OPINION: The Complex Journey of a Transitional Immigrant: Words for Rahwa

by Lola E. Peters

One of my first conversations with Rahwa Habte was about the complexity of being a transitional immigrant. I’ve learned a lot since the day, 63 years ago, that I stepped off a plane into my new American life.

My story differs from Rahwa’s. My mother was the first Ethiopian woman to marry an African American man. Their story and wedding in the beautiful Greek Orthodox St. George Cathedral in Addis Ababa made the newspapers on both continents. 

My college-educated father returned from duty in the Pacific after serving in the American Red Cross during World War II to find racism still running rampant in this country. A Washington Post newspaper ad, seeking teachers for Medhane Alem boy’s school in Ethiopia, caught his eye. He and his best friend applied for and began their new teaching jobs in Addis Ababa in 1948. They were soon befriended by the five sons of a prominent, local, Cyprus-born coffee merchant and his wellborn Ethiopian wife.

One of their sisters was a polymath educated in the Greek Community School in Khartoum. She spoke seven languages, was well-versed in African and European history, composed music on her mandolin, created beautiful needlework, and was unmarried at age 30. Think Lady Edith of Downton Abbey. When she was introduced to my father on New Year’s Eve of 1949, she found him to be too slick, too charming, and too handsome. But two months later they were married. I was born 11 months later and my brother two and a half years after me.

This cross-cultural marriage worked well in an international city like Addis Ababa, but it had its momentary glitches. For example, my mother, like any new bride, wanted to do something special for my father, so she asked him what food he missed the most from home. He replied, “Biscuits and gravy,” then went off to work. My mother went to the cook (yes, I really meant Downton Abbey), and they began to make every type of biscuit they could imagine. There was one slight problem: my mother had learned British English. To her, a biscuit was what we in the U.S. call a cookie. For years after they would laugh about the look on my father’s face when he was presented with a wide array of cookies and a bowl of gravy. 

My brother and I were baptized at St. George Cathedral. Our early childhoods were imbued with our parents’ very practical values: kindness, respect for others, celebration of differences, intellectual curiosity, a love of learning, and family. For the first seven years of my life those values were manifest in specific behaviors. Children did as we were told and never talked back to adults except to ask questions. Girls and women could be intellectually curious but needed to rely on their father, brother, or husband to provide transportation, lodging, food, clothing, money or other basic needs. Girls and women only had a word in domestic matters: clothing, food, gardening, social calendars, and the like. Men made all final decisions, mostly with input from their wives but not necessarily. Acceptance by society, friends, and family relied on maintaining those norms. 

When my father had a series of heart attacks, doctors determined his Galveston-raised heart couldn’t adapt to Addis Ababa’s 7,725-foot elevation. We were moving to America. More specifically, to Berkeley, CA where his sister lived and co-owned a small grocery store. 

While Ethiopia practiced a very strict caste system, much like the British system, racism was unknown. Ethiopians, Eritreans, Greeks, Italians, Armenians, and people from all over the world intermingled. In my family they intermarried. The emperor, whose son was my father’s best friend, was a short, dark-skinned man surrounded by a powerful cabinet made up of every shade of Brown. Black power was a reality in my young life, so racism was not only inconceivable to me — it was based on an obvious lie. 

My first cultural clash came while we were still living in Berkeley and I was enrolled in St. Theresa’s Catholic school. I had attended Nazareth School for Girls in Addis. A partnership between the Ethiopian government and the Catholic Society of the Daughters of the Heart of Mary, it was started as the first girls’ school in Ethiopia. I was a part of  the second class to attend. By the time I left Nazareth School, a seven-year-old starting third grade, I could read, write, add, subtract, multiply, and divide whole numbers and fractions, and I got all A’s. It was the norm. Like all children, I enjoyed the look of pride and satisfaction in my parents’ gaze, so it inspired me to do my best.

The nuns in Addis were kind, encouraging, and respectful. I expected no less in Berkeley. When a nun at St. Theresa’s told me to write my name, very proud of my penmanship I did just that. Imagine my shock when she took a foot-long wooden ruler and smacked the back of my hand. I had never been hit by anyone. She sternly repeated her instruction to write my name. Confused, because I had done just that, I tried harder, became very deliberate about each pencil stroke. Again, she slammed the ruler on my knuckles, declaring, “You think you’re so smart. I’ll teach you to do as you’re told.”

When I told my mother about what had happened, she accompanied me to school the next day. Back then, children in the U.S. were taught block printing in the early grades and didn’t learn cursive until they were older. In Ethiopia, I learned cursive first. It was considered writing, while block printing was reserved for art. It never would have occurred to me to block print my name. 

While I was having my own challenges, my mother was having hers. My aunt took a month away from running her grocery store to help us get adjusted. She would pile us into her 1952 Buick and take us grocery shopping or just for drives. It finally came time for her to return to work. My mother, deeply grateful for all my aunt was doing for us, asked if there was anything around the house she could do for her while she was at work. After much prompting, my aunt finally said, “Sure, just wash up the dishes from this morning’s breakfast.” 

Eight hours later, when my aunt returned, she found me and my brother trying desperately to console our sobbing mother. Why? She didn’t know how to wash dishes. She had always had staff to do that work. There would be no staff in our American life.  

After six months living on McGee Street, my parents bought a home in a nearly all-white suburb 20 miles south, and we were thrust into a culture so foreign it might as well have been a Martian colony. Going from Addis Ababa to Berkeley was a challenge. Going from Berkeley to our new home was hell. 

I’ve written more about that experience in my book The Truth About White People. Here I want to write about the push/pull between society and family. Being hated and ostracized by hundreds, even thousands, of people simply because you exist is a burden for any child. It didn’t take long for either my brother or me to realize we couldn’t succeed socially or educationally. We were almost universally despised. We faced racial epithets daily. My brother was constantly physically assaulted. If we retaliated in any way, we faced consequences, sometimes physical, when we returned home. We were expected to be model children: never embarrass the family; never embarrass the race, not even in self-defense.

We were caught in that trap faced by every transitional immigrant: adapt to fit into the new society and displease your family or hold on to your family and never find your place in society. That was the conundrum Rahwa and I first talked about. Though we were generations apart in age, our dilemmas were the same. 

My junior high school had an eighth grade dance. Not prom, exactly, not in those days, but a special occasion as this was the first time boys and girls would be officially permitted to touch one another in public. It was a dress-up affair. My mother, an excellent seamstress, set about making me that very special dress. She was excited about the event and saw it as a moment of social transition. So imagine how I felt when I entered the transformed gymnasium and was surrounded by dozens of white girls dressed in pink, yellow, and pale blue chiffon over layers of petticoats as I stood there in the skin-tight, gold brocade cocktail dress my mother had made. Again, her complete misreading of the culture resulted in my discomfort.

The girl/woman my parents wanted me to be was impossible for me. When my father died suddenly weeks before my high school graduation, my mother was completely lost. Her expectations were that my 14-year-old brother would become “the man of the house.” She didn’t know how to drive, write a check, or simply get to the grocery store. I was the one who took on those responsibilities. Eventually I helped her enroll in a nursing program, taught her how to do the day-to-day things she was more than intellectually capable of doing, waited until my brother was old enough to drive, and joined a cult simply to get out and save myself. The impetus — I tried to take my life. When it didn’t work, I decided it was time to find another path. It wasn’t the right path, or the final path, but it was an opportunity to reset my life and get out from the pressure of constantly disappointing my mother and being rejected by society. I needed to succeed or fail on my own terms, no one else’s. I needed to uncover the me hidden under the layers of other people’s expectations.

For decades, I lived as far away from my mother as possible. I shared nothing about the intimate details of my life with her because I knew I couldn’t please her. She wanted me to be the Ethiopian woman she envisioned. I could not be that woman and also survive this culture. About a year before she died in 2006, she apologized. She had only then realized the burden cast on her children and the cost of her need to hold to family traditions. 

Rahwa and I talked about the need to honor our birth cultures. It kills me that I no longer speak Amharic or Tigrinya and don’t know how to make wat or injera for myself. We talked about how much we treasure the values our parents taught us, but not necessarily the way they practice those values, and how hard it is to redefine the practices to fit our current place and time without their support. Home, hidmo, is a precious and complicated concept for a transitional immigrant.

What I would tell anyone immigrating to this country is to study the practices of this culture before immersing your children in it. If you decide to do it anyway, be prepared to teach your children your values and support them as they reinterpret how those values are practiced in their new context. 

What I would tell the transitional generation is to acknowledge your families’ values and let them know how you are fulfilling them in your own way. There are many others making that journey with you and more who will cross the bridges you are building.

Rahwa was a deep practitioner of the values she was taught. The hundreds of tributes to her life are proof of her immeasurable kindness, respect, acceptance, transparency, and overall goodness. It’s to her credit her nieces and nephews have learned strategies to bridge cultural gaps. I will forever be grateful for her courage and the legacy she planted so deeply in all our hearts and to the family that produced such a wonderful spirit.

Lola Peters is a contributing columnist for Crosscut and an editor-at-large for the South Seattle Emerald.

The featured image is attributed to Zeyi Fan under a Creative Commons 2.0 license.