There is nothing quite like the stories that unfold when good friends gather to share an honest, home-cooked meal.
For this special dinner, I hosted four of my friends to eat, drink and talk about their travels abroad in search of family they have never met.
I made vegetables in green curry with coconut milk, served with cauliflower as rice, and sautéed okra in garlic, onion, and tomatoes. For dessert we had mixed fruit, served with strawberry vegan ice cream.
This dinner happened to be a mini-reunion; each one of us had traveled in the past year to meet with family. The travels were filled with first times. Amber went to Nigeria to meet her father’s family. Viradeth visited Laos to meet his biological father and his siblings. Gabriel went to Ethiopia and met his mother’s favorite aunt.
Amber stayed with her aunt in Lagos, Nigeria’s fastest growing city, on a quest to meet her father’s family for the first time. Many people said Amber was brave to go somewhere so different and alone and to stay with a family she has never met before.
To this, Amber said:
I did not feel brave, I felt excited and comfortable. I had been communicating with my aunt for several months before going. Also, what is the worst case scenario? They are terrible people and I find another place to stay.
Amber felt closest to her cousins; she is the eldest cousin, which in Nigeria means a lot. Her voice became softer and as she put her hand casually over her heart, she said:
As the eldest cousin, I have a great responsibility to take care of my cousins, as well as be a role model to them. This meant that I must get married soon and have children. To me though, I feel my responsibility is to love them, be there for them, support them, even from a distance.
Viradeth, who put down his fork and leaned closer to the table, interjected:
Funny you say that. I am the eldest of my siblings, which allowed my father to keep asking me when will I be moving to Laos to take over the business and get married. It was my responsibility, especially that my brother is a wild one with long hair, a motorcycle, who mines for gold.
Viradeth describes his brother whilst imitating a person on a motorcycle with his hair flying in the wind.
My mother had to leave Laos because her family was involved in the war against the current Communist government, which came to power in 1975. (His voice casual.) Her family lived in a refugee camp for eight years. Then my mother, me (and several other family members) moved to Seattle. I had not talked to my father since then, until five years ago. He thought I lived in San Francisco. During our talks, we discussed when I should go to visit. Finally, this past November was the right time.
I got to the airport after a 36 hour flight, exhausted, only to be met with my father and four siblings who were ready to pose for a picture!
He laughs at the surreal situation.
The last thing I wanted was to pose for a picture after such a flight, but they are my family. Many pictures were taken.
After Laos gained independence from France and became a monarchy, a civil war led to the Communist movement coming to power. After the war and for seven years that followed, 53,700 Laotian refugees came to the US. Two of these were Viradeth and his mother. Still to this day Laotians are seeking refuge and asylum to neighboring countries not only because of the threats on the lives of those who participated in the civil war, but also those who supported the United States during the Vietnam War.
Gabriel talked about his experience of meeting a close relative for the first time in a new country:
Before going to Ethiopia, my mother told me that if I did not meet anyone else on my first visit ever to Ethiopia, I must meet her eldest aunt. Most of my family is in Europe or the US, very few, almost no one remains in Ethiopia.
My cousin Meklit and I were preparing for our show, when I noticed a woman coming through the door. Our eyes met and we both knew, just knew, that I was my mother’s son and that I was her great nephew.
Even then as he tells us the story, Gabriel’s eyes shine a little more. You can see through his face how much his great aunt meant to him. And how the experience created a bridge between him, his mother, his family, and a place called home.
In the 1980s, Ethiopia experienced a series of famines and a number of civil and cross-boarder wars that resulted in 93,000 refugees and immigrants to enter the United States alone. Thousands of others since then have been seeking refuge in Somalia, Yemen, Eritrea, and other neighboring countries.
Viradeth also had a moving exerperience with meeting a family member abroad in Laos:
The highlight of my trip was when I went to meet my great grandfather who is 96 years old. He lives in the mountains, has a cellphone. “Hey, yo, I gotta go, my grandson is here.” (Viradeth’s voice rings with laughter.) He was totally awesome. I could have stayed with him for days. I did not want to leave him.
I felt close to him, as I felt with my mother’s family. My father’s though, it took me some time to relax. I often felt I was visiting unfamiliar people. The best part was speaking English with my younger siblings, who were learning English in school.
The conversation continues as the food starts settling in our bodies. The stories of family and anticipation fill the corners of the kitchen. My friends also talk of other things, of their mothers and their roles in their lives, of foods they have eaten during their travels, the new flavors and smells.
They also shared the experience of change on their trips.
In Nigeria and Ethiopia, Amber and Gabriel were perceived as being white. Even though both are multi-racial and are perceived as black in Seattle, they were called white on a regular basis in the streets and shops.
Amber was even told that a white man sitting in a bar was her brother. When Amber’s friends told the man he looks related to her, he replied, “I am German.” In Nigeria, Amber was called an “oyibo” (white person) and Gabriel was a “feureunj” (foreigner) in Ethiopia.
This meant that in their perspective home countries, being white meant accessing both the privileges and hassles of this label.
Amber had clout as a white person from the United States, such as being seen as cooler and of authority in some circles. While Gabriel was perceived as being wealthy and was hassled by children in the street who wanted money.
Our conversation then becomes about the fluidity of identity, how these travels, new peoples and places have changed my friends and made them richer.
Viradeth said this trip had made him braver and more curious. This being his first trip abroad, he now knows what the travel itch is all about. Not a year later, he finds himself in Guatemala with a host family he does not know, to learn Spanish, travel, and learn a little more about himself.
My friends are Seattleites whose identities are mixed, complex, and multiple. Their locally engaged activism and consciousness is affected by what happens very far away where some of their favorite individuals live.
They are here and there. Forever.