Friday, February 6, 2009

Friday Friend or Family Feature: Guest Blogger Edition- Rebecca Haile

One of the reasons I wrote Held at a Distance was to pinpoint what it means to me to feel emotionally and culturally connected to both Ethiopia and America. On that topic my book is quite personal, as are the balances I have struck around identity.

For this post, and with adoptive families in mind, I thought I would share the broader contexts in which I have thought about these connections since the book’s publication.

First, I’ve thought a lot about Ethiopian-American culture and identity in light of the dramatic increase in the immigrant community. Before the 1974 revolution there were so few Ethiopians living outside Ethiopia. Today there are between 350 and 500 thousand of us in the US alone, truly a staggering number. And although we are still a relatively young immigrant group, thirty years is long enough for us to realize that we aren’t going back “home”. The real business of living, we know, is happening here.

The bigger numbers don’t necessarily mean that little replicas of Addis Ababa will spring up here and there (though very traditional pockets may well flourish). Rather, like groups that have come before, I imagine that we will create something different, something that combines elements of the old country and the new. Take a look at the “movie” (a combination of still images, audio clips from interviews and music) I made with my friend Ara Oshagan about Los Angeles’ Ethiopian community. In it you can hear people, especially parents and their second-generation children, searching for words to describe their identity and struggling to articulate a balance that is true to their Ethiopian-in-America or Ethiopian-American or African-American experience. Here is the link. I think the real significance of this growth is that it permits so many more options around the preservation of culture and identity. Whatever people settle upon, they will not be limited by the kind of isolation my family experienced in central Minnesota in the 1970s.

Second, I’ve been thinking about these questions as a mother. All of a sudden, it seems, my two children have grown out of toddlerhood and are old enough to notice how our family compares to their friends’ families. They know that their mother and her (very numerous) relatives are Ethiopian, that this side of the family comes in different shades of brown and speaks with a range of accents or prefers Amharic. They know that their maternal grandfather is in a wheelchair for reasons having to do with Ethiopia. They also understand that their paternal grandparents are Greek and Armenian, and that their father was raised in Istanbul. At the same time, they are Americans who are very attached to their friends and for the most part feel no different at all.

I have such mixed emotions about Ethiopia. I love the country proper; can dream up in a minute the breathtaking topography of highland peaks covered in golden brush and practically feel the clean cold air of dawn in the mountains. I love the way that nature is always at hand even in the cities, in the cattle that can suddenly block the busiest street, in the drum of summer rain on tin roofs or in the lake-sized puddles that women in heels sidestep with such skill. I love and miss my extended family; I will always be grateful for the unconditional love and safety they provided me and forever mindful of their lessons about caring for others. It is probably also true that I love the idea of Ethiopia, the marvelous historic nation that might have been. I will always wonder, as I wrote in my book, what it would have been like to grow up there, in a place where my family simply belonged.

But I also know that the many things I have come to love about being American, the many freedoms I enjoy as a citizen, as a woman and as an individual, are just not on offer in Ethiopia. And as I think specifically about children, I think about all that is wrong with how children are raised. With love, yes, but also with extreme emphasis on qualities such as obedience and conformity and a general disregard for the individual nature or needs of a given child.

So what do I want for my children? What should I do, what can I do, to give them enough of Ethiopia while also respecting their other connections as well as their right to charter their own course?

For now, here are some of my ideas:

Ethiopian history. This one is easy. There is so much there, from the achievements of ancient Axum to the 3000 year-old written tradition to the encounters and clashes with European powers from the Middles Ages on. I don’t want to romanticize or overplay anything, though. I want my children to know the good and the bad and the mundane in-between and accept it for what it is. I feel so strongly that we have to embrace all aspects of a given subject if we mean to take it seriously.

I imagine that knowing Ethiopian history in this way will matter for my children’s sense of self – we come from this place - and will also teach them to be more sensitive to the complexity of other people and cultures.

Connection/Community. This one is harder. Harder to do, and harder to know how much to do. My children won’t speak Amharic; I recognize that. So I’m very grateful that they see their grandparents and cousins often, as this is a natural way for them to be a part of something Ethiopian – nothing forced there.

In terms of connection to a bigger community, I’m quite interested in how second-generation Ethiopian-Americans are defining their identity and their relationship to Ethiopia. Not all speak Amharic, not many have spent meaningful time in Ethiopia, and yet the connection, or at least the yearning for connection, remains. Without pushing them in any way, I can see how my hybrid kids could find a space within this community that is genuinely open to them.

In terms of on-going cultural exposure -- which is both good in and of itself, like exposure to history, and a critical element of community-building - I’m sure the growth will result in more restaurants, art galleries, bookstores, community centers and organized events and more chances to come into contact with other Ethiopian-American families. For example, last April Harvard hosted a three-day conference on Ethiopian creativity that would have been inconceivable ten years ago. I learned a ton about the art, music and political activity of Ethiopian immigrants from the speakers. And I also left feeling a genuine connection with the other Ethiopian participants, something I rarely feel in more traditional settings.

Two observations about adoptive families here. First, I fully expect you and your children to join this conversation and for your presence and participation to impact this evolving Ethiopian-American identity. It is entirely possible that my kids will have as much in common with yours as they will with kids whose parents are from Ethiopia.

Second, I think adoptive families may help lead the way in establishing more formal ways of transmitting culture. I get a lot of practical questions from adoptive parents – where to buy a specific kind of children’s book, where to get Amharic lessons – and often I come up blank. We don’t have such mechanisms in place yet. The reason for this, I think, is that we come from a majority culture and have only just started to recognize that Ethiopian identity in the next generations could easily disappear under the weight of the dominant American (and African-American) culture. Adoptive parents, on the other hand, it seems to me, emerge from the adoption process having already done a lot of thinking about minority culture and identity and the potential consequences of inaction. Also, of course, as immigrants we don’t have the same resources – financial or otherwise - that more established American families often do.

Communal Sensibility. Within an Ethiopian family or community, you can never think only of yourself. Everyone is very aware of how their actions affect everyone around them, and children are taught to be especially solicitous of parents and other elders. (To this day I can’t get myself a glass of water without offering one to everyone else in the room.) I hope I can pass on something of this very Ethiopian value to my children. That is, I hope they will come to understand their responsibilities and obligations as reaching beyond themselves or their immediate families. It doesn’t matter to me whether the community they think about includes people in New York City or Addis Ababa or whether it is a community of ideology rather than geography – it only matters that they think, and act, in a communal way.

Humility. Ethiopia will humble you. There is humility in being stopped cold by a power outage that leaves an entire neighborhood in darkness. In having a long anticipated trip cut short because there is just no way around a washed out mountain pass. In suffering the arbitrary actions of one repressive government after another, in living with curfews and random police stops, in having everything upended by revolution or civil war. In losing parents or children to military bullets or to illnesses that are routinely treated elsewhere.

Over the years I have found it useful to remember that even foundations can be fragile, and that the best-laid plans must be open to revision. I think some sense of humility and understanding along these lines will be valuable to my children as we move further into this unpredictable new century, a century in which America’s role in the world – and American confidence - may come under challenge. I don’t mean that I want them to throw up their hands or be fatalistic about outcomes. I just hope that some degree of humility informs their thinking and helps them make mindful, effective choices.

So that’s where I am, at least for today. No doubt my ideas will change as my kids grow and change. I’ll end with a bit of advice I got from my father when my husband and I were going back and forth on what to name our daughter: “Well, enjoy your decision. It will be the last one you make about her on your own.”

I think about that a lot.

Rebecca Haile

* Note from Julie...

Rebecca has graciously indicated to me that she would be more than happy to write a follow up post answering any questions we may have about today's post, or about Held at a Distance.

Thank you Rebecca!


  1. Absolutely amazing. Thanks for this. As an adoptive parent, I struggle with the question of will I be good enough? Can I do Ethiopia right? Can I make sure my daughter knows everything she needs to know and wants to know? This has given me a lot to think about and put some things in perspetive. Humility is something I have learned a lot about in the last few months and will learn some more about in the months to come. Thank you again for your insight and thanks Julie you know we all love ya!

  2. This is really really wonderful. Thank you so much.

    Ms. Haile, your book was one of the first I read after my husband and I decided to adopt from Ethiopia. It was really eye-opening and gave me such a sense of the country. Thank you!

  3. Thank you so much for the insight you have provided for this Grandmother who will soon know the joy of holding her adopted Ethiopian grandson. I will keep your words in mind and remember the wisdom you have given us, today.
    Peg Lombardi

  4. Thank you so much for this. I find it so interesting that adoptive parents of Ethiopian children and Ethiopian parents raising their children in America might have in common the struggle to find ways to keep the Ethiopian culture alive and meaningful within their families. It sounds like these two groups could learn a lot from each other.

    I am curious if Mrs. Haile has made any observations about what the Ethiopian community living in the US feels about so many Ethiopian children being adopted and raised abroad.

    Thanks again for this wonderful and insightful post.


  5. What a wonderful post. Thank you so much for your insight. I'm heading right out to buy Held at a Distance.

  6. Thanks so much for this post. I loved Held at a Distance, too!

  7. Fantastic. Thank you, Rebecca Haile. And thank you, Julie, for the guest blog post. So cool.

    Like Jana, "Held at a Distance" was one of the first books on Ethiopia that I read. I thought it was beautifully done, just enough history about the country mixed with her personal familial experience and thoughts and feelings while on her journey to find a nuanced identity.

    I loved the following particular sentences in this post...

    "I feel so strongly that we have to embrace all aspects of a given subject if we mean to take it seriously." - This one is so poignant to me, especially when I think about it in the context of intercountry adoption.

    "Adoptive parents, on the other hand, it seems to me, emerge from the adoption process having already done a lot of thinking about minority culture and identity and the potential consequences of inaction."

    "Over the years I have found it useful to remember that even foundations can be fragile, and that the best-laid plans must be open to revision."

    Like Charlotte, I too would ask her the question of what she thinks about so many children being adopted from Ethiopia.


  8. Oh, and what does she think about "There is No Me Without You"... and the sort of cult-following of Ethiopian adoptive parents it's engendered.


  9. oh my gosh. wonderful!!! thank you rebecca and julie!
    great questions cindy! i'd love to know the answers!

  10. I just feel honored to have read this today. Great insight and thought provoking words. I'm assuming that our thoughts on who we are as "different" kinds of families, whether we are immigrant families or a mixture of all sorts, that these thoughts will be forever evolving and changing. It's good to simply sit with our realities and draw one another into conversations regarding the many issues our children will face, the good and the challenging.
    Thanks Julie and Rebecca!

  11. Thank you so very, very much. I can't wait to get my book in the mail soon- should be on its way as we write.

    Like Cindy, there were several sentences in this post that I truly appreciated and plan on spending some time thinking about. In particular- "I feel so strongly that we have to embrace all aspects of a given subject if we mean to take it seriously."

    Again, thank you.

    And smooches to you Julie!

  12. Rebecca, I have been thinking about what you wrote about being a child in Ethiopia. I am remembering , too, that you wrote in your book, "Ethiopia is not a country where adults fret over children's feelings..." Would you expound on that a little bit? Do you think this treatment of children is a generational thing? (My parents grew up with,"Children should be seen and not heard," and I even remember learning,"Don't speak to an adult until spoken to".) Is this a cultural or generational difference in your opinion?

  13. Thank you so much for your insight. I learned so much from reading your book. I hope to teach my Ethiopian daughter and my American born sons as much about Ethiopia as I can.

  14. If Ms. Haile would also kindly be willing to entertain the complex issue of foreign aid in Africa, I'd be very interested to know how she feels. I've heard some say that a whole generation of people in Africa know nothing but subsisting on aid as a way of life. Is aid helping more or harming more the people in Africa?


  15. Thanks so much to Rebecca Haile for taking the time to write this, I really enjoyed reading her thoughts on Ethiopia in general and about adoptive families in particular (and loved her book!). I wonder if she could comment more on the dynamics between the Ethiopian-American community and the African-American community? One of the things I think about is that my future child will have a whole cultural background from Ethiopia that I want to preserve as much as possible, but that he or she will most likely be perceived as African-American in this country - what are the implications of that for raising a child?

  16. This was great! We are constantly asked "How will we keep our children's Ethiopian culture alive?" And for us those questions also extend to how do we raise our children in Los Angeles to be aware of their Southern and Midwest heritage also? My husband comes from a huge family in the Midwest and I am come from a long line of Southerners--both regions with their own specific culture and history that we want our children to feel a part of as well. I love Rebecca's suggestions on focusing on community, history and connection... and that you must know a subject from all sides to know it well. I will be passing this on to family members. As for questions: I am also interested in what Ethiopian Americans (immigrants or 2nd generation) think of our adopting Ethiopian children. Also, I'm curious how often, if ever she goes back to ET? Does she take her children? Thanks again for this post!

  17. Thank you. What a blessing to read Julie's thought regularly, and now another wonderful gift to read Rebecca's post. Aren't brilliant women inspiring!! I loved the book, read it in a sitting or two and revisit it often. Feeling grateful for the shared wisdom and insights!

  18. I must get the book. She leaves you with a lot to think about. Thank you for this post.

  19. Julie, Thank you for this!

    Rebecca, Thank you for sharing your perspective!


  20. Thanks. This was great! - Julie O.

  21. Thanks so much for this post. So much of our adoption journey so far has been about attachment and love -- the emphasis on the fact that our boys are Ethiopian took a temporary back seat. Now that things are getting more stable, and they are understanding more of what happened to them, starting to question why they are with us here, and not in Ethiopia, I am thinking more of how to jibe Ethiopia with American, and African-American culture.

    It is not easy, and I'm hoping they help us find our way by letting us know their preferences, their feelings.

    Thanks again, a lot of food for thought.

  22. How amazing!! I love following your great that you can share this with all of us. Thanks so much!

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