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Alien in America by Selam G. '18

A display of feelings; a post that might not make any sense.

Last weekend, I wrote “A Guide to Farmer’s Markets“.

Here’s what I wrote when I shared that post on social media:

“In Colorado, we only had farmers’ markets in the summer. It reminded me that summer was special, special because it was short and seasonal things only lasted so long. Life can be like that too. You have to appreciate small things when they happen, while they’re there. Like fresh vegetables. Actually, I personally think vegetables are a *big deal*, but anyway, my point is, I don’t think people should deny themselves happiness when they can find it–especially when, in this day and age, bad news is always a mouse-click away. Rather than say that you shouldn’t be happy because others are suffering, I would say, take time for yourself, because otherwise it’s hard to be healthy, and when unhealthy, it’s hard to be helpful, to actually take action or get involved and have an impact on what you want to change.

I spend a lot of time reading articles and opinion editorials about a lot of our frightening modern day issues, and I spent a lot of time thinking about writing one or trying to contribute, to do the work to untangle my thoughts and express the frustration or the whatever else was in there. But sometimes, you just need to eat snap peas, and write about that too.

So, today is a day for writing about vegetables.”

Ben and Vincent wrote two beautiful posts about the current feelings of black people throughout the United States (read Ben’s post and Vincent’s post). I read both of them when I woke up yesterday morning–finally, as I’d been avoiding a lot of the news and think pieces and editorials for quite a while. And after reading them, I thought to myself, simply, “it’s time”.

But then, when I started typing up a draft for this post on my phone (which was originally going to be a very different post)

I…couldn’t do it.

I really just couldn’t.

I began thinking about the type of things that you don’t think about often in order to function and go about your daily life, the way some people try not to think about the inevitability of death. I put my feet over the edge of my bunk bed and just stared out of the windows of Phi Kappa Theta.

Physical things. Reality. There is safety in that–that is why I decided to write about vegetables instead. That is why I am a mechanical engineer, I suppose. I don’t have the energy to spend my life fighting issues that seem so unsolvable. More unsolvable than automated machines, more unsolvable than all the projects and research questions I’ve ever proposed or worked on.

I didn’t want to think about how my entire life I have felt like an alien. How even my parents and my family–though I love them very much–could never quite understand why I got so frustrated with not belonging anywhere.

Rachel Dolezal tried to pass for something she is not. 

My whole life, I have simply been trying to pass for who I am.

Whenever I write those words–type them, say them, speak them–I feel a weight in my stomach drop. My parents could not quite understand why I would get so upset when strangers on the street in Ethiopia would yell “China China!”

or

when just a month ago, in Nanjing, some creepy guy was saying, “are you African? African American?” and I responded,

“不是!我在南京长大!” 

literally denying part of myself because I hate the feeling of not belonging, and then he was talking to me (or trying to) for a good mile while I was walking.

In the place where I was born and raised and lived for 20 years, I also feel alien. I have spent 20 years denying parts of myself to make it simpler for others to understand.

Everything is small and laughable, like people saying “haha your name is salami! It’s like a piece of lunch meat!” and I cried when I was 5 years old in the middle of my preschool playground, everything is small and laughable,

Except for,

  • That time that my brother, a scrawny 6th grader less than a hundred pounds who had so little muscle mass I regularly pinned him to the ground while fighting or defeated him by sitting on him, was refused a ride home from a friend’s mom because “he could hurt someone”.

Except for,

  • Four years of my life, when everyone at my high school literally forgot I was a black person. (“lol, there’s only half a black person in our AP Calculus class” “really, who?” “um…me?” “OH but you’re basically asian bc your so good at school lol”) until I got into MIT (“it’s only because she’s black…I wish I was ‘half black’ too’”).
  • What happened to the model minority myth and being good at math and playing piano and being told I had no right to say anything about being black because I wasn’t *really black*? What happened to when I got angry, someone said “oh look, I made Selam’s inner black woman come out!” and “you’re not really black anyway, I can say ‘nigga’ because I have black friends on the football team”.
  • What happened to that?

Except for,

  • There was a kid named Miles at my high school who often said things like “What’s Ethiopian food taste like? It’s either nothing, or tastes like the food donated from all the other countries, haha!” and when I got upset, “you know it’s just a joke, I’m not really a bad guy”.
  • THEN HE WON A KINDNESS AWARD.
  • A KINDNESS AWARD.

When I was 12 there was some family drama, and I tried to run away from home. I got about five blocks away before my mother caught me. I had never felt more alien in my entire life. I had never had a country, but I at least had people–family, right? And then I felt like I didn’t even have that.

Some more family drama happened in the spring, and I stared at the Charles River. I thought about jumping in and swimming in it. I just wondered what it would feel like to feel cold, March river water seeping into my heavy coat, covering my skin, shocking my nerve endings.

Reality. The physical. Facts that no one can take away from you, that no one can distort with words, that no one can argue out of the way simply because they are better at arguing:

  • It is March.
  • Water is cold.
  • The Charles River is in front of me.
  • There is a chip in the sidewalk.

And

  • There is a small rock in my shoe.

In Fall 2016, University of Missouri happened and Yale happened, and I was glad I was at MIT. I wrote a post, “Colors”, where I expressed pride in the efforts of MIT students and administration. Little did I know how many bigots there were at MIT as well–yes, bigots. I have written many posts on the many amazing people at MIT, and I stand by them. But there are bigoted, subtly and unsubtly racist people here as well.

Sadly, many more than I initially thought.

One of my good friends, Netsanet (name changed) is an Ethiopian born in the United States, but lived her whole life in Africa. Though I find it difficult to cope with the complexities of US racial tensions, I didn’t realize until I met her and heard her story that I had been doing, all this time, exactly that–coping. I was trained, in a way, from preschool to college. I had an armory in my head full of counterarguments, of examples, and most of all, patience and experience.

Netsanet, like Vincent, comes from a country of black people, where “black” is neither a useful adjective when describing people nor a word so charged with meaning in daily conversation.

Netsanet was floored when she came to MIT. She, at first, experienced all the little things Ben talked about. Things that weren’t huge, but made her uncomfortable–things that are more “borderline” and more difficult to explain when you say they make you feel uncomfortable. She would regularly hear a particular person in the lounge pointing “black” out in what always seemed to be a negative tone, or just a weird way.

  • “…and today I saw two black women in the subway who were going ham on two bags of McDonald’s each and it was disgusting!”
  • (while watching the music video for “Pillow Talk”) “who is that random black women dancing? Yum!”
  • It even extended to other groups of people: “Haha, everyone knows Asian girls have no butts.”

Netsanet felt it was strange, and dangerous. If they were white, she thought, would they just have been “women” instead of “black women”?

Once, he said something so out of line that even the other people in her lounge said “woah” and “hey, that’s not cool” and he turned to Netsanet, looked at her, and said “well, you’re black, what do you think about it?”

She told me that was a point where she felt the most ostracized, hurt, and upset. She just said “Why are you pointing me out? What am I supposed to say?” and walked away.

Her floormates would regularly discuss how they didn’t believe that racism was still alive and other such topics in the lounge, and often said things that she felt uncomfortable with. They once took a picture and said, “oh good, we have at least one black person!” and Netsanet squirmed–she didn’t feel black. She was African. Was she black, too?

Once they had a debate about whether saying the n-word was ok. She began to realize that a lot of people didn’t understand and didn’t care, that they did not treat her as an individual. If another black person or person of color said something was ok, but she did not feel comfortable with it, people assumed that saying things or doing things must be fine and not offensive to her as an individual. And yet, at the same time, she found it difficult to make things a personal matter, to say outright, “I am uncomfortable”. Who would find it easy to say that, in a tense situation?

On top of that, this was all at MIT (which is hard) during her first year properly living in the United States (also hard).

In Simmons dormitory my freshman year, there was an individual who said eating cheesecake was fancy, because it made them feel “like an owner of a slave-run plantation from the 1800s”.

Some of it is true ignorance, yet it can also be hurtful. Another friend of mine recounted an experience at MIT while she was waiting for the elevator. A group of people (many of whom were bio students) were talking about the ethics of modifying human genes, especially in children yet to be born, and the whole strange controversial concept of “designer babies” and the rest.

The same cheesecake person had said, seeming to genuinely and honestly believe their own words,

  • “but, if we could modify our genes so we could look or do anything, don’t you think everyone would just want to be white? Like wouldn’t all the black families start having white children?”

Regardless of the motivation for this statement–my friend stressed that she didn’t even think the person should be blamed for saying that, she believed he genuinely thought that–if you heard it, if you heard that others could see no benefit in being the color of your skin and everything it connotes–types of cultures and music and food and families–would that be hurtful?

So imagine that all of this comes on top of everything else you have to deal with in your whole life.

Imagine that it is summer and you’re living in Boston and you are in-between long (but exciting!) days of research at the MIT Media lab and resume reviews at MIT’s GECD (Global Education and Career Development) Office. You are planning an international public service and engineering project, building wells in rural Ethiopia. You make international calls for your project from 9:30-11:00, and fix the prototype for your research from 1:30-3:00. At 7pm you hit the gym, at 8pm you return to the Media Lab to finish up some notes and plan for tomorrow. It is 9:45pm by the time you head home. No one in there right mind would say that you don’t work hard. You think you have escaped bigoted wealthy white people from suburban Colorado, and here at MIT, people see you for who you are. You are worried about lots of other things–your family, your friends, your life. You are worried because one of your high school friends hasn’t been responding to your messages for a while, and texting all your other high school friends to try and figure it out. You are thinking about how you’ll have the time tomorrow to do all the work you need to do and still go to the gym; you are wondering about when you travel to Ethiopia how to front the cash for the grants you received which are all reimbursements, and then….

And then, you read all the articles about Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, and you try not to think about it. You read what your friends and classmates are saying

  • (some of them were the exact same people who made fun of you for listening to any kind of rap music in high school so that you finally just didn’t talk about the struggles and politics behind it as you would have, and also said you were not black, but at least they are now trying, at least they have changed their minds and I am proud of them for that.)

And then it all starts coming at you and makes you feel that all of your work is meaningless.

What are resume reviews for, if maybe,

  • you’ll actually just get hired because you’re a “hot mixed girl” (typing that makes me feel uncomfortable and disgusting)

or

  • maybe you won’t get hired because “pretty girls can’t be smart”, or maybe you’re in fact deemed too fat for the job,

or

  • maybe you won’t get hired because “she clearly only got into MIT on Affirmative Action” even though you’re not in the box that says “Black” but the box that says “Other”.

And what does all your hard work mean if people will only say

  • “See, those are the Asian genes working!” and “I knew you were Chinese!!! I can tell, you know. And you’re so good at school!”

And what does any of it at all mean when in America, stranger men shout at you when you are walking to Central Square, saying

  • “Ayyy! Are you Hawaiian? Cape Verdean? Asian? Damn! What are you???”

And in China

  • “African? African American?” “非洲人,对吧?”

And in Ethiopia

  • “China? Japan?” “ቻይና ሰው?”

And nobody seems to want to know what your name is or where you go to school or what you like to do or that you enjoy cooking and going to farmer’s markets or what your recommendations are for restaurants in Boston because they are so obsessed, obsessed, obsessed, to the point of shouting at you in the street randomly and following you for several blocks, with figuring out

what 

you are.

And if that is so important, the what are you what are you what are you what are you what are you what are you what are you what are you what are you what are you what are you it makes you stare very hard at the mirror, looking for a tail or some ears or maybe a patch of fur or antennae, because it is never “who are you”. You feel that you must not be human.

You feel like an alien.

And you can’t focus, so today in the Media Lab instead of all that work you were worried about finishing you spend your first hour writing a rambly rant about black lives and black bodies and mixed lives and mixed bodies and how really everyone is the same and everyone is mixed (and everyone is originally Ethiopian) and then delete the whole thing.

And so, I try not to think about it. I focus on other things…..

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A better way of putting it might be that I try not to think a lot about other people. You cannot change the way other people think. You can only believe in yourself, and simply recognize that even if you are an alien, with no home on this planet, Earth is stuck with you now and so you might as well show them what aliens are capable of. On other days, I would have written something like that, more optimistic, with a little more of a fighting spirit.

But today, I am simply tired. Too tired to make this post internet-friendly and patient-sounding, and so I am sorry if it just seems jumbled and rambly and confused. It is not intended to educate or provoke or create action or really do anything much productive–it is simply a display of feelings, which I hope might lead you to understand something, perhaps. Or maybe you will feel them, too. Or maybe you won’t.

I’m glad Vincent, Ben, and Allan (read Allan’s post) put together much more structured (and excellent!) posts. It reminds me that it’s definitely not only me, and also that so many people, of many races, are sensitive to at least part of this display of feelings. On top of this ridiculously long blog post, there are so many more things I want to say, that I want to write about, that I want to tell you, especially prospective students of color and international students of color..but today, just for today, I am tired.

I called my father today. “I’m sorry,” he said at the end, with a sigh and half a laugh, “it’s not fair, but your generation has a lot of work to do.”