Growing up I always felt apart of two worlds. I always felt like I was crossing the border as I transitioned between school and home, but never felt like a true citizen of either side. My parents migrated to the United States--even though they were a well to do family in Ethiopia--for the religious freedom. When they came here and had me, I was raised in a very traditional Ethiopian culture. My value system and my lifestyle was very much like my family back home. We did everything together and lived as a collective group of people.
One of the main differences I noticed between my American peers was that they valued themselves and their goals more than family. At the same time, their family supported them in their decisions for THEIR life. My family on the other hand, we are so collective that your family will tell you what you want and what is best for you instead of listening to what your goals and wants are. For example, becoming a doctor or an engineer are the only career options.
Another thing I learned was no matter how fluent I was in English, I would never be as fluent as my American peers. Even though I was born and raised in this country, English was my second language and when I was young that was easily recognized. I had a heavy accent and that initially turned kids away from befriending me because I did not always know what they were saying.
The first time I realized I was black was in the third grade.. Up until this day, I just viewed everyone as American. I did not recognize the difference between white American and black American. I remember one day one of the few kids got mad at me over something and called me black face. Even then, it did not occur to me that he was insulting me. It wasn't until my principal called my parents to the school that I realized that he had said something derogatory. My whole world flipped and I began to learn about black people and civil rights trying to understand what was wrong with me in his eyes.
I also obsessed over everything Ethiopian because I wanted a way to understand how I fit into the stories I read and history I was learning. I was raised to be proud of who I was. Oppression and civil rights was not a topic of discussion or worry in my family because we were Ethiopian and it did not apply---they did not see that would apply to my life until later on. Therefore as a young child I had not felt the pressure of being black in a white world or understood how that could and would affect of life as I grew up.
It was a lot of pressure trying to measure up to the "american standard" of how to dress and talk and interact. I'd come to school and my jacket and backpack would literally smell like onions and garlic and spices from the food my mom cooks at home. Every white kid that sat next to me or walked near me would ask what that smell was and I would literally wish i could disappear into the locker.
I'd stand in the mirror everyday straightening my hair every morning to make sure I matched the look of the Brittany's and Ashley's of the school, hoping I would make the cut and fit in. The white girls seemed to have it all and not that I didn't, but my world was confused and my parents didn't understand the struggles I faced or why "fitting in" was a struggle to begin with. They wanted me to see the great opportunity of being able to go to school in America and the great future I would have for having been born here. Like many other first-generation children, I would feel guilt for complaining about my experiences as I heard about children back home who couldn't have the simple things that I did. Although my parents came from families that were well off, both sides always served their community and had seen the poor and helped the poor before migrating here.
I straddled two worlds for a long time trying to find a way to fit into a box in each of those spaces. As children of the diaspora, our journey through life is one of self-discovery and self-realization. No one but us can understand the struggles, the comedy, the heartbreak we endure in finding our identity and our voices in America.