There’s a lot to unpack from the man’s clapback. The root of it being the continuum of class relations. Ethiopian immigrants are typically processed into the U.S. on 4 visa case types asylees, refugees, DV holders, and skilled laborers. Each visa couching the context of their departure and serving as a preview of their education level, region of origin, and economic standing. In America, I have seen this ready-built profile corral new immigrants into their respective diaspora social circles.
I remember the exact set of scenes that sensitized me to the diaspora class divisions. I was 12 years old and my mother was hosting the Orthodox holiday of Selassie/Feast of the Trinity. Integral to my story and that of many Ethiopian diaspora stories is the epochal Ethiopian Communist Military Junta, a calamitous period. As stated, the exodus defines the people.
At the onset of the Ethiopian revolution, my maternal family scurried to repatriate their private school educated children to the West. While most Ethiopians tilled their fields, isolated from the global Cold War information circuit, an inspired generation of students upended imperial ranks. Immediately my great aunts shuffled provisions from their business in Addis and, as a bailiff might, hosted coffees with their network of elite Lady Grantham’s to redeem favors. The intensity of the breakdown was felt in the rural areas on those with the least resources to flee the country. By the time the Derg’s chokehold engulfed the entire country most of my family had boarded a one way ticket to Kennedy International. Comparably, my girlfriend’s family had walked to Sudan and lived in a state of limbo for 8 years before being resettled in the United States. But in America, treks were our parents backstories. My mother and my girlfriends mother were close – co founders of our Ethiopian Orthodox Church. Both obstinate women of the faith. I remember every year when my mother would host the feast of the Trinity, a tradition passed down from my forefathers, my friends mom, Etiye, would prepare her signature dulet dish.
The man’s insult brought back a salient memory for me that binded the scene with Etiye.
When I was 11 my coastal aunts had converged to our house to celebrate the Trinity’s feast day. Our house was teeming with Ethiopian women in preparation for the feast. While my mother’s friends toiled over their cooking posts– my aunts took grocery detours and hauled back milifoni, tiarmisu and an assortment of pastries from their childhood. I was infatuated with my aunties; cheeky, stylish and they didn’t lament on my struggle amarigna! Even so, I still had to earn my keep- my mom unceremoniously assigned me to the role of coffee runner. Basically roam to the various pop-up cooking points at our house demanding the working women take a cini/cup of my mom’s brew. The furthest stop was Etiye who had set up her workstation in proximity to the backyard water faucet. She was preparing dulet, a tripe dish.
I took refuge with my aunts who had long abandoned work and sequestered themselves after a squabble with my mother’s friends. My “no-skin in the game” aunt diffused the palpable irritation with a perfunctory “balager”. The word hung in the air. I registered the look of immediate satisfaction that overcame the previously distressed aunties. “balager” was apparently the catchall for both the issue and resolution. I considered the capacious Amharic noun. Balager meaning countryside. It’s a pleasant word: it didn’t register. Later that night during a vivacious round of family banter my aunt recounted how she sparked a connection with my mom’s friend. I imagine the table leaning in upon the cadence of her voice–with the affectation of sincerity my aunt confided to the table “then I realized she probably doesn’t even know what email is” so she had to renege on the potential friendship. It clicked.
It was a defining moment for me. I was horrified. I probably even mimicked the roundtables hearty laughter in daze. I thought about Etiye crouched at our backyard faucet laboriously cleaning the intestines amidst the puddle of backwash. It brought me displeasure- an almost primal discomfort- to see her in that position, a tacit indicator of her place in my aunties world.From then on, something changed. I wanted to belong in my aunties world but I also knew that their comments were callous and exclusionary. This newfound pathos for Etiye embarrassed me. I remembered how I’d try to skip her coffee round, to evade the stench, I told myself. At church, I dodged my moms prodding to eat her dulet, She passed it off as childish squeamishness.