Originally appeared in Ethiopian Review, December 1992
Under the pen name: “Abiye Solomon”
One of the truisms of American life is that anyone from any country can come to America and assimilate into the society. The idea is that America is a land of immigrants naturally hospitable to new immigrants. In many ways, this is true. In the U.S. immigrants from all parts of the world live side by side more or less harmoniously.
The American Dream is said to bind most people, immigrant and native born, to a common purpose and destiny. But beyond this myth (or reality) defining the “real” American or the American experience is not that easy.
America still has serious racial problems. Black Americans or more appropriately African Americans (because they are descendants of Africans brought as slaves over 350 years ago) have made some progress over the past three decades but for hundreds of years they have been enslaved and segregated. They have yet to integrate fully in American society.
Lately, I have been wondering about Ethiopians in the American melting pot. We are among the most recent group of Africans to come to America. Those of us who came before the Derg came mainly to get American education and technical training. Almost all of us believed that sooner or later we will return to Ethiopia. In reality, very few of us managed to return largely due to fear of political persecution by the Derg. Much larger numbers of Ethiopians came to the U.S. seeking to escape the Derg’s political persecution.
But how are we all doing in the American melting pot?
There seems to be a curious situation among Ethiopians in America. The first generation of Ethiopians (those born in Ethiopia) does not seem to be “melting” well despite many years of residence in America. They show marked indifference or even calculated detachment from the cultural processes of American society. They seem to do well in the economic sphere but beyond that they seem to be immersed in their old world culture and traditional practices.
Most Ethiopians have other Ethiopians as friends. They spend much of their leisure time with other Ethiopians and their networks consist of individuals in the Ethiopian community. The first generation Ethiopians takes great pride in its “Ethiopianness.” They get married to other Ethiopians. When they have weddings, almost all of the guests are Ethiopians. They prefer to eat Ethiopian food and observe traditional modes of personal behavior.
I know of very few Ethiopians who have Americans as their best friends. Few Ethiopians I know belong to American social groups or civic organizations. Few are active in charitable or other local organizations.
I also know few Ethiopians who avail themselves to the cultural experiences that are abundant in American society. Few venture to experience raw Americana. One is not likely to see many Ethiopians traveling the American backcountry, attend some good old foot stomping country music or soul-elevating gospel music. Not too many Ethiopians go to the rodeos to see modern cowboys ride a bull. Maybe this kind of stuff is too country!
But I don’t see many Ethiopians in cultural activities that are plentiful in the urban areas either. I know of few Ethiopians who make an effort to see American live theater or go to a classical music concert. I wager to say that few Ethiopians who live in the large metropolitan areas have ever gone to the museums or historical landmarks within a few miles of where they live. I dare say that few Ethiopians have ever bothered to read about American history.
While most Ethiopians do not seem to be attracted by the wholesome elements of American culture, they do not seem to be attracted by the negative elements either. Few Ethiopians are involved in criminal activities or drug abuse. There are few Ethiopians forced into seeking welfare. Few seem to be involved in morally corrupt practices.
In fact, most Ethiopians in America are relentless pursuers of the American dream. Most are hard workers. They strive to improve themselves educationally and economically. Most share the capitalistic frame of mind and are largely self sufficient.
Still from my vantage point, Ethiopians do not seem to be Americanizing very well. I have two theories about that. I think it has partly to do with psychological inability to fully accept the values and culture of American society. Many first generation Ethiopians tend to have traditional outlooks. They tend to believe that American society lacks self-restraint and self-discipline. American culture is too relativistic for them. They appreciate the physical and intellectual freedom in America but they reject its results. Many Ethiopian men have traditional (perhaps even antiquated) views and values on childbearing, role of women and family. They have a hard time accepting American values which accord women equal rights or make it difficult to discipline children by means of corporal punishment.
My other theory is best expressed in the saying “Once an Ethiopian, always and Ethiopian” or alternatively “You can take the boy/girl out of Ethiopia, but you can’t take Ethiopia out of the boy/girl.” Perhaps because Ethiopia did not experience the cultural devastation of colonialism, Ethiopians generally find it harder to accept other cultures or values. They have too much pride in their own history and culture. They view non-Ethiopians with benign indifference or paternalistic pity.
Often, they close their eyes and ears to things happening around them. But if they should open their eyes, ears and hearts, they will see the beauty that is in America, that is warts and all.