The Adventures of a First-Gen Ethiopian
One’s eyes can only comprehend the likeness of a person who resembles oneself. This is the very first message that first-generation African children learn from their peers. Although it may seem complex, the idea actually integrates into the psyche of a child with great fluidity. As a child, the clothes I wore resembled those of the social class in which I lived, and the accent I acquired endured the same molding process rather rapidly. However, the language I spoke at home and the Ethiopian incense that was prepared for me every night did not assimilate into American culture quite as well.
My parents migrated from Ethiopia at the conclusion of the extremely hostile revolt that overthrew the country’s monarchy. My maturation comprised the same elements of dictatorship and subsequent stern punishment for disrespect, but there was never going to be an overthrow of the dictators in my house. Within my household there was not much unrest. I was served dinner every night and sent to bed at the same hour until I reached young adulthood. The real crisis commenced at school, where the herd of students whose skin lacked the same level of melanin as mine began to define me as the antithesis of beauty. As a first-generation African child within the American school system, I was a one-of-a-kind enigma to my classmates. Yet the shifting of that uniqueness into something inferior is a moment that all first-generation African children can recall from childhood and wish to reverse.
The backlash from not having a brown-bag lunch prepared by your African parents, but instead being sent to school with a plastic bag full of sambusa, fried plantain or mandazi, is too treacherous to explain. Your unbearable urge as a young African female to straighten your hair to match the silkiness of your peers goes unnoticed until your hair is burnt and broken off. Your longing as a young African male to stay out past your early curfew to play sports with your male peers goes unanswered until you’re old enough to sneak out on your own. We mature as if we are trying to play catch-up with American culture.
The race to assimilate does not cease until our adulthood. This is when we decide whether to let the adaptation solidify or to detach it from our being. For most first-generation African children, the decision is made for us after we have tried every style of homogenization and come to realize that we just don’t fit. It comes to be that our lustrous hair cannot withstand the constant burning, or that we respect our parents too much to defy their rules, or that we ultimately love being an African child more than we love pretending to be an American one. The liberation marks the inception of our redemption of African culture’s beauty and its immense value to us and to this planet’s history. It is a liberation that emits a revolutionary statement detesting the shaming of Africa’s beauty.
I remember when my liberation occurred within a small Starbucks in West Covina, Los Angeles. For two decades, I had molded my body and redistributed the facets of my personality to acquire approval from my peers, and my body had just had enough. It took years of refashioning, intertwined with collegiate education, to solidify that as a first-generation African child I was superior, and not inferior as this country had so assumed. My African parents had been rightfully strict with me to protect me from the dangerous influences within this country. My luscious locks had grown beautifully curly because of my mother’s refusal to allow me to conform. My language and my culture have now become revered by adults who are easily fascinated by the “exotic,” and my childhood experiences can be passed on to the second generation of African children in America. To be a first-generation African child is to embark on a never-ending journey of self-realization and to share those quirks with a special group of individuals who have endured the same curfews, heat damage, and temporary homogenization that you have.
About the Writer: Eden is a junior at U.C.L.A. Raised in the Los Angeles area, her parents were born in Ethiopia and migrated to America in the 1980s. “I have had the luxury of experiencing life between my Ethiopian heritage and my American citizenship. It is an experience I treasure.”