We sat down in church. The pastor found a seat next to us, looked pointedly at us, and started rubbing my son Daniel’s bare feet. I could read it in his eyes: Why does this child not have socks? (Answer: Because when said child has socks, they are somehow pulled off and thrown into unknown locations within approximately 2 minutes.).
Without a word spoken, I began to feel guilty, a failure as a mom in Ethiopian culture. That’s it. I’m going to do the thing that is right in the eyes of society, I thought. I want to fit in, so I will obey “the rules.”
The rules, it seemed to me, were mostly about the fact that children need to be bundled up at all times. We must act as if we live in the Arctic, though we actually live in a place that never gets below 60 degrees and usually hovers around 75. When in Rome…right?
The next week, a sunny day dawned, warm and bright. Nevertheless, I bundled Daniel up in a sweatshirt and socks and put him on my back, feeling righteous and politically correct. We set out for the fruit stand to buy some bananas, and I congratulated myself on living up to this society’s standards.
As we walked down the uneven cobblestone path, a large, imposing lady passed us. Then she whirled around in shock, almost hitting us with her umbrella. She began a dramatic tirade, shaking her umbrella at me and pointing at Daniel, asking me what in the world I was thinking letting my baby be out in the sun.
Eshi…eshi…eshi…(ok…ok…ok…) I said meekly for a while, then turned and continued on my way, her words ringing in my ears. Ethiopian mom fail. Again.
My cultural sensitivity was in conflict with my nerdy health research habits, which told me that it was essential for Daniel to get vitamin D from sunlight at least a few times a week, even if I have to brave the umbrella preachers and flout their advice.
On another day I was similarly walking in the sun, a sleeping baby on my back, through one of the most crowded areas of town. A woman saw me from afar and started yelling as she came towards me, berating me for not putting a hat on my child, etc. This time I didn’t even stop as I said a single, curt Eshi, and kept walking, head high, emboldened by my anger.
Everyone has opinions. Everyone has advice. Everyone judges everyone else. Americans judge people all the time. But the difference between Americans and Ethiopians is that Americans will judge you and talk bad about you behind your back, in private, but Ethiopians will judge you and talk bad about you to your face, in public (and loudly). This is a little hard to get used to.
This tendency to give advice freely to strangers is a corollary to the fact that here, everyone is all up in everyone else’s business, all of the time. There are not many boundaries, not a lot of personal space, not an abundance of privacy. What we do, we do together. What we think, we share.
I was having a grouchy day after being given one too many pieces of advice (on other topics, in addition to the baby lectures), and I stewed on how much I disliked “busybodies” as I lugged my cranky baby to the minibus stop near my house. I gave a stink-eye at anyone who looked as if they might lecture me, punishing them for their countrymen and countrywomen’s actions.
When I arrived at the hotel restaurant to meet a fellow cross-cultural worker who was leaving town that week, Daniel lost it. Not enough nap plus (in hindsight) starting to get sick meant screaming. In the restaurant. And arching his back and flailing his arms and doing all those things I used to judge other parents about before I had children.
It was the first time I had met this fellow worker (and my only opportunity to meet up), so I had no option to ask for a rain-check. I tried to swallow my mortification and my tea while being cool and listening attentively to her story of how she ended up here, etc., while wrestling a child who resembled a (cute) rabid monkey. I’ve gotten better at multitasking since becoming a mom, but not that much better.
Suddenly, our waitress appeared at my elbow. I wondered if she was going to ask me to calm my child down because the other patrons were disturbed or something. But she held out her arms and said sweetly in Amharic, “Let me take him.”
Speechless, I handed him to her, and watched him relax and enjoy himself as she carried him around the whole restaurant, introducing him to all her coworkers, showing him his reflection in a mirror, looking out the window with him, etc. He changed hands several times for 20 or 30 minutes and eventually the host brought him back to me, happy and smiling.
As I took him back, it hit me. The waitress was sent to remind me that living in a very tight-knit community is a coin with two sides. Yes, living in this kind of community means putting up with daily well-meaning lectures and having to deal with a lot of flack if I decide to go against the norm.
But it also means being noticed, empathized with, and helped even when I don’t say a word. I live in a community that views all kids as their own. The idea of a village being needed to raise a child was lived out here before it was trendy.
I live in a community who sees me, for better or for worse. A community that cares. I’m learning to love it. Learning to experience lectures as love. Learning to love living in an extended family of 101 million, a gigantic network of “relatives” in all their bossy, compassionate, quirky, dysfunctional, wise and beautiful glory. It’s a gift, and I choose to receive it today.
Jessica A. Udall is a culture-crosser who makes sense of her experience by writing it down. She lives with her husband in his native Ethiopia, and is raising one rambunctious toddler. She blogs at www.jessicaudall.wordpress.com and is the author of Loving the Stranger: Welcoming Immigrants in the Name of Jesus. Her favorites include having conversations with interesting people and drinking strong Ethiopian coffee, preferably at the same time.