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A Bittersweet Birthday

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A mother's life rides the wave of a high learning curve; mine encompassed cross-cultural habits. One particular lesson focused on a birthday cake.

Summer transitioned into fall, and our family of three experienced our first Złota Polska Jesień, Golden Polish Autumn. Before the inevitability of bitter frost, trees displayed a ric==h palette of color, and we absorbed the much-needed beauty of nature.

One particular September day, this mother set out on a mission. I needed to order a birthday cake for my only child, and I needed achieve this is a second language. (Remember? High learning curve...)

Food shortages in the Polish communist economy made baking a traditional birthday cake impossible. My only option involved going to a hotel bakery and ordering a whole cake. Knowing this was culturally odd, I prepared myself to pay more, to pay under the table, or to pay behind the counter. Regardless of the daunting challenge, I wanted to present our little girl with a special cake on her second birthday.

To my surprise, the “arrangement” was straightforward. I agreed to pay the triple price and determined to return one week later. Fine. I selected chocolate, counted out my bills, and left feeling successful.

On the day of her party, I returned to the hotel bakery to collect my prize. I even rode home in a taxi to insure the safety of my culinary accomplishment. My deep sense of pleasure at achieving this cross cultural feat dovetailed with my joy of being a mother on this day of my child’s party.

A unique sense of satisfaction welled up deep within me. Truly, this was a special day for our family, and we looked forward to celebrating.

The few guests arrived for our simple party, and merriment filled our upstairs rented apartment. Hot tea was made and served, and the small group chatted amiably together.

All the while, our little two-year old relished the spotlight. Her favorite gift, a Fisher Price dollhouse from grandparents, purchased and hand carried earlier from Vienna, occupied her full attention.

Finally, the moment came, and she gleefully blew out two tiny little candles. Happy Birthday to you! followed by Sto lat, Sto lat! doubled the blessing of this day. (What child has Happy Birthday sung to them in two languages?) Every detail seemed perfect.

Forthwith, I cut the prize cake and passed around generous servings. After all, when was the last time these dear people enjoyed a fresh chocolate cake? I enjoyed my role as hostess, and smiled inwardly, hoping each guest felt special. Soon, I took my place in the circle and settled down to enjoy my own slice of this long-awaited, hard-to-come-by, chocolate treat.

Just as I opened my mouth for a bite of the blessing, a missile pierced the air and punctured my emotional balloon.

The shock came in the form of a sentence uttered from one among us. Without fanfare, our guest declared, “This is the worst cake I have ever eaten. Just look at this. This is terrible.”

I sat frozen, and my fork stopped midair. Had I heard correctly? Yes, the vocalized verdict stood fixed in this person’s opinion.

The comment set ablaze a raw nerve within me, and I struggled to carry on. I felt heartbroken. How could this be? Why, God gave us this cake, and the arrangements represented no small miracle! Couldn’t we just celebrate? Thankfully, the Holy Spirit held both my tongue and my emotions in check, and I remained silent. 

Frankly, I don’t remember how the party ended. Yet, the occasion brought to the surface my glaring need for adaptation in cross-cultural living. Suddenly, I felt like the two year old.

In the days that followed, God tutored me in much needed lessons. The bittersweet birthday taught me:

  • A relationship is more valuable than a cake—any day, in any nation. 
  • The safe haven for friendships needed to be our common ground in Christ, since His love crossed all cultural barriers—national, ethnic, and economic.
  • I must not allow a blunt comment to carry carry too much weight.
  • I could not mandate others to operate within my parameters of appropriate social norms.
  • I would have to learn to love and work among godly people whose communication values differed from mine. Whereas, in my estimation, this an opinionated comment was better unspoken, our guest felt withholding such a comment would be hypocrisy.

I feel foolish all over again as I recall this story, and I am embarrassed by my naïve expectations back at the beginning. However, from that bittersweet birthday an eternal principle still emerges as the bottom line, regardless of where one resides:                                                                             Relationships are always more important than my own personal feelings or preferences. Love one another deeply, from the heart (1 Peter 1:22). The taste will not be bittersweet.

Living with Eternal Intentionality: How has God led you to let go of cultural expectations in a relationship in order to pursue the greater good of fellowship in Him?