6/21/05 Kazakh Birthday Party

Hello All!

I will try to organize this email a little better this time, though the heat in the room makes it a bit difficult to think. It has been in the 90s here, which means indoors it is over 100 degrees when we all get together for classes. I thought I knew sweat before, but I was wrong.

Attitude Update: we are still doing great. One person in my language class decided to go home, but pretty much everyone is still feeling happy to be here, if perhaps a bit confused or lost.

Kazakh Birthday Parties: If you do nothing else in your life, I hope you can experience for one day the feeling Jack and I experienced when we attended a Kazakh birthday party on Saturday. The party was for our new cousin. She was 41 days old, which is a lucky day for Kazakhs, and we all got together to bless the baby. By all I mean, the family we live with, as well and all their extended relatives. All in all there were probably about 25-30 people at the party.

We were all packed into one fairly small room at tables all put together. The heat was unbelievable. The table was full of about 5 different types of salads as well as plates of horse and chicken. The salads consisted of cabbage, carrots, sometimes potato, cauliflower, parsley, etc. Each vegetable was separated on the plate and covered with mayonnaise. There were probably 5-6 of each salad on the table and different people would mix the salads and serve those around them. The horse was...horse. Jack thought it tasted like very smoked turkey. I wish I could believe the same. I thought it tasted...wrong.

While we ate, many toasts were given. Many toasts. Keep in mind that we speak very, very little Russian, but our family are Kazakhs. Therefore, they know Russian and speak it with us, but they speak Kazakh with one another, and it sounds nothing like Russian. So we had no idea what was said in any of the toasts, but each one felt extremely warm and loving. The only word I could catch was "America." I can only assume they were saying nice things. Each toast was accompanied with a shot of vodka. When they noticed I was sipping mine they let me switch to wine. Most of the women drank cognac.

About this time I began to hope that it would soon be over. As much as I loved hearing the toasts, the room was all closed, and the heat was getting unbearable. We were given towels to wipe our hands, and everyone started using them to wipe their faces and necks. Then came the sheep’s head.

I had thought the food was done, but instead it was just getting started. They brought in the actual head of a sheep, and placed it in front of the oldest male. Other parts of the sheep were then distributed around the table. As a token of respect, Jack was given the sheep's ear and a rib. I was given a very good piece of meat (luckily neither of us were given the eyeball, which we had been dreading). We ate for a while longer, and participated in many more toasts. Just when I thought it couldn't get any hotter we were released to go outside. It was extremely hot out, but felt very cool after the house.

Next I was shown to the toilet. It was an outhouse. Americans of course know what outhouses are, but let me tell you, American outhouses are very cushy. They are so nice, and clean, and they have a seat. This is not true of Kazakh outhouses. My host mother showed me the proper way to squat. Excellent.

During this break, Jack played cards with the men (who did not interact with the women), while I was allowed to view the baby. She was beautiful. They had dyed her hair green and applied green eye shadow, but I'm not sure why. Jack and I were then asked to participate in a game to bless the baby. We had to put three spoonfuls of water into a dish and say three words (I can't tell you what they were). After all the women (and Jack who was an honorary woman for this part) put their water in the bowl, there were 41 spoonfuls of water and the baby was then bathed in the water we had blessed. We were all then given scarves and led back into the eating room.

On the table there were now great big bowls of fruit and desserts. The men then joined us and everyone was served chai (tea). For about another hour there were many more toasts, and finally they got around to Jack and me and asked us to give toasts. Luckily they allowed us to give our toasts in English. Then they insisted we sing! They kept saying "Michael Jackson" to Jack, but he insisted he didn't know any Michael Jackson, so I sang one of the songs I used to sing in high school (Per La Gloria). I was incredibly nervous and flat, but they all seemed to like it a lot, and all the Kazakhs began singing national songs in their language.

All in all the event took about 5 hours. It was extremely moving and wonderful. We went back to our house and our host mother tried to serve us dinner (more food!) but I just went to my room and reflected on this beautiful culture. It is amazing to participate in an event for 5 hours without understand a single word (other than Michael Jackson) and yet feel like I was a part of everything and each tradition.

The only bad part was that it made me miss all of you that much more since I thought of you during the event and wished you could be there to share it with me.

Much love from afar,
Amy (and Jack)