I’ll admit it, I hung my parents out to dry long ago. However, I am not immune to the occasional glimmer of compassion brought on by insights into the complexity of their lives and factors that contributed to making them the people I know. A recent glimmer can be traced to a late onset appreciation of The Weeknd’s I Feel it Coming. One minute I was grooving to my new favourite song, switching from the original to alternate versions including an 80s version complete with hair and outfit of that era. I also came across a cool trick to edit the url of the original to be transported to an ambient verison but I can’t remember how to do it- please let me know if you know what I’m talking about.
While I was wading in the sink hole of ProcrastYounationTube™, a video by Eritrean-American Bethlehem Awate, titled When Habesha Parents Discover the Weeknd…caught my eye, ‘Habesha’ being a loose term for people from the highlands of the Horn of Africa. For the sake of simplicity, and because I am not a scholar in the area, let’s say it is a loose umbrella term for Ethiopians and Eritreans. Abel Makkonen Tesfaye, better known as The Weeknd is Canadian of Ethiopian descent. I was born in Ethiopia, moving to Australia at the age of six where I have since spent most of my life, save for a four year stint in Europe.
Awate’s video, in which she plays both mother and daughter, captured the Habesha parent/child dynamic so well— the mother’s idiosyncrasies, accent, and logic, and the internal eye roll, tongue holding and cringing of the culture-crossing daughter. Highlights were the mother’s conviction that she knows The Weeknd’s family; her fumbled excuse for no longer having Abel’s mother’s phone number; and, the sincere request that her daughter contact Abel and tell him to sing good Christian songs rather than ones with drug references and lamentations of facial numbness. Naturally, I carried on watching more of Awate’s channel, enjoying videos with hilarious observations of a Habesha mother, with the focus on her backseat driving, melodramatic reactions while watching a movie, and a judgement laden skit where she sums up the reasons why her daughter will neber (never) marry.
Awate made me laugh because I could imagine the same reactions from my parents, older relatives and family friends. I related to the frustration of being on the receiving end of the parent that knows best, demands respect at any cost, and is greatly concerned about the Habesha community’s perception of them and their family; frustrations felt all the more as a child growing up in the diaspora with exposure to individualistic cultures, navigating a grey area between the two, but denied full membership of either. Oh, the freedoms I saw in the lives of the Aussie kids at school. How I craved a life of sleepovers and play dates, movie outings, pocket money, late nights un-chaperoned, dating, and parents who were more relaxed.
When they immigrated to Australia in the mid 1970s, my mother in her early 20s, my father ten years older, they were brown faces bobbing in a largely white sea. Census data from 2011 indicates that of the 8452 Ethiopian-born Australians in 2011 (cf. national population 20.34 million) roughly 2 per cent arrived between 1971 and 1980. Assuming the geographic distribution of Ethiopian-born Australians was the same then as in 2011, then only 13 per cent of that 2 per cent lived in New South Wales where I grew up, i.e. 22 people. It wasn’t until 20 years later that waves of Ethiopians and Eritreans migrated to Australia (for the purposes of this post, there is no cultural difference between Ethiopians and Eritreans- it was essentially the one nation until 1991, albeit a nation with many ethnic groups and languages, both Semitic and Cushitic. The fact that Awate is Eritrean didn’t stop this Ethiopian from relating to her portrayal of Habesha parents). With such small numbers of Ethiopians in my life during my formative years, there was a greater feeling of mismatch between the ‘Australian’ culture I was becoming more fluent in and the culture my parents clung to, although for all their clinging, it didn’t translate to the benefits of the social aspects of the culture to give myself and my siblings a sense of connection to it. In their efforts to help us assimilate (we arrived in Australia six years after our parents), they spoke to us only in English, relegating our mother tongue to the far recesses of our minds together with any tangible connections to our culture and the motherland.
In recognising my parents in Awate’s characters, I realised how hard it is to extricate their individual characteristics from that of their collective culture, a culture so deeply entrenched that it cannot be ignored as an influence on who they are, although I once dismissed this as a get-out-of-jail card, a poor excuse for the poor excuse for parents I labelled them; besides, it was easier to be angry with two people than to take up battle with an entire culture, let alone one that hails from a part of the world regarded as the cradle of humankind. My shifting view is an appreciation of the influence of culture on their parenting style and our relationship. How that translates in how I’ll relate to them after this shift, time will tell, as I haven’t spoken to them since this moment of awareness (to borrow from a Turning Point in a novel’s structure). I’m still thinking through it, the train of thought inching me towards a little more compassion, chugging along and bound to terminate where forgiveness begins, from where I anticipate a bit of a walk, a revisit of worn maps, and probably a platform change before some issues can be laid to rest (it would be disingenuous to attribute all our issues to culture).
As well as stirring up thoughts on the influence of culture on my relationship with my parents, the videos made me nostalgic for a greater connection with my culture, and surprisingly, revealed something endearing about the predictability of the Habesha parents’ reactions. I didn’t expect a solo groove to I Feel It Coming to lead me to uncover these thoughts and feelings, but therein lies the power (and importance) of diversity in media—finding oneself animated on screen, plastered on pages, hung in galleries or celebrated in lyrics makes one feel less alone and illuminates personal experiences. How different things would be if I were an adolescent now, surrounded not only by more of ‘my people’, but also just a swipe of a device away from others in the diaspora living tens of thousands of miles from my adopted home. We live in amazing times, technology allowing us to find our own misfit tribes, giving us the opportunity to examine our lives and ultimately better understand ourselves and others, even those we think we already know so well.
Was/is culture a barrier in your relationship with your parents or children? How has it affected your relationship? Have you overcome the barrier? If so, how?