Sometimes we have no idea what we’re getting into. Sometimes we cannot even imagine it. Such was the case when I received an invitation to one of my student’s Sweet Sixteen party. The invite showed that the event took place in the summer (after school had ended), at an Indian restaurant and was for friends and family to help her celebrate her day. She and I had developed a strong rapport during the year, and I was very touched to have been thought of and decided to take my good-sport husband and go.
Here’s the catch: I’m a white person and wildly enough, think like one, too. I decided in all of my whiteness to wear a nice top with embroidery and a few sequined embellishments, white capris, and black flats. My husband sported the ubiquitous blue and white plaid shirt and Dockers. Appropriate summer party attire, I thought. Looking like we could don the cover of Sunset magazine, we drove off in our Corolla and arrived on time. We got out of the car and I straightened up the gift bag, fixing the creases of the tissue paper and placing her card at a jaunty angle. We walked into the restaurant and straight into what looked like to a wedding reception in Mumbai.
Many pairs of eyes looked at us as if we wandered into the wrong restaurant (“Hey, this isn’t Applebee’s!”), and I wished that I could have agreed with them and slunk out. I imagined that they would have reserved a large table for all of the guests; however, they booked the entire restaurant. Round tables set for nine were dressed in heavy ivory linens and graced lovely centerpieces; the chairs were covered and fitted with bows; there was a full bar. The women were beautiful and elegant with their sweeping up-dos, perfectly made up faces, and their pearly pink, teal, and shining blue saris. I felt the drabness of my Gap capris acutely. My husband looked like an office boy next to men in shiny three-piece suits. We paled in comparison to everyone else. I clutched the gift that was a mere token for the tower of gleaming gift wrap and sparkling bows, nary a shred of tissue in sight.
My student’s parents greeted us graciously and offered us drinks from the bar. Noticing other students I knew there, I sipped from a glass of water. We seated ourselves at one of the tables and hoped we would camouflage into the the linens and white wall. Everyone else shot glances our way and politely smiled when our eyes met. Their quizzical looks let me know they wondered why we were there– didn’t we know it was a private party? I felt like a foreign substance on a petri dish under the microscope. Her father consistently scanned the guests to make sure everyone had food and drink; he lasered in on my water. He rushed up to me, “Please, have some chai!”. Not wanting to admit what a really horrible guest I was– one who doesn’t like chai– I drank the chai. Three cups.
We sat there for over an hour as I plastered a smile on my face and tried to act as if I did this everyday; my husband was stoked that they provided alcohol and nursed his beer. The birthday girl had not shown up yet as I wondered where this night was going and how long it was going to last. Suddenly there was a commotion outside, the music started and in she came dangling on the arm of a handsome young man (a cousin, I later learned). Everyone stood and cheered as she and her family made way to the head table. The cheering died down and the speeches began. The speeches were followed by various cousins performing ceremonial dances, including a Tahitian dance. Everyone made jokes and references that I didn’t get, but I smiled anyway.
Finally the photographer announced that anyone who’d like to get their picture taken with the birthday girl to get in line now. I elbowed my way in near the front. When it was my turn, she let out a shriek and gave me a hug. Over the music I could hear everyone else go, “Ohhhhhhh!” (As in “Ohhhhhhh… they’re supposed to be here!”) We had our picture taken and as I walked back to my seat everyone else smiled and nodded at me. A few minutes later another family joined us at our table. Their daughter explained the different foods we were eating as I spilled curry on to my white capris. The night ended well and we had a good time.
I learned that night about how families and different cultures express their love and appreciation for each other. When I was invited over to have lunch with another student’s family, I knew to find out as much as I could about what to expect, what to wear and how to act; the only thing I should know, that student told me, was they take their shoes off inside. I painted my toes. My picture with the birthday girl hangs in my personal cupboard in my classroom, and I still have my capris with curry, a reminder of the night I became a little less white and a lot more cultured.