Neither Here Nor There: Perspectives on Identity by the Young Eritrean and Ethiopian Diaspora in America

October 21, 2009

Raising Your Child in America

Filed under: Uncategorized — Habesha Diaspora @ 10:37 pm
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As mentioned in our About Us page, I left Ethiopia at age 4 and grew up across the Netherlands and the USA.  I remember as a child having some difficulty reconciling the differences between the two cultures I lived on the daily.  On the one hand was talak makber, doro wot, Amarigna, etan on a lazy afternoon, buna, buna, and more buna.  On the other side was the Dutch, the English, Sinterklaas, Santa Clause, nursery rhymes, and french fries (among other things).  In my mind these vastly different worlds blended together seamlessly. 

There was no rift where one ended and the other began and I traversed the two worlds with ease blending them into one in my mind.  For some reason, though, those non-habesha around me always seemed to trip each time they caught a glimpse into my Habesha world.  Questioning looks when they come by and find the house filled with etan smoke, when they see injera for the first time, when my mother gives last minute instructions in a strange tounge.  After some time I learned it was best to not allow them into my Habesha world.  Initially it was not shame that led me there, but an inability to explain this other side in a way they could understand and value it as much as I did. 

After some time shame did creep in – for example after getting tired of smelling like wot each time I left the house.  I was never really harassed for being “African” though I vaguely remember the term “African Booty Scratcher” being thrown around.  I don’t remember anyone looking down on me as far as I could tell.  This, despite the fact that some of my most impressionable years came during the 80s famine which permanently imprinted the fly covered starving child with the distended stomach as the staple image of Ethiopia.  Yet, the constant differences between my two worlds gently lapped away at my confidence and sense of belonging – key components of a healthy childhood.

Over time with the maturity that comes with age, after spending time learning about my culture, after getting to befriend age peers with similar backgrounds that shame turned into tolerance, acceptance, and eventually pride.  There is no treasure in the world that could get me to change my culture and heritage. 

As I think about my future children (God willing there will be at least 2 🙂 ) I wonder what their experiences will be like.  How do I – a woman who grew up in two worlds help my children equally embrace and value the worlds that will be home for them?  What obstacles will they face that I never had to endure as they try to make their place in the world – or as they try to just be another kid in the class? 

My sister and I have met many interesting people through this book project and one such person is Ayanna Nahmias.  Ayanna is a woman who has traversed many worlds culturally, physically, and spiritually.  Here are some pictures of her that she has agreed to share with us: 

I recently ran across a blog entry Ayanna wrote about helping her 7 year old son overcome racism and anti-African reactions he experienced while in school.  I was touched by his confusion and frustration as that was around the same age that I first began to understand I was different from my peers.  I am inspired by the strength and conviction Ayanna and her mother tackle this difficult dillema.  She shows that it can be done and done well at that.  As a psychologist who has studied immigration and it’s impact on families I can spout out all the shoulds and shouldn’ts in raising a healthy bicultural child.  Hell, I do this on a regular basis for the Ethiopian Magazine Dinq and occassionally on the Ethiopian radio show Admas.  But inside I am afraid that when it gets to be my turn I will make too many mistakes.  My biggest fear is that my lack of “full Ethiopianness” will hinder me from being able to help my child connect to his or her Habeshanet.  Will it be the end of the world if my children area bit more American than Ethiopian?  No, of course not.  I just know I will be a bit sadder if I don’t at least provide the opportunity for them to connect to that side of themselves.


October 15, 2009

Do You Remember

Filed under: Uncategorized — Habesha Diaspora @ 9:10 am
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seleda header

Or are you too young to have taken an interest in that site?  I remember discovering by accident as a junior in college.  At that point in my life I had grown up very isolated from the habesha community.  In fact I made my first habesha friend as a sophomore at that university – this was the first time I was around another habesha who was anywhere near my age.  We are still close friends today almost 10 years later.  But I digress, Seleda, right?

Discovering Seleda was like being given a window into a world I didn’t even know I longed for.  It meant reading well written and humerous analyses of typical life happenings except it was through OUR lens! Written in a mix of English and Amarigna just like I speak!  The intelligent humor, sophistication, tenderness, and vulnerability with which the authors discussed life, love, hurt, death, longing for home, making a path in the diaspora, and trying to figure it all out was affirming, inspiring, comforting, and like having a piece of home.  Efoy – I said- lelam inde ene yemichigir ale leka.  The best part was that it appeared like the writers had a couple years on me so they provided a glimpse of what might come next in my life and struggles.  It felt like I was given a crystal ball to anticipate and prepare for what may come in my future.  I am the talak between my sister and I and it often felt like I was given the job of explorer who had to go out and forge a road that my sister could later possibly follow with more ease (should she so choose.)  Dad often called me the guinnea pig and trailblazer of the family because my parents learned parenting by trial and error of raising me…you can imagine what that could have been like.  Through Seleda I found my examples to look up to.  I found a place where I could see what normal angst is and how to traverse common pitfalls of life.

Well, I have good news – Seleda is back better than ever at I am happy to say they are as  witty, interesting, and humerous as ever.  To make their return even more meaningful for me, if you read the piece In Search of My Identity in the Diaspora by Teninet Bereket you will find some thoughts that very much fall in line with the concepts of this book project.


PS:  Here is a reprint of a previous Seleda piece that readers of this blog might relate to even more:

October 14, 2009

People’s Confusion about Race, Ethnicity, and Identity Comes Out…on Zahara’s hair?

Filed under: Uncategorized — Habesha Diaspora @ 3:01 pm
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Several weeks back I wrote a piece about hair being a component identity especially for people of African heritage (including African American.)  There is a new documentary called “Good Hair” by Chris Rock (I should specify it as part comedy part documentary) that discusses the issues for black women.  The response has been split where some thought he provided a lot of good information where as others felt this was a very serious topic that impacts women’s sense of self and self esteem – those in the second category did not appreciate his comedic approach to a topic they felt kept a lot of women down.  I haven’t seen it but I am curious to see if his wife, Malaak Compton-Rock, gives an opinion as I’ve been told she is part Ethiopian.

However, the reason I post this piece today is because of a link I received from a friend.  It is a blog in response to an online Newsweek Article that was written on how white adoptive parents are not good at helping their black children (especially daughters) take care of their hair.  It uses recent photos of Zahara as an example saying her white parents (Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie) were doing a bad job with her hair by letting her wear it curly and “uncombed.”  According to the argument white adoptive parents do not realize that black hair takes different types of care because they do not investigate the true cultural difference between their culture and their child’s culture (of origin).  They essentially raise their kids as a “white” child which then can (will?) cause problems for the child when they grow older and have to interact with the world that will be quick to point out that they are not “white.”  What really has me laughing (both out of frustration and humor) is that she is using the racist views of what “good hair” is to condemn Zahara’s parents.  Honestly, she raises a point that I have argued for some time:  cross cultural adoption can lead to MANY problems if the adoptive parents are not culturally aware enough to understand their own cultural background, their adopted child’s culture, and the culture they will raise their new child in.  It’s just funny for her to tell the Jolie-Pitts to get their daughter’s hair under control when the picture used for the article shows – in my mind – a clean, curly, oiled, natural black hairstyle – AKA a healthy natural look for a 4 year old Ethio (some would say black) girl!!

Anyway – the response blog addresses many of the topics brought up by this blog: cultural identity, living a dual cultural life, how coming to the U.S. at a young age impacts your cultural identity, how coming to the U.S. as a young child impacts others’ perception of your identity, African identity  compared to African American identity, and what is “good hair”.

Pay special attention to the reactions by the blog’s readers who are of many different ethnicities and cultures.

I would LOVE to hear your reactions to this!!

October 9, 2009

Extended Deadline

Filed under: Uncategorized — Habesha Diaspora @ 10:22 am


Due to numerous requests, the deadline for submissions in this book project has been extended to December 31st, 2009.

I am reminded of my freshman seminar class at the University I work at. There is this moment after a question is posed to the group of 30 or so students when they all gaze at the person who has asked them the question; a dead stare encompassed by wide occasionally blinking eyes that makes one question the academic vigor with which the university’s selection process was conducted. I know you guys are smart, I see your test scores and resumes! Why am I getting a vacant stare now? Has it really been that long since I was on the other side of the desk being asked a question that drew a blank for me?

Well, my question for you is: why haven’t I heard your voice? I see the number of hits to this page, but we’ve only heard from a handful of you. Here is the list that I’ve come up with:

– You don’t think you have anything important to say

– You keep saying “Yeah, I want to do that!” but never get around to it because of a busy schedule

– You are just shy

Well, even if you don’t think what you have to say is important, say it any way! You might not think so, but someone else might be moved by what you have to say. Or you may trigger someone else to say something insightful, or not, as well. That is the definition of dialogue. It doesn’t always have to be brilliant, but if it starts and continues it will rise and ebb like waves on the beach.

A busy schedule- I mean. I understand this one, actually. Life is busy here in the states. So how important is your identity to you? How important is it to you to help someone find their identity?

If you’re shy, there is this fancy little thing called a “pen name.” You can make it up. Call yourself Queen Elizabeth if you must. Then you can say whatever you like without fear of judgement or retaliation to your person.

Am I on point or way off? If you have not made a comment yet on this blog… I implore you! I am very interested in your opinion and response to my question: where are the voices?

October 1, 2009

Why you should submit. You. Yeah YOU sitting there reading this.

Filed under: Uncategorized — Habesha Diaspora @ 2:57 am

Why should you submit something to this project anyway?

First of all, it’s not just about you. Okay, so your submission is all about you. Granted. But the purpose of your submission is about more than just you. You may be shy and feel embarrassed to have something you wrote be published in a book. What if people think its stupid or something? I won’t take this excuse as a personal vendetta against the taste of my sister or myself. But in case the general public doesn’t agree with what we think is good, you can always publish ANONYMOUSLY! Yeah, you know that thing where great works are published but we never know who wrote them to begin with? We’ll have to know who you are when you submit it, of course, but we vow not to leak that information to anyone else if you so choose.

Listen, we are very excited about putting this book together and all but we want you to understand that this project is an opportunity. Heaven forgive me, but how many times have you wanted to yell at an “elder” and say “Listen, Lady! I didn’t grow up back home! How the heck am I supposed to know its another saint’s day?!” Or get in the face of a classmate because he or she tried to berate you for not knowing the lyrics to some played-out 80’s rap song. “Helllooo?! I didn’t speak English ‘till the 90’s, you culturally-insensitive hypocrite!” So maybe that’s just me being a bit…histrionic. But I know you know that feeling I’m talking about; dealing with unrealistic expectations and not getting credit for adapting in ways people do not realize. This book is one way to not just release that frustration, but show the world who we are. We are a beautiful generation born from the sacrifices of generations before us. Though all of us may not have turned out exactly the way our path had been envisioned by those who sacrificed for us, we have forged our own paths and we’re making a huge impact in this little world of ours called America. How many times has a stranger approached you to ask “Are you Ethiopian/Eritrean/Somalian/?” They know because they met someone who was Ethiopian/Eritrean/Somalian and that someone made a difference in their lives. Maybe that someone is you.

So, I say get out of your box. Be brave. Be courageous. Not just for yourself but for that someone out there who needs to hear your voice to realize its okay to just be him/herself. You never know who you will reach, but if you don’t try we’re always just going to be separate entities floating around in this world of potential. Discover something about yourself today. Discover something about someone else. Submit something. Not only do you have absolutely nothing to lose, but its an opportunity for you to grow as a person.

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