Another country, another expat birthday

It was my birthday this week, my third in Australia, and it made me think how different birthdays feel when you are an expat. I’m a strong believer in the many benefits of spending some time living as an expat. However, expat birthdays are not for the faint-hearted.

Cultural birthday differences

For a start there can be different traditions. In Turkey young boys must approach birthdays with at least a bit of trepidation because, as exciting as a rite of passage might be, being circumcised sounds daunting to say the least. I can’t remember the number of times in Turkey, I would be distracted from whatever I was doing by blaring car horns and music, only to reach the balcony and see a young boy being paraded through town on the back of a truck, and feel overwhelmed for him.

The extent to which the British celebrate is generally up to the birthday girl or boy, but most people do mark the occasion with a party with friends and family. In contrast, Turkish friends of mine seem less excited about celebrating their birthdays. French friends don’t share the tradition of birthday cards but seem quite keen on cake…

UK office culture experience was that colleagues would all chip in to buy a birthday cake and a card, that they’d each sign, and present to you as a ‘surprise’ at your desk at some stage during the day.

In contrast, in Australia, should you be at work on your birthday you are expected to provide morning tea for everyone else. The practical part of me recognises this is a method of avoiding a fuss if you really want to, however it also strikes me as less special, and in my more cynical moments, a bit mean.

Expat birthdays

In writing this post, I had a think about where I have spent birthdays and realised that I have celebrated aging in nine different countries. I have spent roughly 45 per cent of my birthdays in the UK (mostly childhood, a few adult), about 25 per cent in France (due to the annual school French exchange being reliably scheduled over my birthday), and the remaining 30 per cent of my birthdays shared between Australia, Turkey, Barbados, the Bahamas, Spain, Luxembourg and Switzerland.

As an expat you get used to the fact that your family and absolute best friends cannot always share special occasions with you and you celebrate with the friends you meet along the way. However, old friends and family are often in your thoughts. Each year I am really glad to realise that I am still in their thoughts too, despite moving to what many of them refer to as ‘the wrong side of the world’.

Seeing familiar handwriting on a birthday card or package is a real treat, especially if you are feeling a bit homesick. I really appreciate every card, postcard and package I receive. Thank you, my wonderful friends, for the text messages and emails too.

Where have you spent most of your birthdays? Do you have an expat birthday memory you are especially fond of?

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