Neither Coronavirus nor rain deterred me from venturing to the local Ethiopian eatery, Yordano’s, to have a healthy meal of injera, lentils, and salad. I even opted to have the trout with the veggie combo. Though my appearance hints at one of Ethiopian descent, my inability to carry a conversation in Amharic suggests otherwise. However, my meager effort to use Amharic when ordering my meal was successful enough to lead the waitress to wonder about my ancestry.
Though I was not born there, I now hold Ethiopia so closely to my heart that without being thoroughly vetted, I could certainly pass. There was a time when I did not hold Ethiopia in such high regard.
In high school, no less than than three times per week, I’d drive down Fairfax boulevard en route to my Korean Tae Kwon Do class on Wilshire boulevard. As I passed the myriad of Ethiopian restaurants and shops I had little desire or even curiosity to learn about Ethiopia. I suppose this was a result of my ignorance about all things Ethiopian. For me, Sally Struther’s televised pleas to send money to starving Ethiopians informed me of these people’s plight, and was enough of a warning that I stayed away. In hindsight, I could not have been more misinformed.
To my uninformed self these people were just another group in the long line of non-white minorities in America waiting for their American Dream to become realized.
My heart, at that time, solidly rested in all things Korea. I ate Kimchee, and studied Tae Kwon Do, and memorized phrases in Korean. I hoped to impress my Tae Kwon Do Grandmaster. Surprisingly, Grandmaster had less interest in his native language than I had. Sure, my attempt to use Korean was laudable, but for him, English seemed the object of his linguistic affection. Perhaps Grandmaster’s American Dream rested in him relinquishing most of his Korean-ness for a complete English-speaking experience. Although, my efforts to learn Korean often felt futile, I continued to learn in hopes of assimilating fully into my own Korean-ness.
Several years after college, in 2007, I moved to Korea. Even then I was still captivated by Korea’s allure. I thought my ability to speak Korean would improve, which it did. I also believed that I would rise in Tae Kwon Do rank, which I didn’t. I also thought I would live happily ever after in my adopted home country. I did for nearly decade, but I returned to Los Angeles, my hometown, from which I am writing this blog post right now.
My attempts to be more like Koreans was always foiled by their xenophobic responses to my appearance. Young Korean children stared and uttered “Africa-Saram” (which means African person) when they saw me. I was incapable of escaping my African-ness even if I wholeheartedly believed that I am African-American and not African. For the Korean child, dark skin is all that Africa means to them. It took a while for me to resist the impulse to argue, but now I agree with those Korean children. Rather than shy away from my African-ness, I proudly claim Africa as my motherland even though my heritage has been changed by my birth nation’s history. But, how did I come to this greater sense of pride?
Between 2007 and 2016 when I lived in Korea, I relentlessly searched for the missing pieces to my Black identity that would make me feel whole. By that time my attempts to actualize my Korean-ness were foiled left and right. It was difficult to learn Korean than I thought. Koreans wanted to protect their language and thought non-Koreans were ignorant. Koreans assumed I wanted to speak English and shied away from interacting with me. Once while teaching at the university, a student laughed at me and told me that I had no history. I knew he was wrong, but I did not know the missing pieces to my history to refute him and put him to shame. I needed to do more research, which I continued to do. My research unlocked my self-pride and confidence in being Black.
I listened to lectures by Black scholars, who assuredly professed that Black Americans like myself have a wealth of achievements of which to be proud. But at the same time that I was learning from these Black scholars, there was a gnawing sense that these men where not to be trusted. They were biased. Their Blackness was their bias. Of course they were proud to be who they are. They have a vested interest in this perspective.
Lo and behold, I found the link to my self-pride in the research of a white university professor, Spencer Wells. His research supported what all of the Black scholars had suggested — all men are African. Discovering that even white scholars, not only Spencer Wells purported the same Out of Africa theory, fortified what I was already leaning toward. It was now that I could return to the teachings of those Black scholars and listen and learn with full faith in my people.
Youtube videos informed me of all that I wished to learned. My teachers included Black scholars such as Dr. Ivan Van Sertima, Dr. Benn, Dr. Cheikh Anta Diop, Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Dr. Michael Eric Dyson, Dr. Cornell West, among others.
By 2017, when I toured five Ethiopian cities that Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr. documented twenty years before me, my impression of Ethiopia was changed dramatically. I came to value Ethiopian history for its biblical connections, austerity, and the fierce pride of the Ethiopian people. The most impressive tidbit I have come to relish about Ethiopian history is their early adoption of Christianity. But until recently, I believed that the African was forced to become Christian by white slave masters. This aspect alone fortified my own religiosity and made me feel more comfortable in being a Christian.
These days I vector toward Ethiopian restaurants from nearly every possible point in the city. I desire strong cups of Buna, plates of Beyenetu, and spending time in the perfect ambiance where pungent frankincense and myrrh permeate the air. Luckily, LA’s Little Ethiopia is not the only location where I may find Ethiopian cuisine. The nearest restaurant to my home, Yordano’s, served as the backdrop of today’s adventure. I decided on Yordano’s after rejecting my mom’s suggestion to eat a Kentucky Fried meal. What is that anyways? Fried chicken? Mashed potatoes? French fries? That hardly constitutes a meal — I want lentils, veggies, and salad. Now that’s a meal!
While at Yordano’s, attorney-at-law, Michael Hailu entered. His Los Angeles cap informed me that he is a native Angeleno, and his use of Amharic significantly surpassed mine which also informed me that he is possibly of Ethiopian descent. After a little chit chat my suspicions were confirmed — he was born in Addis Ababa. During our brief conversation, I mentioned some details about my 109 story that he immediately understood. Some times I have to add emphasis to convince people, meanwhile, others seem to take to the story like a fish to water. Mr. Hailu Esq. is one of the latter. He even suggested that like my 109 encounters, that the meeting between him and I was not just a coincidence. I took his words to be quite encouraging. There is a waiting public who is interested in my 109 story. I will continue to develop it, and find news ways to present it. Soon enough, my time to tell 109 to the world will reveal itself.