I went to a birthday party recently. So what?
It was a party with cake, popcorn, and helium balloons? Again, so what?
It was a two year old’s birthday party and there was a playground outside with swings and slides! Hold on, you’re 41. What are you doing at a two year old’s birthday party?
Here’s a little backgrounder:
There are several paths you can take as an expat in China. These include:
- fleeing a messy situation back home and finding refuge in one of the expat bars
- coming for the cultural experience and spending your free time exploring the historic sights
- working as part of a large multinational corporation travelling to far-flung places to liaise / negotiate / battle with partners, suppliers, and clients.
Some Westerners spend very little time interacting with the locals as many daily chores are handled for them. Their kids attend an international school and the whole family exists in a small but pleasant support bubble.
Then there are those of us who planned a short stay in China but ended up marrying a local. Eighteen years later…. our kids go to local schools and our work timetables are decidedly antisocial. We interact more with the locals and less with other expats. It’s not a deliberate act of snobbery.
So, when you’re invited to a Westerner’s birthday party – you accept! It’s hard not to get excited. Especially when you’ve missed her older brother’s birthday and have learned of cake, balloons, liquorice, cookies, barbecued meat, televised rugby, and beer. And also when you know that cultured, well-mannered South Africans will be there – family men with healthy values.
I got the afternoon off to attend.
Yes, but how do you know a two year old anyway? What could you possibly have in common with her?
She often models with my younger daughter. The birthday girl, we’ll call her Miss S, is very busy as is her brother. The blonde haired, blue-eyed pair both model about six days a week, their mother allows them a day off to rest. Both kids seem to enjoy the nature of their modelling work, dressing up and posing for photographers.
My family of four arrived at the venue in the city’s south on a sweltering Saturday afternoon. It was held on the roof of the father’s factory. The company exports all sorts of things (including jukeboxes) to clients worldwide. One of the staff had used her interior decorating skills to design and construct a small room complete with pool table and bar. A jukebox was also set up to play grunge songs from the 1990s. Violently colourful party food was placed on the pool table. At the centre of it all was a large two-layered rainbow / chocolate cake and, in support, a homemade carrot cake. The theme was Trolls – a Dreamworks animated movie popular among youngsters. Attendees had Troll wigs (in this heat?), Troll masks, Troll snacks, and Troll gift bags to take home.
Fathers, beers in hand, chatted to other fathers. The wives conversed on picnic benches shaded by large umbrellas. The children, almost all of them blonde haired ran breathlessly around the roof area, oblivious to the heat. One by one, the men came up to me to shake hands and introduce themselves. They were polite and welcoming. A tall bloke offered to put the rugby on the television for me and then spent half an hour battling the Great Firewall of China to make this happen. He is the company’s I.T. manager – thankfully. He remarked that the Chinese made great staff – “they do as they’re told!”
An older tattooed and shaven headed man introduced himself as Rocky. He drove the barbecue. His two kids were older, 15 and 13, (again) blonde haired and very well-mannered. His wife had experienced a dozen different jobs, including psychologist, social worker, caterer, and HR manager.
Another fellow had played rep rugby back in South Africa and was willing to engage in long and informed discussions about our national teams. He mentioned that a number of his countrymen who were getting out of the Republic and settling in New Zealand and Australia. He thought life in China was preferable to an unsettled life back home.
This would be a routine gathering in my native New Zealand. Nothing to write a blog about. But here’s the thing, we weren’t back home. Opportunities to attend such gatherings (when you’re so far out of the expat loop) are so few and far between. I was an entirely sober observer as there’s a zero tolerance for drink driving in China. My observations weren’t compromised by a belly full of beer and birthday cheer – merely soda or tonic water.
There were only two Chinese there – my wife, and a heavily made up young woman who sat at the bar and looked bored out of her mind.
We sang the birthday song after Miss S (fresh from a nappy / diaper change) had been extracted from beneath the bar stools having performed a wriggly belly crawl the length of the room and she blew out her candles. This was different from a typical Chinese kid’s birthday party (the chaotic nature of which is fascinating to observe).
The barbecue sizzled and laughter filled the outside area. Everyone seemed to know everyone else. As the new guy, I’d been made to feel welcome. There were no awkward cultural barriers, or standoffishness. Our daughters were playing happily with children they’d only just met. No-one was pointing or staring at them. There was no bullying. They fitted right in. They weren’t special, extra-beautiful, or “foreigners”. Just themselves. The adults, unsurprisingly (but very refreshingly all the same), behaved differently from those who frequented the expat bar scene (of which the less said the better).
Not a word of Mandarin was heard. No rice was consumed. I like both immensely but we all need a break sometimes don’t we?
I asked my eight year old for her thoughts on the evening:
“It was great fun, people were nice and the kids all ate with their mouths closed!”
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