By Jared Boyd
“Some people, they ask, ‘Where are you from?’” says Tewodros Yimer Yosef.
Now that he’s spent more than a year at the University of Mississippi, Yosef has encountered a fair share of curious Americans, who have noticed that he sticks out a bit.
Often he sits in the back of the Rebel Market in the Paul B. Johnson Commons, eating and working alone, taking a break from his office. Naturally reserved, he rarely lights up in social settings, but sitting in Starbucks inside the John D. Williams Library, he was eager to talk about his homeland of Ethiopia.
“The Americans, to be more critical, they don’t know what’s going on around the world,” Yosef says. “If you say, ‘I’m from Ethiopia,’ they don’t understand. If you say, ‘I’m from Africa,’ (they say), ‘Oh! Africa!’”
Yosef doesn’t mind allowing his culture to be muddled in with the rest of Africa and its several dozen nations and thousands of languages and ethnic groups. “For me, it’s not a problem because I know who I am. I know what I’m doing here.”
The 24-year-old came to the University of Mississippi in 2014, recruited by civil engineering professor Chung Song, who taught a course in 2012 at Addis Ababa University.
Yosef, a native of the Bole area of Addis Ababa, was born to an accountant father and businesswoman mother. He graduated from AAU with degrees in philosophy and civil engineering. The top student in his graduating class, he joined the university faculty immediately after school.
While teaching and earning his master’s degree in construction management, Yosef got to step outside of his nest in Addis Ababa, traveling throughout his home country for the first time, an experience he cherishes. It gave him the ability to compare metropolitan Addis Ababa — the capital city — to the vast terrains of the nation, visiting far-off historical sites, fertile lands and ethnic groupings.
Coming to America, Yosef had high expectations.
“I am going to the world where everything is perfect; where everything is advanced,” he thought. “America is like a brand.”
However, after a few months, his impression changed. Yosef began to feel that just like his home, American life has its pros and cons. The philosophy buff especially misses the deep conversations he shared with students in Ethiopia.
“I can’t find any American who asks critical questions,” he says.
While Tewodros Yosef tasks himself with the new challenge of relating to Americans his age, many Ethiopian-Americans who were born here spend their entire lives reconciling their Ethiopian identity with the Western world. Two such examples are Samit Abdi and Eman Yusuf, college students from the Memphis area. Abdi is at the University of Memphis and Yusuf at the University of Tennessee.
Both young women were born to parents who fled Ethiopia during the political unrest of the late 1970s and 1980s after Emperor Haile Selassie was overthrown. Similarly, both women’s parents are members of the Harari ethnic group, derivative of the Eastern Ethiopian Highlands. They both practice Islam and have been in the Memphis area since early childhood.
“In kindergarten, we had a multicultural fair, and I got to dress up in traditional Harari clothing and carry an Ethiopian flag,” Abdi says, recalling how she stood out among other American children her age.
She, like Yosef, has had many conversations with Americans in which she has had trouble explaining her ethnic makeup. “A lot of people don’t know what Ethiopia is,” she says. “They look at me like, ‘Oh, you don’t look African.’”
Unlike Yosef, however, the confusion and ignorance can sometimes be a source of frustration to Abdi. “I want to make people aware, because people are always like, ‘Who are you?’ What’s your story?’”
Yusuf’s early memories of discomfort with her ethnicity aren’t as vivid. She does recall a time in preschool when she refused to eat American food. She wanted the Ethiopian dishes her family prepared at home.
These first generation Ethiopian-Americans were moved by the sacrifices their parents made to raise families in the United States. For Yusuf’s mother, who took refuge briefly in Canada before relocating to Dallas, job interviews were torture. She struggled to grasp English, hiding her stress to persuade employers that her English was no problem.
Before going into their own business ventures, Abdi’s mother and father drove shuttle buses to and from the Memphis International Airport to make enough money to bring Abdi’s older brother and sister from Ethiopia. As a high schooler, Abdi worked at Barnes and Noble in a minimum-wage job.
“I would always complain to my parents, and they would always (respond), ‘I don’t know why you’re complaining. We had to work a lot harder for a lot less pay,’” she said.
Both young women have had the opportunity to travel to Ethiopia, seeing firsthand the places where their parents grew up and meeting family members their age who had not been to America.
“That was really just a wake-up call to me,” Abdi says. “I feel I have nothing to complain about because there are people suffering there.”
Upon meeting cousins near to her in age, Yusuf felt stereotypes of Americans in the media might have cast a shadow of expectation that preceded her arrival in her parents’ homeland.
“I feel like they didn’t really expect me to care about my culture as much because I grew up in America,” she said.
Her connection with them intensified, however, once she gathered a better sense of the language and other cultural norms during her two-month stay.
Over time, Abdi, Yosef and Yusuf have come to believe that being from Ethiopia, with its rich history of melding so many cultures into one national identity, has eased their assimilation into the very different culture of the Deep South.
“There is a term called ‘multiculturalism,’” Yosef says. For him the term means “understanding each other without knowing each other.”