The Recipe for a Perfect Birthday

For This Recipe, You Will Need:IMG_0527

  • Three Classrooms Full of Indonesian Students
  • One Badminton Court
  • An Endless Supply of Tissues
  • Access to Very Spotty, But Still Sort-of Functional Internet
  • A Handful of Indonesian Teachers
  • Two Cakes
  • A Beat-Up Nokia Hand Phone that Doesn’t Do Much But Can Still Receive Text Messages, Sometimes
  • Friends and Family Scattered Across the Globe


1. Roll over in bed and glare at your mobile phone alarm that always goes off way too early (seriously, who ever thought it was okay for school to start before seven?). Fumble with the buttons trying to stop the scary British woman you wake up to every morning (“It’s time to get up.  The time is 5:30.”  Because that’s exactly what you need to hear upon first opening your eyes.), and discover that you already have several sms2 (text messages) from Indonesian friends who, unlike your lazy bum, woke up around 4:30 for Fajr, morning prayer.  They’ll probably look something like this one:

Happy Birthday!  Selamat Ulang Tahun!  Otanjoubi Omedatto!  Saengil Cukhae!  Please enter Spanish here…………… LOL!  Selamat ulang tahun yang ke-23 Grace!  Semoga hidupmu bermaka! 🙂   P.S. Is this the first congrats message for you in the world since it is not May 8th yet in the U.S.?

 Or maybe this one:

Good Morning Grace!  Hopefully this morning you open your eyes with joy and happinnes.  Look over the blue horizon, birds are singing happy birthday song for you.  Happy Birthday Grace, long live and prosper. 

(Seriously, friends back home are going to need to up their game for birthday texts from here on out.)

2. Drag your now-cheerful-but-still-exhausted butt out of bed, slurp down a delicious cup of instant coffee (but actually… why doesn’t instant coffee taste like this at home?), throw on a cute batik dress (which, due to the miracle of living in Indonesia, you get to do on a regular basis, and not just on your birthday), attempt (and fail) to control your hair, and hop on your motorbike and embark upon the daily adventure that is surviving Indonesian morning traffic. When young whippersnappers try to cut you off, tell them in no uncertain terms that it is your birthday and you are not going to tolerate their nonsense today (say none of this out loud, and let them pass you; it’s really not worth the fuss, and you’ll still get to school on time).

3. Arrive at your desk in the ruang guru (teacher’s room), to a chorus of “Happy Birthday!” even from those teachers who can’t speak English. End up late to class because they insist you need to open you gift of a new batik skirt sekarang, while they can all ooooh and clap with the particular brand of enthusiasm that is unique to Indonesian Ibu2.  Smile too broadly, and thank everyone in an incomprehensible campuran of languages, because communication becomes impossible in the presence of so much joy.

4. Scurry to class, only to have your entire class break into song. (As a side note, the Indonesian Happy Birthday song is much faster and more upbeat than its American, and I really think we should seriously consider adopting it.)  Eventually get class started, because learning cannot be stopped, even in the face of blackouts, floods, and even birthdays.

IMG_05105. Go back to the rumah guru for the break, to find a giant cake sitting on your desk. Cut a slice for each teacher (and pose for a foto with each as well), and find yourself late for class again, because you are not allowed to return until you have eaten your own slice as well.  (I’m not going to pretend that this sort of prioritization doesn’t sometimes irritate me, but, hey, it shows they care, and in the end that’s what’s important.)

6. Rush to your next class, to be serenaded again. Intersperse your lesson with the answer to all of your students’ many questions about birthdays in America.  Fight off a few marriage proposals from your more naukal boys while you’re at it.  It might be your birthday, but its business as usual in your tenth grade classes.

7. Treat your favorite teachers to nasi padang. (In Indonesia, the person whose birthday it is does the treating, not the other way around, as it is in America.  Since my teachers have been paying for my noontime meals since I got here, despite my protests, I thoroughly enjoyed being able to treat them, for once.)  Share the sort of inside jokes you can only have after living somewhere for eight months, snort hot sweet tea out of your nose as a consequence, and further tire your facial muscles by smiling too much.

8. Go to your last class, for another round of the birthday song. Reaffirm why your students are the absolute best part if being here.

9. Before leaving school for the day, log on to your various e-mails and social media accounts, and read through all the long messages your friends and family from back home have sent you, complete with an excess of emoticons in some cases and heart-wrenching lines of “badly written” poetry in others. Try not to cry at your desk.

10. Go to badminton, as you always do on Fridays. Discover that the guys who usually bring rackets for everyone are not going to be able to make it, and so badminton is actually not happening that week.  Play peek-a-boo with some of the neighborhood kids who live near the gym, try to teach some of your Indonesian friends how to cartwheel, and decided that badminton, usually your favorite part of your week, wasn’t really need to make this day any better.

11. Go to supper at one of your favorite restaurant with your site mate and a collection of some of the best people you have met during your time here. Eat more cake, and a delicious curry.  Open presents with tiny perfect notes attached to them.  Listen as one of your friends sings on stage, dedicated to your birthday.  Get pulled up on stage (despite endless refusals—those are never listened to here) for a speech, and thank everyone for how amazing they are.  Try not to cry in front of everyone.  Fail.

12. Go to sleep far too late, knowing that you have never had a birthday quite like this one, and that you probably never will again.



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