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When I think of home, I always think of growing up playing with my neighbors and friends. I think of sleepovers with my 12 other cousins as we all try to fit onto one mattress in the living room. I think of celebrating Epiphany at my grandma’s house, surrounded by the smell of incense and my grandma’s freshly baked bread. I think of my family gathered around the perfectly decorated coffee ceremony. I remember my cousins and I singing and chanting around the bonfire as the adults decided how much candy or small change to reward us with. When I think of home, I think of the smell of holidays, the colorful and vibrant life that takes over the city as we celebrate our New Year or Christmas. I think of waking up at 3 a.m on the morning of Easter to break our two month fasting season. I think of how excited my brothers and I would be to wake up before dawn—so excited that we would end up not sleeping at all in anticipation of the moment our mom would walk into our room and tell us the food was ready. We would compete to see who could stay up the longest only to end up crashing an hour before it was time to rise. When I think of home, I think of celebrating Ramadan and Eid al-Fitr just as equally as I would celebrate Easter because my neighbors and close friends were Muslims. When I think of home, I think of a culture that celebrates diversity; one that chooses peace over conflict, even in times of hardship. I think of an inclusive and communal society that is known for its hospitality and generosity.
These are my fondest memories of Ethiopia, my home country.
Is this what you think of when you picture Ethiopia?
Even though mine may be the common experience for many people in Ethiopia, I didn’t realize that it wasn’t the image of our country beyond our borders. After coming to the United States to pursue my college career at Brown University, I started to realize that the positive image I held of my home didn’t match western perceptions.
As I sat in the front seat of the lecture hall for my Anthropology and Global Social Problems class, I felt a stinging sense of embarrassment. The words and images of my professor’s slides showed data about when Ethiopia was the country with the highest infant mortality rate or had the highest risk of maternal death after childbirth. These numbers and graphs made me feel uneasy, almost confronted and exposed in front of my classmates. I kept thinking of how perfectly this fits in with the most infamous western recollection of Ethiopia as a famine stricken, poor nation: a country that never recovered from the images of malnourished children of its 1980s famine. I watched my country’s name plastered on the huge projector screen and with each mention, my reaction got worse. What bothered me wasn’t the content of the information my professor presented; for I knew that these statistics were based on some level of reality. Instead, what bothered me the most was knowing that almost 90% of my classmates would most likely carry on to have that singular image of my country and my culture.
As the only Ethiopian student in that lecture hall of a 100 or more students, it wasn’t easy seeing my country represented in such a negative light. I couldn’t help but feel a sense of desperation to scream, “There is more!” There is more to my country and my culture than the data on high rates of child and maternal mortality. Although I yearned for my classmates to see a bigger picture of my home, I didn’t know how to erase this singular image without appearing defensive and aggressive.
Unfortunately, my anthropology class wasn’t the first or last time I felt this way as I frequently face situations in which my culture, country or even continent are misrepresented and misjudged. Although I am used to being the only Ethiopian student in my classes or sections, it’s a whole other case to be the only African international student in these situations. It took me a while to realize why I was feeling all this pressure to represent Ethiopia. As much as it makes me happy to share and promote my background, it also hurts to see it misrepresented. It’s only natural to be bothered when people have a stereotypical and often, false perception or image of somewhere that you have such close ties to. While anyone with long term cross-cultural experience may agree with this sentiment, I believe international students, as a specific cohort of students, strongly share this struggle. Ever since I arrived in the U.S as an international student, I have become accustomed to feeling like an informal ambassador for my country. With time, however, I started to realize just how exhausting this responsibility can be, especially considering the larger pressure that African international students feel to give back to their respective countries.
For most African international students,the opportunity to study in the U.S is not just seen as a chance for self-growth and advancement but also an opportunity to gain knowledge for the sake of returning to our homes and bettering our societies. It only took a few conversations with other African international students for me to realize that we shared this common sentiment. It didn’t come as a surprise since most of our parents send us off to the States with the strong encouragement to pursue medicine, engineering, law or other similar fields that are often believed to be primarily essential to the growth and development of third world nations. For me, these predetermined expectations affect almost every decision I make in my educational career, from the classes I take or the concentration I choose, to the job opportunities I pursue. Often times, I can say this responsibility is also a motivational drive for me and my fellow African students who feel a greater sense of purpose and vision for their education. However, at times, it can be extremely overwhelming to constantly carry the pressure of considering your choices in the larger context of giving back to your home. To make it worse, this pressure often exacerbates the pre-existing sense of ambassadorship that one gains solely from the position of being an international student.
The international student package, unfortunately, doesn’t include a tip sheet on how to deal with such pressures which is why I felt the reason to share my experience. Although it took me some time, I came to realize that there is a fine line between celebrating your culture and feeling the pressure to represent it. I decided that I can’t and shouldn’t feel the responsibility to represent the 97 million people in Ethiopia, let alone the entire 54 countries of the African continent. As a 20 year old college student, I have yet to learn so much more about myself and what the world can offer me before I dive into what I can offer the world. And, for those of us who feel the pressure of ambassadorship, it’s important to remember that sometimes, the best way to represent your roots is by simply representing your own self to the best of your ability. As Donna Kate Rushin writes in “This Bridge Poem”:
The bridge I must be
Is the bridge to my own power
I must translate
My own fears
My own weaknesses
I must be the bridge to nowhere
But my true self
I will be useful
As I continue my next few years in college away from home, I know that I may face many more instances when I will feel the need to speak for my country. I will be tempted time and time again to share the beautiful memories I still cherish of my upbringing in Ethiopia in defense of the negative impressions that many others may carry about my culture. Although I will gladly put my best foot forth in these circumstances, I also hope to alleviate the pressure with the reminder that aiming to be the best version of who I am is more than enough on its own.
 Rushin, Kate. “The Bridge Poem.” This Bridge Called My Back. 2nd ed. Kitchen Table/Women of Color, 1984. Print.