The Story of a Hyphenated American

by Mihret Zemedkun

When I tell people I was born in Ethiopia, the majority are intrigued by my “exoticness,” but a considerable number look at me with pity, as if I had a personal association with the country’s poverty and corruption. With a slight tilt of the head and a sympathetic half-smile, they award me their compassion. They picture the One Africa, with malnourished children in mud houses, and a perfectly golden lion in the beaming horizon. They imagine I must have been released from isolation. That I should be grateful to have made it to civilization.

Have they ever considered what it would be like to move nearly 7, 200 miles, stripped of all familiarity, money and connections, driven by the slightest chance of a “better” life? We left because there was, truly, no better alternative. We arrived with a solidified vision of America—white picket fences, green lawns, abundant jobs with nice pay, freedom. But these rose-colored glasses had blurred one dire issue: we were immigrants. And “immigrant” meant more than newcomer. It meant alien. Undeserving. Out of place. It meant lazy and poor. Uneducated. Hopeless.

My older brother, sister, mom, and I had first moved to a beaten-up, impoverished neighborhood in one of the wealthiest counties in Maryland. It was a minority neighborhood, home to infamous drug trafficking. I don’t remember much of it, but I remember never being allowed to go outside to play or even get the mail. There was a recreational center on the corner of the street, and right across from it a cemetery. It was barren.

I don’t remember much about elementary school, but I do remember isolation. In the course of nine years, my family and I moved eight times between three cities in Montgomery County. For the first few months of elementary school, I couldn’t speak any English, and didn’t understand that people couldn’t understand my Amharic. I only made a few “friends” who used my company as a source of entertainment rather than companionship. I was made fun of and dehumanized before I was even six. I eventually realized I was being bullied, but refused to tell anyone, especially my mom. I still haven’t told her. I figured it would be more of a burden than anything, and I knew the last thing those girls needed was another accented voice to laugh at.

My first taste of immigrant stigma came, almost hand-in-hand, with my very first electronic toy:: a red, square Gameboy with my favorite Mario Brothers game in it. I spent my nights curled up on the couch, jumping on turtles and working endlessly to save the Princess. It substituted for playing outside, monkey bars at the park, and hide and seek at a friend’s house. I knew how hard my mom had worked to be able to buy it, and I was grateful to her. But one day, it came up missing. I thought I had lost it, so I turned the house upside down searching every crevice for my beloved toy. For years, I would wonder what happened to it. I finally mentioned it to my mom a few months ago and she admitted that one of the building service men stole it from my room. He told her about it, but she didn’t tell anyone (who would believe her? Who would believe or fight for an immigrant, a woman, living in a run-down home in a low-income neighborhood?). Describing his nonchalance and watching my fury at her silence and submissiveness, she gave me a soft, apologetic smile. She brushed my cheek and I felt her guilt—guilt that she couldn’t protect us, or our property, from the victimhood that came with low status.

My mom always made my siblings and I work as hard and as much as possible. She put pressure on us, and herself, to succeed against all odds. She fought to keep me in good schools regardless of our home district, cleverly submitting a P.O. box number in the district to give me the high school education she wishes she could have given my older sister. Barely able to speak English, she started off as a babysitter for a wealthy single mother in Potomac, holding down multiple jobs while my thirteen-year-old sister and I, five at the time, took care of ourselves. She’d nap or watch TV as I embarked on my own mischievous adventures, two of which ended in me accidentally stabbing my thigh and cracking my head open. Oops.

Coming home late each day, she took classes and got another bachelors when she realized they wouldn’t take her degrees from England. I never saw her struggle. I never saw her. I loved two-hour delays and half days because those were the only days I could see her before she left for work. I cherished those few hours with my mom, and respected their scarcity. I never resented the time I didn’t get to spend with her, and looking back, I’m thankful for being mature enough at such a young age to understand why she couldn’t spend time with me. But I knew that her sacrifices, along with mine and my sister’s, couldn’t have been for nothing. I knew I had to fight, too.

But how could I fight for her, protect her? I vividly remember the paralyzing fear that my mom somehow wouldn’t make it home, and I’d be orphaned. From when I was about eight to ten years old, my mom owned a convenience store in the dangerous part of Baltimore city. I was used to taking care of myself, and had the drill down: walk home, lock the door, shut the blinds, and wait. Panic? I always knew I would be fine, but I worried for my mom far too often. One day, while watching TV around 5 P.M., an emergency alert came up. The beeping saturated the room. I was submerged in panic. I kept my eyes off the television and searched for the remote to turn the volume down. Then I ran to the kitchen, peeled the home phone off the wall, and called my mom. As usual, she didn’t answer. I had visions of what she must be doing at the moment that prevented her from answering my calls. Was she working? Was she driving? Did something happen to her? Did she get hurt, making her physically unable to answer the phone? Was the emergency alert in Baltimore about her, or somewhere near her? I looked outside—pitch black. What would I do if she didn’t come home?

Making mental timelines of what I would do, who I would call, and where I’d go if she didn’t come home—it was late. Two minutes later, the emergency alert died out, my cartoon resumed. I tried to keep my mind off the alert for the rest of the afternoon, but only when my mom came home could I finally breathe. But I was never be relieved of my panic, and to be honest, I still panic. Moments like those I wondered, I still wonder, if it was even worth it—immigrating to a country alone. Can it possibly be worth it?

I’m grateful for the experiences and opportunities I’ve had, but it’s impossible not to wonder if life would have been better, or at least easier, if we hadn’t immigrated. In many cases, certainly in my family’s case, immigrants give up a more comfortable, established life, for an opportunity to “make it” in America. Did we make it? It wasn’t the bad experiences themselves, but this exhausting chase for a seemingly unattainable lifestyle promised by the American Dream. But more often than not, it seems like the American Dream is a privilege of natural born Americans, not hyphenated ones like me.