hyphenated (Ethiopian-American) in America raises a lot of questions about identity. You straddle two, often contradictory worlds and making peace between them can be a long and arduous process. The following is a reflection on a step in my journey to understanding as an Ethiopian-American.
“Indait neber? How waz eet?” my mother
asked after I got back from spending a month in Ethiopia.
“I loved it,” I answered, but the tone in my voice was not as sure as my response.
The answer caught both of us by surprise. I knew I didn’t mean it but I said it anyway. A more accurate answer would have been “I don’t know,” but that did not feel like a weighty enough response after I had spent a month in her mother
After a couple of these half-hearted exchanges with other family members, I began to wonder why I felt so ambivalent towards the trip. Why couldn’t I say “I Ioved it” and really mean it? I had wanted to go for so long and the trip did mean a lot to me. After much reflection, I have realized that I never considered the question of whether or not I would like my time in Ethiopia because I viewed the trip as a matter of obligation. Going back to Ethiopia was something I needed to do. It was an obligation to myself, my family, and my heritage. And as such I didn’t spend much time dwelling on the lack of creature comforts. Sure, the dribble that came out of the showerhead made showering a pain, but my experience was more than that. This trip wasn’t just a month-long vacation; it was part of a greater journey that I was on to better understand myself and where I came from. And that journey begins squarely in Ethiopia.
Being Ethiopian is often the first
thing that comes up when I introduce myself to someone and he or she remarks on the unique spelling of my first
name or asks about the origin of my last name. I take even the slightest interest as an opportunity to launch into Ethiopian cultural ambassador mode. Like clockwork, I find myself running through a basic history of the country from Adwa (“Never colonized”) to Haile Selassie (Ras Tafari), and ending, invariably, with a restaurant recommendation. Towards the end of these periodic conversations, after I have established my authority on the history of the Horn and which restaurant has the best kitfo in DC (Dukem, hands down), the question of “How often do you go back?” sometimes arises. To which I sheepishly respond “not often” with the sad truth being I had not been back to Ethiopia since I was seven. After years of these conversations and the guilt of being a ‘fraud’ weighing on my conscience, I resolved that I would go back at the next possible opportunity. This next opportunity ended up taking many years but finally came last August when I took an extra month off in between jobs.
The best description of my feelings of being in Ethiopia was relief. Specifically, relief that I was finally in the place I needed to be. While I grew up in the DC metro area surrounded by Ethiopians, I had a quintessential American childhood. As I grew older, there was a gnawing feeling that I needed to know more about my culture. I didn’t just want to be able to speak Amharic; I wanted cultural fluency. I wanted to understand the nuances that I had previously taken for granted. This desire is what drove me to finally go back to Ethiopia. The last time I was there I was just a little kid along for the ride—this time I was in the driver’s seat. Every day I woke up hungry to explore, eager to learn more about my surroundings.
Growing up ‘hyphenated,’ I sometimes felt a barrier existed between myself and my family. There was a lack of cross-cultural understanding that bred superficial interactions. I hoped going back to Ethiopia would make experiences with my family more authentic, and that, by understanding the environment in which they grew up, I would somehow be able to understand them on a deeper level. My entire life, I had seen them through my own lens and now I wanted to see life from their perspective.
Seeing life from their perspective required me to really understand the place and circumstances in which they grew up. It meant taking myself out of my own experience and living through theirs. And while a month in Ethiopia didn’t completely change my understanding, it has started the process.
So now whenever I get asked about my trip and experience in Ethiopia and I respond “I loved it”, I know I am not lying. It is a part of me – and that is what matters.