Birthdays: A Cross-Cultural Intensive

When Robynn sent me this post this week I shook my head in amazement. You see what she didn’t know is that birthdays in the U.S. have been a picture of my cultural disconnect. I had no idea how to do them and by the end of each party felt alienated and insecure. I’ve come a long way but this post brought back many memories. Enjoy!

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Five years ago we celebrated our first round of birthdays since our return to the US after living in India for over a decade.

English: A child's birthday celebration

Children’s birthdays in India are a big deal. The first birthday is an event! When Connor turned one we had half the town on our roof for an evening of eating, drinking chai and celebrating. We served cake and samosas and sweets. The birthday boy went to bed just after the party started but that did little to affect the party! Guests came late and stayed later. It was a great evening.

In a land where traditionally infant mortality rates have been high that first birthday marks an accomplishment: the child didn’t die! He lived. His community kept him alive. And his life should be celebrated! Each subsequent birthday is a little less important but still the parties are significant and impressive. Fatalism is suspended for a day. Life matters and is honoured with a party!

Born on January 5th, Adelaide’s birthday was the first in our round of family birthdays that first year back in the States. We invited several of the girls from her class, her Sunday School friends, grandma and grandpa and her cousins to come. The invitations we sent out were perfunctory and admittedly, in my mind, a little odd. There was a space to put a start time and an end time. It struck me as strange, but I wrote that the party would start at 3:30 and it would end at 4:30. I really meant that people could come anytime between those times.

As the girls were dropped off I warmly invited moms and dads to stay too. They seem perplexed by that and declined my invitation. All except one. Sue stayed with her daughter Claire. In India, birthdays are a community experience. Parents accompany their children to children’s parties. Often whole families come and enjoy the cake, the conversation, the event.

Apparently it’s not like that here.

And the guests really did show up at 3:30! It was astounding. The doorbell started to ring at 3:26 and by 3:34 all the little girls had been dropped off.  We played some silly little girl games, we ate some cake and drank pink Koolaid…but we had barely gotten started when the parents started showing up to retrieve their daughters! They came promptly at 4:30. By 4:37 all the little girls were gone! I couldn’t believe it.

Thankfully Sue had stayed. At 4:20 she suggested, Perhaps Adelaide would like to open her gifts now? Ah the gifts….! In India gifts aren’t opened in front of the guests. There’s bound to be discrepancies in gifts. One gift might be really nice: a Barbie doll in glamorous evening wear, or a board game. Another gift might be simpler or of a lesser value: a package of cookies with an eraser, or some pencils. The giver of the lesser gift would be embarrassed. That would be awkward. And in a culture where the guest is god it’s important to ensure that no guest is shamed in any way. So to protect the guests, and ultimately the party, the gifts are opened later after everyone has gone home. But here, and I know this now thanks to Sue, the gifts are opened with the guests. It’s part of the party. The little girls squeal and enjoy watching Adelaide opening her gifts. They love the gift they’ve chosen and they want to see Adelaide’s joy at receiving it!

When I look back on that first birthday here in the US I’m so embarrassed. It was the shortest birthday party on record. It was rushed and disjointed. Parents waited awkwardly at the door for the girls to be done. Giggling girls were shoved into chaos and coats and pushed out the door way too soon. Plates of uneaten cake and half full glasses of pink abandoned in the cross-cultural wake of a party.

Adelaide was none the wiser. She loved her gifts and her Sleeping Beauty cake. She loved being surrounded by her favourite people, even if just for an hour. Turning nine was magical and full of surprise and joy!

I learned a lot that day. An Awful Lot! Crossing cultures is more than just boarding a plane with your passport tucked into your bag. It’s more than eating new and strange foods. It’s more than hearing new and strange sounds of foreign vowels in your ears.

Crossing cultures is about people and parties, about birth and living, about gifts and exchanges, about little girls and Sleeping Beauty cakes and pink Koolaid.

Adelaide turned nine that day, but I grew older and wiser in significant ways too!

As impossible as it is to believe, tomorrow that nine-year old turns 14. Happy Birthday Adelaide!

11 thoughts on “Birthdays: A Cross-Cultural Intensive

  1. Wow i don’t know where to begin in my comment. I come from an Indian Muslim background as I guess you have gathered. Takalluf (shyness, hesitancy, I don’t know how to explain it) is very big in our culture. When we are offered food or a gift the first response is no. This has deep cultural roots. It comes in fact from Persia.
    The person offering has to really force it upon whoever they are offering it too. I might be really hungry, my stomach may be tied in knots, my mouth might be watering greedily at the sight of the food, but when offered I will say no, we have just eaten. Then the host will be please you have to have try some and it will go on.
    It was the same among the Indian friends I made here in Kuwait, when I came here to join my husband. We lived comfortably in our little world of takalluf till I made friends with Americans. Suddenly everything was very different. There was no room for takalluf here. I learnt to take food when offered, to be open and honest instead of shy and formal.
    One day a friend came over during lunch. It was one of my lazy days. Reluctantly I was cooking some rice for my husband to go with left over curry. My friend’s husband called her and asked if she was going to stay for lunch at my place. She told him she wasn’t sure, as I hadn’t invited her for lunch. Against all the teachings of my culture, against the good manners drilled and ingrained in me since I was a baby, I told her, I was too lazy to cook so she could have the rice but without the meat, as the meat was for my husband. My curries are normally delicious, Thank God, so she was happy with her simple meal. I was happy I could just be me with someone, that I could feed a friend without standing on ceremony. That I could spend a relaxed afternoon with her without spending another hour cooking. I love the lack of formality that my American friends introduced in my life.

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  2. Robynn – I love you! Your story made me smile. Say happy birthday to Adelaide for me today. Hope you all have a great time celebrating – with no stress x

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  3. Growing up in the bush in Papua New Guinea in the 70s-80s meant that most of my friends weren’t certain when exactly their birthdays were, let alone exactly how old they were. So we counted the years by Christmases, and would inquire as to someone’s age by how many Christmases they’d lived.

    Even days of the week were up for grabs. My father tells a story of a man who had a dog who would on Mondays call his dog “Monday”, and on Tuesdays call his dog “Tuesday”, etc. His rationale? Naming is culturally quite a significant thing, and who would waste a name on a dog?!?!?

    So returning to life in the States where Birthdays and age are so very *known* and celebrated was quite a cultural shift.

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    1. Did you celebrate birthdays in your own family? I can’t imagine returning to a culture where age is known, youth is deified and birthdays become a “bash”….and the birthdays of dogs (with names) are even celebrated!

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  4. I love birthdays in the States! I love having my American friends show up on time and my immigrant friends showing up an hour after the party has started. I love trying to come up with a menu that will be acceptable to Muslims and Hindus who expect a meal and American Christians who are just expecting cake. I love throwing adults into a situation where they are sitting next to a person they would normally never talk to because their children have all been invited to the same party. I love going to their parties and learning cultural customs that one would never learn as a tourist but only when one enters into a home. Although I’ve probably confused and possibly offended people with cultural blunders both when I threw parties overseas and when I returned to America, I think a honest desire to show hospitality (to adults and kids), covers over a multitude of mistakes. I’m sure no one remembers how short your birthday party was, but they do remember being in your home.

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    1. I am sincerely happy for you….for me birthdays here in the US have been stressful and scary.
      Tomorrow for Adelaide’s 14th we’ll have donuts for breakfast and we’ll go out for supper…it’s a quieter way to honour her…but she’ll love her new jeans and Taylor Swift cd! And I won’t have the stress of a party!

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  5. oh wow! Does it seem funny to you that no one questioned the length of the party? I’ve realised that one of the unspoken social rules is not to question “strange” behaviour, often without thinking about the context (like factoring a persons cultural background). I’ve realised growing up neither I nor my parents openly questioned why something was done a certain way, and others didn’t question us either. I think we both missed out on learning from each other, and it was a much slower or more painful intergration process.

    Birthdays were an event growing up, but one I think my Mum resented doing (or maybe too much anxiety, I don’t know) – on arriving back in Australia she firmly announced there would be no more parties like the ones we’d grown up with, and there weren’t. Shame really!

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    1. You are so right, Lynette! I wonder why no one asked me at the door if I really meant the party to only be an hour! I’ve never thought of that before. We should ask each other gently the “why” of our “what”….it would increase understanding and empathy and it would give us windows into each other’s stories…. I’m going to start this!
      I’m sorry you stopped having parties…but I do understand your mum’s response. I put a moratorium on parties after the 10th birthday! I just couldn’t handle the stress anymore. I have felt so out of place here. I’ve been uncertain as to the rules now. I should revisit this with our children. I wonder if they grieve it like you do.
      I suppose we should at least have a party for Connor who turns 16…. Hmm. Am I brave enough? hmmm…..!

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  6. Robynn, what a dear and poignant story!! So meaningful on several levels: You relate articulately the cultural disconnects and confusion that many must feel as they consider significant celebrations in an unfamiliar culture. I could imagine other heads nodding across the globe as they read! As you point out, having the support of a kind cultural broker, as Sue was for you, helps immeasurably and inspires me to be more aware of how I could support others that way. And I loved your nonjudgmental awareness of the goodness and joys that can exist in very different approaches to birthdays, and thus other cultural celebrations. And finally, honoring your daughter on another birthday milestone! Beautiful post!

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