On “Others”

February 21, 2024 | | Leave a Comment

When I was growing up in Ethiopia, I remember becoming familiar with the term ፈረንጅ or “ferenji.” The term refers to foreigners, especially white Westerners. But more importantly, it signifies an outsider, someone who doesn’t belong. As a child, the concept of ferenji seemed abstract, so different from my own Ethiopian identity and culture. But I understood that at its core, it meant not one of us. When my family relocated to America, the concept of ferengi followed. But suddenly, the term took on a new meaning. Surrounded by white American culture, it was my family and I who were the outsiders, the immigrants, the ones who didn’t fully belong. In a profoundly short time, I embodied the very foreignness signified by “ferenji.” Navigating school and daily life, I occupied the space of the outsider, forced to code-switch and assimilate to gain acceptance. The familiar had turned foreign, and I found myself longing for the comfort and freedom of home. This shift in perspective was definitely jarring. But I gained an intimate understanding of what it meant to be marginalized as the “other.” 

Years later as a college student, I have long shed much of my foreignness. Aside from my name, I doubt most people in my community would see me as an outsider or an “other.”  And despite my understanding of being othered in the past I still catch myself doing the same to members of my own community. 

Specifically, in the current polarized political climate, I’ve noticed I often view those on the right or Republicans as a faceless outgroup rather than complex individuals. Especially on social media, it’s easy to see “the other side” as a monolith and make assumptions about their motivations. It’s easier to attribute the right as having blanket views, rather than acknowledging diversity of thought within the party. It fosters an “us vs. them” mentality.

These dynamics certainly affect domestic politics and civil society. Othering the opposite party makes bipartisan policymaking and compromise far less likely. It also widens societal divisions, as each side views the other warily. Bridging political divides requires making an effort to understand different worldviews, even when we disagree. I am committed to reminding myself of each individual’s complexity. Participating in dialogue is the first step.

The Meaning of Home

February 6, 2024 | | 1 Comment

On the left side of the shelf connected to my desk is a wooden box with an icon of the Virgin Mary and her Child. This box was a gift from a friend I barely knew then and now consider almost a stranger. Yet, in the first month of college, he saw the homesickness I had desperately wanted to keep hidden. Maybe it was in my shaking voice as I had asked him if he was an Orthodox Christian. Or in my eyes which had turned glassy and wet. I remember how surprised I was at myself–for being so emotional and about a faith that I had started to distance from. I was not devout and I hadn’t been in years. But suddenly, in that dingy dorm that smelled like alcohol and dirty laundry, I was transported back to Sunday mornings in church with hymns in the background and the smell of woody incense and my mom beside me and the feeling of home. So fast and so intense was this feeling that it persists in my memory as clearly as I had first felt it. I am not sure if that same friend felt what I felt in that room on that night. But when he handed me the box, with the words “keep it” as his only explanation–I knew he understood. And I will forever be grateful not for the box but for the reassurance that came with it–that it was okay to yearn for home. And eventually that it was okay to make a new home at Dickinson college. 

I didn’t say all this when I was asked to present an object that was meaningful to me on the first virtual exchange with my peers at The American University of Sharjah in the United Emirates. I think it would have been too much. It’s too much now and yet I feel compelled to share. Perhaps it’s because I suspect, like me, my peers gave polished meanings to their objects. I don’t blame them. Or perhaps it’s because it’s eleven pm eastern time and inspiration has abandoned me. Or perhaps it’s both. Or maybe it’s neither.

 But however polished the answers were there was vulnerability and as a result, certain universal themes emerged from our conversation. A prominent one being that home doesn’t necessarily have to be tied to geographical points on a map. It can instead be a feeling, a memory, a smell, a sound or a person. Where we call home can change but the ties that connect us to the feeling are strong and taut. For many of my peers the objects they had selected reminded them of their families. The people they associated with home.

 Our initial vulnerability gave way to easy laughter. Questions and answers bounced around. Other similarities included our shared appreciation for our home countries and our cultures. Our concern for the politics in our regions and the wider world was also a major discussion point. Our shared grappling of our identities as young adults and our search for belonging was persistent and clear. Certain differences also emerged. Like the fact that my AUS peers  didn’t know what “quad” was in reference to a college campus. Or how the upcoming month of Ramadan would change their day to day lives. But no difference felt too different. I am excited to talk and read about my peers to see the nuances of who they are and how they live their lives. 


Digital Diplomacy

September 9, 2023 | | 3 Comments

There is a proverb that says it takes a village to raise a child. In Lancaster Pennsylvania exists my village. And yet if I told this to most people from the United States their first response would not be to object to the fact that I called Lancaster, a county of almost 1,000 square miles and a population of 600,000 people, a village. Instead, they would object to my claim to it–to my belongingness. Their objection is not mean-spirited. Lancaster, Pennsylvania evokes a certain image in the American psyche. This is reflected in the questions that they would ask: “Do you live near the Amish?” “Do you see the Amish all the time?” “It must be pretty rural?” and so on. These questions and the subsequent images that they evoke come from a kernel of truth but it remains, to me anyway, reductive. What makes a place home? Who gets to decide what is home? These reductive ideas also don’t account for my experience nor the experience of many others in Lancaster’s diverse population. Yes, Lancaster is home to the Amish which can not be disputed. However, Lancaster is also home to so many other kinds of people. It’s made up of a diverse population. It’s a metropolis, maybe not to the extent of New York City, but a metropolitan area nonetheless. 

 The Ethiopian Orthodox community in Lancaster was my village. Of the many groups of refugees within Lancaster exist Ethiopian refugees and migrants who left their homeland from 30 years ago to as recent as a couple of months ago. For me, they were like time capsules that stored within themselves stories of my homeland. My family and I had left Ethiopia when I was only six so any memories that I had were actively being weathered away. But because of my community, I was able to preserve my preexisting connection to the place of my origin from the language and culture and also forge my own understanding through interacting with media and cultural rituals. I feel a deep sense of pride for my community for shaping me into what I am today. 

Which is why when asked to share about a cultural object with my exchange partners living in the United Arab Emirates I shared an incense holder carved with the image of the Virgin Mary and her son Jesus Christ. This object, given to me by my parents, represents the cultural tradition of the coffee ceremony, the many memories I attribute to frankincense, the passing down of knowledge from my community, and the feeling of home. 

I found that my exchange partners living in the United Arab Emirates had objects that were also given to them by their families or communities. They revealed that they felt a deep sense of pride in their people and culture. They also shared the cultural practice of making coffee at home, which was very similar to the Ethiopian coffee ceremonies I took part in when I was in Lancaster. But what spoke to me the most was their appreciation for the people in their community. I could tell there was a deep sense of pride in their people. I am excited to learn more about them and their surrounding through this experiment that is digital diplomacy.