Saturday, May 29, 2010

Birthdays and What Comes of Them

I had a great 28th birthday. The day before, my teammate made chicken pot pie (one of my favorites) for dinner and presented me with a hilarious birthday candle that opened up and sang, and a beautiful present besides. Then on my actual birthday, my wonderful husband let me sleep in and got up with the boys, made delicious French Toast for breakfast, and helped Will make an adorable card for me that said “Happy Birthday Mom”, and then James gave me his own card with verses in it… Later on I got to talk to my wonderful parents, and had beautiful e-cards from so many wonderful friends… And then, just a few days ago, my other teammate gave me a beautiful picture of orchids that she painted just for me and framed!

However, the most meaningful part of my actual birthday for me was that three different local friends of mine came by throughout the day with presents for me! A set of six crystal bowls for candy & nuts (very useful here), and a set of six pretty drink glasses, and a set of hand towels and chocolates…. But you know, the thing I was really given was friendship, and a place in this town.

So that was Monday (May 3).

Wednesday the 5th was Tahkmina’s birthday, a friend of mine who runs one of the shops in town. A few days before, she invited me to her party and mentioned a couple of other women I know who were going … I hemmed and hawed, but eventually decided it would be good if I went. When we arrived, we were early (at 7:30), and Tahkmina and the other women were still making food and “laying the table” (an art form over here). Tahkmina’s father-in-law is the Big Cahuna for this entire region, and they are rich. Their house looks like something out of Alice In Wonderland… sparkly ceilings, chandeliers, purple bathroom and all.

Eventually the other “guests” started arriving—but lo and behold, it was just her husband’s family, her own family, two other close girlfriends, and me!

So, as the only true “mehman” (guest), I had to give the first toast! I begged and pleaded but there was no help for it… I gave it in English and translated it into local-speak, all about how I had prayed for God to send me another musician friend in our town, and then I met her (she studied piano in college), and because we’re both artists, we became friends right away… And I thanked her for being so sweet to my boys (she always gives Will treats when we come to her shop), and wished her Happy Birthday. After I finished they all clapped enthusiastically, of course, and then her father-in-law gave his, and parents gave theirs, much more canned—“May you live a long time and may God give you every blessing and may you have good health” etc, etc… And that was it for toasts! Just the four of us! Sheesh. Up there with the Big Cahuna. I guess I felt pretty good about the fact that my toast was genuine and not canned (“off the cuff”, shall we say), but of course I spent the next half hour rehearsing what I could’ve said. Oh well. Who does these things, anyway?

The absolute rush for me was being a part of everything… I was amazed at how easy it was to keep up with the language and flow of things, I had a great time chatting with her sisters, and felt so honored to be there with her family and close friends… I’m in the mix now, and it feels so good.

So that was Wednesday.

Friday the 7th was Mikosh’s birthday, my friend down the street whose daughter taught me Russian last summer. So Saturday night we invited their family over for pizza for our joint birthdays. Good thing I made fancy potato salad and cold chicken for appetizers, because the pizza went over like a lead balloon. Oh well. (It was mostly for the benefit of their teenage daughter, anway, who unfortunately wasn’t able to come.) We had a good time chatting with them, though, and Will loved playing with their 12-year-old son (who, incidentally, is studiously attending classes at the local mosque, and only took one cautious bite of pizza until I casually mentioned that the meat on the pizza was all hallal, and then he managed a whole piece).

The following Monday, Mikosh invited me to her own birthday party, which she said was going to be all ladies. I walked down to her house around 7:45 after the boys were in bed, hoping I wasn’t late. I was the first one there. Her other friends gradually arrived after 8, and there were only 9 of us all together. Again, I felt so honored to be included! It was a slightly odd mix of women, older and younger, quite rich and fairly poor, and I wasn’t quite sure how they all fit together. I spent the next two and a half hours making my plate of Russian salad last as long as possible so I wouldn’t be offered any more, groaning at the appearance of a plate of rice and two hamburger patties at 10pm, and straining my ears to understand the swirl of talk at top speed. So much for feeling good about my language prowess. Story after story, all the local gossip, various personalities coming out, even a few hot words exchanged… I would give my right arm to have the full transcript. As it was, I only managed bits here and there, and mostly felt totally and utterly at sea. I did catch the fact that one of the women lost her12-year-old daughter two years ago, and she claimed the floor for the majority of the evening, waxing eloquent in her grief but also using the opportunity to rehash old grievances beginning to end, garnering a mixed reaction of sympathy and exasperation.

By 11pm I was flagging. My concentration was crumbling after 3 hours, I was super sleepy from my overly full stomach combined with no nap—and all of a sudden, everybody’s pulling out money! They all handed $20 (equivalent) to my friend whose birthday it was, and all of a sudden I realized what this was. I had been invited to a chai, a mysterious gathering of Central Asian women that operates something like a club. Each country around here does it differently, and each group is different—some operate like a miniature bank, where everyone donates to the kitty every month and then whenever someone needs a loan they can borrow from the kitty. Others are less formal, and this one seemed pretty low-key—they meet every month for someone’s birthday, and everybody gives the birthday girl $20 for “a nice present.” I had already given the birthday girl “a nice present”, so I didn’t contribute, but I did feel honored to be included in their little club, even if it was just for once.

Or so I thought.

Tonight, the postscript: My friend called me up to ask if I wanted to come to Rizvangul’s birthday party (the gossipy woman who lost her daughter). Hmmm, I thought. The rich foreigner joins the club and suddenly they have an extra $20 in their kitty every month… except this foreigner isn’t rich, is definitely not a night owl, and just can’t stomach another interminable evening of straining to understand what’s going on... Maybe I should’ve said yes, but I really don’t even know this other woman, and to be frank—bed is calling.

Whew. Birthdays in Central Asia. Pretty intense.


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