrasts starkly with rowdy karaoke nights back home, where young men and women take it upon themselves to belt out “Don’t Stop Believing,” “Piano Man” and “Bohemian Rhapsody.”
For the most part birthdays mean little where I am. In both Shaxi and the villages near Lugu Lake they do not remember when their children were born. For national registration purposes they just make up dates.
While birthdays don’t carry as much weight as they do in the States, age is an important concept. The older one is, the better. It is not rude at all to ask someone’s age, in fact there is pride wrapped around a high number for an answer. Thus, it is not impolite to say in front of one’s cousin “my cousin is SO old.” Perfectly acceptable. In Mosuo culture, the matriarch is in charge of the household and has the privilege of sleeping in “the mother’s room.” The mother’s room is the main living room with the fire pit, a Buddhist shrine, and where eating and drinking take place.
A far more important birthday concept than one’s age in China is one’s sign… of the Zodiac. The Chinese believe this says a lot about you as a person. I have frequently been asked what my animal is (horse: can stand hardships but is quite stubborn), and this is not a come-on as in “what’s your sign, baby?”
While I was unable to make my rite of passage Western-style, I greatly enjoyed spending it as I did, as just an ‘ordinary’ day in rural China, learning first hand about their rites and rituals. I hope to come back to Lugu Lake to take part in one.