Steve (‘St-EE-v’), Tinsae (‘TIN-sah-ee’), and Birhane (‘Br-AW-nee’) came down the escalator at the Salt Lake airport Friday night just before 10:00, looking like death warmed over. Steve wouldn’t make eye contact for fear of crying out of exhaustion, and T and B wouldn’t make eye contact for the same reason, and many others I’m sure.
My parents and one sister were there, as well as Steve’s dad and brother, and my uncle and his family. It was wonderful to have a few people share this moment with us. That was the only moment there will ever be to see these girls as wholly and purely Ethiopian. From now on—from that first moment they slept in their own purple room, in their own American beds, with their own American clothes in the closet, they began to transform right before our eyes into American girls. Just this moment as I write, Saffron/Tinsae is pushing herself in the driveway in Charles’ red Radio Flyer wagon. She is wearing Ruby’s long black witch wig—upside down. She has put it in a ponytail with a barrette. Now she is dragging the unhappy dog around in the wagon. This is a typical scene on a typical American street in the life of a typical American child. Within 72 hours of her arrival, Saffron taught herself to ride a bike. It was a struggle until she took off her shoes: bare feet seemed to do the trick. This is life experience at the supersonic speed of children. It’s been less than a week, and things like Target and trampolines are already familiar territory. And the look in her eyes has changed. That faraway, timid, sad and skeptical look in Tinsae’s eyes is now rare. In it’s place is the increasingly confident, trusting, and happy look in Saffron’s eyes. Of course, the fiercely independent look is part of both of them.
I’m not saying this adjustment is easy for these girls. Last night Tinsae was back again, making an Ethiopian traditional dish of injera with wadt for us. She was right at home in the kitchen, with the big chopping knife, the raw meet and the strange spices. She worked quickly, with confidence, telling Ruby what to do, and looking the happiest I’ve seen her since her arrival. Birhane squeeled loudly, continuously, and seemingly uncontrollably at the thought of eating her mother-sister’s Ethiopian cooking again. She gorged herself. Today I heated it up for them again for lunch.
If I have mixed feelings, I can only imagine what they feel. I am very eager for them to learn English, and explore this new world, and stop chattering to each other in that world that keeps me out. At the same time, I panic at the thought of them forgetting their language, forgetting the native songs they sing together, and growing apart a bit—even though that’s necessary to make room for me. Just now I put Willa/Birhane down for a nap without making Tinsae take one, for the first time. Birhane was scared. Unlike most three-year-olds, who would cry for Mom, she was crying for Tinsae. Today we went to Target to return something, and they wanted to know why they weren’t getting new shoes. A few days ago they were surprised to be offered shoes. This made me kind of sad—how quickly our influence has changed them!
And they notice their differences. Today they were very excited to show me a photo of a baby with dark skin; yesterday at Jasper and Ruby’s school Tinsae stared unabashedly at the only other girl of color in the room. I was very glad I had taken them to the K&K African market in Salt Lake yesterday. I’ve been there a few times in the past to introduce myself, talk about the girls, find a translator, and buy Ethiopian injera. The men at the market were so nice and welcoming to the girls. They are Sudanese, but have all spent time in Ethiopia as the two countries are neighbors and friends. We met Simon, who will translate for us at doctors’ appointments and the like. The girls didn’t say much, but I know they enjoyed their visit to the “Africa Suk” (“Africa Shop”) and will be comfortable there next time.
Ruby and Saffron are a striking pair: Ruby, jealous of Saffron’s ability with the big knife, and Saffron, jealous of Ruby’s skill on the trampoline. Ruby’s pendulum swings swiftly back and forth between sheer thrill at this constant sleepover, and dejected dismay at having to share her things. Jasper acts sort of separate and vaguely annoyed by all the giggling, as a big brother rightfully should. He has struggled a bit with feeling left out. We had a little talk about making yourself left in, after which he successfully joined in—and took over—the trampoline jumping. The girls saw his value: he can bounce them higher than anyone else can. Jasper has also surprised me by feeling a great need to boss and enforce the house rules, something he never cared much about before. He doesn’t want them going outside without practical shoes, or goofing off when Mom says it’s bedtime. I have tried to back up his authority with the girls. I know it’s important for him to find his place in all this. Willa is rather contentedly along for the ride with most things. It’s clear she’s been loved and spoiled by her sister, the orphanage, etc., and expects to get her way much more than her sister does. She is good at turning on the tears and keeping them on. She’s learning they’re not always effective. She loves to get in the car and, indeed, to get into everything.
Our week so far has been much different than I expected. It’s been crazy and constantly busy, and the girls have been always up for trying something new or going a new place. Having your first day in America be Halloween is enough to shock any immigrant’s system, and every other new experience probably seems like a piece of cake after that (except that they don’t like cake).
Here’s how our week has probably felt to them:
-Morning trip to Pace’s, where we get sodas and meet people
-More people stopping by your new home to meet you
-Running around to different stores where sometimes we get stuff with Mom
-Being told to take a nap, and then very rudely awakened from same nap to get all dressed up in your Sunday best and go out in the dark to the neighbor’s house. Being stopped on the way by several scary and weird looking people who know your names and are happy to meet you.
-Getting to neighbor’s house to be offered gross food, and more people who want to meet you. -Wondering why you’re in your Ethiopian Sunday dress when everyone else is in a costume—you’re no dummy, and sulk around until you finally get a wig of your own.
-Walking from door to door, miserable but excited in freezing cold weather, begging for candy which is prettily wrapped but doesn’t taste good.
-Getting in your Ethiopian Sunday best again to head to church in the morning, only to find you don’t get to sit by your new sister, or your old one. Luckily, finding they sing the same songs and follow the same program as when you went to church in Ethiopia. Only this time there’s no Amharic translator, and random white people are constantly hugging you in the hall.
-Doing the nap-then-rudely-awakened thing again, to then go up to Iyat bet (Grandma’s House) to have the first meal you really dig into: rice and chicken you can eat with your fingers.
-Going to a strange other house, Mama’s cousin, to meet more new people who smile at you and love to watch you braid hair. Being forced to try some weird desserts they seem to like, then finally playing wildly with all the kids and having a grand, universal kid time.
-Going to the dentist. Weird, but you cooperated and somehow you understand they are going to fix your teeth. Spending a long time choosing a “prize,” as Mama says.
-Going to Costco—what more can we say? Probably the best day of your life in America thus far. People handing out food for you to try, Mama letting you choose what you want, and the sight of gloriously familiar things like mangos and a whole chicken. Sitting at a table with Mom, delightedly eating the chicken with your fingers while everyone watches you with smiles, and then jumping back in surprise as some machine drops a bottle of water at you.
-Going to a “cinema bet” for the first time. Even when mom translated, you had no idea what this “movie house” was. Never heard of it. But it wasn’t so bad, sitting in a comfy chair and chowing on popcorn (a daily treat in your home country) while a huge TV shows people in monster costumes jabbering in English (Where the Wild Things Are).
-Ahh. Going to the “Africa Suk” and making your own comfort food. ‘Nuff said.
-Wondering, Why don’t I get to go to school with Jasper and Ruby? Why is Mom grumpy and throwing clothes around?
-What am I supposed to do around this big house while Mom is sick in bed? And why is she insisting on English more and more, and speaking less Amharic to me?
-Discovering Grandma’s slide and swings. Heaven! Learning the words “push” and “more.”
-Finally, after waiting and begging all day, going “swimming!” Ow! (yes!) I’m not sure what I’m in for and I can’t believe Mom gave me something so immodest that shows my legs to wear, but here we go . . .