Dancing and cake and grandmothers

I spent the afternoon at an Afghani birthday party. It was my ESOL student’s daughter’s 18th birthday, and at our last lesson she’d invited me to come. I had no idea what to expect, except that the conversation would all be in Farsi so I wouldn’t have a clue what was going on all afternoon, but I’m always up for a new experience, so after a quick meetup with Rars at lunchtime I dashed home, got changed into something a bit more party-like, and headed off up the street to my student’s house.

When I arrived, the party was in full swing. The first thing of note was that there were only women present (apart from a couple of pre-school boys). I had actually expected that, because my student had told me before that a birthday party for a girl is only for women, and a birthday party for a boy is only for men (and at other parties there’ll be separate rooms for the men and women, with no mixing except when the women bring the food in to the men’s room), but it was still kind of weird at first walking into a room full (seriously full – I counted about 30 women, plus assorted small children running around, all in an ordinary sized lounge) of women of all ages having an obviously great time without any men present (and, obviously, with no alcohol involved either).

The next thing of note was that I was seriously under-dressed. All the women, even down to the tiniest girls, were dressed up in their finest dresses, shalwar kameezes and saris, of beautiful colours and covered in sequins and embroidery.

The room had been stripped of furniture, but large flat cushions were lined round the walls to sit on. And I discovered I’m a lot less flexible than the average Afghani grandmother – they happily sat there cross-legged for hours, while my knees and ankles were aching after about 10 minutes.

I was right about the language – everyone was speaking Farsi, leaving me to sit there incomprehending. I didn’t feel left out though – occasionally someone would get brave enough to try out a sentence or two of English on me, or one of the teenage girls (who are all reasonably fluent in English, but naturally enough choose to chat together in their first language (except, I noticed, when they’re gossiping, when they’d switch to English, presumably so their elders couldn’t understand :-))) would sum up a long burst of conversation for me with a brief sentence “they are talking about the tsunami”. And when lunch was served (yes, my second lunch of the day), platters of rice, lamb, chicken and bread laid out on large plastic sheets laid down over the carpet, everyone around me was most solicitous that I eat… and eat, and eat, and eat…

The meal actually reminded me of eating on a marae. About half the party headed for the kitchen to help out, and there was that same sense of an efficient system worked out over many occasions of feeding large groups. These women represent almost all the Afghans in Christchurch, and every time there’s any sort of social occasion in the community they’ll all be there. So they’re used to working together like this frequently. The plastic tablecloths were laid down, and while one team of helpers were bringing out the food, others were distributing plates, cutlery and cans of soft drink. And after the meal (which concluded with a prayer led by one of the grandmothers) there was an equally efficient clearing up, leaving the floor clear for the dancing to continue.

The dancing is when you see the point of the whole gender divide thing. A group of women dancing for their own enjoyment is something very different than a mixed dance where there’s always a sense that everyone’s performing for the opposite sex. Though the women were performing, for only one or two would get up and dance at a time, with everyone else watching and clapping along, it didn’t feel like a performance – there was none of that self-conciousness, just an enjoyment of the dance and the music. Even the shyest girls, who had to be coaxed to their feet, once they started dancing seemed to lose their shyness and dance with the same enthusiasm as their bolder friends.

I even had a go at dancing! I’d just been enjoying watching and clapping along, but then one of the grandmothers decided it was my turn to get up and dance. When I said I didn’t know how, she got one of the teenagers to teach me – a hilarious process, which started off with her doing pretty simple steps and me clumsily following along, with much laughter from all round, especially as the girl started introducing ever more complicated movements, which I got ever worse at reproducing. Everyone was killing themselves laughing, but in an affectionate way, and when I eventually collapsed back to my cushion I got an enthusiastic round of applause (and even better, one of the oldest grandmothers lent over with a huge smile, offered me her hand and said “thank you”. I’ve met her before and know she only knows a couple of words of English and is very nervous of attempting even them, so that was a huge honour.

A few other random observations:

While the adults and teenagers all spoke Farsi together, the primary school age children spoke English as they played together (though returned to Farsi when speaking to the adults) – and they already have noticeably kiwi accents.

The very smallest children were shown an incredible amount of indulgence (especially the boys), allowed to run around and climb over the adults, with only an occasional “tsk” from a grandmother when they got too out of hand. The only small child I saw being told off was a little boy who knocked over his drink, and all he got was a few words from the grandmothers. But I noticed the oldest of the preschool girls was already being taught to sit quietly, and being dissuaded from running around with the other littlies.

After I’d been there about an hour, I noticed I was getting a lot of attention from one corner of the room. The woman sitting next to me, who had a little better English, told me they were all wondering who I was. I introduced myself as N’s teacher, and then we had an impromptu English lesson, as each woman round the room introduced herself with her well-learnt English class phrases “My name is …. I come from Afghanistan”, with those too shy or unable to use that much English being introduced by their neighbours. Then there were the usual questions for me: “Are you married?” (I said yes – it’s easier than trying to explain the concept of a de facto relationship) “How many children do you have?” When I said none, there was a gasp of dismay around the room, and the woman sitting beside me consoled me that insallah, I would have a child soon. I just thanked her – again, explaining the choice not to have children to these very traditional women would be just too complicated.

When all else fails with communication, smile at the antics of the children. One of the grandmothers and I totally hit it off despite her not knowing a word of English. Every time her grandson did something I’d share a smile with her, and by the end of the afternoon she was making sure I had the most comfortable spot on the cushion and pressing extra cake on me.

The cutting of the birthday cake was interesting. The birthday girl had left the room during lunch, and once everything was cleared away a low table was brought in and covered with a red and gold cloth. Then everyone’s presents were piled up around it. The birthday girl came back into the room, having changed into another spectacular outfit, and sat in front of the table. A HUGE cake was brought in, and she lit the candles herself then blew them out, after which an attempt was made at singing “Happy Birthday” in English (not very successfully, with half the women not knowing the words or the tune, and two different factions developing as to speed – everyone had a go though!). Then everyone crowded round to see her cut the cake. I couldn’t see what was going on, but suddenly my student dragged me up and sat me next to her daughter. I thought she just wanted a photo, but her daughter cut me a little piece of cake and fed it to me. There was an expectant pause then, but as I hadn’t been able to see what had been going on, I didn’t know what to do, so I got up to let the next friend get her piece of cake. Then I discovered that I was supposed to feed the birthday girl a piece of cake in return. Oh well, nobody seemed offended by the fact I’d got it wrong – just as with the dancing, they were just pleased I was taking part.

I’d originally thought I’d just show up for long enough to be polite and then slip away, but I actually had such a good time that I ended up staying for the whole afternoon. One of the best parties I’ve ever been to, and definitely the most fun I’ve ever had with a group of people I don’t share a language with. A great experience!

Creativity Corner

Yeah, I know it’s been nearly a month since I posted anything, but life is back to its usual whirl of busyness, and sitting down at a computer to do anything other than work hasn’t got high enough up the list of priorities.

So, some pretty pictures of crafty things to make up for it:

First crafty thing: Scrapbooking/cardmaking.

Yeah, I know I’ve always said I was resisting this hobby, having way too many crafts to spend my money and time on already, but when we were down in Alexandra Mum let me loose on her craft room for an afternoon, and I got inspired by all the pretty colours to make a couple of cards:


(I sent this one to Mother-out-law as a birthday card)


(glue control is something I obviously still need to learn…)

I’m still not going to get into scrapbooking though. Really truly I’m not! 😉

Second crafty thing: Lace

I decided not to carry on with the lace class this year. Not only has the price of the class gone up, but I was just missing too many classes, and when I was actually free on a Thursday evening to go to the class, I kind of resented having to give up my evening. So instead I bought a couple of lace books, and have decided to see how far I can get by teaching myself from the books. I’m reasonably confident I’ll be able to, because I learnt enough from the classes that the instructions in the books pretty much make sense.

I’ve also decided to go back to torchon lace, because I was enjoying that much more than the Bedfordshire lace I was working on last term. But I had one last go at Bedfordshire, which I was quite pleased with:


(sorry about the rubbish focus!)

It’s a tiny piece, only about 7 cm across, so I’ve got no idea what I’m going to do with it. Anyone want a really really small hankie?

Third crafty thing: cross-stitch

Progress on the sewing machine picture is racing along. And this one I do have a plan in mind for when it’s finished.

Fourth crafty thing: banners and blankets and things

Ok, this all started late last year when I was at the union’s national conference. Some of the other branches had displays of banners and things up, and my branch’s collective eye was caught by one branch’s banner, which was a wonderfully creative piece of patchwork, appliqué and embroidery. In a moment of madness, I volunteered to try and create something similar for our branch. After some brainstorming over drinks that night, we’d come up with two possible slogans to go on the banner, so I said I’d pick one and see what I could create from it.

Of course, in the end I couldn’t decide, so being me decided to just go for it and make both :-) It took two long weekends of sewing (with the assistance of Jenny for part of it), but I was pretty pleased with the result (ignore the messy garden please – just concentrate on the pretty banners):

When I took them in to the branch office, everyone was suitably impressed, and they’ve already been used for quite a few union events.

But then, as an unexpected side-effect, someone asked me if I could make something in the same style but smaller as a blanket for her baby grandson. She even offered to pay me to do so!

So I created a Henry blanket:

Unlike the banners, which are just made of calico, Henry’s blanket has a nice soft flannelette backing on it. And it’s much smaller, of course – just lap-blanket sized.

Henry’s grandma loved it (and reported back later that Henry loved it too), and word got round to a few more people, so I was asked to make two more blankets. This time for babies that haven’t arrived yet, so with no names confirmed I got creative instead:

The elephants (yes, that is the same template I used for the soft toy elephants I made for TheLetterB and Tam) have flapping ears and tails, and the icing of the cupcakes is made from thick fur. Plus the patchwork borders on all three blankets have all sorts of interesting textures like velvet, silk and corduroy, so there’s lots for little fingers to explore. (Of course, the downside is I have no idea how they’ll stand up to washing, but hopefully the calico backing will stand up to whatever shrinking or warping the other fabrics want to do).

At this rate, I’m going to have to start a blanket-making business!

And the real news

This bit’s friends only, because it contains a bit too much identifying information.

One of the reasons I’ve been too busy to post anything lately is that all my good intentions of not taking on anything extra this year, and of just having a quiet life and looking after myself, kind of collapsed when I got taken out for lunch last week.

It started innocently enough. Helen (who’s reasonably senior in the union, holding a national position) rang me up and suggested we have lunch. That’s normal enough – we’ve worked together on the local branch for years and are good enough friends that a spontaneous invitation for lunch or coffee is a reasonably common occurrence. But when I got to her office, she mentioned that Megan (the branch president) would be joining us too. Again, not *too* unusual, as Megan used to be in my department, so we’ve known each other for years and again we’re friends enough that getting together for lunch isn’t unusual. And of course Megan and Helen work closely together in the union, so have developed a friendship too. But both are very busy women, so them both just coincidentally being free for lunch on the same day did get my antenna up a little.

When we got to the cafe and Megan announced the union would be paying for lunch, the tinkle of alarm bells turned into a clamour. I’d seen this “tag-teaming” tactic before. In fact, that was how Megan got talked into running for branch president, when Helen, Gaby and I tag-teamed her over coffee. And I wasn’t just getting coffee shouted for me, I was getting lunch!

Anyway, to cut a long story short (they of course knew that I knew that they were going to ask me for something, but they cruelly dragged it out for half of lunch!), what they wanted to talk to me about was to actually a fantastic opportunity. Because there’s a huge restructuring going on at the moment (thankfully not affecting my department), and because the union has taken the university to court so many times over its failure to properly consult with staff (the obligation to do so is written into our collective agreement), the university is doing this restructuring by the book, to the extent that the union has been offered release time to free key union personnel from their normal jobs to talk to affected members and prepare submissions on the changes. Helen and Megan had been given two days a week to do this union work, but Helen is about to go on maternity leave, so they needed someone to take up her two days a week. And they thought of me!

So from now until about June when the restructuring will be completel, I’ll be spending three days a week in my department doing my normal job, and the other two days in the union offices writing submissions and having meetings with the senior management of the university! It’s very exciting (and a bit scary – what if I’m not as good at this stuff as they think I am?), and who knows what getting my name known in the corridors of power might lead to?

Oh yeah, and I got a new title to go with the job, too. Because when you’re talking to important people, having a title that pretends you’re an important person too kind of helps (it shouldn’t, of course, but it does). So I’m now the Branch Vice President.

But you can just call me VP :-)