Telugu Hospitality in Addis Ababa

Published in A Side of Rice: Volume 1, Issue 00 on September 12, 2016 (originally written May 2016).

Sitting alone on the white pleather couch of the Uncle’s home in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, I am eating a plate of mind-warming charu, chole, and lemon rice. The three children also sit silently in their individual single-seater armchairs facing the giant HD television, stuffing their faces with these delicious Hyderabadi dishes and ignoring my presence. The Telugu film about a 20-something man with intense sexual intimacy issues is far more entertaining than a strange dark-skinned woman with a shaved head visiting their home on a weekday afternoon. My “American” accent and obvious inability to fully understand Telugu also give away that I don’t belong there and will likely not be staying long.

I wish these children would interact with me, if only to distract from the barrage of opinions happening at me from their overbearing father. Once again in my life, I am forced into a quiet rage by an Indian man. I often don’t find myself quiet for long under such circumstances, for the desire to keep the veins in my eyeballs intact is a bit more pressing than cultural respectability politics. However, I am a stranger in a strange land, and these are my people.

Three days prior, I was in another home of strangers, eating food cooked by a woman with whom I could not directly communicate, trying to modify my body posturing to ease the brown masculinity of others. That, however, was a more welcoming environment that filled my heart with warmth instead of a boil. On that day in Lalibela in Northern Ethiopia, I had met two teenage boys, Thomas and John. Thomas and John travel a day’s walk once a week from their family’s small farm in the countryside to attend school in Lalibela. I met them as I was walking back to my hostel from a two-day tour of magnificent churches built into mountains in the 12th century.

The boys walked along with me to practice their English skills. They were fascinated by my skin color and curious about which country I call home. They guessed Kenya. I explained that I am Indian-American, with a hyphen, a concept that may have been a bit nuanced for this particular conversation. We chatted about India and the U.S., and their perceptions about Indians valuing education. I politely nodded to keep the conversation moving, avoiding my usual diatribe about the model minority myth. They told me they wanted to go to university in Addis but their father would rather they stay and work on the farm.

The Ethiopian boys then invited me to a traditional coffee ceremony at the home they rent in Lalibela, which led to a modest home-cooked meal of ingera bread and berbere. In that 200-square-foot home in a neighborhood of aluminum-siding structures atop a rocky mountain range, I felt more at ease than in the household of Telugu Pride in Addis Ababa.

Sitting alone on the white pleather couch of the Uncle’s home in Addis Ababa, I am now learning that he is apparently a staunch advocate for raising children with a traditional Telugu upbringing. The Uncle sends his children to Hyderabad every year for continued education in the summer. He finds the ways in which first and second generation Indian-Americans live in the United States to be abhorrent, which he only describes to me as generalized statements of fact, so proud that he never took a job in the United States. At no point does he directly acknowledge that I, the woman sitting before him, am a second generation Indian-American.

As the anger swells in this body (born and raised in the United States), I think back to the moment three days ago, sitting on a pillow in Thomas and John’s home. I felt so well-received by them – a “wanted” guest. I was not put in the position to defend my identity or my upbringing. Yet, in both circumstances, I was challenged by being seen as an American. While the Uncle placed assumptions of American-ness onto me, Thomas and John were fascinated by the mere fact that I even exist.

Over the course of the three days between Lalibela and Addis Ababa, I traveled by minibus with over a dozen local commuters who took little notice of me.  I managed to blend in amongst the Amharic-speaking peoples by covering myself with a scarf and playing to my seemingly ethnically ambiguous features. I found this covert operation to be very comforting because I was not asked to explain myself to anyone. No one asked me where I was from or verbally stated their assumptions about me to me. It was only when I opened my mouth to speak English to Bimels, a young bilingual Ethiopian man who noticed me writing in my notebook, did our fellow passengers realize I was not family.

At our overnight stop in the town of Dessie, I was suddenly terrified by an overwhelming sense of feeling out of place. I may share some features with the local folk, but my sense of being is deeply rooted outside of that place. Everyone I came across spoke Amharic to me and was confused at my inability to respond. If it were not for my new friend, Bimels, I cannot say for sure if I would have found my footing in that bustling transit town. He directed me to the same budget motel he always uses when he travels to Addis Ababa. I paid my 75 cents for the dingy room next door to my new friend and cried myself to sleep, homesick and wishing for something familiar.

Little did I realize that by agreeing to meet with my Babai’s old friend, the Uncle in Addis Ababa, I was to find a strongly familiar feeling. Not the familiarity I hoped for, but a feeling that is inherent to my upbringing. Inherent and obligatory.

Sitting alone on the white pleather couch of the Uncle’s home in Addis Ababa, I try to focus my attention to the sexually-troubled momma’s boy singing on the television in order to drown out the Uncle’s ramblings about the American Ego. In this moment, I regret putting myself through this pain. Again. Throughout my life, I have experienced multiple levels of shame, guilt, and internalized oppression as a result of interactions with Indian Uncles. Telling me what is wrong with my parents for the choices they have had to make in the United States. Expounding opinions about the politics of the nation I call home. Forcing me to dig deep for some semblance of American Pride, of which there is little but I fake it out of stubbornness. Feeling a right to comment upon, and even touch my body without my permission. Ignoring my presence and directing all questions and conversation to my brother instead of to me.

If I had taken this trip with my brother, older and more appropriately sensitive to the obligations of Indian-ness, we would have planned a portion of our time in Ethiopia around visiting family friends who had made their homes in this country. If my brother had to sit and listen to the Uncle’s judgments, we would have cut this visit pretty short due to an uproar of brown men demanding respect. I wished my brother was with me.

Then, I remembered that this situation I had found myself in was pretty spectacular and that I am a remarkable woman. Not in a million years would I have ever expected myself to be taking my dream trip to eastern Africa – a solo woman-of-color backpacker, doing the damn thing. On top of that, I am allowing myself to endure Uncle-isms all alone in a country where anyone else I knew I had met only that week.

When I began my trip to Ethiopia one week ago, the Uncle got ahold of my local cell phone number from my Babai. The Uncle called me incessantly while I was laying around a bamboo hut on stilts over-looking Lake Babogaya about an hour from Addis Ababa. As I listened to his voicemails, I methodically considered my next steps regarding this stranger. Do I respond and shut him down? Do I say, I don’t know you but I imagine that this will be more stressful than I would prefer… so thanks but no thanks? Do I say, yes I will meet with you under the conditions that you respect all of my intersecting identities and the choices that my family and I have made to survive and thrive in this world? Or do I let him keep calling…?

As the phone continued to vibrate, I pondered my options to the melodic sounds of native bird life and the warm glow of the sun reflecting off the glistening water. I answered. Not quite sure why or how I answered. Maybe it was muscle memory. Upon accepting the call, I was ambushed by a blare of Telugu at my head. I had to ask him to speak in English. It began from there. The polite shaming mixed with a demand that I accept his many complimentary offerings. I was ready to decline. I looked upon the water and thought, I took this trip for me. Not my Babai or to make the Uncle feel good about himself.

The Uncle owns a hotel in Addis Ababa that caters mostly to Indian businessmen, at which he insisted I stay for the night at no cost. Being that I was an unemployed backpacker with months ahead in a trip around eastern Africa, I strongly considered this free stay in a hotel with a hot shower… but if not monetary, what price would I have to pay? I could not decide if I should accept his offers.

Then the Uncle shared that my father’s childhood friend was also living in Addis Ababa, working as a professor at the university. The Uncle told me that he is close with the Professor, and could connect me with this man who was so eager to meet me. My heart fell as swiftly as it rose. A connection to my father’s childhood so close to me. I was immediately filled with anxiety, curiosity, and apprehension, all at the same time. A familiar combination of feelings in my life. The sense of obligation kicked in; my father would be disappointed if I chose my preferred route of avoidance. I agreed to take the Uncle’s offers for a hotel room, dinner, and car rides. Less than 30 minutes later, I received a call from the Professor. A pleasant man, he was thrilled to hear my voice and welcome me to Ethiopia. While he also expressed slight judgment at my limited ability to communicate in Telugu, the Professor was extremely excited to meet up and hear about my father’s life since they both left the motherland decades ago. A personal connection was made outside of just Telugu obligations, and I had to lean into it.

Four days later, when I got in to Addis Ababa from my two-day minibus adventure from Lalibela by way of Dessie, I met up with the Professor for dinner. Warm and nostalgic, he was satisfied with quiet time in each other’s presence, much like my dad. Just the two of us, we enjoyed a Hyderabadi buffet dinner overlooking a view of downtown Addis Ababa from atop the Sai Baba Hotel – another complimentary offer from the Uncle. We laughed as the Professor affectionately shared anecdotes about their childhood days. He commented that their circle of friends thought of my dad as a quirky fellow, always preferring book discussions to playing cricket.

Rather quickly, the Professor asked me about the severe arthritis that my Bamma told him my father was battling. I was taken aback—almost to the point of laughter—and clarified that it is not arthritis, but that my father lives with mental illness. The Professor was not very surprised by the truth. I shared stories of my father’s growth, my mother’s strength, my brother’s accomplishments, and my own preference for book discussions over playing sports. The Professor beamed with joy. He was thrilled to hear directly from me that, contrary to the gossip he heard back in Hyderabad, my father was living his life and continues to be a charmingly quirky man.

The Professor also expressed pride in the fact that my father and mother had raised such a strong young woman who had the audacity to travel alone just because she knew she could. I would not have been able to make this bridge across lands and time if I hadn’t answered that phone call in my bamboo hut by Lake Babogaya.

Sitting alone on the white pleather couch of the Uncle’s home in Addis Ababa, I struggle to hold my tongue as he spouts vitriolic anti-Black prejudice about Ethiopian businessmen and makes racialized comparisons to violence in Black American communities. Much like my desire to understand and speak Telugu in these circumstances, I also crave the ability to articulate powerful anti-racist demands at the level of Angela Davis. Instead, I inform him that I do not share his perspective and change the subject. Suddenly, I am overcome with the contentment that, although I must endure this terrible interaction with the Uncle, it is because of him that I was able to meet the Professor.

In this moment, I finally recognize the price I had to pay. Not just for accepting the single hotel room on the ninth floor. Or for the mouth-watering Hyderabadi cooking by his wife (although that meal did take me to a new flavor high). I paid the price for being a Telugu person visiting a city where few Telugu people exist. This is the nature of my people and our relationship to migration, forced or otherwise. We are everywhere. We are connected. We have strong opinions about the places in which we have each decided to call home. We must make some form of contact with each other if we are to maintain a link to our ancestral land.

The Uncle, children and I finish up our meals. Auntie finally appears from the kitchen with her own plate of food ready to sit and watch the finale song of the Telugu film from a faraway corner of the room. I speak up to be heard across the house, thanking her profusely for the delicious food. Uncle looks at me sternly, motioning to not speak to her, let alone thank her, and especially so loudly. I ignore his motions and say it again. Even louder. She smiles coyly and nods her head. I look to my watch, thrilled to see that it is about time I wrap up this trip through Little Hyderabad.

Only one week ago, I had arrived in Ethiopia from Baltimore, about to embark on a two-month solo trip around eastern Africa, with no plans to dissect my relationship to “the Telugu Uncle.” The week in this beautiful country caused me to push the constrained ways in which I and others perceive me. Thanks to Thomas, John, Bimels, the Professor, my family, and myself, I found the strength to endure the vulnerability of these moments on this white pleather couch.

The Uncle sends me with his driver, who will take me to the airport. I say goodbye to his children who continue to ignore my presence, thank the Uncle for all of the hospitality, lace up my hiking boots, carefully strap into my backpack, and head out for the next leg of my journey—the Kenyan coast.

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