We are planning our second trip back to Ethiopia since bringing our daughter home in 2008. She is almost six and giddy with excitement. She identifies strongly with her birth country. She has been known to ask, “Do you know why I am special?” I will respond, “No, why?” although I know perfectly well the reason she will give. She then answers proudly, “BECAUSE I AM ETHIOPIAN!!” I can tell if she likes someone we meet. In those instances, she will tug on my arm and ask me to bend down. Then she will whisper in my ear, “Tell them where I came from . .tell them I am from Ethiopia.” She prefers to use me as the messenger of this special news if the person is not familiar. Then if she gets a suitable response, she will take it from there.
For a while, she thought anyone with a similar skin tone and hair as hers was from her East African nation. If we saw someone with brown skin and black curly hair, she would tell me, “They are from Ethiopia too." In some cases she was right, in others the person was from Kenya, Somalia or the United States. I had to explain that people from a number of countries have skin similar to hers. She has also recently starting to ask some more difficult questions. Since she came home as an infant, her first language is English although she is also learning French at her International School. When we discussed going back to her birthplace, she quickly identified a problem, “But I can’t talk to them because I don’t speak Ethiopian.” I then clarified that Ethiopia has quite a number of languages but none called “Ethiopian”. I also explained to her people can interpret for us and she could learn Amharic (the language spoken where she was born) if she wants to. She nodded vigorously with a broad smile.
Another day, we were in the kitchen cooking and discussing different parts of our trip. Cooking with my kids seems to open up windows to the most amazing dialogues. Leyla was wearing one of her favorite outfits. All of a sudden she got an extremely concerned look on her face. She asked with an equally anxious tone, “Mommy, how will they know I am Ethiopian if I dress like this.” And she motioned down her dress to her leggings and shoes. I had to hold back my laughter because her face was deadly serious with tears threatening in her huge black eyes. I said, “Oh honey, they will know you are Ethiopian by looking at your face.” I was rewarded by a huge toothy grin and a return of the customary twinkles to those gigantic orbs. And she added, “It might be good to get me some Ethiopian clothes too.” She is an opportunist among many other qualities.
Raising a child from a culture and a continent not my own is a huge responsibility and one I don’t take lightly. I am so grateful that she is open and that she embraces where she is from while also comfortably embracing where her father and I come from and where we all live now. Pictures of our first trip and her three year old self still inspire and amaze me (photos taken by my son Damian). I am also so grateful for all the people in our lives connected to Ethiopia who can keep her connected whether they be other adoptees of various ages, friends who immigrated to the United States or people with a love of Ethiopia that runs deep. Our Ethiopian Ties continue to grow, deepen and ripple.
This journey back feels much different than our first because Leyla (pictured earlier in the year with an African carving we have everywhere we live as a reminder of where she comes from), and we as a family, understand so much more and because of that are expecting so much more. I am sure Ethiopia won’t disappoint as we continue our lifelong journey to connect our daughter and our whole family with this amazing place.