Who are the strangers next to me? What is this weird native tongue that they speak; what sound do they make? Is it more like chewbacca, from star wars, if anything? Why do I see the colors: red,blue, and green as if it’s christmas happening in may, with no santa claus? What is this pungent odor of what smells like lentils and goats, but better yet, why am I here? I do not belong in this festival, yet my parents insists I do. I know very few of them, let alone knowing how to communicate with most of them. These are the questions that are aroused from my head the morning of Eritrean independence day.This day is a celebration of Eritrea’s sovereignty, a sovereignty they secured after they battled Ethiopia for three decades over a strategic strip of land along the Western coast of the Red Sea, a land they now call Eritrea. Every year there is a festival held in downtown Seattle, which is supposed to show the pride for “our” country, a country that I had never stepped foot in, a country I knew little about, and a country I would always want [had never tried] to learn about. I know life is hectic, and I would lie if I said I learned everything I need about this land. Any other independence day, I wouldn’t care, I would sit by the fountain, eating food as I had always happily done every year prior to this one. But this year, as I had turned sixteen, I was asked to help set up the event and activities with the other young men who appeared to be my age. Prior to this year’s Independence festivities, I had never participated in any of the activities the youth group set up; I don’t even know the native language, and I had only a vague grasp on the history; yet my parents had the audacity to say that I was the perfect candidate. As I was talking to my parents I insisted that they made a mistake explaining to them my lack of knowledge about our ethnic heritage and the history of where we came from. My mother then replied that my blood goes back two generations to Eritrea adding that I Should be ashamed. Ashamed of what? That I’m a second generation immigrant? As a second generation immigrant? Well, I feel I should have long asked these questions, I might have save myself some embarrassing moments.
“What is Eritrea like?”
“Why did we leave?”
“What were our people like?”
“How do you speak Tigre?”
Honestly, many questions to ask.
It seems like these would be the first questions to ask, but when you are being forced to assimilate yourself from one social ethnic society to another you subconsciously loose ties to who you were as you are focusing on who you are to be. It is through this process that people have unknowingly become a victim towards a more interconnected society.This is a direct result of globalization. In the Awakening of this new era, technology has made us become a victim to its unforgivable integration of our society.As we are more integrated we lose the little things that makes us unique. I myself am one of these many victims.The moment I had exited the womb, I was no longer Eritrean, I was American. Until recently none of these questions had ever become relevant to me,but now I realize how truly oblivious I am to my cultural heritage. But is this bad? Since when have any of these questions ever been applicable in my life? Is this not me assimilating to the system as I should be? Until two weeks ago these were my subconscious excuses I used to cover my lack of knowledge on the area. The reason had nothing to do with school ,and more to do with my involvement in the festival that was to take place in downtown Seattle. When I was asked about my cultural heritage by random people, I told them what I knew, and when I did, they all gave me a look of disgust or concern. It wasn’t until a woman called me an ¨American¨ rather than an Eritrean that the concern had started to make sense, kind of. Although this was an elder, I couldn’t help but wonder why this aversion towards the nation that gave you salvation from war and tirrany. She then responded in her broken English, “You are very naive, you are not educated in the right ways.”
This lousy accusation did not only get me enraged but intrigued me as well. How does she call a young man who had been placed in the top eighty seventh percentile in every single subject of the SAT ,and was in Honor Society “not educated”? As self centered as this may have been, it was not out of selfishness ,but out of curiosity.
I then asked the lady politely, ¨Why?¨
She,once again, said, ¨You’re American?!¨
It sounded almost ironic that she calls me naive when her only response to why I’m not educated is that I’m an American.
I then asked, “How am I not educated , just because I’m an American?”
How she answered to me made me feel like the most dumbfounded person in the festival. As she responded, she shook her head ,and said, “ You are not dumb up here,” as she pointed towards my head ,”but in here,” as she pointed to my heart. As cheesy and cleshé as it may have sounded, she, nevertheless, supported her statement. She said that the school system I was in only taught to look into life and the world through one perspective; through learning this one perspective, I lose the ability to look into things through the rest of my perspectives. As I was taking a second for her argument to settle in my mind, I started to realize that this was the result of the cultural system I am raised in. Society wants me to think in one way, for if I think in multiple ways, there might be consequences. As constricted as this may sound, it is nothing to look down upon. In some cases these limitations help individuals who otherwise could potentially harm themselves and the people around them. The way that she explained this to me got me thinking about her point, but she did not totally have me convinced that this was a problem.This was only the first encounter of many more to come over the course of my involvement in the festival. The most peculiar of these encounters was when an elder who, despite my failure to understand more than ninety percent of what he was saying, still, taught me a valuable lesson.
As I was helping to prepare the conference room for a speech that was to be given to the public, elaborating the importance of Eritreaś independence, I heard a faint yet a distinguishable yell.The “yell” was through the language known as Tigre. I could tell this language through the loud clicks made with the tongue in between every syllable along with the emphasis on the beginning of every sentence,but the most important part of this language is the nonverbal part. In our native tongue your body expression contributes to the tone of your conversation almost as much as the verbal aspect.The speed in which you move your hands your facial expressions ,and even the way in which you elevate yourself up and down contribute to the overall tone. I was able to observe all these aspects of speaking from the elder who had all of a sudden decided to go bezerk and yell in my face. After about a minute or so of yelling he left only to return three minutes later and yell again. This time I used my body language to express that I could not understand Tigre. Somehow he understood this perfectly, and got his son to translate for him.Through his son’s voice, he expressed his concerns.
His son said, ¨That it was not Eritrean¨.
¨How?” I asked.
After this, his father told him something. The son then translated it as,¨There is no character¨.
¨What?¨ I responded, as the son was struggling to come up with words that would communicate what he was trying to say in something less offensive.
I could tell he was just as puzzled as I was. What in the world does character have to do with anything related to Eritreaś independence day?As his son was explaining to his father, I took a look at the room, not only were the photographs related to the battles of Eritreaś independence, but there were also paintings shipped from the other half of the globe. The room was flawless, only a man looking for problem would find any flaw in that room.
After about a minute of conversing, the son, then, said, “It was the little things that meant the most.”
“Great!” I said,but then I replied:
“What details is he talking about?”
But, before I could finish the sentence, the elder cut me off and took my hand. At this point I didn´t know wether to protest or to go with it. Something hit me, though. My mother had once told me,”If an older stranger ever grabs you, you kick him in the groin and yell stranger danger.” However, I realized that the situation was not dangerous although the circumstance was pretty close. For some reason, he did not feel like a stranger. As he grabbed me along he must have forgotten that I can speak tigre as he had forgotten his translator. He took me towards the food station, using his hands, he communicated to me his displeasure with the conference room. I had no idea what words he was saying, and, I can’t translate to you what he said in English, but I understood what he meant.How do I know with out understanding? All he used was slight gestures with the hands mixed with a facial expression, and yet, I just knew that the room did not have character. He took me around the room pointing to subtle details that were minor problems to the normal eye, but to the Eritrean eye, they were red indistinguishable flares of American traits and symbols. The elder took my hand and walked me towards the coffee station. Our tradition coffee is not only something that you drink in order to keep yourself awake and energized throughout the day, but it is served to show hospitality, respect , and it’s consumed to show that you are prepared for whatever is ahead.When the elder took me there, it seemed almost absurd that he was complaining about the coffe stations out of all the other things.The complaint had no connections whatsoever with the coffee itself, as much as it did with the aesthetic appeal of the coffee. The table had no character no color no definition. If you were to take it across the globe they still wouldn’t be able to tell what country it’s from, only that it’s East African. As the elder made the problem apparent to me, he walked into a room and grabbed some decorational beads. I’ve seen these beads at almost every Eritrean conventions I had attended, and not once did I wonder about the significance of these beads. Once again the elder communicated to me using his body language. This time, he demonstrated to me how to connect the beads to one another. He told me to make any shape I want. As I put mine together, I carefully observed how he made his. As I was making elaborate shapes and symbols taking almost forty five minutes, I noticed that he was making his task at a much faster rate than I was. He then told me to hurry up, this time with a little more aggression in his body movement. I then looked over at his and asked him, “How did you make it so fast?”
Knowing that he could not speak english, I had asked his son to help me communicate with him.
When the son asked the question, the elder looked back in dismay as if I had spelt Eritrea wrong. His son then said, “Watch how my father does it.”
As I replied “yes” I attentively observed the elder’s every single movements. The only thing that I was able to grasp was the little amount of time it took him to create his shape. The reason, I say “shape” is ,because it wasn’t one! It had to be the most whimsical, habitual type movement I had ever seen .Yet it pleased him. He then gave me the beads,and waited to evaluate my technique. Approximately twelve seconds later he shook his head and told his son something that, from his tone of voice, I assumed to be negative. His son then said, “You think too much, it’s not about how you think it’s about how you feel.” As I carefully watched his father, I saw that those were not whimsical movements, but rather movements of expression. Just as he was able to communicate through his body language, he was able to communicate his feelings through those skilled movements. It was these subtle differences that made the room feel more like home. The changes we made to the room took about two hours, and the difference was unnoticeable when you looked at the room as a whole, but when you paid attention to the little details you would normally never pay attention to, the changes became more apparent. I then realized that the strangers were no longer strangers; that native tongue was no longer foreign but mine; and the smell, although different, was good. And I belonged to it. The rest of that day was not lived in loneliness and despair, but rather in happiness and social fanfair. When I think of this encounter, not only did it change my perspective on what it means to be an Eritrean, but how I identified myself as well . I am not exclusively an Eritrean nor I am exclusively American. I am a hybrid of both. I’m in the middle of two discourses. This doesn’t mean I have to choose either one as much as it means I have to adapt both. I know it is challenging. No matter how hard I try to assimilate in my new discourse, the other will still have an influence on who I’m. Therefore I’m a Hybrid.