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

January 22, 2010

Who Is Responsible For Us?

Filed under: Uncategorized — Habesha Diaspora @ 1:27 pm
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The recently released movie Avatar is a fantastic escape from realism however you leave contemplating the dilemmas people face:  the “war on terrorism”, how we treat the environment, the clash between majority and minority cultures, colonization and colonialism, spirituality and religion, gender roles, and these were just the ones it brought up for me.  A recent New York Times article discusses how many people have their buttons pushed by this movie.   According to the author David Itzkoff:

That so many groups have projected their issues onto “Avatar” suggests that it has burrowed into the cultural consciousness in a way that even its immodest director could not have anticipated. Its detractors agree that it is more than a humans-in-space odyssey — even if they do not agree on why that is so.

“Some of the ways people are reading it are significant of Cameron’s intent, and some are just by-products of what people are thinking about,” said Rebecca Keegan, the author of “The Futurist: The Life and Films of James Cameron.” “It’s really become this Rorschach test for your personal interests and anxieties.”

So, for today let me bring you into my “personal interests and anxieties”:

As engrossing, entertaining, visually stunning, and ground breaking (technologically) as this movie has been one piece that stands out for me as an Ethiopian born and west raised individual is how it continues to perpetuate the age old colonization story.  Rich white man has messed up his own, finds an unsuspecting group of “[savage]…blue monkeys”, plays nice to see if they can be tricked into giving up their goods, and then decides to obliterate in order to get what he wants.  The slight twist here is one of the colonizers has a change of heart after getting to know the natives and then plays a leading role to rescue them from the dangers in the end.  If it wasn’t for this white man the “savages” would likely be displaced at the least and destroyed in the worst case scenario. 

Yes this is “just a movie” but don’t estimate what subtle messages (intended or not) do to people.  In graduate school I worked with the Empowered Youth Programs which was an enrichment program for minority kids.  I led discussion groups for mostly African American kidsto get them thinking about ways they can take control of their life to ensure a happier more fulfilling future.  As I think of this movie I am reminded of one such group discussion.  At the time I had read how for African American men especially there are limited role models to relate to.  When you hear of a black man in the media he is usually a rapper, an athlete, or a criminal.  In the article it mentioned how a black man had significantly higher chance of becoming a succesful physician (statistically speaking) than a rapper or athlete yet many black men continually believe their place is in music or sports (even when they do not have the talent).  As a result, they misdirect their time and energy for an industry they are not likely to succeed in.  According to the article if these kids saw more teachers, doctors, lawyers, etc. then they could open their minds more when defining what it means to be a succesful black man.  More importantly, time and energy growing up can be used towards activities that could help them in these other pursuits (school, internships, etc.)  Despite the data, despite the stats, despite my heartfelt explanation the message fell on blank stares in that group.  The one 11 or 12 year old boy courageous enough to voice the common thought of the group basically stated my numbers were a bunch of crap and that he plans to pursue a career in the NFL no matter what I said.  When I asked if he has played in youth leaggues or at his middle school to prepare the answer was no.  What this child was telling me was that without training to play college ball nor the grades to get into college he expected to one day play for the NFL.  I backed down when I realized I was dangerously close to killing the only dream this child held.  One he felt the need to defend against this authority figure because without this dream he had nothing else to hold on to. 

In the summer of 2009 President Obama visited Ghana and gave a speech that was discussed on NPR a few days ago.  According to one Ghanaian listener Obama’s message at the time was that the future of Africa was in the hands of Africans.  The gentleman mentioned that prior to this speech Ghanaians and Africans depended on foreign aid to make significant changes in their world.  According to the gentleman this one man making this one statement has led Ghana to look internally more than ever to fix its own woes. 

After seeing Avatar I had a long conversation with a Jewish nearly retired coworker who initially disagreed with the argument that Cameron did a disservice by having the final hero be a white male.  This white man and I struggled through a difficult conversation on “micro aggressions” (a psychological term meaning “actions or inactions by individuals that perpetuate the status quo of racism, homophobia, sexism and xenophobia”, overt discrimination, discrimination across other demographics, social responsibility), the role of media in perpetuating beliefs, and on and on.  In the end we were able to connect through a “minor” media bit he had a reaction about.  Larry King is Jewish and his real name is Lawrence Harvey Zeiger.  He changed his name early in his career at the request of his boss and then built his career.  According to my co-worker, this small change of a name, that to many in and out of the community meant nothing, was feeding into the status quo belief that identifying as Jewish even ethnically (without practicing) is not ok.  He wished King would have stood up for himself as a message to Jews everywhere that they do not have to change who they are to be accepted by mainstream America. 

As the New York Times article states, we each react to the world around us based on the lens that developed from our personal experiences.  As my co-worker pointed out, asking an affluent (some say arrogant) white director to make a movie that is sensitive to all the criticisms (including mine) that are brought against the movie is a tall order.  I understand this and yet still wonder how much more powerful a message it could have been had he been able to make a small  (in my view) adjustment of giving the Na’Vi a larger role in their own salvation (please do not read any religious context in that word – I am talking about something completely different.)  However, what I do appreciate about this movie is that it has opened up an opportunity for dialogue between people who see and think differently.  Were it not for Avatar, this conversation between my co-worker and I would never have happened and I am grateful for the opportunity to better connect and understand a man who comes from such a different background than I. 

In closing I want to bring this conversation to the Eritrean and Ethiopian diaspora.  Similar to African Americans, if we see our faces in the media it is usually around famine, war, or some other chalamity.  The message, especially for young Eritreans/Ethiopians who do not have their own memories of that land and people, is that we are victims, can’t help ourselves, and we are not as good as the west.  I pray for more positive representations of our people to build the moralle and initiative in us.  That is one of the biggest reasons that Liya and I are working on this book project.  We want to show the wide varieties of options for kids who look like us.  Liya recently wrote a piece for Ethiopian Americans for Change discussing how our people are good at following the status quo of what is put before us.  (How many of you have taxi drivers, doctors, and small store owners in your family? How many of your parents want you to follow in these footsteps?)  Part of this project is showcasing the diversity of the diaspora so people who are so inclined may be encouraged to get off the beaten path and pusue their passions and talents – to encourage people to be true to who they are.  As my co-worker said, I might be expecting too much of the majority culture to ask them to focus on my people, but that doesn’t mean that I can’t.   Half African Obama has done tons for the morale of Africans and African Americans, what could succesful Ethiopians and Eritreans do for our people?  To see what succesful Eris and Ethios are doing go to our facebook group and scroll through the wall.  I regularly showcase our people there. 

Are you doing something unique and doing it well?  Are you following the usual path but are enjoying it?  Get in touch with us at – I would love to showcase you as well.


January 13, 2010

Loving and Living

Filed under: Uncategorized — Habesha Diaspora @ 9:44 am

Growing up watching Disney and Hollywood’s version of love and courtship, I thought romance and partnering were things that would naturally happen when the “right” time came.  According to my parents the “right” time was once I was done with school.  So I diligently finished high school, college, and 2 graduate degrees without worrying about love.  I was further lulled into complacency at those times by the wide variety of good boys and men I was surrounded with (aka driven, interesting guys with good intentions and good hearts who seemed to hold similar long term goals as I did.)

Fast forward to post school life and I now realize things are a bit different on the outside.  Ok, a lot different.  Suddenly I work at a job where I am the youngest employee (by about 5-10 years), the only professional of color, and the only single person.  I have gone from being surrounded by likeminded potential partners to spending 40+ hours a week focusing on everything but dating.  If you are a professional you know that when you come home after work you’re tired and have less interest in being out and about.  Between other projects I am working on and trying to keep a decent gym schedule my weeknights are booked as well  This leaves a couple weeknights and weekends to meet a potential partner and do the usual getting to know you stuff that helps lead to a future relationship.

The other problem that exists is finding a suitable mate.  As an immigrant woman of color who is also a young professional, the world is ready to tell me that my chances of partnering are lower than average. (By partnering I mean a meaningful relationship that leads to a healthy marriage.)  The first of these came from some of the African American women I studied with when I was in graduate school.  It is a well known fact that Black (I consider myself Black as well) professional women find it harder to find someone (especially a Black man) they can relate to and get along with enough to maintain a long term relationship.  This is such a prevalent concern that ABC News recently did a piece on it!  Take a look at these beautiful succesful women and their stories.

According to someone I recently spoke with, The “curse” to dating that comes from having too many letters after your name also is a dilemma for Habesha women.  Near my home there is a coffee shop where a lot of older Eritrean gentlemen gather and chitchat – yes, men chitchat too.  One of these men is a very friendly and wise fatherly figure who took me under his wing when I was regularly studying there for my licensing exams last year.  He would check and see how I was doing and impart points of wisdom before leaving me to my books.  One day he began talking about dating and young people.  He is known in the community and often is called in to settle disputes and problems.  He mentioned that when he meets parents of late adolescent and young adult females he tells their parents to make sure their daughters marry quickly.  He said if a girl finds someone she gets along with while she is in college, don’t get in the way.  The longer the girl waits the harder it is for her to find a man who can be comfortable with what she accomplishes.  He said based on what he has seen if a “girl” has a PhD. And is not yet in a committed relationship it’s “over” for her….as young as I look he didn’t realize I had one of those.  He mentioned a girl with a PhD. will have to open up her options to non Eritrean/Ethiopian because there aren’t enough of our men who will be confident and secure enough to be with her.  Now, don’t misread what he is saying – he is not saying this is impossible, but it is just harder.  I’m not sure if it is really just about confidence or security but I think there is something going on here.

Another barrier to finding a long term partner is differing goals.  This is a problem for both men and women.  This has impacted me personally in that when I finished grad school, I had just gotten out of a long term relationship (almost 4 years) and was not ready to think about being in a relationship for about a year.  Then, when I was ready, I was meeting men who weren’t interested in a long term commitment.  We live in a time where there are so many options that finding someone who is looking for the same thing you are can be hard to find.  When you do meet that person you might not find the attraction/chemistry you’re looking for.  This appears to be a wide spread problem.  I recently watched a documentary Single which points out that “there are 100 million unmarried adults in America and for the first time ever, the majority of US households are headed by an unmarried person.” According to Single,The simple explanation is that we marry later, divorce a lot, and live longer. But there’s more to it than that.  Today’s life is more complex, intense, and demanding. As a result, finding and maintaining a lasting relationship has become even more challenging.”  The documentary states there are several reasons for this:

  • “The accelerated evolution of women in the latter part of the 20th century has resulted in many more lifestyle choices for both men and women.
  • We live in a youth obsessed, instant gratification, attention deficit world.
  • Our expectations of finding the “perfect” partner and maintaining the “perfect” relationship have never been higher.”

Again, are these all the reasons?  I don’t know. All I know is that it’s not easy.

The funny thing to me is that everyone wants to give you advice.  Many of my friends and I have the regular check ins from parents and other relatives urging us to settle down and telling us what we need to do to make it happen.  Then my friends and I talk about what we are doing wrong and right to work towards a lifetime to a partner.  There are books (how many of you have read Steve Harvey’s Act Like A Woman Think Like A Man?), movies (He’s Just Not That Into You is pretty on point in my mind), advice columns, and more.

Well, here is my two cents for what it’s worth.  You have to respect yourself and others, listen to your instincts, compromise but not settle, and know what you want.  Once you’ve got those things in order you gotta be P-A-T-I-E-N-T…that’s the hard part.

Oh yeah – be nice, don’t string anyone along if you’re not sure what you want.  That is selfish and unfair.

Finally – a little prayer never hurts.  🙂

January 12, 2010

Neither Here Nor there

Filed under: Uncategorized — Habesha Diaspora @ 8:52 am
Tags: , ,

Here are a few comedic looks at the extreme worlds our people are trying to balance (stereotypical as they may be):

January 4, 2010

Who Am I?

Filed under: Uncategorized — Habesha Diaspora @ 11:11 am
Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Figure 1

Whether you call it Hookah, Shisha, waterpipe, or whatever it’s a trend that has taken over the country.  I remember how a friend once told me how years ago he almost got arrested for having one because his roommate thought he was doing drugs.  He had to show his roommate and the cops online documentation to prove it was a tobacco smoking device.  This was hilarious because he is the last person on this earth who would ever touch illegal drugs.  The Habesh community has been familiar with this device for many years, though.  As ingrained as it is in parts of our culture – you can imagine it is not the healthiest activity.  Here is a piece written by my friend Lewholum Apothecarian, a person in advanced studies to enter the health care field, on the effects of Shisha smoking:

Well I go by many names: shisha, hookah, nargile, narguileh or ghalyun but just refer to me as a tobacco waterpiping system that is the most efficient – cost effect, time effect, and potent- way to obtain nicotine in the world! It is human nature to look for the biggest bang for a buck, so for all you tobacco smokers -think about your friendly waterpipe! Well, why am I so good? I am able to us my amazing waterpiping technology to provide you with about 100 to 200 times of inhalable smoke than any cigarette may provide (1). So what does that really mean? Well I can assure to give you about 2.96 mg of nicotine (only 1.74 mg in a cigarette), 145 mg carbon monoxide (only 17.3 mg in a cigarette), and 802 mg of “tar” (only 22.3 mg in cigarette) as research at Virginia Commonwealth University have conducted (2). No wonder I am referred to as a “social activity,” I provide you so much you might as well share (3).

              So how do I work? You put the tobacco product on my head (Figure 1) then cover with aluminum, than add ignited charcoal onto of the aluminum. (You might find that there are “herbal shisha” with no tobacco nor nicotine but it is highly unlikely you will encounter these products in your local stores). With your inhalation, the pressure depletion will lead to the triple layer interaction of the charcoal, aluminum, and tobacco; which will lead in the metallic tasting product of carbon monoxide and other cancer causing chemicals to be drawn towards you. But no worries, as this metallic taste can be masked with a wide variety of flavorings (2). I have found the mint flavor goes well with the carbon monoxide and recommend the apple flavor to take care of the metallic taste.

              See, the key to my proficiency is the natural water at the bottom of the waterpipe. It has been set forth that our bodies can only handle a certain amount of nicotine before we feel nauseated thus restricting the amount of cigarettes that we inhale. See my magnificent set up reduces the concentration of nicotine in the inhaled smoke thus enabling us to inhale so much more of the “triple layer (2).”

              I just want to leave you with the thought that research has not linked any respiratory or cardiovascular problems with me compared to the many other alternative tobacco products. Although little research has been conducted on me, I assure you that with my providing 36 times the tar and 8.4 times the carbon monoxide at one sitting, you will not be on the good side of the data curve in future scientific case studies. I cannot let you light me up, if I do not recommend the use of an individual mouthpiece to reduce sexually transmitted disease. Then again, it is worth noting that no proof has directly shown me as a cooperate in any sexually transmitted disease circulating in society.

In conclusion, please review all the links I have provided to you and make your own decision if I am the best way to consume tobacco products for you.

1                    World Health Organization Study Group on Tobacco Product Regulation, “Waterpipe Tobacco Smoking: Health Effects, Research Needs and Recommended Actions by Regulators”, World Health Organization, 2005,

2                    Shihadeh & Saleh (2005) Food & Chemical Toxicology Vol. 43(5).


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