Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Birthday Etiquette

I had booked a birthday package for Marc at the Petronas science museum located in the Twin Towers in KL. He could invite 20 friends, have a private tour of the museum, a fast-food lunch and a science-magic show and a cake at the end. Party bags with a science theme could be packed by the shop staff. It seemed like the perfect party and cost less than just renting the sports-hall we’d had for Marc’s 5th birthday in England. But we had problems with the invitees. I sent a brief invite out before Christmas, with a RSVP before the school closed. No-one replied and I thought the families were simply busy with Christmas preparations. By the time we went back to school in January I was panicking. I had invited all twelve children in Marc’s CP class plus another ten from the condo. I worried that it would be just our family eating twenty portions of fried chicken and ice-cream.

As I sat down to call each parent for a definitive RSVP three days before the party I was terrified. How do you ask someone nicely in French if they are coming or not? I didn't know many of the parents socially and hate telephoning in French anyway. I tried to sound not too desperate for party-friends, but to tell them that I needed to give the museum a party list that was already late. To my surprise the parents were not at all apolgetic that they had forgotten to contact me. They said things like: ‘Sorry, he’s playing football, and we don’t want to miss the practice’, ‘Oh we have too many parties in January, sorry she can’t come’ or ‘Sunday morning, KLCC?…we’ll see how we feel…maybe yes, maybe no.’ I was disappointed and crushed. The condo kids finally confirmed after a few more urgent calls. I finally called the party-organiser to say I could not get exact numbers but he said it was normal in Malaysia not to commit and that they would probably come last-minute. In the end nearly all the kids did turn up and luckily I had pre-packed 20+ party-bags. We had a great time.

In England we make a great effort to invite children in advance (so they can cancel sports and other activities in time), we always RSVP even if it is to say no thanks…and we would never just pop in on the day like that. But this is Malaysia and class parties were nearly every week and very much open-ended. Some parents would select parties for their children or restrict their children from parties in shopping malls or indoor play-areas, saying they could only attend house parties. So my concern about Marc not being popular and parents being rude was more to do with the expat culture than his rating in the class.

A few weeks later at the end of January we had Gabriel’s joint birthday barbecue party by the condo swimming pool. This was a much less stressful event, although more people came than we expected, and wolfed down the barbecue lunch and birthday cake with great speed. There was no need for kids entertainment, they all swam, played and ran around till a storm came at 3pm and sent us all running for shelter.

Nina’s godfather was visiting us on Gabriel’s birthday, which was very special for us. We were deeply grateful that our condo neighbours and new friends stood in as honorary aunts, uncles and cousins. However I couldn’t help feeling a little sad that no other family had been there for Nina’s 4th, Marc’s 7th and Gabriel’s 1st birthday. On all three birthdays we had waited till 4pm to call the grandparents and my sister, opened the cards and gifts sent by post and printed out photos later, but it’s not the same as having family there in person. So when my sister announced that she was pregnant with her first child (due in September) I wondered how we could reconcile faraway expat life with the simple business of sharing a birthday cake with our family members.

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