Selam-ing Again

4 04 2011

We spent part of the weekend in St. Louis with friends and family who drove down from Chicago to help celebrate Little Dude’s birthday.

Sunday morning we were eating at the hotel and I thought one of the staff members was Ethiopian.  As per usual, I wasn’t 100% certain – and he wasn’t wearing a nametag so there were no additional clues there.

I was the first adult down to breakfast and was trying to settle in the gang of seven cousins, honorary cousins and my little ones.  Most of the olders were vying to sit next to Little Dude.  My kids are so lucky to have this group of older children finally within driving distance.  In the meantime I was trying to listen carefully to everything the suspected Ethiopian (SE) said to see if I could discern an accent.  Of course, I couldn’t resist…

He leaned forward to fill a water glass, I was actually behind him standing up, there was a whole lot of other pre-teen activity taking place and I said, “Selam.”  Although as I was to find out later I said it more like, “SAHLam.”  The guy did not flinch.  So much for my Ethiopian detector.

The other adults arrived, we all started many trips back and forth to the buffet.  In between there were bouts of removing sugar packets from my kids’ mouths, knives from their hands and syrup from their fingers.

I was waiting with my friend, S,  for our made-to-order omelets and I was telling her about my quest to meet Ethiopians.  I told her how I just “Selam-ed” the guy and he didn’t even look at me.  She said something like, “Well I am Irish, but if you greeted me in Gaelic, I wouldn’t have a clue.”  So I replied laughing, “I am not talking about long-ago Ethiopian, I am talking about fresh-off-the-boat Ethiopian.  As for long ago, well, we are all Ethiopian aren’t we?”

Of course, there was no one around during this conversation except the folks working there.  But I wasn’t trying to be quiet.  I was laughing at myself and at her silly comparison.  The SE in question walked by during this conversation and apparently overheard PARTS of it.

I walked away to sit down and eat breakfast.  S arrived a couple minutes later and said, “The guy working here was adopted from Ethiopia when he was 10-years old.”  Huh?  Wait, how did you find THAT out?

Apparently he only heard some of what I was saying, was offended – probably not much of a stretch there – and was telling the omelet chef about me while S was standing there.  So she rushed to my defense explaining my situation.

Eventually this led to a few brief conversations with the CE (confirmed Ethiopian).  At first I just said, “Wow, I really thought you were Ethiopian but when you didn’t react when I said Selam I just figured I was wrong.”  He seemed surprised that I thought he looked Ethiopian.  This led to an interesting discussion between he, I and an African-American staff member in which the AA staff member and I agreed that this guy and my son had certain similarities.  After that he walked by our table a few times trying to get a good look at Little Dude.  This is never easy to do since he is a blur of constant motion.  And I could tell that the CE was uncomfortable.

Finally, when I had enough Diet Coke to be reasonable, the CE was working at a table behind me.  I leaned back in my chair and said, “I am really sorry if I offended you before.  We just really want to do everything in our power to give him any kind of cultural connection we can.  We live in a small town and almost never see other Ethiopians.”  This time he stopped to chat.  And we finally had a real conversation.

He told me about his life, being adopted at the age of 10.  We talked about his rural roots, Gurage, and the time he spent living with his grandma in Addis.   I told him my kids’ favorite video is Gurage music and dancing and we talked about the proper way to pronounce things.  In the end he basically told me that I pronounce Selam like I am calling someone’s name, not saying Hello in Amharic.  I practiced about 20 times, but I am sure I have already forgotten the proper nuance.

He started to trust me more when I talked about watching the videos and how PJ likes to say her name is Prox and it is an Ethiopian name.  And especially when she said thank you to him in Amharic.  Apparently her pronunciation is better than mine.

I will probably continue to put myself out there in this manner.  I will probably continue to be misunderstood at times.  And even when I am understood, well, not every Ethiopian wants to be a cultural touchstone for my two-year-old and I am not going to earn a Girl-Scout Badge by pestering the most strangers.  On the other hand, if I don’t seek out these connections, they aren’t going to deliver themselves to my door.  There are no Ethiopian cultural centers let alone restaurants or businesses in my town.  At this point, making connections in the street is my best shot.

Selam, baby.


Hanging Out With The Big Boys in St. Louis




16 responses

5 04 2011

This made me feel so…..I don’t know, melancholy? (That’s really not a stretch, I tend toward melancholy most of the time, but it made me feel more so.) For you, for the young Ethiopian man working there. I love that you keep on Selam-ing away.

5 04 2011

I am hugely impressed by your ability to offend people when trying to make connections for Little Dude. Heh.

But in seriousness – I am hugely impressed by your ability to keep on making connections for Little Dude, even when you run the risk of offending people. I love that you got to talk to this guy, who you would otherwise have never ever made contact with.

Oh, and I want to know where you found that video of the Gurage singing and dancing. I think my two would be down with that.

5 04 2011
Semi-Feral Mama

Claudia, it is the youtube video I have linked in my March 21st post (Ethiopia On Her Mind). I will be shocked if they don’t love it. And the no-talking thing will work for you – because as soon as they can talk they might ask you to stand on your head and clap your feet like the guy in the video. Or, maybe that is only my kids and my husband their one man entertainment committee.

5 04 2011

What a great story … thank you for sharing! It is inspiring to see how hard you work to make your child’s life so special. You are an amazing mother!

5 04 2011

Good for you that you went back to apologize to him so that the real connection was made. That was the hardest part of the whole thing I think and I’m not sure I could have done that–good for you.

5 04 2011

I love this. I love your persistence. Because…I think sometimes just sticking around and following something through makes it impossible to walk away confused and hurt. When someone sees that your are genuinely interested in them–not as a stereotype, but as a person…they soften.

It’s so odd adopting from a country so far away, and having to try so hard to stay connected to that culture. I find myself obsessing about going back to Ethiopia.

5 04 2011

I love how persistent you are with this! I wish I could be more like you when it comes to stuff like this. I probably would have ended it (with my tail tucked between my legs) after the first Selam. I might have died a mortifying death after the overheard conversation. Way to follow through and to put yourself out there for Little Dude!

5 04 2011

Wait, I still don’t understand what exactly CE was offended by. How exactly did he explain to you what you had done? I’m genuinely curious.
I remember right after we were home with Abe stopping in a parking garage in L.A. to talk to one of the parking attendents to ask if she was Ethiopian. She was, and ran over to stick her head in the car to talk to Abe in the backseat. We are lucky to live in a city with an Ethiopian community, and if we didn’t, I am sure I would want to seek Ethiopians out.

6 04 2011
Semi-Feral Mama

I don’t think the Selam offended him since he had no idea I was trying to say Hello in Amharic. I am sure it was either the “right off the boat” or the “we are all Ethiopians” said from one white woman to another with a big chuckle at the end. There is no doubt I sounded offensive. I tend to assume everyone will “get” me. And, when I feel a little foolish/nervous I tend to get louder and more brash. Good thing it was a buffet or he might have “sneezed” in my food before we had time to clear up the confusion.

6 04 2011

I love that you make the effort to make connections out of love for your son. We also have an Ethiopian radar, and try to hone in on connections. I keep telling my husband that he needs to invite the Ethiopian who he infrequently sees downtown near his job over for dinner, he thinks its awkward, but I am adamantine. Can I just humbly offer though, that in reading some Korean adoptee stories, I remember that some of them felt very uncomfortable when they would encounter people who approached them in a manner which suggested those people thought the Korean adoptees naturally spoke another language besides English, or when adult Koreans who arrived much later to the states having first lived in Korea and learned the language, would approach them and speak in Korean. Maybe this is the same situation for this guy? Who knows, but its possible. That he didn’t want to be approached with the assumption that he was right “off the boat” especially when that assumption is based solely on his looks and he feels very American right now. Maybe try English first, afterall how can that be offensive since we are in the U.S., and then launch into Selam…? I don’t know, maybe not an entirely salient comparison, but this is the first thing that occurred to me. Afterall, our kids will be adults one day, and likely they won’t speak fluent Amharic, and then someone [who’s not Ethiopian] might come up to them and go “Selam” and who knows how they’d feel, hopefully they’d understand what it means…

6 04 2011
Semi-Feral Mama

I guess I assumed immigrant not adoptee based on his age, 23. I think the Korean comparison is a valid one. On the other hand I don’t think I am comfortable approaching someone and saying, “You look like you could be from Ethiopia” for many reasons (most of which are probably just my own hang-ups).
He was not at all angry about the Selam – in fact he had no idea I was trying to say Hello to him. I also think that most people of Ethiopian descent, whether adopted, immigrants or even a few generations out, would recognize the attempt at a friendly greeting – assuming it was said correctly and in a straight-forward manner (neither of which I achieved in this encounter.)
There can be no doubt that I am on a steep learning curve in this area. And every individual I meet will have their own legitimate reaction to my attempt to make a connection. But I reserve the right to laugh at myself and hopefully I have the writing skills to encourage others to laugh at me as well.
I do have a few thoughts about his potential sensitivities based on my conversation with him. But, I was careful in blogging about it, because it is his story. And for this I thank the internet, and people like adult Korean adoptees who tell their stories. Because a year ago I would have just blurted out his story like it was mine to tell, and quaint and interesting and not a REAL persons’ real life.

7 04 2011

Speaking of awkward attempts at making connections, I h-a-v-e actually asked people “Are you Ethiopian?”… and one lady at my eye doctor’s office wasn’t offended but genuinely perplexed and shocked that I asked her that. She was actually African-American-American-Indian mixed and OK home grown. Of course, I went on to explain why I was asking her and she seemed to be all good with it. A few times I’ve asked that question, the person was actually a r-e-a-l honest to goodness Ethiopian.

I don’t see how asking someone if they Ethiopian is offensive, but if it is, I am willing to be enlightened by someone more insightful.

6 04 2011

Or maybe he doesn’t feel American right now, I don’t know, but maybe he does – you’re the one who spoke to him – I am just taking a stab.

6 04 2011
Tonggu Momma

Oh, I loved this post. I have so been there – striving to make connections with others who share my daughter’s race and ethnicity, albeit sometimes clumsily.

7 04 2011

We’re lucky to live in a city with a very large Ethiopian population. I have a blog post draft about this (along with eleventy others) but more often than not, the Ethiopians we run into most often approach us and ask if the boys are Ethiopian. And then there is a lot of kissing of their hands and heads. Reason #89,7421 why I heart Ethiopia. Sounds like you should plan a little visit to our hood.

17 04 2011

love this post too. I’m hooked now on your blog. 🙂

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