I was at the Fenton Street Market last week talking to Megan from IMPACT Silver Spring and a little kid, about eight or so, comes up to me and shakes my hand. "Selam," he says. "What's up?" I reply. He frowns. "He just learned Amharic," says Megan. "Are you Ethiopian?" he asks. When I say no, he's really disappointed.
I am half-Black (where, specifically, I don't know) and half-Indian, a combination that my [Indian] aunt says looks Ethiopian. So I get this a lot, especially in East County, where our many Ethiopian restaurants and coffee shops are giving Shaw's "Little Ethiopia" a run for its money. "Are you Ethiopian?" asks the cashier at the convenience store when I hand him my picture ID. "Because Daniel is a very Ethiopian name." (One of the few Ethiopian people I know also is named Daniel, so it works.)
"Are you Ethiopian?" asks a girl at Wheaton High School I met on a job interview there last spring. She's been in the country for less than a year and is more than a little uncomfortable at a school where most of her classmates are Latino. And I can't get her to talk to me until she looks me in my big, not-Ethiopian eyes, and her face lights up. Then I put the flame out by saying "No, sorry."
My Indian side I understand: family emigrated from India to South Africa to Guyana to Rockville (yeah, I know) to D.C. The other half? No clue. I imagine it may look a little like Roots. Kinda wish I was Ethiopian so I'd at least know what that part of me was. And hey, I might even know Amharic, too.
Though now I've learned that selam is basically Amharic for what's up. Looks like I'll be able to fake it, at least for a few seconds.