Up until my sixteenth birthday I held a firm belief that birthdays were occasions for excitement and self-indulgence. So I knew something was very wrong when I woke that morning and felt completely normal. Mediocre, even. I brushed my teeth. I got dressed. My dad dropped me off at school. In student government, I had to update the shabby marquee sign across from our school. Most high schools do this electronically, but we do this manually because what our school lacks in wealthy alumni, it makes up for in plastic marquee letters and manpower. Or in this case, girl power.
It was yearbook picture day. In between poses, all my friends hugged me, wished me a happy birthday, and didn’t give me any presents. Now, while I’ll scorn first-world consumerism as much as the next environmentalist, this was a painful and alarming break in tradition.
At home, I called my mother in China.
“Happy Birthday,” she said, “how were the PSATs?”
Her question was so inappropriate I started crying. But I didn’t want to admit I was hurt, so I told her my father had forgotten my birthday that morning, which wasn’t a lie.
“Sophie,” my mother reprimanded, “birthdays aren’t a big deal for him. He has trouble remembering his own because he had to choose it himself when he applied for his passport. Sophie, his parents never remembered what day he was born on.”
I stopped crying.
That night, I had a conversation with my father I had been waiting my sixteen years to have. I knew he had grown up in the rural village I visited during summer vacations. There, chickens clawed around DVD players and LCD-panel TVs on concrete floors. It wasn’t the abject poverty I read about in articles. But that night, my father told me about hunger and malnourishment as a child, backbreaking labor in the village, and living off three yuan a month in high school. This was less than one American dollar. I felt chastised for being the petty American teenager upset about not getting presents on her birthday. Yet, I felt a simultaneous upswelling of pride, because I was my father’s daughter.
When I turned on my bathroom light that night, I looked in my mirror where I had written in dry erase marker: ‘More than 20,000 people perished yesterday of extreme poverty’. I had hoped it would force me to reflect hard every morning on how I had potable running water to brush my teeth, access to basic health care, human rights that were reasonably well protected, and how worthwhile it was to fight for the same for 1.1 billion people living in extreme poverty around the world.
The import and urgency of this message, however, had faded as I began spending more time trying to distinguish my reflection from dry-erase marker. But now, it had a deeply personal meaning. My father had experienced much of the same that had killed 20,000 yesterday, and it was by the slimmest of probabilities that I could stand before a mirror in Salt Lake City on my sixteenth birthday and repeat to myself: ‘more than 20,000 people perished yesterday of extreme poverty, and I am my father’s daughter.’
So with fighting poverty and my father as my guiding stars, all other things are just airplane lights, birthdays notwithstanding. This, I believe.
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