There is seriously something wrong with me. I absolutely cannot have a normal experience, even at a child's birthday party.
About two weeks ago we received an email birthday party invitation for our daughter's friend from school - a Pakistani family that we have gotten to know quite well and that I have helped out a bit with a few issues they were having. See, Paul and I just like to help people. We pull over to help stranded drivers (unless they are holding a machete at night), we give rides to neighbors and if we are ever in a position to help it is most likely that we will, without question or expecting anything in return.
You would think that Karma would have helped us out by now. You would think.
So we were invited to this birthday party, but I called the dad to see if the time of the party was a typo on the invitation - Saturday night from 7pm to 10pm. For a four year old's birthday party. Oh - and there was a list of activities to expect. A bouncy castle. Trampolines. Prayer. A bubble machine, magician and a giant connect-four (Paul and I were the only ones that knew how to play). Nope, not a typo - see you there!
Alright, no worries. We are atheists and our friends are Muslim but we are about as open minded as they come so we weren't fazed. A little that the prayer was prominent enough to warrant half an hour on the party programme but hey - maybe that was a typo.
We arrived fashionably late having wrapped the child's gift with Christmas wrapping and duct tape as despite having bought a pretty cool gift at Toys R Us earlier in the day we never remember that we actually have to wrap presents and always end up scrambling at the last minute wondering if presenting a gift wrapped in kitchen roll is 'cute' or 'weird'.
And we were SEVERELY under-dressed.
Every woman was dressed in an elaborate and colorful sari or traditional dress glittering with diamonds and soft silk. Their eyes were made up like beautiful dancers at a Lady Gaga concert with rainbow eye shadow and stuck on beads. The men were in suits or traditional dress and the children were wearing either traditional dress or flower girl type pouffy dresses.
We had just spend the day swimming with friends at an outdoor pool and had arrived back at home with 15 minutes to get ready before heading to the party. Thank God I thought to put the girls into dresses, though they were casual summer sporty dresses with pink sparkles and sneakers. At least I brushed their hair.
And us? We showed up in cargo shorts, t-shirts and flip flops. I had a bit of makeup on but what did it matter? It was a children's birthday party!
It apparently did matter a bit.
So not only were many eyes on us because we stood out so drastically, we were also the most poorly dressed ones there. Okay, it's just a child's late night birthday party. It can't get more awkward, just go with it.
Everything seemed to be running smoothly, aside from the family's extended family members coming up to us much more often than the other guests to see how we were doing and if we were enjoying ourselves. Uncles, aunts, grandparents, people that didn't speak English and we are really unsure of their relation, cousins, siblings... we were starting to feel as though we were the completely unaware guests of honor at a child's elaborate birthday party.
We were called in to the prayer with everyone else and sat at a long table in the middle of the room with the hosts up on an actual stage.
Surrounded by strangers and me being the only woman in the very full room without a head covering (except for the Vietnamese woman, who tried very hard to blend into the wallpaper at the back) we hushed the girls and took their birthday noisemakers away while the prayer began. The ceremony was entirely in Arabic and we hadn't a clue what was going on. Content to just go with it we sat back, smiled and soaked up the cultural experience, despite catching more than a few women looking our way with curiosity and hushed conversations. The prayer continued, using a microphone and reading from the Koran with the family on stage and most attendees paying rapt attention to the prayer and what might have been singing but probably wasn't. This is fine, everything is fine. We can totally just blend in.
And then we saw another white guy.
He was outside the open door of the hall standing kind of near the bouncy castle and very reluctant to come in. He looked like a typical British guy, also dressed in cargo shorts and a polo top - but he was urgently gesturing to us.
We didn't know this guy. He was mouthing something and making urgent hand gestures, pointing across the field and motioning for us to come with him .What the hell? We looked around and tried to break eye contact with him - we weren't the hosts of this shindig! We are already drawing enough attention I am NOT going to deal with it if the bouncy castle is blowing away or something.
The guy came a bit closer, pleading with us with his eyes and now desperate hand gestures. He wasn't looking at anyone else in the hall, just us - the one white guy outside found the two white guys inside and for some reason was really wanting to talk to us. During the prayer being read out over the microphone and hall sound system. I looked around - all of the hosts and their family were up on the stage. I didn't know anyone else on the floor that was 'in charge' that I could direct this crazy guy to.
I couldn't leave this poor guy hanging - it had to be something urgent. So in the midst of an Arabic prayer in honor of this child's family over the loudspeakers I got up, walked through the center of the room to horrified looks and a wave of tsks and disapproval to have this other white guy practically grab my arm and start running behind the bouncy castle and toward the open field.
"Oh thank goodness you came out - there is a child off in the field and it must be one of yours!"
"One of mine?! Our girls are in there with us! What are you talking about?"
"No, an Asian toddler is out in the field alone! He must be with your group!"
"Wait, what? I'm not hosting this thing, I can go get someone in charge.... "
"The kid is already way over there!"
"Wait, I... I'm just a guest at this party..."
"Wait, I... I'm just a guest at this party..."
And he pointed, off in the distance, at a wandering two year old boy that was indeed probably with our party and not an adult with him in sight. What do you do in that situation? You go for the kid, even though it's not yours.
And then the kid sees you coming. And he books it.
Imagine the scene - Muslim prayer blaring out of the community hall as a lone and out of shape white woman wearing awkward flip flops runs out into an overgrown field after a random Asian two year old. I'm calling for the kid to stop and wait for me but he turns, sees this bizarre bright white and severely under-dressed white blonde woman running after him and he screams and runs away - that little squirt was quick, too. I haven't even run for a train in over a year. I don't run. There is a reason I don't run. Many reasons, actually - but to catch that kid I kicked off my flip flops and booked it, literally chasing a screaming and crying two year old Asian child around a field.
At one point I actually halted myself and thought 'Oh my God, I'm actually chasing someone's toddler.'
I was finally able to grab the screaming child and stopped him, getting down on my knees to his level in front of him and catching my breath. The kid didn't seem to understand much of what I was saying and was now absolutely bawling and terrified so I scooped him up in my most motherly way, smiled and made shuushing noises to calm him down, bouncing him on my hip as we walked back across the field to collect my flip flops and back to the hall.
And then it got worse.
I couldn't very well stand outside with a stranger's crying two year old so I went in, still during the prayer and stood inside the door holding this sniffling kid that was now clutching to me. Everybody looked but the prayer didn't stop. I held the kid on one hip with one hand while pointing to him with my other hand mouthing "Is this yours? Does anyone know who's kid this is???" and NOBODY responded. I started quietly going from table to table along the front asking if anyone knew this kid. It was so, so awkward. So awkward! Until a 10 year old boy waved his arms at me and put his hands out for the boy - his parents were engrossed in the prayer and didn't even notice me walking back into the room with their son - though everyone else certainly did.
I gratefully handed the kid to the... uh... other kid... and slinked back to our table, Paul not even having the words to ask me what the hell had just happened.
These things just... happen. I quietly told Paul about the kid in the field and in turn quietly got up to go explain things to the child's parents lest they think I had tried to kidnap him and had experienced a change of heart.
And the prayer was still going.
So we were now not only being stared at because we were the only caucuasians and woefully under-dressed but now also because I had run out during the prayer and returned with somebody else's crying child. Sure that it wouldn't be possible to draw any more attention to ourselves - and then there was dinner.
We had no idea that there would be dinner at this thing. At 9pm. A buffet was set up with breads and curries and plates of delicious food and then a troupe of people come in single file down the middle of the hall toward me.
Why me? Because I was apparently the only vegetarian of the entire group so grandma made me a special vegetable rice biryani dish and samosas. Of everyone else having to line up to get food I was brought a personal huge bowl of curried rice, a plate of samosas (nobody else got samosas), plates, spoons, napkins and brand new bottles of ketchup and mayonnaise (random). And again, everybody was watching.
This was incredibly sweet and thoughtful of our hosts - though completely unanticipated. The grandma stood and watched as I dug in to show how grateful I was and made 'mmmm' noises as audibly as possible to please her. She finally left and I turned to Paul, eyes brimming with tears. I couldn't feel my lips. My mouth and throat was in actual pain. This was the spiciest thing I had ever eaten in my life. Wasabi coated toast had nothing on this curry. Paul tried it and made me promise not to give any to the children. No amount of ketchup could cool this down.
But not eating it would be rude.
So I sat there, eating this curry and trying my absolute best not to cry or lick the bottom of my paper plate to try to get some feeling in my tongue other than absolute fiery agony. I had to at least make a decent dent in this bowl of hellfire rice or the grandmother would be hurt. It was delicious, no question about it, but I only tasted the first spoonful and then all of my taste buds shriveled up and died.
After another 45 minutes of this I just couldn't take any more. The escapee child's father had come over to our table to explain to us what the English meaning of the prayer was, which was very considerate of him and much appreciated. Then he went up to the microphone and led another, shorter prayer with song like qualities and I am quite sure that I heard a word sounding like 'Canadian' a couple of times with people again turning around to look at us.
It was 10pm. We were exhausted and our kids were exhausted. I couldn't feel my mouth and I was wishing that I had at least painted my nails or something. We were done, we had a great time but we were just done - thanking the hosts profusely and making our exit we emerged somewhat triumphantly out into the parking lot - ready to head home and all just lie down.
It was 10pm and we were the first to leave. And you just know that the moment we left everyone was asking 'who the hell were they?!"
Regardless, the next child's birthday party I'm invited to I am wearing this, just in case.