I was taught long ago “bado ege I kadem soe ebat”. Translation, never go to someone’s house empty handed. This saying particularly applies to when you are invited over for some event or even if you are simply visiting an old friend. It has been engraved in the Ethiopian American’s mind. We are programmed to ask, what should I bring? or What can I do to help? We ask these questions even when we know we don’t have the time or the means to contribute much of anything. But, of course the person we are asking may decide sure why not, and then we become obligated to provide the services we so generously offered. One of my cousins and I were recently discussing this dilemma.
My cousin was invited to a social gathering by a classmate. My cousin knew she was extremely busy with upcoming deadlines for a project, and that she would only stop by the gathering briefly. However, out of habit, and the cultural norm she has become accustomed to as an Ethiopian American, she immediately asked: “What should I bring?” Her classmate said “O, Nothing don’t worry.” As my cousin was telling me the story she said, “I knew I didn’t have time to cook anything, but I insisted that I bring something.” Then the girl said, Well ok, you can bring a salad. My cousin expressed her regret for even offering because she had so much stuff to do and knew she lacked the time to actually contribute to the social gathering. However, her cultural values made her feel obligated to insist on bringing something. She couldn’t accept no for an answer. And she couldn’t say, no, I can’t bring anything but I’m busy. You may ask, Why? The answer is this: Because our cultural norm is to insist on being abundantly helpful, even when we know being helpful may actually be more detrimental to ourselves. This causes us to become overwhelmed with obligations, that we know we had no business getting ourselves into in the first place. We feel the need to be helpful to everyone., and sometimes this obligation to be helpful becomes hurtful to ourselves. As trivial as making salad seems, it still takes time away from a very busy schedule. You have to get all the different vegetables, chop them up, think about what dressing would best complement the salad, and make it all look presentable. This takes time, grocery store, chopping, presentation, and then actually taking the food to the person’s house and hoping to get your nice salad bowl back.
My cousin and I laughed about how its the fault of our mothers that we think like this. She said ” Why did I have to insist, why couldn’t I accept her first answer?” The reality is our mothers would have done the exact same thing. We are our mother’s daughters. We take the good with the bad. Now we know we could work on saying more a little more often. A growing progress, but just another dilemma of the Ethiopian American Girl