by Yeshi Medhin
“Who was da fils plesidant of United State?”
It wasn’t that Yonatan didn’t know the answer, because he did. He’d lived in this country longer than he’d lived anywhere else. It wasn’t that he didn’t understand the interviewer either. He understood her perfectly well – despite her thick Vietnamese accent. What bothered him the most was the fact that his friend, Gregory K. Russell, so American born and bred that if you cut him he’d bleed red, white and blue, didn’t know half as much about American history as Yonatan did. And yet, Gregory wasn’t the one who had to sit in front of another foreigner and answer questions that Yonatan had mastered while still in high school.
Yonatan had been a part of the first wave of the Great Ethiopian Exodus of refugees between 1974 and 1984, who fled to the four corners of the world seeking safety and a stable future. His family had numbered amongst the tens of thousands who escaped Ethiopia and came to yamerican agher to call it home. The plan had never been to make America a permanent home – it had always been to go back. Change, as change always is, was inevitable. Soon, maybe before he was even twenty, he would be able to go back. Of course, change took it’s own sweet time, and Yonatan adjusted his return date accordingly. Soon turned into next year, and next year gradually evolved into the 5-year then the 10-year plan. After the Russian Glasnost effectively ripped apart the Ethiopian Red Curtain, Yonatan did go back. He kissed the tarmac when he deplaned. Cried hot tears of nostalgia and gratitude. But his stay in Ethiopia was brief. When he boarded a plane again a month later, it was to return home, this time to America. Amongst the nicks and knacks he’d brought back with him was a burning desire for an American Passport.
It was good, visiting Ethiopia. He had a wonderful time connecting with his family, with his culture, his language…. But there were missing things, things askew, and things that weighed heavily upon his democratized soul. Back in the US, Americans would look at his features, his skin tone and his hair and make a game out of guessing where he was from. Cuba? Panama? Jamaica? Hawaii? Oh, I know – Puerto Rico! And when he told them where he was from, they’d cock their head to the side, look puzzled and announce, But you don’t have an accent. It was those moments that made him long to be back where he’d come from. And when he had come home to Addis, he’d run into more of the same, only in more subtle ways. yemin gossa sew neh? Oh, they didn’t ask it in those words. Why walk in through the front door when you can steal in through the back. But he was Abesha enough to read between the lines. His invariable, EtioPiawi neN, was met with a particular expression he had come to define as condescendingly indulgent. He hated them for it. For making him feel a foreigner amongst his own. Yet another illusion gone.
So, when the time had come to leave, he had left eagerly. And when he passed through customs in London then New York, he found himself watching those holding an American passport as they were waved through like dignitaries while he was stopped and searched and questioned. That was when the need had germinated. It was ironic, really, if you thought about it. His long awaited trip “home” had seeded his mind with the need to belong elsewhere when the twenty odd years he’d spent in his adopted country had only made him more passionate about his birth land. While loyalty and honesty had kept him from pledging allegiance to the United States of America, the sense of security and the facility of travel an American Passport would afford him had convinced him to make the switch and trade up, as it were.
Oh, he’d agonized about it. It wasn’t as though he’d woken up one day and decided to make the leap. He had avoided, discussed, and buried the subject until it didn’t want to be left alone. He’d teased and ridiculed his cousins when they became naturalized and had hidden his desire to follow suit even from himself. Until he had gone back home. Only to hurry back. Home.
There were tell-tale signs, of course. There always are when realization is in the offing and truth wants to push it into view. There was, for example, the very personal way he felt about America. There was that time when he was driving one day and he saw someone in the car in front of his, roll down the window and chuck out a half-full milkshake container. He had been completely unprepared for the rage and indignation that suffused him. He had switched lanes, pulled up next to the other car and yelled at the occupants about littering. Didn’t they know it carried a fine of $1000? But what he had really wanted to say was, Why don’t you go back to whatever south-of-the-border country you come from and litter there!? It was racist and beneath him and the antithesis to the intended spirit of America…but it was what he had felt. And his resentment was so great it was able to bury the shame. There were other times, other incidents, most minor, some major, when he had caught himself thinking, There are too many foreigners here. Imagine that! Like their presence was going to make his more obvious.
And then 9/11 came and although he felt the horror of that day seep in under his skin and chill his soul, he didn’t feel what he thought he should have felt -- what he would have felt - had it been a building full of Ethiopians that had collapsed on itself with such horrific grace. He had tried to have a calm discussion with his American counterparts, about what would make a man climb into a plane and fly himself to a crowded death, but they didn’t want to hear it. It was their country that was violated. Their freedom that was being threatened. And he? Well, he looked too much like the people who had violated and threatened. So, here he was again, caught between split loyalties and unfair perceptions. And the paperwork for his citizenship was sitting on some foreigner’s desk awaiting an official’s signature. The irony of the timing wasn’t lost on him.
Now, he was sitting on a hard plastic chair before yet another immigrant who wanted to know if he knew who the first president of the United Sates was.
The first president of the United States? Abraham Lincoln…if you’re black. GW (that is George Washington) if you’re white. Neither of whom had anything on the first (and only) black president of these here United States…B Diddy C – Bill Clinton, yo!!
And smiling to himself, Yonatan gave her the correct answer.