Shock of the New

There’s this joke about an American who went to Washington D.C to teach English to new immigrants from Ethiopia.

He ended up learning Amharic instead.

When you can do an entire transaction at Starbucks in Amharic (granted, the store in question is right outside the arrivals gate at Dulles Airport) and even add to the baristas’ vocabulary by telling them that since they’re calling the tall cup tenish (small) then they might as well go with mittiti (tiny) for the espresso shot cup…

When the white-bread bartender at Mate asks if you are an Addisaba lij

When the Afro-American gentleman of unspecified intentions who strikes up a conversation while paying for his takeout at said bar argues with you about which habesha restaurant has the best kitfo…

When the gas station attendant practically holds you hostage seeking proof that you are actually Ethiopian…

When you nearly lose all your toes to an aggressive right-turning minivan driven by an Ethio soccer mom on her way to pick up injera for the kids’ dinner…

…well, that’s when you know where you are is all I’m saying.

An habesha is to this squished capital as stars to the night sky. So ubiquitous is our presence here that for the LOB to put in a request to have this or that thing sent from back home, or for the FOB to tell tales of culture shock appear as nothing more than plain attention-seeking.

In fact, if anyone is still entitled to culture shock it’s probably the NOB who, like the Bale Mountain Nyala, has yet to leave his/her native habitat. Even then, such stories read like an ancient fable:

Once upon a time, there was a waiter named Kimesew. Like many of his social class, he too was a recent migrant to the city. He had a good job as waiters’ jobs go (especially in Addis), at the sparkling Intercontinental. His name was handed down to him from his forefathers, a long proud line of official tasters going back as far as history itself, whose exclusive duty at the royal court was to sample the king’s food and drink before he partook of it. Alas, theirs was not a task of evaluating for taste but for poison. Even in Kimesew’s own family home, sampling what one served prior to inviting one’s guests to begin eating was a mark of trust similar to the way shaking hands was once a signal that one was packing neither blade nor heat.

Now, as far as Kimesew was concerned, a lot of what passed for food at the sparkling Intercontinental might as well be poison. “Gomen-stuffed doro”? What need has a chicken for being stuffed with what it never ate even when alive? “Sweet and sour”? What but a snake has need of two tongues? But Kimesew kept these thoughts to himself. He did his job without once surrendering to the impulse embedded in his genes. For many months he fought his nature every time he placed one of those steaming monstrosities of gastronomy in front of esteemed guests foreign and native.

All was well until one day when he forgot his new self and, in a moment of relapse, dipped his pinkie finger into a guests’ plate and brought the flavored favored digit to his extended tongue. What ensued was nothing short of absolute commotion as the guests went into an apoplexy of collective indignation and his supervisor into groveling penitence. Kimesew, in his defense, pointed out that the customer had specifically asked him to identify the dish. He never could understand why customers were always asking him if what he brought them was what they ordered when they themselves had named the item not long ago. Why did they always doubt their eyes? It got so that he had even begun to look for some hidden meaning behind the question, a kind of wax and gold double entendre in the fashion of court minstrels, but never discovered any. Not a night went by without that question arriving to haunt him like an avenging ghost: What is this?

Another favorite:

In a time when now grown-ass women were still young girls who couldn’t lift a foot in Addis without being chaperoned by their mothers, contract taxi drivers made a killing. One day, Wesedew was in the midst of a quick shave and nose-pick in his rearview mirror when a young girl (let’s call her Diaspora-gal) climbed into his taxi with said maternal shadow, for a lunch outing to Piassa by the sounds of it. Her economic status still falling under the category if Totally Dependent on Mom and Dad, she had but a few cents in her pocket and in this her impoverished state could like totally identify with Wesedew’s lot in life. He wasn’t guessing. She said as much. Upon arrival at agreed-upon destination Wesedew, as is the custom, started to voice a dissatisfaction with the previously agreed-upon fare. Mother wasn’t budging but he could see D-girl’s heart was starting to crack for him. Before his very eyes, she fished out the small change from her pocket and sent them clinking into his open palm – which, in Wesedew’s defense, was only outstretched that way in a symbolic gesture and not in the sense of actual begging.

Time stood still as his face took on, muscle for muscle, the exact same look of horror and disbelief as D-girl’s mother. If curses could murder and looks bury, D-girl would never have lived to see her grown-ass woman days when, unbeknownst to Wesedew, she would live to forget to take back twenty-five birr in change from buying a fifty birr phone card (her idea of being thrifty), or when she would hand over five birr for a single black and white photocopy without batting an eye (Oh, fifty cents you said?). As it was, mom and D-girl were lucky to make it out of the banged up blue and white Lada with all their parts intact. Funny how it all happened so fast that D-girl never had time to process, much less think up an answer to, the sharp to cut question that Wesedew had fired at her: What is this?

Yeah, culture shock in its true sense only belongs to the NOBs. The rest, if they insist on having their underwear show, have to make do with concocting stories around the first time they came across this:

or this:

or this, who comes up with this??


Also, many are a Washington D.C tale of another kind of shock – the generation shock, a tome unto itself and best summarized by way of example, that of babies. Those little darlings can sleep through just about anything – blenders going off downstairs, getting tickled by three sets of hands, being pulled out of a toasty warm swaddle, having their mittiti bums wet wiped and closely inspected –  but can just as easily go nine-alarm fire on you if you so much as drop a pin in their to-all-eyes-fast-asleep presence. You never know which way it is going to go, what’s going to set them off and what’s not going to get so much as a twitch out of them.

You’ve about as much an idea of what’s going on in their heads as they do of what’s going on in yours. Generation shock.

Hard to deny is this: when all is said and done the whole lot of us – LOB, FOB, NOB – are all floating somewhere in, near or around more or less the same boat. So whether the waters be choppy or still, best to simply

row, row, row your boat

gently down the stream,

merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily

life is but a dream 

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