One of the perks of being a cultural mentor is the parties. I’ve never before been to a ten-year-olds girl’s birthday party that was essentially a dance party, but Africans know how to celebrate!
As I’ve seen among other cultures, the gift I brought was immediately taken from me and spirited away to a back bedroom. My Bhutanese friends didn’t open gifts at their parties, either. In their culture that would give the appearance of being greedy. Gifts are opened later, privately.
When I arrived, the music was already playing and several people were dancing. The apartment was decorated with balloons, Christmas garland, and a light up Santa—very festive! Relatives and neighbors were there, many of whom I had met before, including many children and babies. The birthday girl’s sisters were there, looking beautiful in new dresses, and their mother was there too, wearing a pretty blue suit. But the birthday girl herself was nowhere to be seen.
I could hear several of the women helping Sandra prepare. Her sister whispered to me, “When you see Sandra, she is SO beautiful!”
Eventually the birthday girl appeared, dressed beautifully, including a birthday crown and an Easter hat, and blindfolded. She was led to a chair and given a jar of flowers to hold. After a minute or so the blindfold was removed. After another few minutes, Sandra was handed a lighter and proceeded to light the candles on her cake. Then she blew them all out, one by one. Next she was given a knife, and she proceeded to cut the cake. I’ve never seen such creative cake cutting before—most pieces were huge triangles or other odd shapes. Unlike at most American parties, the cake cutting did not stop when everyone was served . . . it seemed to be Sandra’s job to cut and serve the entire cake.
After we were all stuffed with enormous pieces of cake, dinner was served. The hostess invited the American guests to serve ourselves first at the buffet, typical in most cultures I’ve experienced. Thankfully, the other guests followed immediately after us, and did not watch us eat alone first.
All this time, the music continued to play and guests continued to dance. Cell phones were busy taking photos and videos. The birthday girl’s mother did not even stop dancing to eat. She ate and danced simultaneously, burning off a few calories as she consumed them.
When I eventually got up to leave, I danced a few songs with Sandra and her mother. I know I was immortalized in several cell phone videos. My African friends love it when I dance with them. I’m really not a good dancer, but I can swing my ample hips to the beat, which is sufficient to bring them joy.
One of the many lessons my refugee friends have taught me is how to celebrate. Celebrate birthdays, celebrate accomplishments, celebrate life. Despite the challenges, life is good, and worth celebrating.