In America, it would be considered rude to walk up to someone who you haven’t seen in a very long time and say “HI , Wow you’ve gained a lot of weight”. That would not be okay by any means. In Ethiopian culture, it is completely normal for someone to do that. “Indaye , Wofersh!” “Wow you’ve gained weight”. Is a common thing for someone to say and no one will react negatively at all. It is a statement that often is laughed off. It is an accepted way of communicating and no one thinks twice about it. When Ethiopian meets American, or an Ethiopian American like myself, who teeters between both worlds hears such statements it is accompanied with a bit of a sting.
Several years ago a family friend came to visit my parents at our home. I was probably in my freshman year of college and was probably at the peek of any weight gain I have ever had. I think the last time this family friend (really a stranger in my eyes) had seen me was when I was probably 7 years old. My mom called out to me so I may greet the guest. I came skipping down the steps (because I really don’t walk down stairs to this day) to greet this guest (STRANGER). She looked at me, kissed me (the traditional three cheek kiss) and said “Indaye BETAM WOFERECH”. Translation: “Wow, She gained a lot of weight!” My instantaneous reaction was to stay quiet, look down, and snuggle on the couch next to my mother looking for her to defend me. Within an instant this woman had shrunk me to a small child. I was very irritated. I wanted to say, LADY YOU DON”T KNOW ME!! My mom, who is great at understanding that she is raising an Ethiopian American, realized that I probably did not understand this guest (Stranger’s) mannerism. My mom said something to smooth over the conversation, (I don’t remember what, I was too embarrassed, annoyed, frustrated). The evening continued to go forward, I went back to my room and the family friend, guest (STRANGER) finally left our house and I was able to come out of hiding.
Sometimes (OFTEN) when Ethiopians say things to Ethiopian Americans, they don’t realize how their words can sting or be misunderstood. A lot of times Ethiopian Americans directly translate whatever is said to us in Amharic, this leaves room for great misunderstanding. Maybe we are just too sensitive as Ethiopian Americans, or maybe Ethiopians just lack sensitivity. Statements like this can create body image issues for young Ethiopian American Girls. I think statements like this should not be thrown around casually because it tares people down. Lucky for me she wasn’t able to break down my self confidence. But can you imagine, this conversation was likely over 8 years ago and it still is engraved vividly in my mind.
It is important that we always look at both sides of every issue. Likely the reason for this woman’s comments were not to hurt or offend anyone. It is just a mannerism and a way of talking to people prescribed by Ethiopian cultural norms. I know she didn’t mean to be hurtful and while I see her side of the story I wonder if she can see mine….