How Many Birthdays Do I Get?

(This Op-Ed piece appeared in the Des Moines Sunday Register, Feb 2nd 2003)

It was one of the first sentences my wife could understand of his heavily accented Pidgin English: "Buy me dees." From Freetown, Sierra Leone, one of the world’s poorest cities, our new six-year-old son had landed at giant JFK airport in one of the world’s richest cities, and to him the gift shop must have looked like wonderland. My wife sensed it was a pivotal moment. He needed to understand that access to the undreamt-of opulence of this first-world fantasyland required more than simply pointing at whatever toy caught your eye and saying to your new American mom, "Buy me dees."

She made him say, "Please buy me dees."

That was last April. In the meantime it has been startling to observe the material lifestyle of our children through the eyes of someone just recruited to it. Gibrila (jeh bril’ a), was orphaned at age 2 in Sierra Leone’s horrific civil war, and placed for adoption at age 6 by an aunt who could barely feed him and his small cousin. We waited months for INS to approve his immigration. But that gave us time to brace ourselves for the inevitable shock of Gibrila’s cultural transition. For example, the adoption agency warned us to always have plenty of rice on hand because rice is the staple of the Leonean diet. Our family rarely ate rice  it so infrequently appears on the menus of the nation’s larger burger chains. Still, we were prepared to become virtual rice-heads if necessary.

Not to worry. Before he boarded the final plane to Des Moines Gibrila tasted his first Chicken McNugget. No traveler has had a more sudden and powerful cultural conversion since St. Paul started down the road to Damascus. A few days later, when some grains of rice slipped onto his plate at a Chinese restaurant, Gibrila quietly asked me if I would please remove them.

At home in Iowa Gibrila was suddenly surrounded by new wonders, not all of which, however, he could immediately have. Like the remote control car on the shelf at Walmart. "That’s something you can ask for on your birthday," we assured him. This birthday concept was unknown to him; Leonians all turn a year older on January 1st. As we approached the day chosen to be his birthday  his actual date of birth is unknown  he was asked what kind of cake he wanted. Gibrila shook his head. He didn’t want a cake, he said, he wanted the remote control car from Walmart. No, no, we told him, on your birthday you get a present and cake too. And if he couldn’t decide between vanilla or chocolate cake, he could have both, Mom said, and choose whichever he liked best for his next birthday. Next birthday? He looked up at his Mom, his big brown eyes full of confusion. "How many birthdays do I get?"

Halloween showed Gibrila the full potential of the American experience. It was the coldest day he had ever lived through, and as he and his brother tramped up and down the street he had to warm his hands against Mom’s tummy. But at every house you visited they handed you candy just for knocking on the door! Chattering teeth would not convince him to quit.

By Thanksgiving he sensed that something really big was coming. Gibrila had never experienced Christmas before, but it was obvious that what was now approaching must be the Mother of All Holidays. Some of the particulars he found obscure. ("How does de big man get into de leetle chimney?" he asked, frowning.) What was clear to him though is that Santa brings you lots of toys, and you got to choose which ones by submitting a list in advance. We naively assumed that a kid from the world’s poorest country would produce a Christmas list no longer than Tiny Tim Cratchet’s. We underestimated the power of TV ads to swiftly eliminate such cultural gaps. On Christmas Eve, having spent on Gibrila’s gifts a sum larger than the per capita GDP of Sierra Leone, we were actually afraid he would be disappointed. He would not get the two-seater drivable kiddie car that he had not only requested, but sketched for Santa in some detail. In the event, this omission went unnoticed over the several days it took to play with all of the items stacked under the tree.

On the night of the 25th , exhausted from the long day of play and celebration, he sat with me for a moment on the couch by the Christmas tree. "Dad?" He looked at me earnestly. "Can Santa come tomorrow?" It was not an unreasonable question. In America, after all, there seemed no limit to the flow of gifts and presents, so what’s to stop Santa from coming back every day?

Something about Gibrila’s experience worries me. I sense that it contains an invaluable lesson about the weaknesses of my own parenting and maybe that of most middle-class American parents in the opening years of the new millennium. Unfortunately, I don’t know what the lesson is. Is it that unrestrained parental largesse will make our kids unprepared for their inevitable confrontation with life’s harsh realities? Not for Gibrila. Harsh Realities? He’s been there, he’s done that. Maybe I’m nervous that we are corrupting a child’s gentle innocence with what some see as the moral bankruptcy of American materialism. I suppose one day Gibrila might have that insight through the patient guidance of some Eastern guru, but at the moment he’s not complaining. I guess what Gibrila reminds us is that most Americans have the freedom to indulge our kids while so many have a hard time even feeding theirs. A child born in America can expect to live 75 years; a child in Sierra Leone a mere 26. Small wonder that a boy from such a place would need to ask such a strange question.

How many birthdays do I get?