For me, birthdays have always conjured up memories of food. Every year growing up, a few days before June 26, my mom would ask me what I wanted for my birthday dinner. I didn’t always know whom I wanted to invite or what kind of party I should have, but I always had an answer for this question.
Today, I get to be the one who asks this question to 12 high-school girls. These girls comprise a boarding school dorm in Germany called Haus Jesse. As their RA, it is my job to make this dorm feel as much like a home for them as possible while their parents are somewhere else in the world. And familial food on one’s birthday is a good place to start.
Each individual girl represents a story different from all of the others. One has been here since she was 12; another has her family nearby, across the border in Switzerland. Two are biological sisters. Several speak more than two languages. But together, these third-culture kids have found home for the first time in their lives.
Home for them means even the air is culturally colorful—one can speak French, Spanish, Korean, or German and be understood. After-school snack permeates the house with scents of spicy Japanese ramen. Almost every meal is doused in Sriracha. Stories begin with, “When I lived in Georgia…” (and no, not the state). Places lived is the standard used to measure time and trace major life events. Here for the first time, they can be seen as members of their lived-in country and not of their passport country. They can share a blissful ignorance in common toward most things North American. They can attend a school in their third-language and receive grace, understanding, and encouragement.
We celebrate birthdays on the Sunday closest to the girl’s actual birth date. On that Birthday Sunday, we hurry home from church to continue preparing the afternoon meal that was started the night before. Almost as rehearsed, we click on the slow cookers, turn on the rice cooker, and heat up the stove. Balls of dough are transformed into long flat ovals of warm, buttery naan. The red simmering curry intensifies in heat. Ally sets the table and the dinner bell is rung, echoing through the three stories of the house. The bell’s signal is only needed for a few still in their rooms; the rest of the girls have already gathered in the living room, long awaiting this moment.
After her roommate prays for her and blesses the meal, the birthday girl gets served first, the largest portion. Clockwise (“to the left,” we remind them), the serving dishes are passed into eager hands. We announce the meal’s name for those unfamiliar with the type of food. Chicken divan and salad, steak and poutine, veggie burgers and sweet potato fries, pad thai as well as many others have all found their way to the plates atop this table of nations. Even though some dorm sisters may have never tried certain dishes before, the connection to home is acutely experienced by them all through their kinship with their dorm sister. And as comforting or unfamiliar the food might be, the real magic happens after the meal is devoured, the cake is cut, and the coffee brewed. Then, the birthday blessing begins.
One by one, the girls speak a blessing over the birthday girl for her next year. To make good friends in her new school, to marry one day and have lots of children, to realize her own strengths are among the benedictions spoken. The words fill and satisfy in ways the food didn’t. With full stomachs and hearts, the sisterhood reminisces over happy and hard memories, first impressions and inside jokes. To hear such potent, healing words around the table suddenly make the early-morning breakfasts, weekend meals, and after-school snacks so much more meaningful. For it was gathering around this dining room table that transformed this house into a home, made classmates into sisters, made the world a bit smaller. While sharing food with one another, hearts and lives began to be shared as well. Whether it was the tapioca devoured over late-night conversations or the trail mix nibbled while getting ready for the Christmas banquet, I couldn’t say. I just know the family that’s been formed today through theological conversations and casserole pans of spinach dip, playing “Make it or Break it” while sipping cups of tea. This international home always means eating, laughing, sharing together.