“Where are you from?”
For as long as I can remember, that innocent question has been a dreaded one. It conjures up too many complicated issues surrounding belonging, personal history and cultural identity. As a result, my answer fluctuated daily, sometimes even hourly.
Inevitably my response depended on the context: who was asking, which city we were in and how much information I cared to divulge. In the UK, I skip past the fact that I was born in London and say that I am Ethiopian. To which I receive a puzzled look, not because they’re trying to locate Ethiopia on the map (as sometimes happens) but because the response doesn’t account for my North American accent. If I feel that a follow-up is necessary, even though elaborating is tedious, I explain that I picked up the accent at American schools (in Kenya and Italy, respectively) followed by University in Canada.
Ironically, I feel the least Ethiopian in Ethiopia herself; so there I call myself British. Having to provide a backstory is merely annoying in most places but it’s emotionally draining in Ethiopia. I wish it were the one country where follow-up information wasn’t required. Aren’t my clear Ethiopian features and fluency in Amharic sufficient for me to belong? That question was the root cause behind the dilemma I faced.
No matter where I was, “where are you from?” simply didn’t have a clear one-word answer.
Sometimes I choose to just have fun with it. Here in Beijing when a Chinese person asks me, I say that I’m Chinese. I then ask where they are from and laughingly respond, “We are both Chinese? What a coincidence!”
Recently, I switched to a more factual response, rather than one based on my fluctuating feelings of identity. It’s better not to involve emotions at all, I reasoned. “I was born in London and my parents were born in Ethiopia.” Once the dreaded follow-up questions arose, I explain that my family lives in both France and the UK – at least until I persuade them to join me in China.
When I live in the West, it’s easy to identify as Ethiopian, especially as I’m usually the only Ethiopian, if not African in the room. Yet when I return to Ethiopia, my connection to the country is undermined by the constant remark, “yes you say Ethiopia, but where are you really from?”
Perhaps the remark wouldn’t have affected me as much if my values were fully Ethiopian. However, excluding the 5 years or so in Kenya, I was raised in the West. Along the way, I assimilated several Western cultural values into the Ethiopian foundation my parents instilled in me.
Still, in my heart, I am more Ethiopian than anything else, but having to convince another Ethiopian that we are both from the same country is deflating. After all, can you truly be a part of a community if you have to persuade others that you belong?
For a moment I decided that I was a Londoner. Of all the places I had a link to, it seemed to be the only one that would embrace all aspects of my history. But it never felt right. London just isn’t my home. Then I concluded that I’m Parisian after all my parents have lived there for a record 12 years and our family home is the only place I wholeheartedly and unquestionably belong. A decade has passed since I moved out yet my lilac bedroom remains intact. But I know it’s a front, I’m not Parisian. Nor can someone be “from” a house, even if it’s affectionately nicknamed “Pavilion Shuromeda” after the area in which my Dad was raised in Ethiopia.
And so the cycle of fluctuating cultural identity and constant re-definition of my roots continued for years. Until something entirely unexpected happened – I moved to China and became an Ethiopian and a pan-Africanist.
Foreigners living in China have a tendency to form a community almost instantaneously. At Peking University, where I live and study, the African student association (PUASA) was welcoming and inclusive. Between the social gatherings, academic talks and professional events, we were routinely in one another’s company. After a few short weeks, I was integrated into a close-knit group of Africans studying, working and pursuing their goals here in China.
For the first time, I was surrounded by a diverse group of pan-Africans who defined for themselves what it means to be African. Some were born and raised there, others travelled frequently and some have roots that straddle multiple continents. Each person had their own unique story but there was a singular unifying theme – the unwavering commitment to their heritage. This family was a vivacious pan-African unit of the likes I had never seen before.
Our conversations frequently revolved around African issues – political and economic development, race relations, the Africa/China space and crucially how we, the African diaspora, can best harness our experiences in China to effect change on the continent. The common determination to participate in Africa’s re-emergence was invigorating. Their passion mesmerised me and my hearts tug towards Ethiopia pulled stronger. Yet I couldn’t shake the memories of Ethiopians asking me “where are you really from?”
My identity struggles baffled this pan-African family “Being Ethiopian is your birth right” they lovingly reassured me. “If that’s how you feel then claim it.” Energised by their wholehearted acceptance of my multi-faceted history, I began asking exactly what it meant for me to be “from” somewhere. Eventually, I reasoned that my unwavering love for Ethiopia could earn me a place amongst its people.
In the midst of this supportive African community, I realised that it wasn’t for another to define what being Ethiopian means to me. That prerogative is mine alone.
Now ask me “Where are you from?”
I’ll smile and simply say “Ethiopian”. Follow-up questions be dammed.
Hannah Getachew (Guest Writer)
Hannah Getachew is an Ethiopian with a strong conviction for Pan-Africanism & South-South Cooperation. She has earned a B.A. from McGill University in Canada and an LL.B. from Queen Mary School of Law, University of London. Hannah was at Peking University studying Chinese and will soon pursue her LL.M. in Transnational Law at the same University. Her passion for public international law and international environmental law are reflected in her professional and academic pursuits.