As I thought about what makes a Canadian birthday a birthday, I felt that other than the Happy Birthday song (also a feature of the Korean dol), the birthday cake is probably the most iconic element. There’s a cake at the Korean dol too, but in an uncanny valley way that mirrors the gap between Canadian and Korean wedding cakes.
At our venue, we blew out a candle on a real cake, but at the dol for Dragon’s friend the next day, and at several other dols I’ve been to, the cake on display is just a styrofoam show cake. Then, you cut a real cake (with an enormous sword-esq weapon), but that cake is whisked away and given to you as you are leaving the building. In other words, nobody at the party actually eats the party cake, but if they did, it would be a Korean bakery cake which has a distinctly different taste and texture from a Canadian cake. Therefore, I felt really strongly that I wanted Dragon to have a real cake that not only represented him (as opposed to a generic cake picked by the venue) but that we were able to share with the rest of our guests.
You see, dol parties often include take home presents for guests. Canadian parties would have a bag of goodies for the kids, but at the Korean party, it’s a gift for adults. When I started going to dol parties in 2007, everyone used to give out rainbow coloured ddeok (chewy rice cake). However, at some point the custom seemed to change overnight, and suddenly I began receiving miniature picture frames, tea towels, a variety of trinkets, and one time, rice (probably the best gift). Of course, it is always nice to take something home with you, but most of the time we’ve felt the same way about these presents as people feel about a lot of Canadian wedding favours…they are okay, but they often just take up space and rarely have much relevance to the event other than the name and date emblazoned on the item in some place. Thus, we decided that the cake could be both a way to honour the Canadian custom and gift our guests.
I asked my friend, who has a bakery business on the side, to make us two cakes. The first was an apple spice with cream cheese frosting. Sadly, Dragon didn’t get to eat any of this cake because he is allergic to cinnamon, but I heard it was divine. Dragon’s cake was chocolate with vanilla frosting and…and…yes it did. It had a dragon on it. Super duper cake, and the staff member assigned to our room kept squealing over it.
And yes, I really really really wanted Dragon to get to feed himself his own cake. I was slightly worried that this custom would create an uproar as the next worst thing to being COLD in Korea is being dirty. Baby-led weaning is not so popular here, and it’s custom to spoon feed food into baby’s mouths with one hand and use a wipe on the mouth with the other in one harmonious action for every mouthful of food to prevent any spillage or smearing. However, sitting in his high chair in a roomful of well-fed people, Dragon’s first taste of icing and cake went unnoticed by everyone but the table of expat mamas + 1 K-husband he was sitting at. He enjoyed the cake immensely. (Note the outfit…I didn’t want him getting chocolate on his ‘I’m the Birthday Boy’ onesie before the big day!)
The other gift which is given at dol parties is the door prize. In addition to gifting the person who correctly predicts what the baby with choose from among the fortune telling items, there’s usually prizes given to the guest who knows the birth weight or how many teeth the baby currently has. There’s also often a prize for the person who came from furthest away, and although I’m usually from only a few subway stops away, I ALWAYS get this prize because everyone thinks it’s funny to give it to me being the sole foreigner in the crowd on most days. My all time favourite was one of those multi-packs of tissue boxes which was both bewildering and annoying to carry home on the subway. I’ve also received a mini cutting board, a couple of tea towels in addition to the take home tea towels, a single box of tissues, and some tasteless tea.
But then Mr. Lee came up with the idea of asking my mum to bring some treats from Canada. She brought 6 mugs that said ‘Canada’ on them and featured a moose, and then we filled them with flavoured hot chocolate, Laura Secord chocolate, shortbread (the Scottish side of me), maple syrup produced down the road from my childhood home by a family I’ve known my entire life, and…it may seem strange, but a ladybug chocolate which comes from a store in my hometown and reminds me of home.
I hope they were enjoyed by those who won them. If not, they can always re-gift them to me!!!
And finally, although most people give cash presents for a dol, Dragon also received three miniature gold rings which are the traditional presents. These rings are so impractical but eternally adorable. It’s something I’ll really treasure when he is an adult, and I’m able to look back and see the tiny rings that once fit on his fingers up against his grown up hands.
And then there was this ring we got today. Pororo does 1st birthday gold ring. Love Love Love.