Gulzhahan’s Birthday


As we enter our own gift giving season, I’m posting this “Bonus Scene” because the experience helped me look more closely at the gift-giving parts of my own culture that I’d never thought about before. 







Gulzhahan’s Birthday


We’re invited to Gulzhahan’s home for her birthday. She’s said the party is at 6:00 and, knowing how time is rather malleable here, we decide to arrive at 6:30.


Gulzhahan’s apartment is five stories up — six counting the first floor — and we’ve brought a gift, a big, heavy box filled with a set of dishes: twelve place settings plus assorted serving pieces.


I saw them in a store a week ago and loved the pattern, a spray of tiny purple flowers against a white background. The price was just over 6,000 tenge (less than $50, but more than a month’s salary for most teachers), and after all Gulzhahan had done for me, I wanted very much to get this for her.


Wanting her to know how much I appreciate her, I even got it gift wrapped, which is very unusual here. But I can’t carry it up five flights of stairs, never mind six. So, just before our taxi comes, I give Gulzhahan a call and ask to have her husband, Darkhan, meet us downstairs.


When she answers the phone, I tell her it’s because I’m not sure which apartment entrance is hers. I want this gift to be a surprise. Lies are allowed for birthday parties; that’s long been my motto.


Darkhan is waiting as we arrive, takes the package out of the taxi trunk, and carries it upstairs as though it were a lunch box. Good decision to call him, I think to myself. By the time we reach the apartment door, however, Gulzhahan is there to greet us and Darkhan and our present are nowhere to be found.


“Hello, welcome, come in,” she cries and gives us both a big hug. As we take off our coats and shoes, she adds, quietly, “thank you for the wonderful dishes. They are beautiful.”


“I’m glad you like them.” And that’s the last we hear of the present.



In the US, the opening of gifts is often a major part of the festivities.



She ushers us into the living room where a long table is already set for a large gathering, perhaps twelve places in all. I know four of my colleagues from college are coming, three with husbands.


With Woody and me, Darkhan and Gulzhahan and Duman, that’s twelve. But where are they? We’re the first guests, even half an hour late. Woody and I choose seats and sit down as directed. I can’t help notice her dishes are mismatched and I’m doubly glad for my gift.


The table is set with six plates of the customary salads. All the appropriate bottles are out, catty-corner from each other. Juice is included and Darkhan comes in shortly and pours us some. Fried bread and candies lay loose on the table, the customary way of showing abundance.


Gulzhahan is in the kitchen, finishing her work and Woody and I sit and wait for the others. We’ve been to Gulzhahan’s home before for both dinner and lunch. Both times Gulzhan helped to cook because Gulzhahan hates to cook and, as her friends and my colleagues tell me, laughing, “She’s not very good.” Yet,

  • Tonight it’s Gulzhahan’s birthday and she’s doing all the cooking.
  • We arrive thirty minutes late, and are still the first to arrive.
  • I bring her a great present that she “obviously” needs and (I think) she’ll surely like, but don’t get to see her open it.

As if I needed any reminders I’m in a different country!


Soon, Duman brings us a pile of their family photo albums to look at, then goes over to the family computer in the same room and plays a video game. Now four years old, he seems to have a natural facility with the mouse.


After an hour, the doorbell rings and Assem and Tolganay arrive with their husbands. Out comes the bishparmak, even though we’re still expecting three more guests. Gulmira, another English teacher at the college, and her husband Galym arrive after another half hour and fit in seamlessly; Gulzhan calls to say she’s running late; she never does show up.


For the first time, I recognize features of our own gift-giving culture I’d never considered before.




We like to watch the recipient when she (or he) opens the gift, perhaps to make certain it’s appreciated, perhaps to share in the fun. Indeed, in many parties I’ve been to, opening the presents is front and center.


We want it to be not only a surprise; we want it to be the quintessentially perfect gift. We shoot for that. “What would she want, what can she use,” I certainly asked myself while looking. But I must admit, I buy what I would also like.



Photo compliments of David Ackerman, 2005
Photo compliments of David Ackerman, 2005


American gift giving, it seems to me, is as much about the giver as it is about the receiver, sometimes more. We seek equality even in our gift giving.

As the giver, do you notice if you don’t get a thank you note?  We expect appropriate oohs and aahs. We expect gratitude.

As the receiver, is your first thought “What was she thinking!?!” Or is it, “This is perfect!?!”

I realized, sitting in her living room, that I wanted to see Gulzhahan express her joy and I wanted the others to share in it. I wanted them to see what we’d been able to give her. And sitting there, suddenly my gift seemed a tad selfish.


In looking for photos for this post, I Googled “photos of someone opening a gift.”  This was the best one of the lot:




Turns out it’s from a page entitled, “How to Fake Happiness When You Get a Bad Gift,”  which probably says more about our gift-giving culture than this entire blog post.



How about you?  In this season of giving and receiving gifts, what are your cultural norms?  


4 Responses

  1. Susan Joyce
    | Reply

    Fun piece of writing. Reminding me of differences around the world.

    When I lived in Germany and worked in an office, the person celebrating his/her birthday always brought the cake and goodies for others to share. If the birthday person chose to go out to celebrate and invited others to join in, the tab is always picked up by the birthday boy/girl. No paying your own way. It’s German tradition.

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Hi Susan. And welcome back. You’ve lived in and traveled the world and I always enjoy hearing your perspective.

      I’m appreciating anew the way poverty impacts a gift giving culture. Where and when gifts of money are appreciated and where they are not; where and when the birthday person plays host and where she/he is catered to; where and when gifts are opportunities to be joyful and where they are sometimes seen as prideful or selfish. It’s all such a good reminder for me to stay curious. There is no ONE WAY.

  2. Laurie Buchanan
    | Reply

    Janet — I think you hit the nail squarely on the head with your observation about the photograph:

    “Turns out it’s from a page entitled, “How to Fake Happiness When You Get a Bad Gift,” which probably says more about our gift-giving culture than this entire blog post. – See more at:

    A dyed-in-the-wool minimalist, the gifts I give are always something that will disappear with use; candles and food among my favorite choices.

    • Janet
      | Reply

      Hi Laurie. Good to hear your voice. And yes, I too have reached the stage (age?) where consumables are ideal, though I can’t claim to even be close to being a minimalist. Something I aspire to. With you leading the way.

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