On our first visit, my partner and I were invited to P’s 10th birthday, which was going to be held that Sunday. Of course we accepted. Notwithstanding the fact that P got very excited that we would come, I was curious to see what her birthday party would actually be like. I was slightly hesitant to ask too much about the party, for fear of projecting certain American ‘expectations’ of what a birthday party is and potentially confusing her. Would she blow out candles on a cake, for instance? Would she have other playmates there, people around her own age? Would she receive any gifts? These, of course, are part of my own birthday party memories from when I was younger. Even though P and her family have been in the U.S. for over a year, I wondered just how ‘Americanized’ her birthday party would be. Likewise, I had no knowledge of any Bhutanese/Nepali or Hindu traditions that might come into play. Much like our very first to their home, I had no idea what to expect when we arrived on Sunday.
Though I did buy her a Hello Kitty coloring book as a small gift, considering her love of coloring, and my partner bought a colorful Disney princess birthday card, which we both signed. When we gave the gifts to her, P seemed a little shy but happy with the attention, like before. She only had time for a few colored pictures before the party started to get under way – and very quickly Rachel and I found ourselves in a densely packed, energetic, very loud apartment. People just kept coming and coming, relatives, neighbors, other Loyola students from the Refugee Resettlement class, P’s tutor and her tutor’s parents, so many people that I wondered how the space wouldn’t burst!
It was amazing, to say the least, seeing so many people together, Americans and Bhutanese, students, parents, uncles, children, friends, family. Everyone was talking and laughing, taking pictures and sharing pictures, eating Nepali food and birthday cake (she did have one, and it was chocolate and delicious). We all sang a rousing “Happy Birthday” at the same time P’s mom brushed a red rice mixture on her forehead, a traditional practice for birthdays, though its exact meaning I couldn’t exactly figure out. P’s American tutor, whose birthday was close to P’s, was also given this special treatment. Family members and friends each came up to add their own piece of the rice mixture to their foreheads amidst smiles and laughter. Once again, it astounded me how welcomed and included my partner and I were – as well as all the other American friends there. It genuinely felt like we were all being treated as a valuable part of this family, this community, and in some ways I felt like I hadn’t really done anything to deserve such kindness. How many Americans, I couldn’t help but wonder, would be willing to extend their arms and invite someone they had just met a week prior to something as personal as a birthday party in one’s own home? Their hospitality continues to amaze and humble me.