Sunday, March 1, 2009

American Birthdays

I spent this past Saturday with some friends at a really spectacular new winery, Popova Kula, just outside of Demir Kapija in the heart of the Macedonian wine country. The building is brand new, but built with traditional aesthetics in mind. Everything was extremely tasteful. We were celebrating an American birthday with wine and appetizers in the tower.

In Macedonia, whenever an American is holding a birthday party, the invitations specifically say that it will be an American-style birthday. While I wish this meant that every American's birthday celebrated over here is full of barbecue, fireworks, and Lynyrd Skynyrd, it actually means "I'm not paying for you."

In Macedonian culture, the birthday boy/girl is expected to take their friends out for drinks, pay for dinner, or even give small gifts to their guests. This isn't restricted to birthdays. In most any celebration for something gained - say, a promotion, a new house, an award - whomever is being celebrated is expected to treat everyone else. This doesn't necessarily hold true across the board, as each celebration has separate rules, but generally this is the case.

For me, at least, this was very difficult to grasp. It just doesn't make any sense. Friends are supposed to celebrate a birthday by pitching in, giving gifts. We have housewarming parties. If a buddy gets a new job, or graduates from a program, I feel like I ought to buy him a beer. This is American cultural context, and it can lead to some "Who's on First" type discussions when a bill is delivered:

Macedonian: Thanks for coming to my party.
American: No, it was great, here, how much are we chipping in for you?
Macedonian: What? No, it's my celebration. I'm paying.
American: Right. It's a celebration . . .for you. You don't pay.
Macedonian: No, that's why I do pay.

And so on.

I was talking to Eric about this sort of thing, wondering aloud why this is completely inverted. He suggested that, since Macedonia is a traditional society, community and family based, you don't want to get too far ahead of people. You've got the honor of a birthday celebration, or some other event, but you don't want to seem too high and mighty. So you pay, spread the wealth, to make sure that nobody begins to resent you for your success.

America, on the other hand, is more or less meritocratic. In general, we celebrate someone else's success not only because we're proud of the person, but also because we expect to be successful ourselves. We don't resent John Doe's promotion, because gosh darnit, we're just as hard working as him, so we'll be celebrating our own promotions some day.

I'm not sure if this is actually the case, but it sounds good to me, at least in theory. I'd welcome anyone to correct me if I'm wrong.

It's interesting, nonetheless.


Katie said...

Interesting. That makes a decent amount of sense. But I'm a fan of presents. Awesome meat platter, by the way.

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