The Birthday Party Sprint

My colleague grins at me as we hustle sixteen kindergarteners into the elevator and out again on the main floor of the hagwon.

We’ve just completed our first ever birthday party, and in record time considering that we’re both new to the school. The kids make a break for the classroom, and she clutches my arm, both of us somewhat delirious with triumph.

“Can you imagine if we’d had to actually feed them a slice of that cake?” I laugh.

She smiles again. “The party is just for pictures, to remember. The cake is at lunch.” The pictures, and the cake, were all part of the elaborate setup. We took pictures of the class huddled around the birthday girl, grinning. Every other child is documented handing the birthday girl a present.

From time to time I realize that no matter how long I stay here, I will never quite belong. Part of it, certainly, is what’s on my face. My skin, my bone structure, the shape of my eyes. I will never look local.

It’s not all physical though. Some of it is cultural, or psychological. I sometimes forget to bring my camera places. I often forget to take pictures of cool things, even when I have my camera. Other than as a performance, the idea of documenting as reality something that didn’t really happen baffles me. I hardly have time to document the things that do happen, I’d rather be doing than documenting.

We didn’t really have a party. We had a ten minute sprint of staged photographs with a silly hat and a cake. Though that’s not what the pictures say.

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