After work today we had a small party for one of the teachers who had a birthday over the weekend. It often happens to me that when I hear someone has a birthday, I immediately freeze and think that I should have brought something or I should go out and get something to bring to the party. Then I remember that here it is usually the person having the birthday who usually brings something or has a party for others. This was the case today. The teacher brought food, cake and drinks for everyone and organized the party. I continue to be caught off guard by this even though this isn’t the first time it has happened. But today was the first time I realized that maybe this isn’t actually a Russian tradition, as I had thought at first.
I shared my thoughts with the teacher having the birthday and she said that it’s not necessarily a typical Russian tradition. Maybe it’s a tradition for some people, but it’s not considered normal across the board. I was surprised to hear that and it’s interesting how things can vary within a culture.
During our get together I was the only non-native Russian there. Everyone was speaking in Russian and I was actively listening but found it difficult to keep up. They spoke so fast that by the time I had processed what they were saying and formulated a possible response, it was too late to contribute anything to the conversation because they’d already moved on to another topic. However I couldn’t help but wonder what their thoughts were as they sat with me. How was it decided that they would speak Russian? Did they think I understood them? Of course I didn’t expect them to speak English even though they know English perfectly well. I’m in Russia, among Russians, it’s only natural to speak Russian. And they know I have studied Russian and can speak it to an extent. At one point they did stop and ask me if I understood and I said that I did. But it was just an interesting dynamic to be a part of, to say the least.
I also found myself wondering about social rules that I might not be aware of. For example, we poured wine and everyone stood up to make a toast and clink their glasses together. Then I wondered what order we should eat the food in. There were cake and sweets and I didn’t know if I should wait for the person having the birthday to take the first piece or if it didn’t matter. So I just waited, watched and followed suit. There are so many small things that you take for granted that you know about your own culture but are suddenly magnified when you find yourself in new situations.