Ethiopian Culture / Ethiopian Identity / Immigrant Life

About Face

I remember the first time I ever saw a white person. That’s not counting the ones I saw on television and in the movies. They were about as real as all the other color persons I saw on screen. No, a real live white person, in the flesh. The memory, being a very early one, is vague, but some features still remain. I remember I was standing somewhere in our neighborhood in Addis, or maybe looking out from inside a car. It was a male, walking down the road. The things that struck me were the look on his face and the nature of his strides. He had a very determined, set look, completely focused on the ground ahead of him and the steps he was taking. His strides were just as deliberate and firm. He took very wide steps, on account of his really long, really hairy legs, I figured. He was wearing long shorts and boots. More than his color or sheer size (he must have been some kind of Scandinavian, or not), it was his attitude that made me notice him and still remember him all these years later. Why was he so intensely focused on staring straight ahead and walking as quickly as possible without actually breaking into a run, you say? Because he had about  half a dozen dusty little boys trailing and running around him. They were so small, and he so big, that all that was left for them to do was dart through the spacious gaps in his strides, to complete that image of “foreigner harried by relentless local rugrats”. I guess my first vision turned out to be the quintessential one.

After that, there were a few other regular ferenjis in my daily life, besides Madonna, such as the nuns at Nazareth School (about whom my strangest observation was they liked to tuck their used handkerchiefs into their sleeves), and the students from some expat school who came  to our school for a volleyball match (about whom my strangest observation was that they had greenish-blue veins which you could clearly see through the skin of the back of their knees, talk about pale).

My early impressions ran the gamut from psychological to behavioral to anatomical. Perhaps I should have become an Anthropologist (that’s a word, yes?)

In a way, I have. An anthropologist with a study subject count of one: me. Eventually, and especially once I migrated over to their turf (Europe, I mean, not North America, if we’re being totally PC), I stopped noticing them as an ‘other’; more of them and less of me, after all. Every few years, however, they would slam back into my awareness in all their ‘other’ glory whenever I went back to Ethiopia on holiday. The evolution of my reaction to their recurrence, I suppose, is the subject of this here anthropological study.

This is going to sound bad, but in the early days of going “back home”, I considered the time away as a ‘break’ of sorts from the ever-present whiteness, a getaway to a place where everyone and everything I saw was familiar and had the stamp of ‘mine’ on it. So, in that mindset, whenever I saw the odd white person in Addis, I’d quickly become angry. Totally pissed, like as if I was about to take a photo of a scene and some moron had walked into the shot just when I had perfected the angle and the light was right and all the elements that made the image ideal were in place. I’d walk around with that cloud of irritation brewing over my head until the memory dissipated and I could once again believe I was in an all-habesha zone. othering Then a curious thing started to happen and, after the fifth trip back, pretty much became the norm. Instead of feeling annoyed by the increasingly-less-occasional beige-pink blots on the landscape, I started to feel a ping of familiarity, a whiff of camaraderie even. Perhaps this had something to do with my experience of living in and travelling through Asia. There, even though I wasn’t pursued with the same fervor as that first white man I saw (for the record no I wasn’t one of the little kids nipping at his heels), quite the opposite, nevertheless seeing the stance/attitude/behavior of white people in Addis started to recall for me the common denominator feeling of the experience of oneself being a rare sighting, the state of an extreme case of other-ness which the bestowers do not bother to disguise behind Western niceties. It’s in your face, pun and all.

So no, white folks in Addis don’t seem so jarringly “out of context” any more. I know why they keep on the kind of face/expression that they do, why they dress, sit and walk a certain way, because I have done/do it myself. Instead of mentally shoo-ing them away, I want to give some indication to say “I get you”. Something akin to the endangered ‘black people nod’. (Which I do give from time to time, only to fellow females, and only if it’s very obvious that she is recently from the continent.) But is there such a thing as a ‘Diaspora-at-heart nod’, no matter the person’s color? If not, what would it look like, maybe more sideways rather than up and down? Or a totally different gesture altogether, like hand-over-heart?

There’s an amusing reversal, or deeper layer, to all this. I was going to expound on it in its own blog post, titled Close Encounters of the Habesha Kind, about the phenomenon of having an alien experience of your own species of alien within the greater alien environment. I started noticing it because the building where my place of employment of the past couple of years is located – through sheer accident of real estate and not because there is anything remotely stush about where I work – in Yorkville, Toronto’s version of the part of any city where Vuitton rubs shoulders with Tiffany’s and together they face off against Chanel and Cartier across the road, though it has yet to rain diamonds. (I do so much window-shopping I might go blind).

Now and then in this ‘hood, when I’m out grabbing lunch from one of the only two places that sell them for under $10, I get noticed from afar by the rare habesha person, who always looks caught off guard for a moment before quickly reassuming that blank I-see-you-but-I-don’t-see-you expression. The peekaboo happened again recently on a regional train bound for Oakville (where all that’s left is for the money to actually grow on the oak trees). I’ve been taking that train occasionally for a few years now, once again for reasons completely unrelated to wealth, and I was the only habesha person I’d ever seen on it. But the other day there was another woman, and there it was, the double take when she held the compartment door open for the person behind her. Surprise!Lucy-as-lion1Best of all, though, is when I do a double take at myself. Toronto life gets so routinely, mind-numbingly diverse that often I feel dissolved into the blend of some nondescript color that’s a mix of all the colors; the color that I actually am on the inside. Until, that is, I accidentally see myself in some random mall mirror or in the black windows of a subway car as it tunnels through the underground, and do a double take at how habesha I still look. Yep, it’s still there, the face of tikikilegna ye-Wello lij.

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