Selina Kaing: Birthday Candles

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Immigrant families blend traditions and habits of their birth country with those of their new American home. For Selina Kaing, that memory resides in a box of birthday candles.

Birthdays have always represented a contradiction for my family. As Cambodian refugees who fled the killing fields of the Khmer Rouge regime, we, like many other Cambodians, found a living in California's nascent donut shop industry back in the 1980s. However, birthdays, like the donuts my family sold, were quintessential American traditions that didn’t exist in our lives prior to my parents coming to the United States.

My earliest birthday memories consist of a frothy strawberry cake from the local Asian bakery topped with eight spiral-striped Wilton candles. I had carefully selected them from the 24-count box the cashier had talked my mother into buying despite her misgivings about the additional cost. After lighting the candles, my family sang an off-key rendition of the birthday song while I stood awkwardly at the head of the table, uncomfortable with all the attention. I was
relieved when it was all over and I could escape.

I don’t remember anything about what the cake tasted like or if I even got any presents, but I do remember my mother carefully pulling the pastel candles with their slightly burnt wicks from the cream, diligently wiping the frosting before taking them to the sink to rinse them off.

The next time I saw them, they had been dried and put back into their original box with the other 16 unused candles. And every year, like clockwork, my mother would reuse the same tapers and add just one new one for me.

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We’re no longer struggling just to get by, but the ingrained frugality of our immigrant background, the gratitude for our escape from genocide and war, and the incorporation of traditions that embody American ideals, is a constant reminder of how lucky we are.

I have a 3-year-old daughter now who will never grow up like I did. The stories her grandparents will tell her will seem as foreign as the Cambodian language they speak. But as her fourth birthday approaches and I prepare for our family's first ever collective video call in a year where she has only heard their voices, I pull out her own set of burnt candles and get ready to add a new one for her.

With a Perspective, I’m Selina Kaing.

Selina Kaing works in the tech sector and is a writer.