It was our first week in Ethiopia and the school down the road needed an English teacher for their grades 7 and 8 classes. I volunteered.
I had no idea what I was doing. The school did not have a curriculum for me to follow, nor did the students have textbooks, workbooks or even notebooks! One of the other teachers gave me a piece of chalk on my first day because I didn’t know I was to buy my own ahead of time. I hadn’t yet started my language and culture orientation classes, so I really didn’t know anything about Ethiopia or how things worked.
But I did think to ask one question before I headed off to class: How should the students address me? Well, that’s what I meant to ask. What I actually asked was “How do you say ‘missus’ in Amharic?” The answer to that question is wizero. And so I introduced myself to my students as Wizero Neuman.
By the time I realized that people just call each other by their first name, it was too late. I was already known as Neuman instead of Anita. That is what they called me in class, and that is what they hollered for all the world to hear when they saw me walking down the street. “Hello, Neuman!” Right out of Seinfeld – except they didn’t know it was funny.
My misunderstanding of the first name/last name situation was further complicated by the frequent question, “What is your father’s name?” That seemed an odd thing to ask, back in those first few days when I was so new to the country I wasn’t even over jetlag yet. But I assumed it was one of those basic questions that every language learner memorizes and practices on others. How old are you? Where is the bathroom? What is your father’s name?
I was wrong. Their father’s name and father’s father’s name are like our western middle name and last name. Their lineage is their name, regardless of gender, and it doesn’t change when they get married.
When students asked me, “What is your father’s name?” and I answered “Jim” (because I thought they were simply practicing their English), they thought Jim was my second name. And then they would ask, “What is your grandfather’s name?” and my mind would immediately go to my maternal grandfather, with whom I was very close. Coincidentally, his name was also Jim.
So instead of just introducing myself as Anita Neuman right from the start, I stupidly and inadvertently let 100+ students think my name was Neuman Jim Jim.
All I wanted to do was fill the need for an English teacher. I was trying to help. But despite my pure and honorable intentions, I came off looking like a schmuck.
It happens to the best of us, doesn’t it?
So let’s remember that when we see someone else who’s coming off looking like a schmuck. Maybe, just maybe, they’re actually a kind and generous person who simply made a mistake. Let’s show them a little bit of grace.
As I progressed in my Amharic language and understanding of Ethiopian culture, I began to introduce myself as Tsegah. This was a much easier name to remember for most of my Ethiopian friends and colleagues, and it happens to mean grace – just like Anita does.
Grace is the name by which I would rather present myself to the world. Even when (especially when) I come face-to-face with someone who’s acting like a Neuman Jim Jim.