Maarey: A Story about Assimilation

Neyat is an Eritrean-American girl who is an aspiring writer. She enjoys reading teen fiction, looking up obscure music artists and celebrities on Wikipedia, and traveling. She hopes that one day when you teens are tired and middle-aged, you will walk into your local bookstore (to get away from your spouse and kids) and you will notice a book on the front display with her name on it as the bestselling author.

Growing up as an Eritrean-American, I quickly came to realize that I was a pretty good definition of the word minority. When most hear the word, minority, it is usually synonymous to African Americans, or Latinos, or even Asians. I knew from an early age that I was the epitome of minority when I sat down to take my first state test in school, and there was no “Eritrean” box to check. I constantly find myself checking “other” when filling out applications. As I got older, I became very convinced with my realization, when many didn’t even know what Eritrean was or meant. Though, my race never fails at breaking the ice in an awkward silence.

“Oh, wow, you look so, uhh, exotic! Where exactly are you from?”

“Um, thanks, I’m actually from Eritrea.”

“Eritrea (usually mispronounced)..mhmm…oh. Uh, dear, where is that?”

“Eritrea is a small country in East Africa; it got its independence from Ethiopia not too long ago.”

“Oh, I see, I’ve heard of Ethiopia.”

And that’s how many conversations are started. The clarification of my race. But, oh no, don’t think for a second that my race is only mentioned in instances such as that one. You’d be surprised how terrible many are at guessing. Even though some are just sure they have a hunch. You see, people love to think they’re on a game show while trying to guess my race. I often feel like Alex Trebek. “Guess My Race for $500, Alex!” If only guessing my race was half as easy as some of the vexing questions on Jeopardy.

“Ooh, you look just like my co-worker, you must be Indian.”

“Oh no, I’m actually Eritrean.”

Feeling defeated, “Oh, humph. I was certain you were from India.”

Or in either an attempt at a joke, or sheer cluelessness, I hear this one.

“Oh wow, your last name is Yohannes…that sounds a lot like “Your highness”, could you possibly be an Egyptian princess in hiding?”

I hopelessly shake my head at this one and let out a hearty chuckle.

And then, there are those who try to question my knowledge of my own race.

“Oh, you look different, are you mixed with something?

“Nope. I’m just Eritrean, but I was born here in America.”

“Are you sure about that? Because you look like you could be Middle Eastern or something…”

“Yes, ma’am, I’m positive.”

“Oh, well, alright then.”

I’m sure this plethora of anecdotes proves my case in point. I am undoubtedly, a minority. However, I am not alone in this boat on the river of minority; aside from my parents and sisters, I have Shushan, who’s right there in the boat with me, holding the other paddle. Shushan is my cousin who lives in Santa Rosa, California. Though, I’m here in Southern California, and Shushan is in Northern California, the two of us probably share more conversations in a week, than my friends and I do in school each day. Shushan and I are part of the rare, in fact endangered species of teen, who actually still communicate over the phone. Shushan and I share far more than the blood of our mothers. Along with the exact same blood streaming though our veins, Shushan and I have had identical upbringings. We were raised with the old, Eritrean traditions and customs, intertwined with the less traditional ways of America. Shushan and I have forever been side by side on the quest to find the right blend of our parents’ culture, with the one we are growing up with, here in America. And, I can’t say without lying, that I would never survive trying to find this balance without Shushan. She is my Northern Californian rock. Or on those tough days, boulder.

Many might find inspiring words in novels, or poems, or songs, and I can’t say I haven’t, but a majority of the words that I find truly motivating are uttered by good ol’ Shushan. She always knows just what to say, to make whatever’s troubling me seem miniscule. Shushan never allows me to hang up the phone upset. We usually start our phone conversations in fits of complaints, but we never end them without being in fits of laughter.

It wasn’t too long ago, that Shushan said something meaningful to me. About a year ago, I dialed Shushan’s number with a list, even too long for Santa, of complaints I had. Shushan patiently allowed me to recite my list of grievances.

“Ugh. I’m so sick of school, I just failed the math test I studied so long for, my friends keep arguing with each other, I feel like I have no life, my parents won’t understand that some Eritrean customs just won’t cut it here in America…”

She let me go on and on as always, and then of course I let her ramble on about her trials and tribulations, and then we ended our conversation with something a bit different. Of course, we did giggle up a storm, but before she hung up, Shushan ended with her usual “I love you”, but this time she added “maarey”. Maarey means honey in Tigrinya, which is the native tongue of Eritrea. It’s a common term of endearment that usually spills out of the mouths of Eritrean mothers. So, I was taken by surprise when I heard it rolling off of Shushan’s tongue. Before I had time to respond to the new addition to Shushan’s vocabulary, she’d already hung up.

I don’t know what possessed Shushan to use our country’s vernacular while talking to me; we usually reserved bouts in our dialect for when our grandmother was around. But whatever it was that moved Shushan to call me maarey, it really struck a chord with me. Her slow drawl of “I love you, maarey” resonated through my head and ricocheted about my thoughts, interrupting my mind from conceiving angry or sad thoughts. When my mother or any Eritrean woman for that matter, called me maarey, I never really thought about it, but coming out of Shushan’s mouth, it truly had meaning.

From that day on, Shushan and I have added maarey to our daily terminology when speaking to each other. Every phone call, email, text, or Facebook post, ends with maarey. It’s become a ritual of sorts. It’s a reassurance that there’s someone else out there who not only understands the meaning of that word, but can also relate to almost every aspect of my life as a minority. Shushan is my cousin, friend, psychiatrist, fashion consultant, celebrity gossip columnist, fortune teller, fellow dreamer, pen pal, rock, and boulder (some days). She’s all of those things and more, but above all, Shushan is my maarey.

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3 Responses to “Maarey: A Story about Assimilation”

  1. Lana Sportarzt
    October 11, 2010 at 7:20 am #

    Nice article. For me as an medic from overseas berlin it is importend to look what´s going on in US. regards

  2. Amanuel Rufael
    January 25, 2011 at 12:39 am #

    Nice article Maarey,
    I am fresh off-the-boat, Eritrean, proud in the way your parents are. Your article, however, is giving me creeps about tomorrow, not very far tomorrow hopefully. What my own Maarey will say about her Dad ?

    I fear that I might become a liability in her life, the life that I can picture it for her even now ( I am not even engaged). I am intrigued with the American dream, rugs to riches, american success story. I feel that it probably will not be with-in my reach but certainly should be for my Maarey.

    I will probably be part of the generation that sacrifices so much for any first generation american. But…..I fear that I might expect \some Eritrean custom will cut it here in America….\
    I guess……. I got a lot of additional growing up to do in the US, before I decided to have a Maarey.

    With love ‘ Shikorinatat’

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