Waking Up in Addis Ababa

I climbed down the stairs out of the plane and walked across a big runway and in through a little door into a big warehouse-like building. Mobs of people crowded the little airport, all speaking languages I didn’t understand. I had arrived in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

Scanning the crowds, I finally found my host. Accompanying him was a young Ethiopian man who kept laughing nervously. I got a weird vibe. We found my luggage and left the airport, walking down the long ramp to the parking lot, where Giovanni’s big brother the Taxi Driver was waiting to give us a ride.

Suddenly I heard a sound behind me I’d never heard in my life: Ear-piercing, high-pitched, “Le le le le le le le le!” Like a siren. I turned around to see women with their faces covered, wailing alongside a coffin that had been carried out of the airplane. Others were sobbing or even screaming. I later learned the sound I’d heard is a very common ritualistic song of sorts called “ululation.”

Everything was dark, and everyone was beautiful. I was in the most foreign place I’d ever been.

I hopped into the little blue and white taxi and felt like I fell straight through to the concrete below. The entire back bench was caved in. I reached up to buckle my seat belt, but who was I kidding, there were no seat belts. Off we went, careening at an uncomfortable speed up and down windy roads, through a dark Ethiopian night. Coming around one bend, my door flew wide open and I held onto the seat in front of me for dear life.

I could see very little in this darkness—there were no lights like you see in the night here. I could make out the occasional shack or shed we passed and saw a few wild dogs. Eventually we turned down a dark dirt alleyway and arrived at my new home, a little house on a compound with high walls. We barred the iron gates behind us and I was shown up to my bedroom to sleep after the longest journey I’d ever taken. I was in a very different place. Very new.

 

Let me pause my story to tell you about what I knew of Africa. You see, I’m from America, and I had grown up in a home where I learned only very specific things about Africa: That everyone was poor and uneducated. That everyone was sick and desperately in need of help. That I was on my way to save them.

 

Back to my story. They warn you about jet lag, but you have to live it to really understand. The next morning I tossed and turned, barely waking up only to fall back into restless sleep. I dreamed dreams that you would only dream if you were waking up for the first time to the beautiful and enchanting sounds of Muslim prayers being chanted over a loud speaker from a nearby mosque. I kept gasping for breath as I adjusted to the high altitude of Addis Ababa.

Suddenly I woke all the way up. Something wasn’t right. I was hearing a sound that didn’t fit. The American pop-rock band Train has a song called “Hey Soul Sister” that was all the rage in America ten years ago, and it was now being broadcast on loudspeaker all across Mekanisa, Addis Ababa. Maybe Ethiopia wasn’t quite as far back in the dark ages as I thought. I went to the window and looked out to see very normal people doing very normal things outside a nearby apartment complex.

I went downstairs for breakfast and chatted with Kidane, the kid that made me nervous the night before. Turns out he was just a cool guy. The coolest! Very “normal” and just the greatest person! We talked about normal stuff, like music, relationships, and favorites.

My host sent me with Kidane to explore my new town. Sure, there was stuff I’d never seen—like a freshly severed cow head laying on the road. And yes, Kidane had a sad, scary story that included being beaten and robbed in Nairobi, Kenya. But there was more to Africa. There were skyscrapers and advertisements. People dressed in clothes far more stylish than mine, listening to their iPods, playing on their smartphones. Kidane introduced me to a local business owner in a fancy suit. We stopped at an internet café, crowded with young Ethiopian adults, browsing Facebook, looking at pictures of them and their friends partying.

It was not what I expected to see. At all. Here’s the thing, guys. The west is rich, though we have our homeless. And Africa is poor, but it has wealth, education, and progress the TV doesn’t always show you.

Don’t trust clichés and stereotypes.

 

I love traveling and exploring new cultures more than almost anything else in the world. Reflecting on my first big cross-cultural experience the other day, I found this summary from a blog post I wrote about my first day waking up in Addis Ababa:

“I can’t really explain it, but it was like my mind stood up, stepped straight out of my inexperienced head, and said, ‘You are finally beginning to understand the world. Never put me back in that narrow mind again.'”

Ethiopia 2

You vs You-with

A scientific study published in 1999 examined how we are affected by listening to others’ opinions about us: First, Asian women were given a math test to do after reminders of the negative stereotype that women are bad at math. Later, Asian women were given a math test to do after reminders of the positive stereotype that Asians are good at math. The subjects performed significantly better when seeing themselves as “Asians, who are good at math” than as “women, who are bad at math.”

There’s you. And then there’s you-with-_____.

You with your boss. You being watched by your in-laws. You surrounded by your employees. You feeling nervous with your date. You with the context of your work situation.

While you-with-anything is still the real you, it can be very helpful to not look at yourself only through the context of whatever is currently going on, whoever you’re with. Try looking at just you by yourself. Apart from the other thing, person, or situation.

Why is this so helpful? We have a huge tendency to define ourselves by the people around us and what they think. We tend to become the average of the people closest to us. We want to fit in, to please people. We also constantly hear their voices, even when they’re not talking out loud. What your boss thinks of you. What your parents think of you. What your buddies think of you.

When I look at a big decision I just made, while examining myself primarily in the context of the two or three employees it affects, maybe the big decision looks like a win. But when I do the mental exercise of separating myself and examining the decision in the context of simply who I have always wanted to be, what I really believe and value–maybe I find the decision wasn’t a win for me after all. Maybe it was just a people-pleasing win for somebody else.

Or vice versa. Maybe what you’re constantly feeling small about, because of how you know it looks to your parents, or what your boss thinks of you now–maybe that thing you’re regretting, feeling down about, kicking yourself over every day… maybe that’s exactly what you truly wanted and you need to give yourself some credit, encourage yourself, celebrate your growth.

If you don’t give yourself the credit of judging yourself for yourself, and instead constantly see yourself through the lens of another or in a context inseparable from others, you will say things you don’t really mean, choose things you don’t really want, and become a person you don’t actually believe in.

Of course there’s a limit to all this–if you completely stop considering what others think, you miss out on a lot of valuable feedback and you can start giving people very wrong impressions. You can stop working well as a team and you can hurt people. Being aware of others and how they feel is very important.

But there’s got to be a balance: “How will my employee take this?” must always be accompanied by, “How do I really see this?” And vice versa.

There’s a reason I encourage you mostly to focus on the independent part, though–seeing yourself distinct from the people and situations currently surrounding you. It’s because what we’ve experienced and learned throughout life has pounded an insecurity into us, leaving us constantly, endlessly agonizing over what others think, how they see us and our choices.

That’s the norm in society: Defining your life, your self assessment, and your worth through the lenses of others.

Try being fair to yourself. Give yourself some credit. What do you really think and want? Forget your boss’s opinion for just a minute. Or your parents’ expectations. What do you really, truly, deep down in your heart, believe and want out of yourself? That is immensely more important to your happiness and peace in life than what you know your co-worker is telling his friends about you.

“I am a woman, so I cannot be good at math.”

“I am an Asian, so I can be great at math.”

Or maybe… “I am me, and I love math.”