Friday, March 28, 2008

A Return to Ethiopia

In my random things I told you that it is difficult for me to read one book at a time. So, while reading Of Beetles and Angels I also finished reading Held at a Distance: My Rediscovery of Ethiopia by Rebecca Haile. This book is the self-analysis of an adult born in Ethiopia having grown up in America. She tells a story of growing up privileged in Addis and attending the American school that taught none of the history, traditions, or culture of the country that surrounded it.

She talks about the only thing Ethiopian being a tukul in the middle of campus. It is where the few Ethiopian students sat with the one Ethiopian instructor presumably to learn Amharic but they spent more time trying to learn how to interpret their differentness in the school setting.

She tells a story of being in the girl scout troop on campus. The Ethiopian girls were puzzled by the earning of badges and the usefulness of what they were learning. I remember that the troop I belonged to (outside of my neighborhood) saw the whole sash and badge thing as a big honor. The girls in my neighborhood troop had white shirts with red press on letters that said "Brownies" or "Girl Scout". They thought my sash was silly and the badges unnecessary.

When I read both of these stories and see the longing to hold on to tradition but to move forward to opportunity it is familiar. It is the same for many of us in America who the more successful we become the more we are pulled from our roots and many of the unremarkable or unpolished family members that made us strong in who we are. It is the balancing act and bi-lingual way in which we communicate with our family and friends contrasted against who we must be in our professional lives. It reminds me that for all that we gain by shedding parts of ourselves we often feel caught between this America and that one. I didn't mean to turn the book review into more than that but the similarities are unmistakable.

Like Rebecca we return to our old neighborhoods or some family gatherings feeling connected by blood, tradition, and family ties but sometimes are disconnected because of the opportunities that we have had and the ways in which our lives have grown beyond that tight circle. It is the experience of excelling at universities and in work life but not feeling truly part of the community. It is feeling the need to attend churches that reaffirms our identity and validates our experiences. Without saying maybe some understand that I'm talking about the African American experience in America that sometimes is not understood as a separate and distinct experience. For those of us that live that curious balance daily, I know that you understand what I mean. I'm not alone on this right?

It may be hard to imagine that Mawi Asgedom's path to Harvard is probably quite the same of those African Americans born here that took that same path. No more surprising I guess than the fact that Mawi's Ethiopian mother told him the exact same thing that my Virginain mother told me, "Never forget who you are and where you come from." As he understood the words from his mother he understood that he had a responsibility to all those who struggle beside him and come behind him. His father taught him that angels are found in the most unlikely people. His father cautioned him to treat everyone with dignity as he may be in the presence of one of God's angels unaware. Like him, my mother told me to always be grateful for the smallest kindness that anyone showed me as it was all a blessing from God. She taught me by example to give unselfishly even when it seemed that you had very little for yourself. My mother like his father was known for her generous and giving heart.

A continent away but the words and feelings are the same. This is one of the reasons that I felt that I might be able to adequately parent a child from Ethiopia. I truly believed that culturally, Ethiopia was very similar to the culture that I grew up in. I believed that the my children's experience of growing up in America (finding their identity and their place) would in many ways parallel the same experiences that I had here in America. After reading these two books I see that connection more strongly and clearly!

1 comment:

Tami said...

Very good analysis! I definitely feel the same way as you. There are very many similarities in upbringing that should make it easier to raise an Ethiopian child. When I think about the Carribbean values that my family instilled in me they are remarkably the same.

I will read both of those books thanks to you...and I also have a problem of reading one book at a time. Are you a Gemini?

Original Court Date: April 18, 2009
Final Court Date: May 18, 2009
[607 total days & 165 days w/IAN]