Coming to America

Arriving at the John F. Kennedy airport in New York in late August of 1983 was thrilling. I was mesmerized by the mere size of the place. My sister and I were greeted by a family friend, Ato Gebretsadik (may he rest in peace), and his wife W/o Workwuha. They drove us to their neighborhood in Brooklyn on that humid Saturday afternoon. “What is wrong with the heat”, I remember wondering. Their beautiful home was situated in a nice neighborhood with its own charm; folks walking around, young men playing basketball in neighborhood parks, and a few stores and delis spread out here and there.

The next day, Suzi, one of the daughters, and a few of her friends decided to show my sister and me around. “Let’s go to the mall”, Suzi suggested in her usual playful manner. “What is a mall?”, I asked. “Dude, where have you been”, she joked. At the mall, I learned that they have all kinds of stores, restaurants as well as movie theatres. One of Suzi’s friends suggested that we all go to the movies. We were about 8 in total, together, just hanging out. Being the Ethiopian gentleman, I thought I was, I insisted on paying for everyone’s movie tickets, and I did. After the movies, we walked around the mall and headed home, had dinner, and went to sleep. It was a beautiful day in the big apple.

I woke up very early the next morning, as I was jet lagged and could not sleep much.  As I situated myself on the bed to read a book; Khalil Gibran’s The Prophet, I saw a folded-up note on the nightstand. I opened it and read it with utter shock. It read, “it was very nice of you to buy our movie tickets, but, you did not have to”.  As I looked to the side, I found money placed there by these “rude” people who gave back the money I had spent on them. I was hurt and upset at their “insensitivity”. My first culture shock was to remain ingrained in my mind for decades to come.

Sister and I took an exciting train ride to Baltimore where we were scheduled to stay with another family friend; Gashe Yeshitila and his wife Peggy, a bubbly and loving African American. The atmosphere was more relaxed than where we stayed in New York, or perhaps it felt that way because I was getting used to the sights and sounds of the USA a little bit more. We arrived late in the evening and were picked up at the station by Gashe Yeshitila himself. He spoke very highly of Dad and what he meant to him as he drove us to his home. Peggy greeted us at the gate of their modestly fenced house in the suburbs and showed us to our rooms upstairs; “it’s late, get a good night’s sleep.”

The smell of breakfast and coffee was a great way to wake up in Baltimore. After washing up, I went downstairs where Gashe Yeshitila, Peggy, and their daughter Tania were chatting in the kitchen. All three were involved in preparing breakfast and setting up the table. I was not sure if I should help or just sit and wait. Peggy noticed my awkward apprehensions. “Would you like to help set up the table?”, she smiled. “Of course, I would love to”, I joined the effort. A beautiful prayer of gratitude welcoming my sister and me was recited by Tania. As we served ourselves some eggs, biscuits, butter and jam, and fresh orange juice, I skipped a thinly-sliced thing I did not recognize. “Have some bacon”, it’s delicious”, said Gahse Yeshitela. “What is bacon?”, I asked – another moment where people could possibly wonder where the hell I had been. You live and learn every day.

The long Greyhound bus ride to Atlanta Georgia was incredible. I got a chance to see the beautiful country that America truly is, parts of it anyway. Another family friend in Georgia greeted us and took us in. Here, we met some young men and women who lived in Atlanta but went to school in Kentucky. At a favorite hang-out in the city, they gathered and took us out for some hotdog and soda. From all places to Varsity, the largest drive-in fast food restaurant in the world takes up two blocks and can accommodate 800 diners -wow! They showed us around the city and entertained us at fancy hotels. After a week of site seeing and entertainment, I was off to Cumberland college in Williamsburg Kentucky.