By Abby Eskinder Hailu
One day, I was at lunch back home in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia at my grandfather’s place. My father and I walked into the dining room and proceeded to greet everyone with a handshake and kiss on each cheek—the traditional way. I said hello to one of my grandfather’s friends in Amharic. “Wow,” he said in Amharic, “you said tenaystilign instead of ‘hi’ like most kids your age do!” He was genuinely shocked that I (an Ethiopian) was speaking to him (also an Ethiopian) in Amharic (in Ethiopia). To me, it seemed obvious that we would be speaking in Amharic both being Ethiopians, and I was only ever exposed to cultural exchange in the relatively positive environment of my international high school where multiculturalism was always celebrated. However, toning down one’s culture comes part and parcel with being a citizen of the modern Americanized world. But after paying close attention, even to the most pedestrian aspects of culture, it’s not hard to see the extraness. Sometimes, culture can be overwhelming.
There are layers to the extraness of a language or culture. For example, any given language can hold deeply embedded extravagance that is often most clearly revealed when translated and placed in relation to another language— something commonplace in the modern globalized world. For bilingual people, there are some phrases and expressions that may seem normal in everyday usage but they simply just do not make sense in English. For example, there is a phrase in Amharic used to express someone’s anger towards a person which translated means “she was about to devour me.” Another such phrase to express happiness in everyday situations can be translated to “I wouldn’t be able to handle the joy.” And one of my least favorites is a more proactive rendition of swearing on someone’s life but can be literally translated to “let so-and-so die” (usually used with a parent’s name). Another aspect of the embedded melodrama is the inescapable religious element. In Ethiopia, you don’t just swear to God, but rather to all of the Saints, including the Virgin Mary. Even when wishing someone well or saying “thank you,” you always indicate God, regardless of your religion. Conversely, the English language has its own features which are extravagant both in English and in its translation. Every language has its own identity and respective markers of extraness, which are apparent from both within and without.
Language and culture are not necessarily inherently extra but rather they contain extra elements which the culture itself defines. But often these self-identifications can become invalidated by an outside perspective and compel people to downplay things they wouldn’t normally be overwhelmed by. Cultural practices and phrases can suddenly be misinterpreted as extra, which can be very impactful on a personal level because of the influence that language and culture have over identity. More often than not, the self-identified drama is inextricable from deeply personal and influential life values which materialize just in time for important milestones or when you need to answer “the big questions” in life.
People’s cultural backgrounds manifest most clearly when faced with big life decisions or events. For example, weddings are a very important thing to most people, regardless of their cultures. Multicultural people face a particularly difficult decision of planning a wedding that is either very traditional or modern. My uncle left Ethiopia at the age of 13 and spent most of his adult life in Maryland and the entire family would regularly tease him for being Americanized—but then it came time for his wedding. Traditional Ethiopian weddings can vary by ethnicity and mine, Tigre, has its own customs. One such practice is that the bride, for a week before her wedding gets insosila (the Tigre equivalent of henna) and on the eve of her wedding goes into a butter and herbal sauna as a beauty treatment. Also, the mother of the bride prepares homemade honey mead for a month prior to the actual wedding and then pulls an all-nighter to prepare food on the day of the wedding. This food is originally a gift from family friends and is in the form of cattle, usually oxen, to be slaughtered. This reflects the importance of community and family in Tigre culture where there are entire cities and regions named after families and their drama. The guestlist is also largely dictated by the mothers of the bride and groom so the entire event is almost more for the parents than the couple. It’s not uncommon for a parent to be in charge of key aspects of their child’s life well into adulthood including college degrees, career options and choosing a spouse. Essentially, preparing for a traditional Tigre wedding is a month-long affair and on the actual day, if the party is particularly exciting, it is commonplace for a proud uncle or cousin to fire a shot from a pistol on the dance floor. This tradition can be traced to the heritage of Tigres as being the warriors of Ethiopia, defending the nation from northern invaders including the Italians during the scramble for Africa in the 1800s (yes, this is a humble brag). Each of these traditions reflect some of the most vital principles, like community, valuing your parents’ opinions and defending what you love, which are essential to Tigre culture; this is how we can trace 500+ cousins without genealogy.com and provide support to one another in an almost mobbish way.
Each of these wedding customs has a beautiful and distinct backstory that has contributed to framing countless happy Tigre couples’ most joyful moments throughout history. Frankly, the logistics of having this type of wedding in a rented manor 30 minutes outside of D.C. is out of the question. My uncle’s 20s in the U.S. have been characterized by an anglicized surname, not cooking traditional Ethiopian food in a cramped apartment complex because of the pungency of the spices, and a masterful erasure of foreignness in the workspace. But how would he reconcile this cultural erasure with his wedding? Ultimately, we ended up having an in-between wedding where we compromised by serving the incredibly aromatic food but left the pistols and herbal saunas for another time. But what other compromises will my uncle have to make in life and will they be as easy as reshuffling wedding plans? What about the next generation of multi-cultural people who are going through a vastly different experience where native cultures are perceived differently?
How will this generation deal with cultural mitigation? Arguably, we have more resources than our predecessors to stay connected to our cultural roots in increasingly creative ways, such as social media, iTunes playlists, gentrified yet adequate versions of your favorite food at the local Wegmans and even entire college courses dedicated to your native language. Globalization can mean that any given person that you meet can actually know something about your culture and even impress you with a “tenaystilign.” Increasing diversity and visibility seems to pacify the homesick on a superficial level but still leaves the matter of which values to adopt wholly unsolved—which is essentially the crux of the problem. Perhaps one day, someone in my family can have a traditional Tigre wedding (cattle and all), in a rented manor thirty minutes outside of D.C., but what about after the wedding? Some aspects of cultural values are logistically not conducive to life in the U.S., like frequently visiting even the most distant members of your family and providing the same magnitude of support that you would back home. Although a change in setting alone cannot erase one’s culture, it can curb its expression necessitating a sort of battle to maintain its existence. Principles and practices don’t necessarily need to coalesce in the same precarious way that identity and actions sometimes don’t. The internalization of cultural elements is deeply subjective and complex for everyone, especially those living in between cultures.
Most people from multicultural backgrounds experience what experts call “identity management.” This entails adapting one’s values and sense of identity to conform to the surrounding environment; therefore, being highly alert to cultural subjectivity and balancing these differences is part of everyday life for people with multicultural backgrounds. The dilemma facing multicultural people cuts deep because identity and culture are inextricably linked. In an Americanized world, it almost seems necessary to forgo the most extra bits and frills of one’s native culture. Understandably, this trimming process is welcomed by some, particularly those who don’t entirely relate to their native cultures. Conversely, it is spitefully resented by others, like my grandfather’s friend, in the name of cultural preservation. Although it comes with its share of difficulties, juggling multiple cultural identities can even be an asset. Maneuvering between cultural value systems allows you to reexamine the cultures you come in contact with using a more critical perspective and you can deem for yourself what is extra. Ultimately, it is a matter of personal choice and experience whether you say “hi” or “Tenaystilign.” Thus cultural extraness will perpetually exist in many shapes, flavors, scents and gunshot sounds.