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Students learn to appreciate their culture in the Bay Area

By Kristian Bekele and Micah Tam

Staff Writers

Being in the Bay Area means that there is a vibrant enough mix of cultures within our small sphere, at least in the means of ethnic and cultural diversity. But within the great mix of different kinds of cultures, how can one learn to appreciate their culture?  

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Student journalist and junior at Summit Preparatory Charter High School, Kristian Bekele

I, Kristian Bekele, was born in Ethiopia. I arrived at Chicago’s O’Hare airport on July 17, 2007. But it took me several years to fully appreciate the culture and the people that I came from.

Before we dive into anything else, yes, there are cultural differences between Americans who identify as African and those who identify as Black, which is why the term African American can be misleading. It can end up being rather complicated as to who is who, but the difference, in my mind, can be summed up to this: those who identify as African have parents/grandparents who came straight from the continent and still have some connection to the culture; those who identify as Black have ancestors who lost contact with African culture due to the deliberate separation of families and communities during slavery.

This was something I greatly experienced when I moved from Ethiopia to the United States. I went from a place where everyone had the same values, culture and beliefs to a place where I became a minority. This led me to be confused about how to identify myself.

On one hand, I was African. I came from the continent and became a resident in the United States. On the other hand, I was seen as Black, but I did not have the same experiences as many Americans who identify as Black because my ancestors were not subjected to slavery and segregation in the United States.

It was within the last five years or so of being a citizen of the United States that I have started to identify myself as Black and to check the “Black/African American” box when I’m filling out forms that ask for racial identification.

Living in Menlo Park, I also was in an area where there aren’t that many Black people, let alone those who are African. It also didn’t help that my features are “racially ambiguous.”

This led me to have a large disconnect with my culture. On the one hand, I am racially identified as Black, but I primarily identify with my Ethiopian heritage.

It wasn’t until I was in the seventh or eighth grade where I started to once again connect back to my culture like speaking Amharic. Also, the creation of the Habesha community famous Twitter page Buna Time (I discovered this page last year) allowed me to connect back to my culture in a way that was never available before.

One of the ways I have furthered my understanding of the cultures that make up Ethiopia is reading about its history and talking about that with my parents. As a child, what I had heard about Ethiopia’s history was mainly about the communist government, led by Mengistu Haile Mariam, Haile Selassie, Tewodros II and King Menelik II.

My parents didn’t participate in all of the cultural aspects of the typical Ethiopian culture. For instance, we were not Ethiopian Orthodox, but instead Pente (non-denominational).

I also wasn’t exposed to much about the different dialects and languages throughout Ethiopia since I moved at such a  young age. As I look back at my experiences in exploring and understanding who I am, I see that both my faith and my culture greatly influenced me.
 In both areas, there is the idea of freedom being a human right. Freedom is something that is emphasized within the Ethiopian culture because of the independence that Ethiopia had throughout the Scramble for Africa. With Christianity, it’s the belief that Jesus Christ came down and saved all, and that the freedom that is found with Him is accessible to all.

I’ve been able to not only discover myself and what my identity is, but also to understand the large role my cultural experiences play in the world view that I have.

As Lissa Thiele, who teaches courses on the Holocaust and Sociology of Law for the Expeditions team, said, “People think race and culture are the same, but it’s not.”

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Student journalist and junior at Summit Preparatory Charter High School, Micah Tam

I, Micah Tam, was born in San Francisco, California. I am half Chinese and half Taiwanese. Amidst the whole China and Taiwan political drama, it’s kind of a weird position to be in.

Growing up in the Bay Area, I feel that I have been in a pretty protected bubble when it comes to racism or cultural ignorance. Living here, it seems that I am surrounded by people of my race or at least similar race, which led me to the false pretense that there are a lot of Asians in America. Little did I know, that coastal cities are where many Asians live, whereas many states in the middle of America have few Asian citizens.

I also attended a Chinese immersion preschool in San Francisco then moved to Burlingame for primary school at Franklin Elementary School. There, the majority of the students were either White or Asian.

It wasn’t really until middle school that I experienced some mild racism. Nothing really major such as physical or emotional bullying, but some incidents still stuck out. Some of my classmates would throw around phrases like “ching chong” and ask me what it meant, or they’d make comments about how small my eyes are.

Like Kristian, I consider myself to be pretty “racially ambiguous.” Maybe that’s because my skin is a bit darker than the stereotype of how East Asian people have perfect, smooth, pale skin, but people usually are surprised when I tell them I’m Chinese. They usually go on to guess every single major East Asian race before they finally give up.

Because of the mild racism and racial ambiguity, I felt stuck with my identity. I was uninspired to have pride for my culture.

Also, like Kristian, it wasn’t until I found different social media accounts like @asians4thewin and @asiangirlsunite on Instagram, that really encouraged me to have pride in being who I am.

The accounts that focus on Asian American pride and cultural awareness brought up the injustice and problems that Asians face, just as many other minorities in America face prejudice. I learned about acts such as yellow face and yellow fever, which was people of other races trying to look stereotypically East Asian. I also learned about White actors depriving Asian actors of roles that are written to be Asian, such as how Emma Stone played a half-Chinese, half-Hawaiian woman in the film “Aloha” or how Scarlett Johansson is playing a Japanese woman in the upcoming film “Ghost in the Shell”.

Connecting my ethnicity, my culture and my identity to real-world problems made me realize that there is too little recognition of the misappropriation of Asian culture and too much injustice for me to feel ashamed of who I am. I started getting sick of laughing off racist jokes and seeing blatant “whitewashing” all around me.

We, Kristian and Micah, encourage you to learn more about your culture and identity and take pride in who you are. Spread cultural awareness so that everyone can be understood and accepted. All in all, don’t forget to love yourself, and don’t be afraid to be unconditionally you. 

 Related: 

Cultural awareness builds understanding between Americans

Experts offer strategies to be more culturally aware

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