Spending my 17th birthday at cherubs

Joan Gwak (right) celebrates her birthday at the Lakefill with Kayla Guo. Photo by Carmen Molina Acosta

During the warm afternoon of July 6, I was relaxing in the common room of the East Fairchild. My friend Jilly walked in with a blue and white striped beach towel. She smiled at me sweetly, then threw the towel over my head, grabbed my hands and dragged me out of the building.

I already knew what my friends were planning for me.

Sarah had accidentally read messages from a Joan-less chat out loud to me earlier the same day. Kayla had asked me the night before what I wanted to eat for dinner.

My friends threw me a surprise birthday picnic on the Lakefill. I marveled at the sight of the blue skyline and the lake sparkling with the light of the warm sun. The breeze swooped in and cooled my skin. The grass was slightly damp but still the perfect surface to sit on.

I looked out at the horizon and stayed still for a moment. You don’t experience this at all at home in Seoul.

I’ll never forget the food from Joy Yee Noodles that my friends and I devoured in less than 10 minutes.

Or Shakira’s voice blasting from my friend’s speakers against our beautifully off-tuned voices.

Or the feeling of true happiness as my friends and I laughed at our silly dance moves.

Or the freedom of escaping lectures and assignments for just two hours.

My 17th birthday was unforgettable because it was the first one I spent away from home in South Korea and with new friends. 

I wasn’t able to meet up with friends I’ve made during high school. I wasn’t able to eat the typical Korean birthday breakfast of seaweed soup and rice. I wasn’t able to hear “happy birthday” from my parents.

But I was able to hear 81 other cherubs sing — or scream — “happy birthday” to me. I was able to exchange smiles and high fives from people I barely knew. I was able to appreciate that Jilly, Sarah and Kayla made big efforts to plan the surprise because they cared for me and wanted to make me feel special. And I was able to spend my birthday with new friends I would keep for life.