Tales from the Diaspora

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?

24 thoughts on “Tales from the Diaspora

  1. YAY! I know this might not seem appropriate for such a long, well-thought out and reflective post, but I’m excited about the shift I noticed in your thinking about yourself and your relationship with your parents. It seems to be a step towards what you’ve noticed as a bit of compassion.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Yay is entirely appropriate haha. I think it may change how I talk to them and react (or rather, not react) to their quirks that are engrained as part of culture, but as you can appreciate, some issues are bigger than that and would cause hurt in any culture…after a recent fall out my father sent me an email where he tried to attribute a whole lot of stuff to our clash of cultures but I wasn’t buying that…personal responsibility is still necessary in any culture. I guess im not entirely there with compassion. Maybe 60%?

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  2. I was on break when you posted this so I’m just catching up. There’s a lot to think about here. I do think our parents drive us crazy no matter the circumstances…their formative worlds are always quite different from ours. And we all feel like outsiders, at least some of the time. Certainly a lot of the values and culture my parents wanted me to embrace were rejected by me (my mother stopped speaking to me on several occasions). But immigrant families and cultures magnify it I guess.
    I’m sure those native-born kids you saw were not as easy in their skins as they appeared. Yet, there was no way really for you to disappear like they could in order to fit in. I know I feel more comfortable in NYC than I ever did growing up in mostly white suburban America–I still feel awkward there. It’s complicated.
    I’m glad you are seeing your parents in a different light. Humor is great for expanding our vision (and music of course…) I wish I’d been able to resolve things better with my mother before Alzheimer’s took away any chance for it to happen. Good luck! (K)

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    1. Thanks for such an thought provoking comment. You’re right, about the parent/child dynamic that is shared across cultures. Do all parents (including our own) think they’ll do it differently to their own parents? I know I do but I hope my son doesn’t look back on his relationship with me with anger or a feeling of having been misunderstood. You are absolutely right, those kids that may have seemed to have it all no doubt had their own issues…as a child/teenager it is always easy to see the grass being greener outside of your own four walls. I get what you mean about NYC…although I have never been there, I can imagine a metropolois of such diversity would be welcoming to anyone whereas white suburban America would likely feel isolating unless you conform to the white American suburban ideals/values. I am so sorry you couldn’t resolve things with your mother before her illness. That is a sobering thought for me, although speaking of memory, even though my parents are lucid and have their memory in tact, we look at past events very differently. My mother in particular has christ-washed (made up word) her past and refuses to believe she was anything but a martyr. Thanks again Kerfe, nice to hear from you. I have been on an unofficial break which isn’t entirely over, so I have been slack at reading blogs and engaging with my blog friends… just this post and the recent three line tales had to be written…

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      1. That is so observant, we all shape our past through filters. My mother was good at martyrdom too. I’m hoping, as you do, that I don’t/won’t appear in such a harsh light to my children. Perhaps it’s not possible, but no harm in trying…

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      2. I can’t imagine that someone so open minded, attuned to beauty in the world and full of compassion could be seen in a harsh light. I hope your children see that in you (on top of whatever blogging doesn’t reveal haha) xx

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  3. I agree with Kathy, Mek about the shift in your feelings and moving toward compassion. Life is pretty much a mystery and who knows why we get the parents we do. There is a theory that we choose them! WHAT???!!! Anyway, I wonder if there are some soul lessons here? Aren’t you a much better parent than your parents were because of your experiences? I know this is a painful way of learning a lesson, how much better to have had the sort of parents you craved? But then, would you have known what it was like to have less “relaxed” parents and been able to show compassion to those who don’t if this had not been your experience. A very profound, informative and well-written post and one that resonates.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Marie 😊 not sure I’d have chosen them, but then the ‘I’ that I know is what it is because of experiences and relstionshops I have had thus far, so without them, for better or worse, I wouldn’t be me (aside ftom their obvious role in my very being, but you know what I mean).

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