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