On Turning Thirty* In Vietnam

Birthday Flowers
Big: birthday flowers from my guesthouse. Little: jewelry box from close friend

I was born on the 9th of July, 1982 and as of today I have officially owned a birth certificate for twenty nine years. It sounds simple enough, but calculating my age—or, more appropriately, discussing my age—in Vietnam has been anything but easy since I first arrived in 2004.

Love, culture, and age: three topics of conversation that always end in playful arguments with Vietnamese friends. The reason age has become such a contentious point of disagreement among locals and me is because I have not yet conditioned myself to view age as a function of years,—the most important elements of my birthday have always been the 9 and July—while they see no point (outside of official documentation) in viewing age as a function of days and months; they only care about the 1982.

What this means is that by the 3rd of February, 2011 I was already 30 years old in Vietnam but still technically 28 in the United States. I felt it didn’t make any sense at all to tell people I was two years older than my official Western age and I simply wasn’t psychologically ready to accept being thirty earlier this year, so from exactly one year ago I began telling people I was twenty nine years old. Complicated, I know.

To keep from going utterly mad in Vietnam I have decided to add one year to my Western age at any given moment that I’m asked about it. Yesterday I was 29, today I am 30, and I will be 30 for precisely 364 more days before I am willing to say that I am 31.

The reason I do not follow my Western age exactly is because I live in Vietnam, which is anything but a You/Me/I society. There are certain parts of my culture and Western upbringing on which I am not willing to compromise because they give me meaning and a sense of connectedness to friends and family in the United States. Age is not one of those.

What I ended up doing today isn’t all that noteworthy or important, really. I woke up late, went for pampering at a spa, and followed it up with a meal at one of my favorite restaurants in Hanoi. Outside of close friends and family I didn’t mention in advance the day to anyone. I’ve been trending towards the non-birthday birthday for several years now; sometimes there’s nothing better than sneaking away from the world for a day and spending it with my thoughts and dessert.