“Eden! Come talk to your grandma,” my mother yells.
My heart instantly floods with anxiety. While I am excited to speak to a family member from Ethiopia, my parents’ home country, I’m afraid that my lack of mastery over the motherland’s language will make the conversation brief.
I take a deep breath, taking time to ease my nerves, reminding myself that it is my lack of confidence that hinders me more than my lack of understanding.
I grab the phone and begin in tentative Amharic, “Hello? Can you hear me?”
Immediately, I hear my grandmother’s voice in the lilting mother tongue, filled with traditional conversation starters that I recognize.
“How are you? How is your family? How is school?” she asks.
“Good. Good. Good. How are you and your family?” I respond bluntly, the fluency I had as a child traded in for an elementary proficiency — understanding everything that is said to me, but struggling to piece together an advanced response.
As the conversation comes to a close, my limited vocabulary quickly exhausted, I am filled with a sense of shame. Here I am at Harvard, every Habesha parent’s dream, but my lack of connection to my language is every Habesha parent’s nightmare.
My head swims with thoughts of my grandmother as I walk up the stairs to my bedroom. I used to look forward to our phone calls and the chance to connect with someone from back home. But as the years went on, and I began to replace Amharic with English, this excitement slowly turned into dread.
Both my parents immigrated from Ethiopia to the United States before I was born. They were the lucky ones, receiving diversity visas and the chance to start anew in the alleged “land of the free” and “home of the brave.” Coming to America was not easy; it forced them to leave behind everything they had ever known — their friends, their family, their home.
Since immigrating to the United States, they have worked to maintain their ties to Ethiopian culture, turning our house into a refuge for family members coming to the States, filling our fridge with injera and whet, and speaking in their native tongue, Amharic, at home.
As a child, my fluency was unparalleled, going so far as forgetting English when we came back from visiting the motherland. As I grew up, however, this identity became a sort of secret shame. It was hard enough to be Black in predominantly white settings, my presence in spaces always questioned and criticized. To be Black and the daughter of immigrants was worse, the label of “foreign” building an additional wall between me and my peers. I was young and my pride in my homeland was fragile. In exchange for acceptance, I succumbed to the pressures of assimilation and sacrificed the pieces of culture that my parents had worked hard to protect.
The power of language cannot be underestimated. It’s the foundation of a culture, binding its members to one another. Its loss made me, the eldest daughter of two immigrants, feel like everything my parents had done in coming to this country and working to keep their culture alive was for naught.
As a child, I was willing to do anything to abide by white supremacist standards of palatability; now I know that there are some prices too steep to pay — like losing my connection to my grandmother, my family, and my home.
Since coming to college, however, I have realized that I have not truly lost the language to the extent that I feared. Through conversations with Habesha staff members on campus or visiting relatives in Boston, I am learning that it is my perfectionism and fear of failure that hold me back.
Over spring break, while my friends and I were on vacation, we made a pit stop at a local convenience store for snacks. To my surprise, the cashiers were Habesha. One of the people on the trip with me was Habesha as well, and they started up a conversation with the cashiers, poking fun at my hesitancy to speak Amharic.
“Oh, she doesn’t speak the language that well,” they said with a smirk.
I rolled my eyes.
“No, I can speak it. They just love to talk,” I retorted with a smile.
“It’s good that you can speak! It’s important to know your language,” one of the cashiers responded.
I continued the conversation, asking them about the city and their experiences here. The pleasant surprise on their faces warmed my heart, reminding me of the importance of no longer letting my fear of making mistakes hinder me from reclaiming a language I once knew like the back of my hand.
— Magazine writer Eden A. Getahun can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @edengetahun03.