Tuesday, October 25, 2011: Beginning on Saturday morning the week of my birthday, I set the stage for my own celebration by walking through the halls of the university and inviting my colleagues to join me for a drink Tuesday night. The planned gathering is to take place at the Falaj Daris, one of the few hotels in Nizwa that serves alcoholic beverages. I tell everyone to be there at 7:00, since Tuesday is a work night and we have to get up early for work the next morning.
I find out a lot of interesting things about cultural expectations during my invitation. The American way is that you invite people to join you in a public place and it is expected that everyone will pay their own way. Possibly in the case of a birthday, the attendees will buy the birthday girl a drink or two, or maybe three. But I have no expectations for anyone to buy me drinks; I just want some company and figure that people will be happy for an excuse for a party. There is not a lot of excitement in the sleepy town of Nizwa, so I think people may jump for a chance to get out and socialize.
I also know that if I don’t make plans for my own birthday, I will likely sit at home alone in my little villa feeling depressed and sorry for myself.
Right away, the Brits in particular start asking about who will be paying. They seem a little put out that I am not offering to buy drinks for everyone. At the very least I could be having the party at my own house and providing all the food and drinks! Finally, after much light-hearted joshing and joking (“What? Me pay?? On my measly little salary?? I can’t afford that… 🙂 ) people say they will try to make it and I leave it at that. If they want to come they will come.
On the appointed evening, I show up as I always do promptly at 7:00 to find the place empty except for a black lady from the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago who teaches at another college in Nizwa. Her name is Lazina. I’ve never met her before, but we strike up a conversation, being the only expats in the place. She moves over and joins me for a drink and we chat about her experiences in Oman.
After about 40 minutes, people start drifting in: Martin and his wife Angela and their two boys. James from Scotland and Malcolm from Britain. Maurio from Brazil and David from Britain. Out in the pool area, I run into Gretchen, who teaches at yet another college in Nizwa, and invite her to join. My henna-haired Australian friend Marcia also appears despite the fact that she finished her last class at 8 p.m. Another guy named Ian pops in with his guitar in hand. I’m a little surprised to see him here as I met him only once and I know I never crossed paths with him to invite him along. I say, how did you hear about the party? He says, Oh, this is a birthday party? Whose is it? I say, Mine! He asks my name. Then he pulls out his guitar and starts singing.
For all the people I invited, I’m only a little disappointed that more of them don’t show up. This is because the people who have shown up are some of my favorite people at the university and so it’s a lovely gathering. While all of us chat and drink away, Ian sings along on his guitar, mellow songs that provide a nice ambiance. It’s a little odd, I must admit, because he doesn’t really join in any conversations but seems to be in his own little musical world.
Lazina disappears for a while and when she comes back she presents a chocolate cake with 3 candles. I am surprised by her kindness as I only just met her this night! I manage to blow out the three candles which is highly unusual because I usually get so nervous blowing out my birthday candles that I can’t extinguish them, no matter what the number!
The evening is lovely and though it is just one in a long line of 29th birthdays, I have a great time. The greatest gift of all is the friendship of a lot of new interesting people in this strange expat life of mine. A life where I am thrust into a bright and shiny new world with a whole new cast of characters. I really do love my life and am thrilled to have another year in this beautiful world.
Wednesday, October 26: The next morning I am not feeling so great, but I have to get up at my normal 5:30 a.m. to shower and dress and get to school for my 8 a.m. class. As I am walking to this class, burdened down as I usually am with a CD player, books, papers, pens, whiteboard markers, erasers and my purse, Habiba, one of my darling students, stops me. “Teacher, teacher, wait a minute. Let’s sit down and rest because the other students are cleaning the classroom for you.” Hmm, I think. The classrooms at the University of Nizwa, at least in this particular building, are brand spanking new. They have nothing in them at all except student desks and a teacher desk and chair. I know the university has cleaning staff to clean the rooms and there is nothing in there to get dirty. I know something is up, but I play along as if I believe her and I sit and chat with her at a plastic table outside.
When finally we go into the class 5 minutes late, all the students yell, “Surprise!!” They have gone all out. On the board is written “HAPPY BIRTHDAY! We love you Cathy! ❤ ❤ <3” Balloons are strewn about the room. A cake spells out in icing: “Happy Birthday Miss Cathy.” Two cheerily wrapped gifts and paper plates and plastic forks decorate my desk. All of my lovely students are so pleased with themselves, smiling their beautiful smiles, snapping pictures of me with their mobile cameras. I’m astounded by the effort they have made on my behalf.
I unwrap my gifts and I find, much to my happiness, two beautiful scarves, one hot pink chiffon number with little jewel beads on it and one black and gray striped ruffled one. Also, they’ve given me a box gift set of Miss Romantic perfumed shower gel, body lotion and perfume and a little flashy what-not that you hang on your mobile, much like what my students in Korea gave me when I was there. I immediately wrap the hot pink scarf around my neck as it happens to match (sort of) with the purple print shirt I’m wearing.
I spend 16 hours a week with these students, 23 girls and one boy. Sure, we’ve had time to get to know each other a little, but we’re only two weeks into classes. They don’t know me that well. Yet, they have put their hearts on display for me, showing me they care for me in a very exuberant way. They are so excited and pleased that I am happy, and their obvious pleasure makes me feel really loved.
It’s funny too, the day before, on my actual birthday, I didn’t tell them until I got to class that it was my birthday. I have heard that the girls don’t usually let anyone take pictures of them, but I had my camera with me and I asked them if any of them would be in a picture with me on my birthday. I was so surprised that almost all of them were thrilled to be photographed with me and in addition, they were all crowding around asking their fellow students to take individual pictures of themselves with me. I have never been in the midst of such enthusiastic energy.
What a blast!! I love teaching in Oman and I love my students. Almost all girls, they are smart, hard-working, and dedicated. They come to class every day eager to learn. When I ask a question 15-20 hands shoot up into the air. “Teacher, teacher! Me, me!” It’s so overwhelming sometime, and heartbreaking, that I can’t call on all of them at once. What greater pleasure can there be for a teacher than to have students who are passionate about learning? Really, how could life be better??