Growing up in America as a young Ethiopian girl was an indelible experience. Being different from everyone else led me to grow up very fast while also developing very thick skin.
Growing up in America as a young Ethiopian girl was an indelible experience. Being different from everyone else led me to grow up very fast while also developing very thick skin. To elaborate on that means to touch base on some very delicate moments of my past. Buckle up –this is going to be a rough ride.
My earliest memory of experiencing an African stereotype was in the second grade when my classmate asked me why my name sounded like a dinosaur and if I rode a lion to school every day. It was an eye-opener for me because I did not know quite how to react to a situation such as this; I could not tell if he was genuinely inquisitive about the origin of my name or if he wanted to embarrass me. Either way, I felt pretty lousy. This was the beginning of my own downward spiral in despising my culture and ultimately resenting my parents.
In America, if your skin is darker than mocha and your hair is anything but straight or wavy, you are most certainly due for long stares and furrowed brows. These looks of confusion mean that you are different from the rest and, more often than not, you will feel just how much of a minority you are. Surprisingly, my feelings of being the outcast did not come from Caucasian people as much as it came from people who looked just like me.
I was raised in Fresno, California, where there were a lot of minorities. Each person having his or her own culture, diverse name and history – I loved it. It was the accepting of my name, history, and culture that was difficult for people to understand. All of the differences I had with others I was willing to accept, but I didn’t feel any of that approval in return. This constant need to be accepted by my peers and my bullies is what veered me off the right path but eventually led me right back.
Once I entered middle school, I felt like it was the perfect time to create my own identity. My sister changed her name from Selam (which means peace) to Clara in order to steer clear of the constant laughs and jokes of being called “salami” or “African booty scratcher” (yes, people really called us that). I was anxious to change my name, so instead I changed my nationality; this was the beginning of Zimam – the half-black/Hawaiian girl. Oh boy, did I gain popularity and secret admirers. I realized a very unsatisfying fact about reality at this point in time, that being from Africa is significantly less fascinating than being from Hawaii.
The reasoning behind claiming that I was Black/Hawaiian is simply that it was my way of escaping middle school students’ harsh teasing and my feeling of being accepted. My classmates’ perceptions of Ethiopians were that of starving children with a poor standard of living. I was embarrassed by my culture and would do anything to escape from it, which even meant resenting my parents whilst simultaneously growing into a tortured confused adolescent. This went on until I went to college in the South, and suddenly I was treated with adoring stares and showers of compliments. I established a close friendship with a young woman named Khady, who was from Ivory Coast. She had the most striking dark chocolate skin, almond eyes, and she was so confident and proud of her heritage. I recognized after first meeting my present best friend that there is no one to please or fit in with if you do not have self-love and acceptance.
“If you know your history, then you would know where you coming from.”
– Bob Marley
I gradually flourished and ended the continuous need to feel accepted; this sudden act of confidence was a long time coming and was ignited by all that life prepared me for.
Shortly after college I moved to New York City. When New Yorkers would approach me, many of them would already know I was Ethiopian before I had the pleasure of informing them. Many people seemed interested in learning about my culture. Simply put, my experience with my culture in this metropolis was amazing and life changing. Through all of my life experiences, I was embarrassed by my culture, my parents, my language, and I was disappointed in myself for learning these behaviors.
Certain life experiences protect you against the next whirlwind of experiences that will corner you, so you just have to keep growing and conquering them.
Thankfully, I eventually learned to embrace my culture without fear of being teased (after many lessons) because as I matured, I grasped that what people think does not matter – finding your true identity and embracing it is true happiness.