It was a lot easier before my son learned to speak English.
My wife, Mary, and I adopted Nati from Ethiopia when he was five years old. He spoke no English and we spoke only three words of Amharic, the language of most Ethiopians. When I flew with him from the orphanage in Ethiopia back to our home in Los Angeles, he was astonished not only by the airplane but by the escalator in the airport; most everything was new to him. Here are the three words of Amharic I knew. Shent, which means “pee.” Baca, which means, “enough.” Ishi, which means, “it’s okay.” Put them in any order you like and it’s still not much of a conversation.
How did we do it? How did we introduce a five-year-old boy to kindergarten, car seats, TVs, French fries, two dogs, a house, and his new brother and sister? How did we teach him English? How did we manage to communicate anything at all? It was easy.
Yes, I do remember hearing Nati demand something that sounded like “meso” from the backseat of my car. It took 10 minutes to figure out he was hungry, another ten minutes to figure out he wasn’t asking for a Mentos candy, and a full week before I found out that what he wanted was an Ethiopian stew he’d been missing. But that, all of it, was the easy part. We pantomimed for each other, and when all else failed we spoke English very loudly and slowly and hoped for the best, and more often then not, we got it. What was really hard came long after Nati learned English and what we probably should have always known: knowing the same words can be very different from speaking the same language.
Imagine cooking a meal. Or better yet, imagine you’re my grandmother and you’re cooking a meal. You’ve got some chicken, some matzo balls, maybe some carrots and vegetables. A stove, a pot, and an hour or two of cooking time and you’ve got enough chicken soup to make a nice meal. Now imagine that someone gives you a bunch of Ethiopian spices, some berbere, a bit of wot kimen, and a pound of mitmita, and then tells you to use all of them when you make tonight’s dinner. You might, if you were a very good cook, come up with something interesting. On the other hand, you certainly wouldn’t be making Grandma’s chicken soup anymore.
My new family is a lot like that imaginary meal. I like to read. My wife is a sweet, funny, kind woman who would rather endure oral surgery without Novocain than brag about any of her many accomplishments. My son Clay is verbal and witty and doesn’t like it when I say unkind things about anyone, including politicians and fictional characters. My daughter, Grace, loves to make art, take pictures, and watch bad reality TV in bed with her mom. And then there’s Nati.
Nati, who is so confident that on his first trip from Los Angeles to San Diego, when he’d been here all of six months and was all of five years old, he told me in his broken English, “No, Dad, drive the other way. It’s the other way!” Nati, who said, while talking to a hotel desk clerk in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, “English is easy! Also, I know how to dance really well!” Of course, he said that in Amharic, since he did not yet speak a single word of English, but still, he made his point. Nati, who when he’d been here one year asked if he could build a lemon-aide stand near where someone was selling their house so he could get more foot traffic. To say that Nati can be loud doesn’t do him justice. To say that he has charisma doesn’t begin to tell the story. Put it this way, I spent the first three years Nati was here searching in vain for a dial to adjust his volume. It is, I used to think, as if somehow my family and I adopted a small, black Liza Minnelli. Nati is all singing, all dancing, all the time. All. The. Time. We had been a family that sought compromise: Nati loves arguments and winning. We had been a family that valued gentle kindness: Nati loves action, noise, and excitement. We were Woody Allen and Neil Simon and generations of borscht belt humor: Nati is pratfalls, pie-in-the-face gags, and all Three Stooges rolled into one.
I knew Nati was black and that we were white. I knew he’d been Christian and that we were Jewish (surely the chicken soup metaphor tipped you off, right?). I knew that he spoke not a word of English and that we spoke only three words in his native tongue. What I did not know was that our real differences were deeper and more mysterious. My son has been my son for eight years now. I’m somewhat ashamed to have to admit that I spent the first six of those years trying very hard to force my loud, exuberant, competitive, goofy boy into becoming a quiet, neurotic Jewish kid like I’d been. I did it with the best of motives. I wanted him to be gentle. I wanted him to do well in school. I wanted all sorts of perfectly reasonable things, but in the end, what I wanted him to be was more like me.
And this is where I get to the happy ending. This is where I say that I’ve come to love my son for exactly who he is. This is where I say that I’ve stopped looking for the volume switch to quiet Nati down, that I’ve come to appreciate the great multicultural mix that is my family. And there are days, more and more of them, where that’s exactly true. There are days when I want nothing more than to enjoy all the laughter that Nati brings to our family. There are days when we are perfect just as we are. But it’s also true that eating chicken soup with berbere takes a lifetime of practice. My family is as big as the globe, Ethiopian and American both, and I will, I suspect, spend the rest of my life coming to terms with what all that means.
Nati learned English very quickly. He was fluent before he’d been here a year. But then, it’s easy for a father and son to speak the same words. It’s learning to hear and understand them all that really takes practice.
Carried in our Hearts: The Gift of Adoption; Inspiring Stories of Families Created Across Continents is a poignant collection of essays about everything choosing the child, making a journey to meet her and coming face-to-face for the first time. Dr. Jane Aronson, adoption expert and Worldwide Orphans Foundation, is the editor of the collection.