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

January 22, 2012

Movie “An Ethiopian Love” Expands what it means to be “Ethiopian”

This past Gena, my roommate and I found ourselves with nowhere to go.  My Americanized family only does the western calendar and her family had broken from tradition and was not doing their usual family gathering.  Both of us felt out of sorts and longing for something so we called up our usual small group of Eritrean & Ethiopian friends and asked them to come over for dinner.  We spent the day cooking wot and other deliciousness laughing at how long it had been since either of us had a good enough reason to engage this labor intensive process.  It was short notice so the spread wasn’t as wide as would normally be the case but it worked.

Around 8pm our crew gathered at the crib and we indulged in the food, the conversation, and each other.  This is a motley crew of Ethiopians and Eritreans who have spent significant enough sections of our lives outside our country of birth.  Among the group I had probably spent the least amount back home.  This is a group of late 20s and early 30-somethings that lives an eclectic blend of that and this culture.    This group feels home for me because we each straddle at least two worlds.

After dinner and wine we settled in the living room and my friend Danny, one of the crew who is as comfortable on the Ethiopian side of the straddled line as he is on the American side, showed us the trailer of the latest “habesha movie” to come out.  It felt like my heart skipped a beat as it saw this:


The definition of what it means to be Ethiopian just broadened a bit to include more of us who want to be included but don’t know if we are allowed in the “Ethiopian” club.  To go back to my experience growing up (birth to age 4 in Ethiopia, age 4 to 9 in Wageningen , Netherlands, and age 9 to now in the U.S.) I always called myself Ethiopian but never realized how westernized I was until after fully immersing myself into the young adult Ethiopian community of Atlanta post graduate school.  I still claim Ethiopian (rather than Ethiopian American for example) but who am I trying to kid?  Maybe it’s because I only know young adults in Atlanta (there are rumors of our peers in New York and California being “different” than Ethiopians in the A) but most of the Ethiopian women my age around here are quite different from me (minus the small group I keep around me).  I see several of what appear to be like minded women in passing but for some reason we don’t really reach out to one another.  Maybe we have all grown tired of the ridicule, the “you don’t know about this?”, the sense of feeling not “Ethiopian enough” to be accepted.

My heart skipped a beat when I saw this trailer because for many young Ethiopians growing up in the U.S., some of whom may be just as uninformed about back home as Yoni’s character in the movie, this film says you can still claim Ethiopian while doing you.

Hear me when I say, I’m not talking about the plot.  I haven’t seen this film so I can’t say what message it will send out to many eager young (western) Ethiopians who see their faces, interests, English preference, style, & music reflected back to them all at once on the big screen for the first time.  These are young people who don’t see themselves in mainstream western media (though we notice random moments like the Ethiopian soap opera star in the U.S. or the Habesha VJ on Italian MTV).  Nor do they see their thoughts, culture, language skills, or humor reflected in Ethiopian movies.  For once their two worlds will converge in a validating public forum that says – yes, you mixed cultural young Ethio-American – you are another face of what it means to be a young Ethiopian living in the west.  For better or worse your experiences are just as valid as anyone else’s that has been represented on the big screen.

I speak to you, the “mixed up” young Ethiopian who is unsure of how your cultures and experiences fit together.  You are welcome at the table of so called “Ethiopians”.  Sit alongside those who have a strong sense of who they are as Ethiopians.  You are part of the tapestry, the different faces, the different experiences of what it means to be of Ethiopia descent.


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