My birthday surprises began that week when three of my male students came to my office hours. This visit was unexpected because (a) it was Week 6 and no one had come to visit me yet and (b) those who did finally visit were male. Here in Oman, the generalization is that the male students care a lot less about their work than the female students. By and large this holds true for my classes as well, so any effort on the part of these students was welcome. They showed me some work they had done – well, two out of three had done some work; the third was just there for the ride. I’m not sure if his motivation was boredom or to gain brownie points; he’s a nice guy, but definitely not one of my stronger students. But students never do anything alone in Oman; they always do things together even if only one person actually needs to run the errand. Therefore, it wasn’t surprising to see him there even if he didn’t really have a reason.
After their material was reviewed, there was the obligatory small talk. It is rare in Oman to be all business; a polite conversation and/or simple offering of tea or a snack are pretty standard for any meeting. Since the New Year was coming up, I asked my students about their plans for the long weekend. One stated it was his birthday. I automatically replied that it was my birthday too. His was over the weekend on Saturday; I divulged that mine was on Thursday, the last day of class before the break. The tagalong stated he would bring some sweets for me to celebrate. I said that would be nice, but not necessary. The three young men looked at each other, smiled, and left my office.
I should have seen what was coming, but in no way could I have anticipated the scope of it. The next day, the day before my birthday, I came back from teaching and there was a small package on my desk. Inside was a silver and green key chain of a traditional Omani knife; the scribbled note said, “Happy birthday from boys 660 (the course section) ❤ . I immediately put the gift to use, adding it to my other keychain of a leather Omani slipper that was left in my desk by its previous occupant.
In class the next day, there indeed were snacks. The man who promised sweets brought enough cookies for everyone (I think this is the first time he has ever come to class “prepared”). We ended the work portion of our class a few minutes early to eat chocolate dipped hazelnut cookies. The giver apologized they were store bought. I said it didn’t matter and added that hazelnuts are native to my home state so they were my favorite. He beamed.
The young women ate cookies but were notably surprised that the men knew it was my birthday, but they didn’t. I did my best to explain that it was happenstance (of course I didn’t use that word…) that they found out. I didn’t sense the competition building in the air as I munched an overly-sweet snack, especially given it was about 9:30 AM.
I came back to my office to grab my stuff and head out the door. I was leaving work early to drive to Muscat to pick up a friend who was visiting; she had business in Qatar and took the quick flight over to spend the weekend with me. My first – and probably only – visitor in Oman!
I was still in Dave’s office waiting for him to pack up when I received a text from my officemate, who is also my supervisor, asking if I was still around. I headed back to my office thinking she wanted a quick meeting about coursework. The same three boys who bought me the keychain and cookies in class were waiting for me; this time with a heart-shaped box filled with candy and cookies. I thanked them for all the gifts, showed them I was using the keychain, and headed out the door. I later thought that I probably should have shared some of the food immediately with them. I’m still not good at the Omani traditions of slowing down and sharing in the moment. Something I need to work on. Then again, I was pretty excited to see my friend.
My birthday weekend was pretty great, but over too soon even with the extra day to celebrate the New Year here. On Monday, I woke up groggy and rolled into my 8AM class. Or at least I tried to. Standing guard outside the door was one of my female students informing me they were planning a surprise for me. I smiled and waited in the outdoor hallway until it was OK to walk in.
Many of the young women in the class surrounded TWO birthday cakes, one with four candles that bore my name. They sang an odd version of Happy Birthday which included the line, “Happy Birthday cha-cha-cha.” I blew out the candles and cake was served. Lots and lots of cake. So much for thinking cookies from the male side of the classroom was an elaborate gesture! There were also chocolate bars and cookies. Remember, this is 8AM. Nevertheless, we all ate, got a serious sugar high, and then I tried to begin class.
Then there were presents. Lots and lots of presents. I am not sure who they were from – the whole class? A few students? No matter, I was now the proud owner of a fluffy white teddy bear holding a “Love” pillow, two Styrofoam hearts that said “Love” (one for me, and one for Teacher Dave, they claimed), and some really cheap jewelry in a very fancy cardboard box. And more chocolate; one particular piece was wrapped in a little white box decorated with pink glitter.
I thanked them all for their extreme generosity and class finally began. We got about halfway through the material. The cynical side of me thought that was the reason for the party, but I knew better. Omanis love a party, and they truly love to give. They are a genuinely warm culture. Several times a week, staff members go up and down the hallways offering snacks from fresh dates to homemade cake bites. It’s like the holidays in the US, only it never stops.
And neither did my birthday.
Later that day, when I was teaching my other class (thank goddess I did not let them know about the fact I was another year older!), I received a text from another female student. I am not sure how she got my phone number; it had to have been from the one student, our class representative, who knows it. Though to be honest, I am not even sure who the class rep is right now. I think the young woman who gave me the chocolate in the tiny frilly packaging. Nevertheless, the text stated that it was from my student Muzna and she wished to give me a “simple gift.” She also stated she “making some simple sweets” for me as well. I texted her back (yes, I know, poor form, but the students were reading quietly) and said I was in class until 2, but she was welcome to come by after that. I thanked her very much for her kindness.
I guess she didn’t want to wait, for when I got back to my office there was a large bag full of gifts. Four different homemade sweets (two tins of cake squares, some coconut balls, and a homemade caramel of sorts), a coin purse with pink flowers, a necklace, and some perfume. All told, I had more birthday presents than I have had in several years combined.
Looking at my bounty, you would think I turned 11, not 46. But the gifts fit with the mentality here. Yes, these people are generous, but they are also very young for their age. They live their lives quite sheltered – especially the women. The female college students here all live together in a hostel that has a 9PM curfew. For many, it is the first time they have ever been apart from family. When they graduate, most will return home until marriage. Along with the Muslim culture which shields them from a lot of the sexual and violent influences that impact much of the world, this tradition of never being independent leaves the young women sheltered both physically and mentally. While sweet on some levels, I find it somewhat disturbing to think these gifts came from young people in their 20s.
My birthday is finally over (though last night at the expat bar we had cake and champagne to celebrate three birthdays close together). I learned a lot about the kindness of my students and the Omani ways of celebrations this year, but if I should be here next October, I believe I will keep the significance of October 23rd to myself.