Birthdays evoke a variety of responses in people – some people look forward to them, while others dread them. Some enjoy a small celebration with close friends and family, while others want a big, spectacular blast every year. For some people, the ideal birthday celebration is a quiet dinner for two – perhaps takeout pizza and a bottle of wine in the comfort and intimacy of their own home.Then of course there are those who just want to be left alone on their birthday, whether to brood over the fact that they’re getting older or to enjoy a little solitude.
The problem for expats is that their situation in life typically doesn’t seem to allow them much of a choice in terms of celebrating their birthdays. Especially during the first year or two in a new country, with close friends and family far away, and in the midst of an unfamiliar place with an unfamiliar culture. The weeks leading up to your birthday can seem like a rather bleak reminder of just how far from home you are. Expats who are lucky enough to have moved with family can of course have reasonably fun birthdays, but for solo expats birthdays can be particularly tough.
Celebrations can seem rather pointless, even if you are someone who normally enjoys celebrating their own birthday. Many expats, especially those who are fond of big birthday parties, end up going to one of two extremes – throwing a party with a bunch of colleagues and acquaintances they don’t really want to hang out with or giving up entirely, and staying home brooding.
However, expat birthdays needn’t be unpleasant. You needn’t choose between an awkward party and a dull, lonely evening. Sure, you can’t celebrate your birthday the way you used to, but what’s to stop you from doing something new? After all, new experiences are at least part of the reason why you became an expat in the first place, right? Here are five ways to celebrate your birthday while you’re abroad – and some of them might make for your most memorable birthday ever!
One great way to celebrate your birthday is to travel. Everyone has places on their bucket list, and what better time could there be to see one or more of these places than your birthday, especially since you’re already abroad. The country you’ve relocated to probably has a few places you’d like to see, but you could travel to another country. Of course, not everyone has the budget to be globetrotting for their birthday, but then there’s no rule that says that’s even necessary. If you can’t afford a bucket list trip just yet, just take any old trip. A short, cheap, local trip can sometimes be the most rewarding. The manner in which you travel is up to you – you could have a wild, party trip; a decadent, lazy one; or a cultured one with loads of sightseeing. Simply make sure that you take off on an adventure for your birthday, exploring and experiencing new places on the planet.
Don’t worry about company either. If you have family or a partner, great – you can take them along. If you don’t, consider traveling with a friend. This could be a great opportunity to catch up with a close friend or two from back home, if they can make the time to travel with you. If all goes well, this could turn into an annual tradition, where your birthday involves traveling with an old friend each year. You could also travel with a newfound friend you’ve met in your adopted country, whether they’re expats or locals.
Traveling together is a great way to get to know someone and to cement relationships, as long as both of you are more or less on the same page and are willing to communicate openly.
However, don’t rule out traveling alone either. As any experienced solo traveler will tell you, it’s an unbeatable experience. Take the leap even if you’ve never done it before. Your birthday is a great opportunity to try something new, whether it’s your 21st or your 60th. Just ensure that you plan your trip properly and have a point of contact who always knows where you are.
If you really want to throw yourself a party, perhaps it’s best to avoid the kind of parties you used to have back home. There isn’t much chance that you’ll be able to recreate one of those parties in terms of the people, the mood, or anything else – meaning you’re likely to end up with is disappointment. Instead, if a party is what you want, how about finding out how the locals do it, and then doing something along similar lines? You can incorporate as many or as few local customs as you like. Of course, having local friends will help you here; however, if you haven’t yet made any local friends (and this can be a genuine challenge in some places), you can also have a party with other expats. Simply read up a bit, whether online or in a local library, and do your best. (Of course, if it’s an all-expat party, try to be a bit thoughtful and respectful of local customs, and don’t let your birthday party descend into parody.)
One problem you might face in going local is that ‘western birthday traditions’ have now spread across the world and gone international. Almost anywhere in the world you go today, you’re likely to find people celebrating their birthdays with birthday cakes, candles, and the Happy Birthday song (or variations of it), most probably with dinner, snacks, and alcohol. Unearthing local traditions might be a little difficult, especially if you want to build an entire birthday party out of them. However, they certainly exist, and even a few local touches can spice things up.
In Ireland, India, and a few more places, birthday celebrations involve bumps or kicks – friends pick up the birthday boy or girl by their arms and legs, and proceed to either bump them on the ground or kick them, once for each year of their age (and sometimes once more for luck). In some places you will have cake smeared on your face, and in Jamaica, you may be suddenly accosted and doused with flour. In Vietnam, you could go with the local tradition of ignoring the actual day of your birthday and then celebrating it communally on New Year’s Day.
The Netherlands is one of the few places where you can have an entire birthday party like the locals. Guests turn up early in the evening on the Sunday nearest to your birthday, are served coffee and cake, and sit around on chairs in a circle, eating, sipping, and talking to each other. Private conversations are not allowed – if you have something to say, you must say it to the entire circle. Then another round of snacks is served, and everyone disperses by 6PM. Doesn’t sound like much fun? Even the locals will agree with you, and will be happy to add alcohol to the mix.
You needn’t be very social on your birthday – and in your first year as an expat, you may not really have the choice. However, you can still have a great birthday if you simply decide to spoil yourself. Exactly what you do to spoil yourself is entirely up to you. It could be one grand thing or an entire day of little indulgences that add up. We highly recommend that, no matter what you do, you take the day off from work. It’s hard to spoil yourself if you spend eight hours of your day slogging at whatever it is you do for a living. If this isn’t possible – and we understand that it often isn’t – just shift the celebrations to the nearest day off.
If you’re at a beach town, head down to the beach and soak up some sun and ocean. If you’re in the mountains, go for a hike. If you prefer something that involves less exertion, perhaps you could consider a steam bath and a massage. If you like art and culture, spend the day exploring all the museums and art galleries in your city and end with a show at a local theatre. Get your hair done, go shopping, go dancing, play your favorite sport for a few hours, eat pizza for every meal, watch a bunch of your favorite films back-to-back… The possibilities are endless. There’s only one rule: do nothing that you don’t thoroughly enjoy.
Throw a virtual party
If you don’t like the options we’ve given you so far, or if, for some reason they aren’t viable, and you’ve decided that nothing can beat a birthday with old friends, don’t give up yet. Here’s a suggestion that will allow you to celebrate your birthday with at least a few of the people you’ve always celebrated it with. Schedule a Skype conference or some other type of video call with a few of your friends from back home, and at the appointed time, get together with them and have your party across the World Wide Web. Eat, drink, music, dancing, and long conversations – you can do it all.
Managing time zones could be tricky, but it can certainly be done, even if someone needs to be willing to start their day with your birthday party. For practical reasons (such as internet bandwidth, for example), you might have to keep the number of guests low. You’ll also need to send out invitations well in advance, and perhaps create a Facebook event with a schedule of activities. Scheduling activities for an adult’s birthday party might seem a little strange, but for this party, trust us – it’ll help. Without a schedule, your party could turn into a long and confused video chat.
Also, you might want to specify that all your guests need to attend the party, and do absolutely nothing else. The temptation to multitask every time you’re at a computer screen is a bit too much for too many people today, and you don’t want your friends drifting off to play Candy Crush at your birthday party. You could however make games a part of your schedule – there are plenty that you could play over multi-person video chat, including ‘Truth or Dare’ and ‘Never Have I Ever’.
Take a trip back home
For those who are desperately homesick and just can’t bear the thought of spending their birthday far away from home and the people they love, there’s the option of cheating a little bit – by not spending their birthday abroad and instead heading home for a week or two. This isn’t as crazy an idea as it sounds. Of course, the further you are from your home country, the more difficult and expensive this will be, but it’s not impossible. After all, many expats do make at least one trip home every year. All you need to do is schedule that trip around your birthday. The compromise you need to make is of course not being able to be with your family and friends for Christmas – or Thanksgiving, or whatever festival you typically celebrate at home (unless you’re lucky enough to have your birthday fall on or around this festival, in which case you can pack a whole lot of celebration into a single trip).
We ought to mention that this probably isn’t a viable or advisable long-term option. Perhaps it’s fine in your first year abroad, when you’re homesick, lonely, and yet to make friends. However, the more you settle into your expat life, the more difficult it will be to schedule a birthday trip home. More importantly, what you should be doing is celebrating your birthday like an expat, with your expat and local friends, or in any of the other ways we’ve just suggested.