I’m not from Ethiopia

I was in the library only ten minutes before he found me. He was a complete stranger playing the part of a typical African man.

Forthright

Interested

Observant

There is something admirable about African men, but sometimes their abrasiveness is befuddling.

“Hello, can I ask you a question?” he said, pulling me out of a late afternoon daze.

He leaned over me, resting his hand on the chair beside me. His mouth spread into a wide grin revealing a collection of teeth so white they could have been fake. His curious eyes, rich and dark, begged the question before I consented.

“Sure,” I said, too tired from a day’s work to feel threatened by this dark-skinned man.

“Are you from Ethiopia?”

“No, are you?” I asked.

I was surprised at my own question. Probably because I don’t usually flip it around that way. More often, I play stupid and pretend I don’t in fact resemble an Ethiopian woman.

“Yes,” he nodded still smiling with those perfectly straight teeth and his bright eyes telling me I reminded him of his home country.

“Which city?”

“Addis,” he said, barely audible.

“Addis Ababa?” I reiterated. For some reason I wanted him to know I was familiar with his country, that I knew the capital and furthermore, with a small portion of my monthly income, I sponsored a six-year-old boy from this part of the world.

“Yes,” he assured me. “Addis Ababa.”

“How long you been in US?” I asked, letting my English grammar drop a little. It’s a regular occurrence when I talk with internationals. For some reason I mirror their vocabulary in attempts to find common ground. I know, it’s weird.

“Five years.”

“When will you return?”

“After graduation.”

He asked if I was a student.  I told him I was studying for my Masters. He was pursing a PhD in economics.

Ambitious.

I let my eyes drift back to my computer screen. Still, he stood there looming over me as I waited for the mouse on my screen to stop spinning and log me in already. Slow internet.

“My father is from Rwanda,” I noted, casually, as his searching eyes continued to stare.

“Rwandans look Ethiopian,” he said.

I would disagree. Rwandans look Burundian even sometimes Somali. Rwandans have dark skin and tightly curled hair. Hmm, well maybe not all of them. And their accent. Well, their accent is much different.

But I didn’t say this. No, I nodded politely and began to wonder why this man approached me from across the library to ask if I was from his country.

“I don’t usually meet Ethiopians in Indianapolis,” I told him.

“Yes mostly you will find Eritreans,” he agreed.

So we conversed for a brief moment in the quiet of a university library over my commonly mistaken ethnicity. But I decided not to be annoyed, and instead to accept this reality and make the most of it. We exchanged names and he left me to stare at my reflection in the glass computer screen and wonder what it’s like to be white.

 

 

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Unexpected Kindness

What is it about life that when someone show’s you a bit of unexpected kindness, everything seems brighter?

It’s almost as if because we know how wretched we are that we expect to receive the same kind of self-centered spirit from people around us. Then someone goes and does something nice and suddenly we realize that goodness is not just about abiding by the law but it is somehow connected with an emotional response that the receiver experiences. Allow me to explain.

I was sitting in the garden’s behind the Simon building in downtown Indianapolis. With a half hour ’till the end of my lunch break I shut the pages of my book and headed toward Georgia street for a midday cold brew.

I entered the confines of what should be called the world’s smallest coffee shop, and asked the barista for a drink. With an apologetic smile he explained they had just run out of cold brew.

“Iced coffee?” he suggested. I agreed.

“Do you want any sweetener in there?” he asked, reaching for a cup. I told him a splash of coconut milk would suffice and he asked if I worked around the area.

“I work for the state, so just a few blocks down,” I said, peering out the window through the words Georgia Street Grind plastered on the glass.

He placed the black iced coffee on the counter and poured the coconut milk, blending the colors to make a creamy brown beverage. When I tried to pay with m credit card he merely smiled a wide grin.

“On the house,”

“Wow, really?”

“Next time you’ll have to get our cold brew.” He stood there with his broad shoulders measuring twice the length of mine, his hair combed a good two inches in the air, and watched me leave on cloud nine. How often does a good looking barista hand you your $4 coffee ON THE HOUSE?

On the house. It’s something you hear in movies, not on a Wednesday afternoon in the heat of August.

It was one of those experiences that makes me think about how life use to be before I existed, before the hotels and office buildings went up in this city. Before the convention center attracted those oddly dressed Gen Con characters. When Georgia street was just storefront brick buildings and churches. A time when hot climate culture was the norm. When life was more relational, and you couldn’t simply block out the world with two ear buds and a Spotify playlist. I wish we could go back to those days.

 

 

 

 

Memories of Asheville

 

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I’m sitting in a local coffee shop drinking local coffee. I recently moved to a millennial neighborhood which is considered the trendiest neighborhood in Indianapolis.

Wouldn’t say I’m proud of this.

The coffee is okay, I guess. It’s the sort of coffee I’m willing to pay for not because it tastes good but because the atmosphere here is lively. It smells nice. There’s always nice people and the music evokes a comforting nostalgia.

It sort of reminds me of High Five Coffee in Asheville, a cafe a few doors down from my hostel. The guy behind the counter didn’t seem to mind when I came up short with my change one morning. “I got you,” he said with one of those knowing looks, that either means, I think you’re cute, or ugh, another penniless student.

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The window of the shop looks out into the streets of Asheville where the most interesting people pass by. They are artists or hobos, or a little bit of both. But not the type of street sleepers you see in Indianapolis. Mostly white twenty-somethings, they’re the type you might see living under a bridge by choice rather than because of an addiction.

My time in Asheville was brief but incredibly rich. I still recall the day our internship supervisor sent us out into the city to report on how the public was responding to HB2 (better known as the North Carolina Bathroom Bill). Only now that I work in state government do I even know what HB stands for. True confessions of an unqualified journalist.

I was surprised how many people opposed the bathroom bill, a law that enforced that individuals use the bathroom of their birth gender.  After interviewing some blue-collar workers, I went on a quest to find a new demographic.  But alas, I found myself all too nervous to approach the upper class. When I circled back I came upon an old white man smoking a cigarette outside a restaurant.

He blew smoke in my face as I began the interview. We talked for a while and he said it was ridiculous that there was so much fuss.

“What we need is a separate bathroom entirely,” he said in a slow Carolina accent, allowing the cigarette to dangle from his lower lip. “One for the girls, one for the boys, and one for the transgenders.”

“Do you think it will cause tension like it did before the civil rights movement when separate bathrooms were enforced?” I asked. He laughed and said, “No that was about the blacks. Well back then we called them niggers.” He chuckled to himself as the words left his mouth, causing me to wonder if he used this insult conventionally back when racism in America was more of a rising crisis than a looming issue.

Then, my legs took me through the streets for a little longer until I passed a man who asked where I was from.

“I promise I’m not hitting on you, I just want to know your ethnicity,” he stammered when I turned to look at him.

“I’ll tell you what,” I said. “I’m a student reporter. If you give me an interview I’ll tell you what my ethnicity is.” He agreed and I suddenly noticed we had a few onlookers. The man appeared to be mentally handicapped and I realized we were sort of standing near where the crazy people resided.

Brilliant.

He said he had a daughter who resembled me and I forced a smile. The interview went on for some time, consisting of him deeming the House Bill a decent piece of legislation and that he didn’t want perverts entering a bathroom to harm someone like his little girl.

Cars zoomed by on the busy street and the onlookers sort of drifted away until we were done. I told him I was half white and half black, and he had this sort of dazed look people get when they hear something amazing, but hard to fathom. He summed up his feelings by saying, “Wow, that’s so cool,” and I left him, making my way down the street until I heard shouts from behind me.

The shouts came from a shirtless man with a body that was s once very muscular but had begun to sag with the aging of time.  I stood my ground as he ran towards me even though everything in me said run from this half naked man. But he just wanted to have an interview as well.

“Just so you know,” he said after explaining why he supported the bill, “People in Asheville are cr-a-zy. I’m from New York and people are not as crazy there as they are here.” I stifled a laugh thinking yes people here are crazy, like you. To my dismay his language was so filthy I didn’t incorporate him into my article.

Most of my time in Asheville found me in the walls of the World Magazine headquarters. But in the evening, after lectures, we would go out and practice street photography.

I love street photography. I love taking candid photos that are unplanned and unadulterated. One night my fellow reporters and I went out into the warm streets and snapped photos in the lamp light.

We came across this guy sitting on the doorstep of a furniture shop with star lamps hanging in the windows. He was reading a book with his back pressed against a fading brick wall. I asked if we could photograph him and he said yes. Then we tested our interview skills and asked where he was from. Apparently he was from nowhere, really. He’d been wandering the country after college and living on the streets. His gentle face seemed like it hadn’t a care in the world. “I like sitting here because the stars above me are nice to look at,” he murmured.

“What’s your favorite memory in Asheville?” I asked.

“One time, about two years ago, I was sitting on these steps with my friends. We were playing music and people came around to listen, and we played on into the night. It was pretty amazing.”

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Encounters like this were ones I never expect to have again. Asheville was a time of being the Julia who was a curious journalist. When I returned home and eventually got a job, I lost this element of me, the desire to be a news reporter. Now I work a desk job and drink local coffee on the weekends, writing blog posts when inspiration hits, all the while wondering if a career in journalism will find me later in life.

 

Friday Frustrations

Man at Starbucks: Are you from Eritrea?
Me: Where?
Man: Eritrea?
Me: no
Man: Are you sure?
Me: Yes I’m from here.
Man: But you look like you’re from Eritrea.
Me: No I’m not. My father is from East Africa.
Man: Eritrea?
Me: sigh . . . Maybe I should have just said yes.

How to survive an anxiety attack

I’m sipping a coke through a red straw in the outside corridor of my office building. It’s quiet out here. I listen to the roar of cars on West Street and the bubbling fountain down by the canal. I remember three things I’ve done today: Meeting with IT, emailing our Marketing Vendor, finding a coke in the break room.  I count the bushes in front of me: One . . Two . . Three . . Four . . Five. I smell the corn chips from my lunch box and the cigarette smoke from somewhere else.

Inhale.

Exhale.

It’s a new technique my aunt showed me to get through an anxiety attack. Count something you can see. Count something you can smell. Remember something that has happened today.

Anxiety is exhausting. At first it’s scary. But days of feeling this fight or flight sensation simply drain me. Trying to focus my eyes and keep fear from blurring my vision. Trying to calm my heightened senses that distract me. Trying to steady my breath when my heart begins to race.

Eventually I just want to shut down. My eyes droop, my mind goes blank, and I feel nothing.

Scripture is what really works against anxiety. Truth conquers fear. The other night I slept at my parents home, beneath the covers of my old bed. My sister slept in her bed across from me and the box fan on the floor was blowing loudly. I felt the release of a panicking chemical in my brain making me feel like I should run out of the room and find safety.

It’s the feeling you get when you’ve woken from a nightmare and cannot go back to sleep. Even though I wanted to run and find safety, in reality I was in the safest place I could be. So I told myself this and then I started rehearsing truth through scripture.

“Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Romans 8

“‘For I know the plans  I have for you,’ declares the Lord.” Jeremiah 29

“Don’t worry about anything, instead, pray about everything.”  Philippians 4:6

I suddenly remembered something my friend Esther told me to do when I feel afraid. She said to speak these words out loud: “Jesus Christ is Lord of my life.” I rehearsed this truth three times and as the words slipped from my lips I suddenly smiled. This was real, my fears were just imagination. Fear had no power over me.

As I thought about all of my fears, from experiencing death to facing life, I considered the sovereignty of God and how Jesus Christ is really Lord of all these things. I’m facing a lot right now, starting graduate school, moving to a new place. Realizing that God is in control allowed me to feel more than the nothing that usually hits me after a panic attack. I felt peace in the midst of my circumstances.

Peace is not the absence of fear but the presence of faith.