The Complexity And Confusion My Dual Identity Often Carries As An Eritrean In Britain
"Sometimes I am not sure which part of my identity has formed key character traits."
April 02, 2019 at 6:07 pm
I write this post in a coffee shop cocooned in the heart of London. I do not feel British enough. I'm not exactly sure what it is that is missing, but I know that I'm always on the search for it. My interchanging identity is that of my Eritrean heritage, but to them, I speak with a diluted accented and I'm not well versed enough with traditions and rituals. I am "deki wtsa'e" which quite literally translates to the "the children of those who left."
So here I am, too British, but not British enough.
Whenever I go back home to Eritrea, I am gently ridiculed for my Western tendencies. They mean no harm, but my family joking about my slight inaptness for Eritrean tradition has always reminded me that I am Eritrean, but not as Eritrean as them. I once ate injera with a fork, as I didn't want the staining to nestle itself in my manicure, and my family howled with laughter. Let's be honest — it is hilarious. In that moment, I drew closer to a bigger picture: my lack of security in my identity. As they innocently laughed, in my head I was thinking of ways that I could prove to them that I was in touch with my culture.
The following morning, I woke up really early and joined my cousin in making injera. It was my offering to them. It was then when I realized my insecurity was eating me up.
Quite genuinely, I subscribe to Eritrean culture quite a great deal: I am conscious of my elders, I speak Tigrinya almost fluently and I am always intrigued to learn more about my history. In the same breathe, I also have strong views about the politics over there, which I've always been taught is not for me to have an opinion on. This has always created a rift between myself and my Eritrean identity. It has always made me feel unsure, always making me feel as though I'm walking on a narrow ledge in slippery shoes, not sure when I might let either culture down.
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Sometimes I turn to my Britishness for refuge. I cling desperately to the little I have: my accent, my Burgundy passport and the love I have for shortbread biscuits. In this pursuit of refuge, I am often met with the questions, "What are you?" and "Where are you from?" as I motion through life. This again a reminder that this is not home. In recent years, I have challenged this thought process. I would often think, "Who are they to dictate where is home?" Much to my disappointment, I have come to realise that though certain neighbourhoods in London may feel like home, the fundamental culture found in those neighbourhoods are not considered British — another point to depict my homesickness. Though I may hold great pride of my Britishness, I always feel a sense of pride to say, "I am Eritrean." It is my way of governing my own identity. It is my way of announcing that I have a home somewhere else, though deep down inside I am not sure I do.
My dual identity has caused a great deal of confusion for me. Sometimes I am not sure which part of my identity has formed key character traits. I just know I am a hybrid of two cultures that are worlds apart. Within those cultures are also the sub-cultures of the people I surround myself with. My Eritrean family is so different from my London raised friends, so again I am at a crossroad with this. Eritrean culture teaches me that I am "not really Black," while my London culture teaches me I am Black before I am even a woman — a human, at that. My Eritrean culture teaches me to be conservative and graceful; my London culture teaches me to speak my mind and to be as quirky as I like. The clash of those two worlds strike me time and time again.
Recently, I have been thinking a lot about motherhood and the way in which I will raise my own children. As a first generation immigrant, I haven't seen many British raised Eritreans as parents, so I have no guidelines. Which culture do I submerge my children into? By embracing this Britishness, will I be diluting their heritage? Which language will we speak at home? Where is the balance? How do I forge an identity for them that is whole? Do I let them do this themselves?
When discussing his theory of double consciousness, W.E.B Du Bois once said, "It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one's self through the eyes of others, of measuring one's soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity."
Though Du Bois has a valid point, I do believe that there is an underlying sense of pride when possessing a dual identity — it does add a great layering to your character, and as the pilot generation, I guess the uncertainty is only to be expected.
Much like my identity, I am still figuring things out, so I'm afraid I have no wonderful dynamic close for this post, it is merely a way to open up discussion and to let others in the same space feel seen and heard. How do you tie up a topic you are still figuring out? You don't. So, along I go, tiptoeing on a narrow ledge hoping I get this right for the generation to come. If I figure it out, I promise I'll be back to share the technique.