I’m as Ethiopian as I am American
In the weeks following the tragic events at the Charlie Hebdo offices and the kosher supermarket in Paris in January 2015, I spent a lot of time reflecting on the differences in cultural assimilation between
In the weeks following the tragic events at the Charlie Hebdo offices and the kosher supermarket in Paris in January 2015, I spent a lot of time reflecting on the differences in cultural assimilation between the United States and France. I had conversations with friends comparing American inner-city ghettos to the banlieues of the French suburbs. I watched as the media reported on so-called “no-go zones” in France and the UK.
The homegrown nature of the attacks, carried out by French immigrants, caused me to reflect on how immigration–and by extension assimilation–in Europe differs from America. The topic of assimilation is one that I frequently think about as the child of Ethiopian immigrants who grew up in the melting pot of the Washington, D.C suburbs surrounded by people born in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. In the aftermath of Charlie Hebdo, and the numerous attacks that have followed since, it’s clear that the topics of cultural assimilation and identity are fraught with tension and contradiction. Cultural identity, after all, is incredibly subjective and in my case, something that has evolved over time.
My bologna sandwiches had berbere in them…
I realized at a young age that I was a little different from my peers at my socio-economically diverse–but surprisingly progressive–white Catholic school. My bologna sandwiches had berbere in them and while my sister and I were given Anglo-sounding names, the same couldn’t be said for my parents, Mesfin and Sossena. I remember trying to translate my parents’ names for parent teacher conferences. I turned Sossena into Susan but couldn’t find a direct translation for Mesfin. In a school where everyone seemed Irish, I felt distinctly Ethiopian.
In high school, at an all-boys blazer-and-tie prep school, I blended in with the 100 or so other 14-year old boys entering the school with the exception that I was only one of a handful of brown faces. With so few brown and black faces at all, I didn’t feel any special need to draw further division. I didn’t share “my story” and people didn’t ask. Passing trigonometry and making the soccer team were more pressing issues at the time than exploring my heritage.
College was different. Perhaps it was because I was meeting so many new people and answering the question, “Where are you from?” that I began to really reflect on where was I from, and by extension “Who am I?” When asked the question, my answers would vary. If someone was asking to figure out where I grew up, I responded DC. But sometimes the question was posed as what is your ancestry, or “Lakew – what kind of name is that?” In those cases it felt great to respond with “Ethiopia” to someone who either knew me or cared.
For the first time, I found people who had a story similar to mine, both fully Ethiopian and American.
It was in those instances, when my chest would puff out and I would respond proudly “Ethiopia” that I realized my view of my Ethiopian identity had changed. I realized I was proud of this difference, this other. It was as much a part of me as my 90s American childhood. My Ethiopian identity, I realized, was an important part of my story, and one, that up until that point, I had either tried to conform to fit another narrative, or simply ignored completely.
In the years since college, that pride has stayed with me. And from it has come a curiosity to learn more about the country of my parents. After graduation, I moved to New York, where I found myself drawn to the vibrant community of Habeshas–Ethiopian and Eritrean–living in the city. For the first time, I found people who had a story similar to mine, both fully Ethiopian and American.
Growing older, I now see myself as the sum of my experiences rather than any one particular place. Moving back to DC and seeing the places of my childhood has reminded me that while we are constantly changing, the places more or less stay the same. Like going back to your old classroom and trying to fit into your 3rd grade desk, something that once fit no longer does.
Amanuel Lakew is an investment professional at a middle-market mezzanine credit fund. He is passionate about economic empowerment for marginalized communities, the intersection of business and policy, and the exploration of different cultures. Amanuel received a B.Sc. in Economics from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania and lives in Washington, D.C. You can connect with him on LinkedIn.
Featured image courtesy of Ron Espina.