I’m surrounded by the normal, the well-adjusted. Smith Mountain Lake is a beacon of life that I don’t know how to enjoy. Kids splash around in the water and sunburned adults trade humorous stories. They are the epitome of comfortable. I note all this while scoping the sands, and I am reminded of my inadequacy: I am 17 and I cannot swim.
How can one paddle in a river, when they’re just trying to keep afloat in the ocean called life? I’ve asked myself this question so many times, while visiting so many places. Lakes, beaches, swimming pools. Even this past summer, when I watched Simone Manuel race to the finish line during the Olympic Games, a pang of anger and resentment shot through me as I wondered why them, never me? The theme of jealousy and discomfort is a constant in my life. Family, race, and self-esteem are all subjects that I, and many others, understand to be an infinite maze of confusion.
Is it right that I don’t know how to identify? A while ago my guardian, a middle-aged white women named Mrs. W, called me into the comfy living room to record a standard health form. Of course, one of the first questions touched upon my race,
“Wow! I can’t believe they only listed Black as an option, without one specific for you, African,” she stated in disbelief.
The choice of race always stumps me, and the American guidelines for racial identity are a trusty puzzle that I can never solve. By now, I have my usual routine down pat . First, I glance at the omni-present captions within the application. My fingers trace all the way down to Black and it reads : “Black- meaning African American.” I am African, but I don’t fit the guidelines of American. At this point, I have a tedious mental dialogue about my genuine African-ness:
“You barely know a lick of Amharic.”
“When’s the last time you did Eskista without looking like a broken headset?”
“Auntie has always called you ferengi.”
My pen always fills in the Other space. The cycle repeats.
Not wanting to waste Mrs. W’s time with my self-identification struggles, I shrug in an expectant manner: “I usually just mark Other.”
I’ve always felt like an Other too. In elementary school, I tried to chill with the white people, wishing for nice, straight, “good” hair. Middle school and high school had me adopting AAVE, only to remain unaccepted. I thought I could identify with the African American kids, but I was donned “that weird, smart Oreo.”
I’m Ethiopian yet I’ve never been taught Amharic, one of the country’s many native languages. Typical church gatherings always involved Ethiopian elders pumping the brakes on Amharic. I would only be able nod slowly, scan the room for injera, and murmur endless “Tinish Amharigna,” meaning I speak “little Amharic.” This was a surefire way for elders to stop talking to me. I lack any sort of citizenship. 15 years of my life in the red, white, and blue has only garnered a permanent resident visa. It’s as if my global mark is floating in search of borders, the same way a child does when they swim — aimlessly.
If my racial identity is like a compass rapidly spinning out of control, then the emotional side of otherness feels like the sinking ship. I’m nearing the end of my childhood and will be turning 18 by next winter. I don’t know how to swim. I don’t know how to ride a bike. I don’t know how to effectively plan my day. I haven’t been taught much by my biological parents, except for:
- A) Family is key, so don’t screw up.
- B) Rule A should be always be maintained, even under abusive circumstances.
Growing up in a toxic family is what really makes you feel different. That’s what really checks the box beside Other. Many people grow up with healthy and normal social interactions. They develop a good amount of self-esteem. However, there are few, the Others, that don’t, and that starts with childhood. Whether your dad helped you color inside the lines or walked out of your life. Whether your mom hugged you at bedtime or beat you until you stopped crying. That’s what checks the box. And it’s ink that gallons of white-out can’t cover.
What I’ve recently realized is that you can use the ink to write a new story with your marks. Yesterday was Mrs. W’s birthday, and all she wanted me to do was get in the lake and practice swimming. I was still a beginner so I had to rely on a vibrant blue noodle to keep me afloat. I’ve always hated those first moments in the water. Having to release yourself to the inconsistencies of the waves terrified me. I could sink anytime. Mrs. W was dead-set on teaching me how to relax and how to trust. In her flowery one-piece, she tugged me around the blue water.
“I was talking to the gym teacher about your situation and how I want you to learn how to swim. He said that taking you to the lake is the best option.”
I was just starting to get the hang of it, albeit with a look of horror anytime I let go of the noodle. Her reasoning didn’t make any sense to me because I couldn’t control anything in the water.
“Why? Swimming just makes me more anxious,” I replied while shaking my head.
Mrs. W continued on, still leading me in various directions. “He said it was the best thing, because it’ll teach you how to trust and how to relax. To not tense up at the world. To not be on the defensive. To roll along with the waves.”
I was silent for a minute after hearing this. Then I nodded and began to relax. She and her husband decided to head beyond the rope, and I was left alone with my thoughts and a blue foam noodle. I breathed in the air and slowly shut my eyes. The waves rhythmically jostled me, but I didn’t panic. I separated myself from the sounds and sights of this world. The frantic splashing of nearby children, the constant whistle of the lifeguard. At some point, all this noise and imperfection would have begun to stress me out. Yet floating in the water, swaying with the current, I hummed to myself, some random tune building up in my head. It was all weird. It felt odd because I wasn’t thinking. I began to accept myself and how awkward this felt, and really, it was okay. This feeling stayed with me. I was content. Content with being an Other.
Content with being me.
Deborah Tsige is an Ethiopian writer, screenwriter, and photographer hailing from Lynchburg, Virginia. This is her first literary publication. Her works usually address the common themes of unity, morality and being an outsider. She runs a fledgling YouTube channel that attempts to combine these themes with comedy and insight. Her photos are featured on her Tumblr. She is also working on a coming-of-age novel, entitled Diaspeak, about a troubled girl who tries to find herself in D.C.
Edited by Kidest Assefa-McNeil.