Celebration is a ridiculous thing to be bad at, but it’s high on the list of the things I simply cannot do – right up there with writing legibly, holding a tune, and ping pong. When I turned 50 a year ago, all I wanted was to hold the fetal position in bed for a year. But that wouldn’t have been much of a celebration. So I pulled on my big-girl pants and decided to resurrect my sunny husband’s inspired idea for his 50th birthday, which he wasn’t able to do because of Covid:
- Make a list of 50 people who had made a positive impact on your life, and
- Reach out to every one of them over the course of the year.
Making my list made me smile. Then I saw as many friends and family as I could in person, for the communion and the hugs. I connected with some on the phone and with others exchanged emails or texts that warmed my heart. Every interaction was a reminder of the many dear people who have shared their love, time and wisdom with me on this five-decade long journey.
I admit I didn’t tell most of the people about the list, or my birthday. I just reached out. But I should have, and I wrote the recipe to encourage you all to do it right. Maybe I’ll practice again at 60.
Thirteen years ago I started this blog as a 30-something mom with four kids under 10. Now that I’m over 50, I’m thinking ruefully that maybe Chinese Grandma isn’t such a cute tongue-in-cheek pseudonym after all. Recently, my oldest niece made me a great-aunt, a term that sounds even more comically ancient than I am.
When we were all turning 40, I mused aloud to my friends, “40 is an old young person, but 50 is a young old person.” I was curious and a little fearful of crossing that divide.
It was an eventful decade for our household. We went from having four little kids to having two full-on adults and two adult-sized teens. We lost two cherished father figures, my dad and father-in-law. We moved the family across the country, again. We doubled down on appreciating the last of our years with kids at home.
But the most important work of the decade may be the solitary work I did on myself. Becoming myself. It’s been a deep dive.
I see things at 50 that I didn’t see at 30 or even 40. I noticed the baggage I was carrying – regrets from over the years for my sharp tongue; outdated ideas of myself as scrawny, shy, hopelessly unathletic; a compulsive need for every moment of the day to be “productive” – and the needless strain of that weight. I set it all down, with relief. I even laughed at the realization that I hung onto extreme resourcefulness and efficiency in honor of my dad, who would not have wanted me terrorizing my family about how the dishwasher gets loaded. I didn’t know I had been clinging to so many artifacts for all these years. Once I saw it, I could let it all go.
I find I can hold a little distance now. Breathing room. When I was younger, I couldn’t separate myself from my racing mind. But I can now. What I am losing in memory and near vision I am gaining in perspective and emotional control. It’s a good trade. A softer memory makes it easier to focus clearly on the present.
Midlife comes for you whether you invite it in or barricade the door. You don’t get to tell it to go away. Just as the certainty of death cautions us to enjoy life, midlife is a calendar alarm reminding us that time is too short to let it slip by on autopilot. We need to be awake. To make choices. To Marie Kondo our psychological house, thanking the old, outdated and irrelevant for its past service and making space for what we cherish and hope to discover.
Turning 50 was a little breathtaking – like cresting the top of a rollercoaster hill. I spent the steep, nerve-wracking climb tossing out excess baggage, reinforcing the rickety train seat and taking deep breaths.
At 51, it’s not as scary as I thought. The view is expansive. The ride is inspiring. And I feel lighter than I have in a long, long time.
A Recipe for Turning 50
For the party-averse, or for those whose friends are far and wide.
- Make a list of 50 people (or more, or less) who have made a positive impact on your life.
- Over the course of the year, reach out to each one. You can do it all at once, or connect with four or five each month. You could meet up with related clusters of friends or family. Or reserve this year for one-on-one interactions.
- Share the reason for reaching out. Everyone will be touched to be on your list.
- Share the reason they made the list. They might be surprised. And they will certainly love hearing your memory of their kindness.
- Take a photo, preferably with you in it, of everyone you see in person. It always pays to preserve happy memories.
- Gifting alternative: Since my celebration-loving husband wasn’t able to see friends in person in 2020, I quietly gathered birthday letters and photos from his list of 50 and made a scrapbook for him instead. The book was spectacularly sentimental and sweet, and it gave him the opportunity afterward to reach out to everyone and thank them.
“I quietly gathered birthday letters and photos from his list of 50 and made a scrapbook for him instead”. . . . UMMMM . . . HELLO!!!!! and VIDEOS!!!!! :).
haha the one and only! super special! =)
this is why we love you! you have such amazing ideas for each occasion, and you’re not afraid to put yourself out there and be vulnerable. did you know that those of us coming up the ranks look up to you as our role model? happy belated birthday 😘
this is seriously the nicest comment ever! thank you, kind soul!
You are a gift CG!
betty boop, you are a superstar!
I landed here after a search for steamed cake (which I found, though I like this recipe even more), and stayed for a while, ignoring my deadlines (both real and imagined). I feel like I just spent part of my morning at a friend’s house, the best kind of friend – full of wisdom and life experience that knows you so well you can just sit quietly and be. I just celebrated my 49th birthday with my mom (another Chinese grandma, who turned 80 on the same day). Many thanks for sharing your food and life here for others to discover. All the best from NYC.
hi shine – this is the sweetest note!! i am so glad you found your way here. reaching out to you for a big hug. happy birthday to you and your mom! ❤️❤️😘😘
Happy Belated Chinese Grandma! I hope the new decade is filled with much joy, cooking and intentional moments of contemplation! In my little corner of the world, my little ones (now 4 and 8) ask for Chinese Grandma chocolate cake every birthday, and I still have your blog as my go to when I need recipes. Keep cooking, keep thriving! You are a gift and forever my Chinese Martha Stewart!
Oh no, I’m a little late but happy birthday ! Came here since I’m making your meatballs.