Cake vs. Noodles: How Chinese Birthdays Differ

Today’s post is brought to you by Cambridge Network’s Programs Solutions Team.


In China, the practice of celebrating one’s birthday is a relatively new phenomenon brought about by Westernization. Chinese birthday beliefs still remain largely governed by superstition, with very specific traditions assigned to the age of the birthday celebrant. For much of the population, specifically older generations, only certain birthday ages are celebration-worthy and a few have little significance. Additionally, for birthdays that are socially acceptable to celebrate, the celebration style leans towards the wants of families and friends rather than one’s own desires and needs.

Below, we cover a few important Chinese birthday traditions. An understanding of the Chinese mindset on birthdays and traditional means of celebrating can help you determine how to best make your Chinese international students feel appreciated and comfortable in their new environment.

Traditional Mindset: 

In Chinese culture, birthdays dictate new phases in a person’s life and the birthday celebrant is required to properly prepare for upcoming years. The only birthdays warranting large celebrations are 60 and 80 – both ages are very fortuitous numbers in Chinese culture. 60, especially, is indicative of a full life cycle and family members are expected to throw a large-scale celebration honoring the birthday individual’s life. Prior to 60, each birthday is generally acknowledged, but not celebrated. Traditional foods are eaten and appropriate measures are taken to ensure good fortune in upcoming years. For instance, the 30th birthday is considered unlucky for women and instead of celebrating it, women stay 29 for an additional year. For a child, the most important birthday celebration is their one-month birthday. At the one-month mark, the child is officially ‘locked’ to the world and family and friends provide gifts of silver and money, meant to help with the child’s upbringing. Each subsequent birthday is a low-key affair until the big 60th birthday celebration.

Traditional Foods:

Great concern is given to the foods eaten on one’s birthday in China. The most important food item encouraged by everyone to eat is noodles. A representative of longevity, certain noodles are meant specifically for birthdays. The “longevity noodles” eaten on one’s birthday consists of a single, long and unbroken strand of noodle, lengthy enough to fill up a bowl. Special care should be taken while eating and cooking to make sure the long noodle remains unbroken. Other birthday foods include hard-boiled eggs and dumplings wealth and fertility respectively. Typically, the noodles are eaten at a restaurant with the immediate family and the hardboiled egg is a popular choice for the birthday boy or girl’s breakfast.

Traditional Gifts:

Gifts given for birthdays tend to be low-key and only necessary for children and the elderly. The most popular and acceptable gifts given are red envelopes, or “hong bao,” containing money, and they are given in a discreet manner. It is considered impolite and showy to draw attention to the act of giving and receiving the gift. For children, parents will often times take them to a store and have them pick out their own toy. Unlike in America, gift-giving does not entail buying the gift beforehand, wrapping it and presenting it to the recipient. This straightforward method is thought to save all involved parties embarrassment at being singled out for a gift, and the transparency of the prices conveys the respect one has for the receiver. For this reason, when giving gifts to friends it is wise to purchase name-brand gifts where the value of the object is transparent.


For an international student unaccustomed to American-style birthday celebrations, there can be slight anxiety over expectations regarding birthdays in their new environment. While your international student will happily partake in their peers’ birthday celebration, having been exposed to American birthday culture from movies and shows, they might feel uncertain as for their own birthday approaches. To put students at ease, host parents or the school can take a more low-key and personalized approach to the day, such as going out for Chinese noodles and having a quiet celebration with cake afterward. And as always, make sure to take pictures and videos of your celebration to share with natural parents!

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