Stuck in the Middle: A Hidden Blessing
by Feven Yohannes
“Mom! Where's the awazay?” I ask.
“In the freezer.”
I immediately make my way into the kitchen looking for the spicy sauce; however, before I get to the awazay, I pass the Ben and Jerry’s Cookie Dough ice cream, our homemade coca cola ice pops, the tesmi (melted butter with herbs), and berbere ( a spice similar to paprika). Finally, I reach the awazay sauce made from tesmi and berbere, and I pull out the Lays potato chips from the cupboard. I proceed to dip the salty chip into the sauce and in doing so, I create a delicious fusion of American and Eritrean cultures. Although this combination of foods may be delicious, the figurative confluence of cultures rarely comes easy. Through much of my childhood, it felt as though I have been stuck between two cultures, neither of which completely represent me.
Often times people ask me where I’m from; a standard question motivated by someone’s interest to learn more about me and my heritage. Before I even have a chance to answer the question, people eagerly guess different countries or ethnicities and we end up playing the “Guess Who” game. “Are you from Somalia? Brazil? Are you Asian? Are you mixed race?” And the most popular one, “ Are you Indian?” I reply no, and, depending on the day, I’ll respond by saying “Eritrea, the small country next to Ethiopia” or “East Africa.” Although, they're simply asking me a question about my background, I’ve always interpreted it as people’s perception of me of not being American enough. As a result, I sometimes question my place within the culture as well as my identity.
This feeling is not only evident in my interactions with Americans, but also with people from within the Eritrean community. As an American born Eritrean, I am frequently viewed as an “outsider” in this country. Similarly, I am also seen as an outsider by native Eritreans who reside here. At times they’ll say that I don’t understand the culture, or that I am a “complete” American because I speak with an American dialect. Times like these have made it especially confusing for me to relate to one exclusive identity, because I have never been fully accepted in either group; instead, I remained in the middle, something I once perceived as negative.
Having two identities, although difficult at times, has blessed me with the opportunity of experiencing different cultures. On one hand, I watch the Patriots play every Sunday night; I stand for the pledge of allegiance; I celebrate every July 4th. On the other hand, I wear zuhras, traditional dresses, and my Eritrean bracelet, daily. I eat injera and cheer on the Eritrean runners during every Boston Marathon. Practicing different customs, each of which are very important to me, has made it seem like I had to choose between my two cultures. I don’t.
I embrace both of them, which means I get to celebrate two New Years, two Christmases, and two Independence Day holidays. I can understand three languages and speak two. No matter what a person’s perception of me is, I am not just American or just Eritrean. I can represent two cultures and call both my own. Just like the combination of potato chips and awazay, I am a product of two distinct, but special cultures and I rejoice that the best of both worlds are available to me.
Feven Yohannes is a sophomore at Harvard College studying Government and Economics. She is a first generation Eritrean-American and grew up in Boston, MA. After Harvard, Feven hopes to work in economic development in Eritrea.