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Parenting Abroad: Birthday Parties, Language Barriers and Hurt Feelings

What I learned from throwing my son's birthday party abroad

Taylor Johnson

Published on: February 28, 2016

German birthday invitation

Editor's note: This story is part of a series about one family's experience moving abroad to Germany. Read the previous installments here , here and here.

Happy birthday, Buddy!Years ago, my husband asked if I wanted to know how to sing Happy Birthday in German. I said yes (mostly to humor him. At that point I had no interest in German or Germany whatsoever). He then proceeded to sing Happy Birthday in English, in its entirety, very loudly and with a thick German accent. We both laughed. But, now I know it was not a joke. That is, indeed, how people sing Happy Birthday in Germany.

In our limited experience, the Happy Birthday song is not the only similarity between the cultures. German and American birthday parties both involve themes, cake, blowing out candles and games. Traditional German party games are a pleasant change from pin the tail on the donkey. In one game, the kids are blindfolded one at a time and handed a wooden spoon which they bang on the ground until they find a metal pot filled with candy. In another, there is a treasure hunt where arrows and clues are written on the sidewalk with chalk and a treasure (usually candy) is hidden at a local park.

Unfortunately, though, our first experience with birthday parties in Germany was not pleasant. In Seattle, Buddy's kindergarten class had a rule that you could not pass out invitations at school unless you were inviting the whole class. If pressed, I would have rolled my eyes at the over-protectiveness of such a stance. But then, one morning Buddy walked into to his German kindergarten to face a wall of student mailboxes where every single boy had an invitation, except for him. Not just any invitation, but a fancy scroll with a wooden arrow affixed. Basically, the coolest birthday invitation we had ever seen. And my sweet boy was excluded. Excluded in a very public and obvious way.

My heart sank as his face crumpled.

"Why Mama? I thought L. was my friend?"

I did my best to comfort him, murmuring about how it was probably because of the language barrier, not because of him. He wasn't convinced. But then my sweet, brave boy did something I will never forget. He wiped his tears and marched right over to L. and asked him why he hadn't been invited. This was a feat so beyond anything I would have dared as a child that I watched in awe as L. uncomfortably shrugged.

My heart sank as his face crumpled.

'Why Mama? I thought L. was my friend?'

I did my best to comfort him, murmuring about how it was probably because of the language barrier, not because of him. 

A few months later, it was Buddy's birthday and he was determined to invite L., despite my efforts to persuade him otherwise. Partly, I was worried L. would refuse to come and hurt Buddy's feelings all over again but if I am honest, it was also because I wanted to give that kid a taste of his own medicine. Luckily, Buddy's wishes won the day and to my surprise, L. was one of the few kids who made the trek to our house (by that time we had moved out of the area).

By many measures, the party was a big success. In the weeks of planning, the stress of not understanding the cultural expectations almost ruined me, but my husband pointed out that it was Buddy's expectations that mattered and I powered through with planning our American-style party. And while Diet-Coke and Mentos geysers may not be a traditional party game in Germany, the kids thoroughly enjoyed causing the 15-foot eruptions.

After the party, I knew the kids had a good time and that Buddy had a great birthday, but I felt depressed. Yes, the party had gone well, but it had happened without me. In America, parties were always my thing. And here... well, I planned it, but I couldn't execute it. My husband had to step in and run things while I sat on the sidelines (not a role I particularly enjoy).

I know I should have been thrilled that after six months in a foreign country my newly 6-year-old could have a party exclusively in German but instead I felt left out and alone. Not knowing the language is a huge barrier. A barrier that even now (six months after that party) feels insurmountable. But, as with all the changes here, I keep muddling on and trying my best.

A month after he turned 6, Buddy started first grade and the worries about being excluded started again. But only for me. Buddy, with typical child-like resilience, seemed eager and unafraid. I, on the other hand, spent my days carefully planning the consolation speech for when Buddy was left out again. But then, a miracle! Buddy came home with an invitation — not just any invitation but an invitation to the first party of the school year, only given to four kids in the class. I knew it was a pity invite because Buddy had never played with this kid before, but I didn't care. Buddy got included and since most kids were not invited, I figured that none of the other kids would feel too bad about being excluded. Never have I been so grateful to a child (and let's be honest, his parents) in my life. Their act of kindness gave Buddy a little extra confidence in a new school, in a new language, in a new country. And I made sure to reward the kid with a big, American-style present.

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