“We always assume our way is normal,” I told the group I was teaching on cross-cultural communication last week. This thought was still bumping its way around my head as I thought about the birthday cake I was about to make.
Five of the TAFES staff are September birthdays, and I was making a cake for them, in the shape of a couple of balloons. “Now,” I thought to myself, “Shall I do five candles, one for each, and how shall I arrange them on the two balloons? Also, where shall I get them?” Birthday candles are around, but they’re expensive and not heaps common, so I started wondering where Tanzanians get them from.
And it hit me. Tanzanians love cakes; they have elaborate celebration and fundraising cakes for just about any event. But I don’t think I’ve ever seen one with candles. I double checked with Elliot, “Mate, at [your Tanzanian school] when they sang ‘Kata ceki tule’, did the cakes ever have candles, or were there no candles?” He confirmed it: no candles.
And there you have it. 5 and a half years in Tanzania, umpteen cakes, and I’m only just putting it together now. Tanzanians don’t really do birthday candles!
So then I started thinking, why do we do birthday candles? I know it’s traditional for it to represent the age the person is turning, but who came up with that? And why? I have no idea! I’m sure I could google it if I wanted to, and it would tell me it had some meaning in some ancient or medieval custom which has been handed down to us. However, this isn’t really about birthday candles. It’s about how until I stopped and thought about it, I assumed the cake would have candles, because we assume everyone else does stuff the way we do. We may not even know why we do it. It’s just culture.
I’m glad this dawned on me before the big day. There was one time when Arthur, Elliot and I were the only non-Americans in a party full of US Embassy workers and startled everyone with our ‘hip hip hooray’ after the singing of ‘Happy Birthday To You’!
Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.