Friday, February 26, 2010

My Birthday...Or, Sometimes You're the Pegion, Sometimes You're the Statue- But Always Blessed

I recently began a long and detailed entry about my recent 23ed birthday but then decided to re-nig. It was heading down the path of swan song and the only thing that seemed to be lacking was a violin. So here are the basic events of the day: the good, the bad and the ugly. And then some reflections.
  • Woke up at 8am to go to the library for the fourth day of Tsagan Sar-ing and a Hair Cutting Ceremony. Arrived at the library (in deel) at 8:30 (why, Baby Jesus, why?!) to Russian chocolate and vodka shots. (Note to self: grain alcohol is NEVER an acceptable replacement for a soy chi latte. Ever.)
  • Went to visit a ger with about 15 people from the library. Was served vodka by a 4 year-old girl who was being cheered on by her mother and grandfather. When said child put her head in her hands and started to plead with her parents to stop serving vodka, the entire ger population of approx. 20 started yelling at her. She then picked her young self up and finished serving shots. I took a polite sip of my shot (see: 9am!!) and handed it back to the youngster, she then shook her head and motioned with her little hand, palm upward, that I drink down the glass. Shocked by her gesture and implication, I did so and then heard the girl's mother tell the girl what a good job I had done. Lordy, this day isn't starting well. Also, in the same ger watched a grandfather grab the arm of his 12 year-old grandson way too hard in front of everyone. Then observed how the boy tried to be brave and hold back his tears of pain and shame. Serious thoughts about childhood and culture ensued.
  • Went across the street to the Children's Library where we all ate and drank more. Highlight: a Mongolian friend calling to say Happy Birthday.
  • At about noon, it was time to migrate to the Hair Cutting Ceremony. However, somehow our group, which started out at about 15, dwindled as people wandered off en route. Finally I was left walking arm-in-arm with two strange women, baffled as to where everyone else went. Cest' la Mongolia.
  • After 30 minutes everyone appeared at the appropriate apartment and the Hair Cutting Ceremony began complete with more food and vodka. Each person, starting with the elders, fed the three-year-old girl milk tea, drank some themselves, dipped their finger into the tea, smeared a little tea on the child's head, gave the child 2,000 tugrigs, cut a piece off of her hair and put the clipping into a little bag. The little girl, amazingly well behaved, circulated around the group until she had a haircut that looked like some hipsters I know. She only once tried to make a run for it and didn't cry at all. It was really a nice ceremony despite a man in attendance who groped every breast in range. Everyone was kind to the girl and there was a sort of reverence in the air.
  • After the Hair Cutting Ceremony, I put on my coat thinking I'd head home. I hoped to be back with my friend hours ago. But no- time to visit my counterpart's apartment for more buuz and vodka. However, no sooner had I sat down on the couch and intercepted my 4th potato salad of the day, my phone rang. It was Mona, my best friend in Mongolia; she's my partner in crime and site mate extraordinaire. She was in the capitol letting her lungs recuperate from bronchitis. But it wasn't birthday love she wanted to share, rather the fact that she had been medically separated from Peace Corps. Mona was being sent strait home; do not pass go, do not collect 200$. I wouldn't see her again. She was crying and I immediately dissolved into tears, as well. We were each others rock. I didn't know what I would do without her. We were going to have a mock engagement party in the spring we were so inseparable. We had planned projects and conducted cooking club together. We had laughed and cried together; watched countless episodes of Sex in the City and talked about absolutely everything. After the brief phone call, my counterpart found me in her room, my eyes red with tears. She hugged me and told me that at least Mona wasn't dead. I then excused myself and stumbled off sniffling to my friends apartment for a nap.
  • After I reached my friend's apartment, I managed to blurt out the news before slipping into a snotty, vodka induced slumber as my friend rubbed my back and told me it would be alright. 
  • Upon waking, I realized a couple things. 1. I had a rocking hangover. 2. I needed to go help my site mate Kat and our Peace Corps friend visiting from a nearby town, Laura pack up Mona's apartment.
  • I went to Mona's where all of her things had been put into boxes and bags. Kat, her boyfriend Andy and Laura had almost finished the packing process. We left after the packing was done; I didn't really want to spend too much time lingering in the empty apartment which until recently been a place of such joy.
  • Laura and I then went to the market to pick up some things for my birthday dinner. That night we feasted on curry, spiced chickpeas and a Boston Cream Pie that looked like a Dr. Seuss creation but was tremendously delicious. My birthday dinner was small albeit tasty. I appreciated endlessly Kat, Andy and Laura's efforts at a phenomenal feast; it really was wonderful. But my friend from the nap had been sick for a few days thus couldn't come and two of my other site mates were recovering from morning benders with their co-workers and were too drunk or hungover to bother to come. Without Mona and the rest we had fun but the gaps in attendance made me pretty sad after a strange and tough day. So four Americans and one Mongolian sat around Kat's table and celebrated the beginning of my 23ed year.

I try so hard to be optimistic but realized that sometimes things just don't go your way. Until this last one, my birthdays have always been marked by amazing parties with themes like Flappers and Gangsters and Graffiti (think black lights and lots of sharpie markers). My college apartments were thronged with friends all vibing and pulsing to the music. This year was a stark contrast to the birthdays past, I suppose. I've always been the pigeon, this year I suppose I was just going to have to settle for the statue. I don't need presents or parties necessarily, that's not my point here at all. But just feeling special when you are in such a strange environment, having a day that people notice you and thank you, is what I had been hoping for. I don't want to come off spoiled; I was just hoping for a special day.

However, about a week after my birthday, I got a call from the woman at the Post Office. Forever infernally grumpy, she demanded that I come to retrieve my packages. I arrived to find two packages waiting for me- one from my cousin Linda in San Fransisco and one from my parents. I toted them home and lo and behold there were the kindest things. My parents had collected birthday cards from family members and family friends all wishing me luck and love in my next year. As I opened the cards one by one, I felt a circle of people forming around me. I saw the kind, proud faces of my grandparents, the toothless grins of my little next door neighbors, felt the plump and comfortable arms of family friends. I knew then that most loving birthday in the world had just been delivered in a box. My parents had also sent an amazing assortment of new clothes and luxury food items. Unwrapping the presents slowly, I felt like I was back at home again, sharing a birthday dinner with my parents and sister just like I had for years until I went away to school. Birthdays in which I was made to feel infinitely special. The box from Linda was also spectacular. (I am currently munching on the delightful English Toffee she sent me.) The contents of the package are truly wonderful but what touched me the most was that she had taken the time and energy to lovingly put it together. It was the same with my Aunt and Uncle and my Godmother; I recalled the birthday packages from them I had received earlier. They had put what I would consider substantial effort into a package then sent it out into the world with a prayer that it would reach Hovd. All that just for me; it was baffling. I sat surrounded by wrapping paper and envelopes; I was alone but at the same time not alone with the love and well wishing of my friends and family around me.
Recently I have befriend the local missionarys. We have never talked about religion but they're about my age so we have plenty to chat about when we see each other in passing. They are leaving the country soon due to visa issues and I asked them if they were sad. One girl piped up and said that she just feels blessed to be here for now. That stuck with me, that idea of blessed. I've never been religious and it would even be a stretch to call me spiritual. But I'd been pondering this "blessed" since in popped up in January. And then it came to me, this is what it was to be truly blessed. To have a circle of people care for you this much and support you so unconditionally is to be blessed. I know Mona will be alright and I will graft a life around her absence. The children will grow hair again and come to terms with the events of their youth. I will have more birthdays in years to come. But to have people who care about you this much, people who care enough to tell you how much they love you and how proud they are of you, that is lasting, that is blessed.