Date: Tuesday, July 20, 1999 (12:32 p.m. EST)
Subject: Superficial Assimilation Could be the Answer
Indemin aleh, Ato Biruk:
Much relieved that you chose the English route (my Amharic is not what it
should be). I send you greetings from the neither side of the Mason-Dixon
where we can often be caught drawling "ya'll," and "ain't" but would never
stoop to chewing tobacco
in a professional setting. [I'm probably
reinforcing your lofty New England preconceptions - I'm assuming you have
some, of course - but suffice it to say that the sinesiriat
behind the famous Southern Hospitality were developed solely to confound
you Yankees into actually liking your Southern, Confederate-Flag-flying,
never-say-die cousins.] Actually, my part of the American Pie, Northern Virginia
(a.k.a. NOVA), is much like Egypt in its attempts at disassociating itself
from the stereotypical South. If Egypt could pull up it's skirts and jump
over that pesky Red Sea into the bosom of Middle East proper, so would NOVA
bound over Maryland and nestle comfortably anywhere between Pennsylvania
and Maine. Failing that, in time, we may attempt to secede from the rest
of Virginia and form our own Independent State. We shall call it: New Ethiopia!
[Okay, okay, no need to wiha mertchet! I'm awake now.]
So, was high school traumatizing for me? Not really. I commuted to school
(no boarding for me until college) and aside from the usual beginner's hiccups,
I blended right in. Okay, my accent was a little off (I spent three years
in a British system school in Southern Africa before our move to the US in
my early double-digit years) and I did sport an Afro (egads! a massive fashion
faux pas for the early 80s), and my sense of dress and color coordination
was, oh, African, but I didn't get too much flack for it from my peers. I
did the Ethiopian thing and formed alliances with other non-American types
(Indians and Asians) and we clung to each other until the Caucasian waters
warmed up and we condescended enough to cross over and play in their less
intellectually gifted side of the pool (my but aren't we arrogant!). I cannot
claim that I had more than two born-and-bred-in-America friends all the way
through my high school career. However, that does not seem to have hindered
my ability to assimilate at will with white-bread American society.
My assimilation is at best half-hearted and at worst, completely superficial,
but that may have been the secret to my success. I was able to blend in the
cultural jungles without loss of sense of self, and more importantly, loss
of my Ethiopianness. Or so I thought. It was not until the mid-80s when my
mother and grandmother joined us that we (my siblings and I) became suddenly
aware of how much we had lost of our culture, our language and our history.
Although our ability to comprehend rudimentary Amharic fooled us into thinking
we still had a grip on the language, more and more we were speaking English
than not. Stumped for the right word in Amharic? Well, say it in English,
then. Unbeknownst to us, our practice of speech had slowly transformed from
Amharic with English interwoven, to English with Amharic barely interspersed.
Upon arrival, my grandmother, bless her heart, couldn't speak a word of English
and so we had to reach back - way back! - into our language banks, and dust
off our Amharic. Thus began our on-going journey on the road to language
Which brings me neatly to your other question: Do I miss not having grown
up in Ethiopia? Until recent years, I would have said, no, not really. But
when I hear other Etiopiawits talk about Nazaret School reunions
and reminiscences about picnics in Bishoftu and Sodoré, and camping
trips, I feel excluded from a past that should have been mine as well but
for the grace of God (or the machinations of the devil). Throw into that
having been separated from my mother and my grandmother, then I would have
to say, Yes. I don't know who I would have been had I been brought up in
Ethiopia. Would I be more or less the same? Or would I be radically different
from the bohemian-at-heart I tend to be now? [More importantly, would I be
able to better digest injera and
berberé?] I don't know. That would be the road never
traveled. I am left only with my imagination and certain cues from cousins
of mine who were brought up in Ethiopia and who are nearly as Americanized
as I am now (those burger-eating, TV-quoting, Spanglished gals - you know
who you are!). I resent having to ask the definition to certain words or
having to slip back into English to save face. I speak Amharic with an accent,
okay! Not a bad one, mind you, bihonim, amarignayé la-la yale
new. Still, I feel luckier than some other cultural hybrids who do
not speak Amharic at all.
So, do I want to go back? Bedemb newa!!! I fear that my
expectations far exceed the reality, but nothing beats home, you know. About
two years ago, I was flying over African soil - albeit at 90,000 feet - and
as we were descending over Jo'burg, I wept. I was going to breathe African
air for the first time in over 15 years, bask under the African moon, see
the Southern Cross again. I cannot imagine that I will touchdown in Ethiopia
without blubbering like an idiot. Just writing this down, I feel the band
of nostalgia tightening around my heart. Still, visiting can't ever replace
the feeling of growing up there and deep down inside, I'm afraid that I would
be culture-shocked into beating a hasty retreat. When (not if) my homecoming
occurs, I shall be sure to write it all down for my fellow SELEDA-ites.
My oldest brother, who went to St. Josef, used to regale us with stories
of recess time "warfare," boys being boys and the "Brothers" punishing them
for it. I ate up those stories, living vicariously through a 12-year-old's
long past memories. So, now I would like to know what your fondest memories
are of growing up in Addis, what you used to do in your leisure time, where
you went to school, what you missed the most when you left, etc.
I'm actually doing this from work. I have the kind of office environment
one might see portrayed on a sitcom. There are only two men in the office
at any given time (minus delivery and maintenance guys), one of whom constantly
complains about being excluded from our frequent tete-a-tetes on beauty and
hair tips. I'm not convinced that he's joking all the time. But I'll cut
off here and take this up for my third entry.
Patiently awaiting your anecdotes on growing up at home
Ser [exactly 2 pages] gut
[Note to Editors: Do I get Extra Credit for this or would the request make
my Ferenginet glow neon in the cyberspace
dark?]..[The editors respond: We'll let you know as soon as
we find our dark shades to fend off the blinding glare...]
Date: Friday, August 13, 1999 (2:52 PM EST)
Subject: As I Debunk Assimilation
Tena Yistilgn emete Sergut:
I hope I have not taxed your patience too much and that you will forgive
me for my tardiness. I did not mean to be this ye wuha shita.
I could list a whole bunch of reasons, but none of them would suffice. Yet,
after consulting the SELEDA LD Manifesto, I thought I might as well go through
some of them hoping they would get me on your good side and get that
ye-sela ye-SELEDA seif out of the way.
Well, the first reason is that I have been sort of a tourist guide for the
past couple of months. It all started when my older brother decided to get
married in June. Suddenly family members and friends I haven't seen for a
decade descended upon Boston. For some of them it was a good opportunity
to take an extended vacation and escape ye-Addis Ababa'n ye-tenzaza
ye-Nehase zinab. Luckily, the weather in Boston cooperated ever so
nicely with near-perfect temperature and dew point while the rest of the
country stewed in a 100-degree soup. Perfect also for discovering every mall
within a 50-mile radius of Greater Boston. That done, I had to enlist the
help of some abeshas to explore some of the tiny neighboring
states. What happened there, I would just say wustun le-Qes
and move on. Anyway, all of the above tintena is to say I was
not able to write anything from home!
Ah, but why didn't I write from work? While I remember telling you about
the "no pressure" atmosphere at the office, it seems like somehow evil people
got to read my first entry and decided to turn up the heat. The 'synergy'
that was supposed to exist between different divisions didn't really materialize
until very late, and suddenly I was getting calls from all kinds of people
saying the product has to be out by September 1. Apparently somebody's butt
is on the line. So I have been very busy these past couple of weeks trying
to save everybody's butt including mine, but also very determined that I
leave at 5:00 PM so that I can go home and be a tourist guide.
Actually, although I call it being a tourist guide in jest, it is quality
time that I spend with my mom and sisters whom I had not seen for close to
10 years. This summer reminds me of home more than any other time since I
moved to the US. I guess all the memories I have been suppressing to avoid
homesickness are flooding back as I reminisce at length with my family.
Which brings me to your question of what my fondest memories are, etc.
I suppose what stands out most in my mind are the weddings of my two uncles,
mostly because of the contrast I observed at my brother's wedding. The weddings
at home were for me an uninterrupted time of chifera, zefen, meblat,
meTetat, mechawet, etc. As you know, it all starts weeks ahead of
the wedding. Dinkuan ena das teTlo, Telana Tej teTmqo, everybody
in the neighborhood would come to help out, some with the cooking and
preparations and others with singing and madameq. And this
would go on for a week after the wedding until the mels is
Incidentally, I, too, went to St. Joseph
kindergarten through 12th grade.
If I was not doing the usual egr' quas merageT, I was dutifully
doing schoolwork or reading books (ye-amarigna lib-weled in
the early years, cheap novels in English in the middle years and non-fiction
later). Luckily though, the brothers at St. Joe had different clubs set up
so it was easy to get involved in extracurricular activities. I did time
at the photo and hiking clubs.
Photography was more of an individualistic activity whereas the hiking club
was where the fellows bonded. Every three weeks or so, we would meet up at
different edges of the city and go hiking into the countryside. One of the
most enjoyable parts was when we would get to some gojo beit
in the woods and the lady of the house would offer each one of us a
Tasa mulu Tela.
The more fun hiking trips were the ones we took when school was out. These
were week-long (sometimes two-week) trips which went much further than just
the surroundings of Addis Ababa: the many crater lakes around the Debre-Zeit
area (the main attraction being Babugaya since the brothers had a house there),
Sodere, Langano, ZiQuala, the Sof Omar caves in Bale, etc.
Ahhh, I tell you, too much reminiscing is not good 'cause all the good things
I left behind, I shall always miss. So let me come back to the present and
continue enumerating my reasons for not getting back to you sooner. I don't
know what kind of quragna ende-telakebgn, but every time I
open my Outlook program, I find an e-mail from a certain lib ye-mitserq,
manenetua yaltaweqe shenkorit. So I have been listening to Tilahun
Gessesse's song "Ere min yishalegnal?" and wasting away what
little free time I have! [Editors: can I get more
personal?]--[The Editors respond: only if you get REAL
personal.--] I won't bore you with
the details. [Hmm. We didn't think so...]
Do you listen to Amharic songs? Actually I shouldn't even be asking this
silly question since you live right there in the center of it all (NOVA).
I ask only because the question of assimilation came up and your answer was
superficial assimilation. I admire the way you have managed to blend in without
losing your Ethiopian-ness.
My approach to assimilation is markedly different. I never wanted
blend in because after all is said and done, I know this will never be home.
I guess my expectation of going back to Ethiopia has still not completely
dissipated. Unfortunately, like so many other people, it won't happen any
So the question remains - "What does it mean to be an Ethiopian?" To be honest,
I have never really thought about it myself, nor found the debate of assimilation
to be as important or as angebgabi as, I suppose, I ought to.
I have always thought of my stay here in America as being temporary, so I
can't say I have really tried assimilating or becoming "Ethio-American".
I suppose I always remember the advice my dad gave me before I left home:
"No matter what happens, don't forget that you are going to be a foreigner
anywhere you go outside of Ethiopia". His experiences and that of most of
his generation in America were not particularly positive. Unfortunately,
they were here before the heydays of the civil rights era, and so almost
all of them returned home upon finishing their education.
So simply being Ethiopian to me has become the only way of maintaining
the traditions of and connections to back home. It has not been very easy,
especially during college at a tiny town in northern New Hampshire, where
I didn't get to interact with a lot of Ethiopians. Anyway, I even went to
the extent of trying to maintain my distinct abesha accent,
even though there was a lot of pressure to lose it quick.
Most of all, being Ethiopian and maintaining my Ethiopian-ness means being
able to express myself req'q bale amarigna and being understood
with little or no explanation. It means being able to not have to explain
my motives constantly, where my Ethiopian nuances are simply accepted without
a lot of "esu malet eko
" Equally important also, is being
able to mashkormem qonjo qonejajitn :-) with no fear or hassle
or misunderstanding - simply being myself - Ethiopian!
Oh well, the sun is coming up and I must head for bed. Hoping to hear from