Thursday, March 3, 2011

A Cambodian Birthday

On Thursday, February 24th, I celebrated my 26th birthday. And because my Cambodian host-family put it together, and organized it, it was my most interesting and unique birthday of all.

I woke up that morning and came downstairs to my family and house-mates hustling and bustling around my house. My host sisters and mother were washing the 60 or so dishes for the party, my host aunt was chopping vegetables and spices for the curry, and Chin, one of our student boarders, was slaughtering his third duck. Now, if I had had the choice, I would not have had a birthday party at all. It was my host father who had come up to me about two months before and asked if he could make a party for me. To me, it seemed like a nice gesture, and so I said yes. I did not take into account that my host father has political ambitions nor that I know way too many people to feasibly ask them all to a party. But, somewhere along the way we ended up inviting over 60 people – and SURPRISE – about that many came.

At first it was a bit nerve racking. We had all told our party guests to arrive at 5 pm. But there I was at 5:30pm, in my party dress, staring at 50 + empty seats. Cambodians are notorious for coming late to things and so I didn’t really start worrying until 6pm when no one else had arrived. But, lo and behold, at 6:15pm, two students from my club arrived. I quickly sat them down and thanked them for coming. They, in turn, gave me birthday presents.

Birthday presents. Now, this was not something I had even really considered. And when they handed them to me I had no idea what to do with them; should I open them right then? What is the protocol for this? Where is a Cambodian Miss Manners when you need her?? Luckily, my host mother is very adept to my waves of panic and quickly guided me and the two presents to a card table with a beautiful red tapestry on it. This was going to be my present table for the night, it seemed.

After that, people kept coming. People I knew, people I didn’t know, people whom I had met before but couldn’t remember their names, and lots and lots of little neighborhood kids. And each one of them gave me presents. The card table quickly became filled and also became THE PLACE to get your picture taken with Kellee. I’ll post those pictures, here on my blog, so you can appreciate the present pile and mastery of my Cambodian family and friends to look so sad at such a joyous celebration. My favorite picture is the one of my host siblings and me. I have this giant smile on my face and they all look like they are about to cry. They REALLY were happy at the party, I swear.

There was lots of eating (four whole ducks went into that curry!) and lots of drinking. Sometime around 8:30 I lit the candles to my birthday cake and brought them out to the party. This was probably the most awkward part of the night. See, Cambodians don’t really celebrate birthdays and even when they do they rarely if ever have cakes with candles on them. I brought out the cake and then my host family and friends proceeded to stand in a semi-circle around me and light sparklers. We didn’t sing. And when it came to blowing out the candles my host parents decided to help me. Everyone then continued to stand in a semi-circle, in silence, smiling and waving sparklers until they went out. Then it was time to pass out the cake.

Now, when my host father approached me two months earlier he said he would take care of all the food, drinks, electricity, tables, chairs, etc. as long as I would take care of the cake. I thought, “No problem!” There, of course, was a problem. The problem was two fold. One, because I make $5 a day and cakes are expensive and two, there are no places that sell delicious (edible) cakes in my district. Luckily for me, I have some other foreigner friends in the provincial town who were able to steer me to a French restaurant in Phnom Penh that not only made delicious cakes but cakes that could travel and withstand the Cambodian heat for a week without refrigeration. And so I bought my birthday cakes, four of them, for $5 each. They were delicious, yet small, and when I cut them up for the 60+ people at the party each person had about a Costco-sample-sized piece of my cake. Somehow I was able to cut the things into 60 pieces. Even then, though, some people were not able to get a piece. I blame some of my male students, who by this time had partaken of the free beer and were a bit drunk.

After the cake was dance party time!! My host siblings rotated being the deejay and we had a good mix of traditional Cambodian music and even some newer stuff for the younger crowd. Sometime a little after 10, the crowd started dissipating and I was quickly pushed into the living room to open presents.

When I got into the room all my siblings were sitting around the presents and/or holding one. They were obviously very excited about all the colorful boxes and so I let them “help me” open them. This quickly got out of hand. Paper was flying everywhere – people were mentioned of whom I did not recognize – and soon I was holding a large plastic sailboat lamp/clock, a ceramic doll with pink hair, a stuffed animal of some sort and wearing a khroma on my head all the while having absolutely NO IDEA who or where those things came from*. My favorite presents were the most practical ones (and these I received usually two or more of) such as towels, soap, and toothbrushes. My favorite gift was a tube of Crest toothpaste which is not sold, as far as I can tell, anywhere in Cambodia.

I finally found myself in bed around 11, exhausted and still reeling from all the excitement of the last few hours. With a mixture of pleasure and sadness my Cambodian birthday was over and now, in a little over 4 months, my Cambodian adventure will be over too.

*Note to whomever is living or will live in Cambodia and may be in this situation – have someone more sober/awake than you take note of who has given you what present. This will come in handy when you run into someone at the market and they mention the present to you and you can quickly respond with a thank you instead a curious expression and a somewhat-rude-question of “what are you talking about?”

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