Azerbaijan International

Winter 2006 (14.4)
Pages 12-13

Readers' Forum
Home - Away From Home

Recently my family moved from Baku to Los Angeles as my husband is on assignment here. We've been living here less than a year and are trying to get used to the new culture.

Left: Newcomer to Los Angeles Lala Baloghlanova with daughters Fira, 4, and Farrah, 3, in search of links to "Back Home"

I must admit that my two little daughters and I are delighted with our frequent walks to a nearby park. In Los Angeles, we just love being outdoors. Imagine my surprise to discover that Azerbaijanis share so many cultural similarities with our Hispanic neighbors here.

One of the first things I realized is that both cultures place utmost importance on the family. In the casual setting of the park, it's easy to see the close bonding that takes place between mothers and children.

Some women come to the park everyday, not only to give their little ones the chance to enjoy fresh air and exercise, but also to visit and chat with one another - just like back home.

Despite language barriers, I've managed to make some friends among them. For example, a few weeks ago, Maria kindly invited us to her son Pablo's birthday party. It was scheduled for the following day at 10 a.m. That, too, reminded me of home. We Azerbaijanis are notorious for extending last-minute invitations.

The next day, my girls and I got ready for the party. We arrived only a few minutes after the party was scheduled to begin, but I was amazed to see how many people were already there. Maria welcomed us as one of her own, introducing us to her many guests. Again, it made me feel just like back home.

I was so surprised to discover so many customs that were so close to ours. As the guests arrived, they always greeted one another with kisses even when they hardly knew each other. Some of them even kissed me. It came as no surprise as I'm quite used to it. And, frankly, it really made me feel at home.

Like us, Latino parents teach their children to greet adults from early childhood. In fact, we even have an expression, reminding our children if they forget to greet someone: "Where's your "salam"? we say.

We also have strict rituals that we follow when we get ready to leave. It would be considered rude just to disappear from a party. One must always say goodbye to the hosts, and if the crowd isn't too big, a round of goodbyes and kisses are extended to every single guest as well.

Guests kept arriving for several hours, both those who had been invited as well as others. Later Maria told me that she knew most of them; however, some had simply heard that there was a birthday party and had come to join the celebration.

That's another strong similarity between us. Usually, we don't even think of it as "crashing" a party. We expect and usually welcome uninvited guests as well. At first I felt a little uneasy at the party, since everyone was speaking Spanish and I don't know it very well.

My first efforts at communicating were admittedly feeble, but the hosts were more than gracious to me.
It seemed they hardly paid any attention to my poor pronunciation of even the simplest words, like "hola" (Hello) and "gracias" (Thank you). It really didn't seem to bother them at all. Again, like home.

Maria's small apartment was bursting at the seams with all the guests. There was hardly room enough for the little ones to play. The rooms were brightly decorated. It reminded me so much of home that I felt a twinge of homesickness. Perhaps, the motifs were different, but the bright candles and the lively music made it seem almost like an Azerbaijani party.

Then came the moment everybody had been waiting for. Time to break open the piñata - a paper mache burro - dangling high above the children's heads. Maria's husband, Raul, took the children, one by one, and blindfolded them, tying a bright red scarf over their eyes. Then he handed them a long stick, spun them around three times. They would take a few steps and start striking out at the place where they thought the piñata was.

It was the best friend of the wife of a relative who tugged on the rope to raise the suspended piñata and made it more difficult to hit it. Again that reminded me of Azerbaijan. It seems everybody is somehow related to everybody else back home. All of us shouted instructions to the kids blindly striking out to hit the piñata.

It was so much fun to watch and join in this Latino tradition, especially when it turned out Fira, my own little niña (Spanish for "baby"), was the one who succeeded in breaking the burro, causing all the candy to come tumbling out and the kids to scramble to pick it up by the handfuls.

The entire day had the atmosphere of a holiday, reminding me at every turn of the similarities shared between our cultures. Even the women's gossip and giggles reminded me of home. Another stunning similarity came to mind when I heard Maria's friend calling her daughter: "Juana - mama, come to me!'' Azerbaijani parents share this verbal pattern with Hispanics. For example, my mother addresses my little daughter Fira as "Fira - anam" (Fira - my mother) and she refers to her grandson as "Yusif - atam" (Yusif - my father). It's an expression of endearment.

I also discovered that we share various vocabulary terms. Spanish "la mesa" (table) is "masa" in Azeri. "Aseytuna" (olive) is "zeytun". "Labios" (lips) is "lablar", and "basta" (sufficient / enough) is "basti".

Eventually, Maria pulled out a large photo album and passed it around. Every page was filled with smiling faces of children surrounded by their loving parents representing the close bonds that make up happy families. It all seemed so tangible, so real, so familiar just like the way it's done in my far ­ away and yet, so similar home - back in Azerbaijan.

Lala Baloghlanova
Los Angeles


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