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The Life of a Multilingual

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For as long as I can remember, people have always questioned me about my upbringing, race, ethnicity, and background. This haunting question makes me nervous, erupting multiple questions through my mind. Why do I have to justify my ethnicity? Are they asking me about my birthplace? Or where my parents came from? Or the plethora of countries I have lived in? Now, it is almost like a reflex for me to reply, ‘It’s complicated’ but I have never felt satisfied with this answer. I want to feel a sense of belonging and to have a specific answer. Sometimes I feel as if I am boring the person with my extensive background. Sometimes I can’t help but lie and say that I’m an American as it would justify my accent. It’s the easiest option. No questions asked.

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Trust me, I speak with experience, explaining the whole bloody story – ‘I’m Swedish-Ethiopian, living in Singapore, but I was born in Switzerland and I have a British passport and an American accent’, it gets too repetitive. Some people say ‘Don’t complain! It’s exotic!’ Well, yes, it may seem ‘cool’ in the perspective of an outsider or a monolingual individual but it is not all fun and games when it is a reality. I live in this reality – the life of a multilingual. Ever since I can remember, I grew up despising my ethnicity. As a young mix-raced girl, I dreamt about the life of a person who could identify with one race, one ethnicity – something so intangible. In my innocent slumber, it almost felt real. But as soon as I awoke I was reminded of my daunting reality. As a child, I recall feeling strong emotions of frustration and confusion as I felt so much pressure to be defined, to put a label on myself. I felt like an unwanted individual, like a faulty product of the human race – as if we were manufactured to uphold and represent a specific profile. It was as if I were a mule amongst a field of radiant horses. I was at the young age of 11 when I had first immersed myself into my rich Ethiopian roots. I remember a particular afternoon; my Ethiopian friends and I were on a mini road trip. I vividly recall stopping the car at Churchill Street of Addis Ababa. Being a young and naive girl I was not aware of the situations I would encounter. As soon as I hopped out of the car, a wave of displacement enveloped me.

A group of strangers said ‘go back inside little girl’ and “ferenj nech, teiyat” (she’s white, leave her) in their native Amharic language. Despite being embarrassed, I was jealous of the connections shared between the strangers as they spoke in their dialect. I felt bare and vulnerable amongst my own kind. It was as if no one saw what was beneath my skin – a girl who wanted to feel a sense of belonging. Was culture meant to be exclusive? The emotional and literal distance separating me and my mother’s culture. If I could go back in time, I wish to have rebutted his ignorant comment by saying “ayidelehum!” (I’m not!), but I just couldn’t, my identity was pulled from under my feet. I was silenced. As much as I hate it I’m always drawn to pick sides, It’s a weird concept to describe, but when I’m asked which side of my ethnicity I relate more to I would 100% of the time say Ethiopian, I feel like this may be because my mothers side of the family is so large that it overwrites everything – it cancels out the other side. On the other hand, it is also due to the values of “African culture”; completely orientated around family and community, family, is the fundamental unit that brings everyone together. Outside of that I feel it’s a slap in the face to my father, picking my Ethiopian ethnicity would be completely pouring out my Swedish blood, but i can’t help that being able to understand my language makes me feel so much closer to the culture, and speaking Amharic makes me feel Ethiopian. In spite of the fact that I feel more Ethiopian if you were to ask me where is “home”, I would immediately say Singapore and London.

These are the places I grew up in, where my family and friends live, I know how to get around and how to communicate with both communities, its comfort, acceptance, and stability label it as a “home” to me. I didn’t have a choice of where I grew up. The country I lived in was solely based on my parent’s job, but unlike most expats, I was lucky enough to not have to shift around much, so the majority of my life I grew up in Singapore. During my time at school, I had always felt like an outsider. I went to an international school filled with Singaporeans, the only things you could call “international” about it were the teachers and staff. When I entered high school, my peers would always use their Singlish dialect around me and it made me feel like a never belonged. Still, I had been in that school for almost 10 years, I above anyone should have the right to feel belonged, who were they to strip that away from me?

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The Life Of A Multilingual. (2019, November 26). GradesFixer. Retrieved April 19, 2021, from https://gradesfixer.com/free-essay-examples/the-life-of-a-multilingual/
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