I'll be honest, I did not have particularly high hopes for today. While most people probably look forward to their birthday with eager anticipation, the best I can muster is a grudging acceptance that I'm another year older and less able to hide the fact that I need to become a responsible member of society. But even that level of feigned cheer is sometimes hard to muster when I'm at home surrounded by family and presents. Imagine my concern about the prospects for a cheerful celebration of my birth when I'm ten thousand miles away from home and nary a present in sight!*
However, today started off quite well! First I received a skype call from my parents and then from Aunt Arlene, which basically included the whole Bossio clan! After filling them in on what life in Central Asia was like and getting myself a little behind the time--no harm done--(Punctuality is not a virtue here, but don't worry Dad, I don't intend to go 'that' native). As I walked into to work that day, Victor and Murat were waiting for me, but both wore great big smiles and as I came into the room they lit a candle (come to think of it, it was more of a firework!) which was on a cake and sang happy birthday. Then my coworkers gave me a small wrapped box as a present, which I happily discovered contained a pipe, a set of shot glasses and a flask decorated with a horse (in true Kazakh style).
Already my expectations for an dismal and depressing birthday had proven unfounded and so I felt pretty content that my birthday was already shaping up to be a good day. However, I soon learned that this was just the beginning of probably the most interesting birthday surprise. Normally the three of us lads have lunch together, but that day Victor and Murat were both busy doing translations and by about 1:30, I had enough of being patient and courteous and decided I needed to eat!
I headed down to the faculty cafeteria to find is empty except for the three cafeteria ladies and few pickings left for lunch. I settled on some cutlet with potatoes and didn't get my usual tea cake because the guys and I were going to have that cake later. However, as I sat down, one of the lunch ladies came by and gave me a piece of cake anyway--explaining, "For happy birthday." Shocked, I mumbled a "Cpaciba." How had they known it was my birthday? Had Victor and Murat told them? I didn't know, but I sure felt good about how my birthday was turning out. After finishing my cake, Murat finally came to get himself lunch--poor Victor was still stuck working, so I asked Murat, whether they had known it was my birthday or why they had given me the cake?
Murat asked the ladies--and it turned out, that the youngest of the workers had just turned 20 that day, so they gave me some cake. When I explained that I was also celebrating my birthday that day--they congratulated me: "С Днем Рождения!" and handed me a chocolate bar. I decided that I owed them some kindness, so I went back to my dorm room (in my fancy dress shoes, which was a bad idea--no traction at all!) and returned with one of the bookmarks that I had brought from Kansas and the Liberty Memorial. "С Днем Рождения!" I said, handing the bookmark to the birthday girl (I had spent a good portion of the walk back practicing the phrase so I wouldn't screw it up too badly, and it appeared as though it had been fairly well received. The lunch ladies put on some music from the Caucuses and invited Murat and I to stay and dance, but since we had already eaten, we decided that work beckoned and we politely excused ourselves.
About an hour later (maybe 3:30 PM) I decided that I could use so more tea, so I went back to get some hot water from our mess hall. When I returned, I found the door locked, but hearing the music still playing, I decided to knock and try my chances at getting some hot water. The door immediately opened and I was invited inside, with one of the older ladies grabbing my tea glass from my hand shot a question at me, which I caught a few words—essentially asking if I wanted sugar or milk with my tea (Neither in my case, but both are popular in Kazakhstan, where tea is probably the most popular drink, period).
While I waited for my tea the other ladies again entreated me with an offer to dance, but this time, it was no longer a choice, as I was pulled out into the middle of the mess hall floor and forced to dance to some rousing Caucasus music. The other lunch lady joined us (as the birthday girl had left when I entered on some errand) until they realized that I was a rubbish dancer and they let me enjoy my tea, while asking me a few questions about myself and when our language barrier became too much of a problem, they told me to go find Murat. Unfortunately Murat couldn’t join us, so I went back to tell them.
When I returned, the youngest lunch lady had also arrived from her errand. I soon found out what it was—as the older ladies shot me another question, “Brandy?” I thought to myself for a moment and rationalized that, a little bit couldn’t hurt and it was my birthday, so I held up a finger and said “Nimnoga” or “a little.” I also put my finger up to my lips and said, “Shsssh, ponimayu?” or “Quiet, understand?” Because I figure, drinking on the job was probably not the best way to endear myself to the higher ups at EKSU.
So we went back into the small kitchen room and the ladies brought out a few glasses, a bottle of vodka (I guess they meant brandy as in “generic alcohol”), and a bottle of Lemonade—which is more like a soft drink than what you are thinking of. The poured the four of us a glass of the vodka and then they poured another cup with lemonade to chase it with. One of the older ladies (I should say probably mid-40s, though I can’t be sure. None of them were “ancient” but definitely middle aged and above) got out a bowl of salat (cucumber and tomatoes in mayonnaise) and we toasted to a happy birthday and drank.
Immediately they filled up the glasses again and gave another toast, to my parents’ health (miming physical exercise and well-being!) and we drank again—hey, it’d be rude to refuse to drink on a toast to my family! After this, we all took a chaser of the lemonade (not really that good, in my mind, but it isn’t vodka, so that’s good!). Then one of the lunch ladies shoved the bowl of salat to me, so I could continue to chase the vodka away. Personally, I would have been happy enough with just the salat instead of the lemonade.
We continued to try to communicate, with a student being dragged into the kitchen to try and translate some of the more complicated phrases. They wanted to know if I was married or if I had any children, mildly offended, I reported that I was neither married nor a father, adding that I was only twenty-four. Which seemed a surprise to them (later on one of my students in the class that evening would tell me they had assumed I was thirty-one), I’m chalking this up to the mature figure that I cut and not to my looks.
After this revelation, one of the older ladies asked if I had a girlfriend—much to the bemusement of the other older lady—the youngest one was generally silent throughout the whole afternoon. When I answered no—the question was then “Pochimu?” or ‘Why?’ Preferring a simple answer instead of the more long winded and truthful answer of that I’m a huge geek and generally not considered a ‘ladies man’ or a catch back home, I simply said that I had a gf, but she had gotten tired of waiting for me, so we had broken up. The lady cursed the woman who had abandoned me and they we drank a toast to my future wife and family.
We continued our discussions and finished off the small bottle between the five of us (the three lunch ladies, myself, and the student translator). I had learned a lot, including that one of the ladies had been in the strategic rocket forces and that beauty standards in Kazakhstan are messed up, since I’m considered handsome. Side note: according to Victor, women outnumber men here, so that combined with the fact that they apparently have low standards for male beauty should be enough reason to encourage my single male friends (if there are any left by the time they read this—seriously is everyone getting married or having kids?) to visit me.
Eventually though, by around 4:30, they decided it was time to go—I personally wasn’t feeling too bad, but the lunch ladies definitely didn’t seem used to drinking vodka, as they had already begun to stagger and found it difficult to put things away. So I left and went back to preparing my lessons—I had class at 6:30, so I had a little bit of time to sober up, because I sure as heck wasn’t going to be terribly productive for the rest of the afternoon.
I have to say, the experience of this birthday will live on forever in my mind, just because of how strange and wonderful it was. I don’t think I ever would have expected this much of a celebration this far from home, when I had only a few close friends that I could speak to. But, even if the rest of my twenty-fourth year is a bust, at least I had a great birthday party.
*I want to be clear, my birthday was celebrated before I left and I was given a few Christmas and Birthday Presents before I left (including the Ipad--thank you Haixiao!) as well as quite a bit of money to help me survive over here. The gifts were very generous. But I think there's still something about being able to open an actual present and have some cake on your birthday that would be missed out here.