Chinese First Birthday Marks Cultural Rite of Passage

Some of the symbolic items are easy to understand: a stethoscope for a medical career, a calculator for a career in the sciences. However, other items require knowledge of the Chinese language and culture to comprehend. For example, stamps are used in China to authenticate documents, and if a child picks up the stamp, they will most likely become a high-ranking official or a person of great power.

If the child picks a stalk of celery, the child will be hard-working, or "qin lao." Similarly, an orange stands for fortune, and green onions represent intelligence.

"We wish her to choose whatever she naturally wants to do," mused Yuan Chi's mother, Niu Kuan. "Her grandfather wants her to be a doctor, though, so we will see what happens."

Yuan Chi's uncle, Zhao Cheng Hui, places the objects carefully on the ground, making sure that no item is unfairly attractive to the young child. After many adjustments, the baby is finally allowed to peruse the objects which may determine her future.

She touches the stethoscope, and her hand skims over the celery. The brightly colored orange attracts her attention, but she soon loses interest in it as well. Finally, her little hand grabs the highlighter, which she examines thoroughly. Satisfied with the weight and shape of the object, she crawls back to her mother's arms, pen in hand. Everyone in the room lets out a sign of relief, and begins to clap for Yuan Chi's choice.

"The pen means that she will have a career in the literary arts! She will be a girl of talent!" exclaims Mr. Zhang. This choice means that little Yuan Chi may become a writer, a scholar, or even a journalist.

As the most critical part of the celebration is over, Yuan Chi's uncle brings out her birthday cake, a Western practice that has taken firm root in China.

Amid the sounds of a Chinese-language version of "Happy Birthday," the little birthday girl passes another hurdle in her life's journey.

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