Shoes on the front porch. NewJeans on the Bluetooth radio.

Heineken and Hennessy on top of the cooler. Aunties and uncles on folding chairs. 

Red envelopes on the dinner table. 

Melting candles on a birthday cake.

My grandma said, “I invited a lot of people so they can give you money. Happy-happy with them so you can benefit.”

My grandma said, “Go call your cousin over so we can sing to you. I know you have not spoken in years, but don’t be shy!”

My auntie said, “You look so beautiful. Your skin is so shiny!”

My auntie said, “You speak Hainanese so well! Very clear.”

My auntie said, “She’s sitting with her friends, but she’s not talking with us.”

My auntie said, “Come look at the camera, your mom couldn’t make it, so look.”

In total, I received eight hundred and thirteen dollars at my nineteenth birthday party. If I had been nicer, would I have gotten more? If I had been meaner, would I have gotten less?

Is it that how good I am at enacting false niceties facilitates how much I am worth in monetary terms?

When I said “Thank you auntie, I think your skin looks even better!” and “Auntie, I actually speak all three languages of my family, ដឹងទេ?” and smile and nod, what part of that momentary connection upgrades my value to them?

I didn’t know half of those people. And they don’t even know half of me.

The faces that showed up at my nineteenth birthday party were familiar in the way that one sees faces in a dream, only to wake up and forget. They were like fleeting kisses on my cheeks, like quick puffs of some horrible mess of jasmine and cigarettes.

Am I worth eight hundred and thirteen dollars?

It was inside exactly zero envelopes that I found written notes. But it was on over half that I found written names in languages that I could barely read, phone numbers for callbacks and the amount owed the next time one of my family members were spotted at their parties.

My grandfather had me tally a list of who gave me what, how many bills, how quickly.

I counted eight hundred and thirteen dollars, and the names of couples whose marriages I’d never witnessed.

My grandmother had laid out a feast fit for an emperor.

Dinner was outside as the court didn’t fit inside a small, worn-down, single bedroom apartment.

There were dishes that would have turned my classmates’ heads when I was in elementary school. There were dishes that those same classmates’ would now now have devoured instead of scorned, hypocritical of their past actions.

My birthday cake was from 85°C Bakery Cafe. The candles were from Daiso. The heart inside me was from this stone-carved line of women and men who were once the children of farmers, politicians and teachers from a land almost forgotten.

My mother’s cousin said, “How was the drive? Not far, UCLA right?” Her smile was knowing and proud.

“You Ubered? Smart, smart…”

So smart. I’m at UCLA. I’m at UCLA, getting a first-generation degree. I’m at UCLA, studying Linguistics & Anthropology—for why? Why not become a doctor? Why not go to law school and make good money or become an engineer and build bridges or become a dentist and fix people’s disgusting, terrifying mouths? Why not do something that guarantees success?

Happy Birthday.

Happy Birthday.

Happy Birthday.

Nineteen for three hundred sixty five days. Nineteen for eight hundred and thirteen dollars. 

Nineteen for my Southeast Asian family, who loves me the only way they know how.

“Birthday Cake” by Will Clayton is licensed under CC BY 2.0.


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