Numbers, Cake, and Past Selves

Numbers, Cake, and Past Selves

After a sleepless nine-hour flight, I finally set foot in Incheon. Arrival card and passport in hand, I was ready to figure everything out by myself. The only other thing on my mind was trying to impress the airport worker – the person that was supposed to accompany me – by greeting her in Korean. When I did, I couldn’t tell if she was surprised or indifferent. She patronizingly compared the data in my passport, a piece of paper from a country she had never heard of, to what I had written on the card. I tried again: “Today is my birthday! I’m sixteen!” I knew for sure I would pronounce that correctly. I did not get a reaction. She rushed me through immigration, I retrieved my luggage, and she finally asked in a slightly worried tone: “Are your parents coming to pick you up?”

My answer made her visibly unsettled: “No, I’m going to take a train to Busan. Someone from the school will pick me up there.”

I was the first international student to arrive on campus, so nobody bothered to cook anything. My birthday dinner was microwaveable rice and kimchi. The empty cafeteria felt like a desert, and the long tables kept me company. But my physical exhaustion was no match for my excitement; I knew that was a day I would tell my grandchildren about. The date was 2/3/2017.

There is a combination of numbers that will follow you – or haunt you, depending on how you look at it – throughout your whole life. Some believe it defines your whole personality. You have certainly written it down countless times, sometimes dreading the irreversible countdown it imposes on you. Ironically, these foretold digits were absolutely out of your control. Even though you have no memory of it, you were forever stamped with the date you were pushed out into this harsh world.

Yet we celebrate it! I’ve always been fond of the idea of birthday parties. Finally, a day all about me – something very much needed to satisfy our deep desire for importance. Commemorating the servitude we owe to fate nicely complements carefully planned wish lists and invitations.

In my early childhood, I would get the attention and appreciation I did not ordinarily receive from my family and friends on February 3rd of each year. The sweet, chocolatey taste of the party, the joyful, slightly awkward atmosphere – “You’re a big boy now!”– and the calming illusion of having the world revolve around me. My parents would turn the lights off, and I’d blow the candles. For a moment, everything turned dark, but the guests would start clapping, and the party was back on, only to be forgotten the next day.

Over the years, the rust of growing up and becoming aware of the environment you are living in starts to erode these bright childhood memories. I trained myself to become more cynical. I am not quite sure when it started, but 13 is an unlucky number. Ten days before my fourteenth birthday, my father passed away. It is freezing cold in early February, and that year nobody turned the lights back on. I vaguely remember the feeling of helplessness and desperation lurking in the air of our apartment. When my mother got the news, my brother and I silently hugged her. No candle in our living room felt as warm as that embrace – a single moment of calm before the winter winds would sweep us onto different paths. The season was showing its true colors: gray, black, all bleak.

A few months later, I remember my mother waking me for the science contest I secretly wanted to skip. These contests were my main social activity but participating made me feel insignificant. Who am I to believe I could compete with people that, along with the gift of life, were endowed with the perfect conditions to develop their innate talents? In those rooms, however, we were all equal in the face of the same set of questions. When the time ran out, I felt relieved. The test for my scientific skills and my insecurities was over, and I could go back to my mom’s car. A modest third place later became my chance to prove (to myself, first of all) that you can make unpredictability work in your favor.

The following year, I was reborn. My dedication had earned me a journey to the other end of the world to join an international competition, which reminded me that the Earth is actually much larger than the 48 square miles of my hometown. I decided I was going to give myself self-respect for my birthday, even though I was too young to know what it means. In a couple of months, in part through self-loathing and in part through a desire to become someone else, I lost 45 pounds – baggage from my previous self that I did not want to bring into my new life. There is nothing I wanted to have in common with my fourteen-year-old self. My fifteenth birthday became a reflection of my transformation; I met my friends in a café, and we spent a few hours socializing over food and drinks. That pleasant, sunny day was connected to its antecedent only by the feeble string of the continuity of time.

I am an Aquarius, and it was important for me to do something novel, intriguing, and – most of all – radical. I decided to take up an opportunity I had found out about during the previous contest. And I ended up with a flight ticket. I can’t say I needed or wanted to escape. It feels good to be home and to be rooted in your comfort zone. But I thought I could grow better on foreign soil; I could absorb new experiences. Accepting all the responsibility this decision entailed, I boarded the plane on February 2nd and did not look back.

It is quite unusual to have your birthday 35,000 feet in the air. I expected the airline to know, somehow, and provide me with a special treat, especially since I was an unaccompanied minor. It could have been a nice message, even if only for marketing purposes and delivered by the faint smile of a Russian flight attendant: “We see you.” But to everyone else, I was simply a passenger on a journey only I knew about. Lost in time zones, I did not even know the exact moment I could officially claim my sixteen years of life. I remember the ice patterns on the windows, and the loneliness creeping in. I was surrounded by a tightly packed group of 300 people, but I could only think about two things: my mother not sleeping, and the uncertain future that awaited me as soon as I stepped out of that plane.

I was mesmerized by the speed of the train taking me to my new home. The grandeur of the glass buildings I saw through the window reflected my determination to become a greater person. The sound of passing through tunnels was damping the view of unmovable mountains ahead.

The campus was like an uninhabited island, only populated by artificial lights and the restless enthusiasm for the new school year. Everybody else arrived later that week with their families, but I decided to govern myself, putting on the cloak of early independence and shedding all the previous ties I did not choose.

The circumstances I put myself in crafted my identity. In school, I was “the student from Europe” – the kid that was awkwardly learning the rules because I had to honor my decision to start anew. At home, I was stopping myself mid-bow and reminding myself that this was still the place I came from. My birthplace seemed smaller every winter break; every birthday, fewer things to do, and fewer people to meet. But at the same time, I craved another moment of escape. I wanted a new environment to show me even more of who I can become.

This year, no longer tied to the stressful status of being a high school student in Korea and with no obligations to anyone, I enjoyed the bittersweet freedom of becoming an adult. For my last birthday as a teenager, I went to the movie theater to watch Little Women, alone. The room turned dark; the projector lit up. I was the fifth wheel in a room of two couples. I teared up at some scenes: “I’m so lonely!” “Please just fight to the end!” I’m still not sure whether it was empathy or the final drop in my acceptance of the cosmic balance of fate and free will.

Later that day, my mother promised to give me a golden cross as a gift, even though she knew I’m not religious. My early independence and self-reliance did not satisfy her desire to “protect me.” If she could not tie me to her, she could at least tie her ideas to my neck. That cross remained an unfulfilled promise, an imaginary present we both pretend to have forgotten about.

I was blind to believe this independence and tenacity would shine a light on even the darkest moments as they did back then. Two weeks after my birthday, my brother passed away after an illness. The cross-bearers would say it was “God’s will.” The strong-spirited: “It was the doctors’ mistake.”

The memories of these events are now etched into my life like my birthday on my passport (03.02.01). I’ve grown to accept this baggage; it’s lighter to carry than to choose the longest flight away from it.

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