I have had butterflies all day: what if nobody comes? What if nobody eats anything? What if they stare at me with that twisted pre-emptive expression that says: ‘I’m not going to understand a word you say.’ What if they come and then ignore me?
I think back to Manchester in the 1980s and my own childhood, to Shagufta, Tayuba and Muneera my first generation school friends. They never had birthday parties, or not that I was invited to, and we were good friends. Was it easier to keep it in the family like we have done up until now? It’s my son’s 7th birthday party. We are immigrants; the children were born here but the blonde hair, the freckles, the going to bed at 8.30pm mean that they are and will always be foreign. This is the first party we’ve attempted with his school friends and there are so many ways to get it wrong. We must be more Spanish than the Spanish if we are to pull it off, so everything is shop bought which kills me because I love cooking especially for birthday parties (time spent preparing as an expression of love and all that) but the collective wariness of anything foreign makes this a no- no; today we must blend in. I have my own body weight in the universally applicable currency of crisps and sweets and as I shovel them into bags, I remember Mrs Naeem practically force feeding me packets of red hoola hoops when I went to play with Shagufta; it never occurred to me that perhaps she wanted to blend in too.
I buy wine, beer and cider in the hope that parents will stay. Custom dictates that at least some of them socialise together in one corner while the children run about dangerously in the others. Perhaps this is accounts for the butterflies, my Spanish is good but there’s nothing like a group of tipsy natives clattering on to bring out the self conscious language-klutz in you: please don’t let them look at me, please don’t let them look at me.
The party time comes, the sun is shining and I set up the tables with food and drink, smiling at the smattering of locals who have gathered to see what was going on. I needn’t have worried about making conversation because no parents stay; their cars circle us from a distance dropping children off. It feels vaguely wrong; tipping children into the middle of all that foreignness, like letting them swim with sharks when you’ve stayed in your cage. It wouldn’t be like this back home, I think to myself; back home parents would have come in at least and asked what time we were finishing. I think this to myself a lot these days: that we do it better back home.
The concession I make to our culture is games: I brave it and push through with pass the parcel, musical statues and the walnut and spoon race and almost cry with relief when the kids love it; clapping and squealing as they unwrap a layer from the parcel. And of course in the Spanish tradition, my son is overwhelmed with presents: good stuff too; thoughtful and appropriate and when I ask him if he is having a good time, he says it is his best birthday ever.
It is us who made the decision to move away from all that is comfortable and known in pursuit of a better life, whatever that means, so it’s right that the ‘Is it because I am foreign?’ cloud should only rain on us.