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In my culture it is normal for members of the older generation to ask questions like “whose daughter are you?” or “what are the names of your parents?”
By
Birkti Mesfin

22 Jun 2020 - 9:53 AM  UPDATED 22 Jun 2020 - 3:54 PM

I was excited when I had the chance to move to Melbourne. I knew it meant I had to leave my family, friends and community behind in Perth, but nonetheless I was up for the challenge.

I had prepared myself for almost everything, from the new place to the new job, to knowing how to move around the city though I’m still learning that part. However, I soon came to realise there are some experiences you just cannot prepare yourself for.

Coming from a traditional Ethiopian household and community, moving out before a certain age, let alone moving to another city, is often viewed as unconventional and a waste of time. I would especially feel this in my new city, even though my family had given me their full support.

Coming from a traditional Ethiopian household and community, moving out before a certain age, let alone moving to another city, is often viewed as unconventional and a waste of time

It was only recently that I started to unpack these traditional views. In my culture it is normal for members of the older generation to ask questions like “whose daughter are you?” or “what are the names of your parents?”

These are the sort of questions I got asked when I walked into an African hairdresser in Melbourne. I responded back by saying that my family are in Perth and not in Melbourne. The immediate silence was followed by looks of confusion and disapproval. I knew in that moment some unrelated story had filled their head. 

What saddened me was my reaction to the silence. I found myself justifying my move by saying I had come here for a job and that I was currently studying. I responded this way because I knew these were accepted reasons that upheld traditional values.

Had I said “independence" or “a new challenge”, this would have added to the confusion, even if it was what I really felt. I went home that day and started to think of every similar encounter I had like this. In that moment, my dual identity had never made me feel so conflicted.

I felt frustrated that I could not express myself the way I wanted to. I felt misunderstood.

I felt frustrated that I could not express myself the way I wanted to. I felt misunderstood. This is what happens when you grow up with two conflicting cultures, I thought to myself.

In Australia, to make choices such as moving out of home and moving cities in your early 20s is not frowned upon or found unusual. But it’s not the same in Ethiopian culture. So, when I told my parents I wanted to move, I could not predict what response they would give me.

I found though, to my surprise, they were supportive and continue to be so. My parents were able to set aside their traditional values, to give me room to grow and challenge myself. They held compassion and patience to understand me and my choices.

As I began to process my thoughts, I recognised that I too can hold this same compassion and patience towards the older generation within my community. Whilst not easy, I began to understand that those who responded with confusion and disapproval at my decision to move cities may come from a place of holding family and togetherness to a high regard, or it may be a lack of awareness and understanding. 

My parents always had my siblings and me communicate ideas that challenged their world views and increase their understanding of their (first-generation) experiences. I realised, some Ethiopian households may not be like mine, so I let go of my frustration and came to an understanding. 

To grow up Ethiopian in Australia means that my family made sacrifices for me to ensure my security and safety.

The complexities of my dual identity will always follow me, but so will the joys of growing up Ethiopian Australian. I love my Ethiopian culture and the traditions my parents have passed down to me. I love our celebrations, language, food, dancing and music. Being Ethiopian will always be a part of my identity. To grow up Ethiopian in Australia means that my family made sacrifices for me to ensure my security and safety. While I honour these sacrifices, my family has also given me the power and privilege to live a life different to the one they did. This means switching up the rules here and there!

So to all first and second-generation immigrant Australians, let’s continue to break cycles. Start that business venture you have been thinking about, create that art you have always wanted to share, move to that city that has been on your mind. We are up next, so it is time to write our own stories.

And as for that day at the hairdresser, what felt as a disappointing encounter turned into a self-reflection on how I continue to navigate this world as an Ethiopian Australian.

Birkti Mesfin is a freelance writer.

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