The Culture of Hard Work: Shock Felt from Ethiopia to US

May 8 , 2021
By Yonas Assefa

Cultural shock is an inevitable phenomenon that every immigrant encounters. It is a challenging, dehumanising, and ultimately educational journey that shapes characters and gives individuals an all-rounded personality. It occurs in the form of lifestyle, awkwardness due to lack of language, racial identity, food, climate, and social and economic status changes.

My first dose of cultural shock came from the exposure of my lack of knowledge about or unfamiliarity with the value of hard-working culture. Prior to coming to the United States, I had extensively heard that America is the land of opportunity. My primary objective was to pursue my higher education, earn my degree, and acquire a career eventually to get back to my country of origin, Ethiopia. But I conveniently missed listening to the critical part that made America the land of opportunity and that happened to be the good old culture of hard work and determination.

I was a second-year college student at Addis Abeba University in the evening program when I got the opportunity to come to the United States. As soon as I arrived, I signed up for two summer courses, English as a second language (ESL) and US History. I had plenty of time for a summer job until the regular fall semester began.

My first summer job was in a large hospital escorting and helping older adults with a phobia of heights and a fear of using elevators. I occasionally had to use wheelchairs to get those who are weak and feeble into the elevator. But oftentimes, they entered the elevator by themselves and panicked. So my job was to hold them, or simply talk to them and comfort them until we got to the ground or whichever floor they wanted to get off on.

Since my language skill was poor, I could not engage them by generating interesting conversation and so help them in avoiding their two-minute misery of the elevator ride. Luckily no shocking incident had happened for a long time until one particular evening when the elevator made an awful sound and got stuck. I could not calm them. One of the two white ladies almost had a heart attack, and I was not any better either. It was a horrifying experience.

It was a very uneventful but interesting summer job. I sat in the lounge watching TV and waiting until my name was announced (paged) on the intercom to help escort yet another person fearful of an elevator. It was uneventful because I did not have anybody to talk to. I liked my job because I got gratuity or tips as they departed and it also helped me improve my English language. They were very nice and cordial to me. After all, I never understood if at all they uttered unkind expressions or insinuation against me. Ignorance has its virtues sometimes.

The older adults I help repeatedly asked me questions about my country of origin out of curiosity. Some of them knew well about Ethiopia and Emperor Haile Selassie. Some of the questions seemed demeaning out of naiveté - such as if we lived in a house or ate normal food. I took no offence partly because the questions were not intended to be malicious or degrading. If there were implied or displayed racial slurs or stereotypical connotations, I did not understand due to the sophistication of the language.

In retrospect, though, I do not think those elderly ladies said anything offensive intentionally to hurt my feelings. They told me about their life stories, their ancestors' origins, and how their parents and grandparents were poor before they migrated to the United States and emphasized that everyone is an immigrant in the country. They sincerely advised me to work hard and encouraged me to pursue my education.

The most exciting part of my job was a friendship I struck with one of the employees, Mark. His job and responsibility were harder. He was a janitor and custodian in housekeeping. He scrubbed, washed, mopped floors, and collected and disposed of trash from all the rooms. He cleaned the toilets, sprayed disinfectant and replaced tissue paper and paper towels. He worked very hard, as if his entire life depended on it. He took no break other than the 15 minutes every four hours allowed by the hospital.

Mark and I became good friends. It turned out that he was a second-year college student at the University of Massachusetts. A long way from a small town of East Texas. Coming from entirely different backgrounds in every spectrum, we both had our curiosities about each other’s culture and thinking processes. He was eager to know about Africa, particularly about Ethiopia. I was eager to learn about the American culture and improve my language skill. We talked while eating our dinner or drinking coffee during our breaks. Because of my lack of language proficiency and my accent, some employees did not have as much patience for me as Mark did. He listened, often making me repeat myself, tilting his head towards me not to miss what I had to say.

One Saturday afternoon, while we were on our usual break at the cafeteria, one of the doctors of the hospital approached us and told Mark to tell his mother that he would be late this evening and left swiftly. Surprised, I asked him how the doctor knew about his mother. He smiled and told me that the doctor is his father. I was shocked.

"Why did he work at the hospital in a janitorial job?" I asked. He replied, "why not?"

His father was a known neurologist. Where I came from, it is unimaginable for a doctor’s offspring to work as a housekeeper. Looking puzzled and confused, Mark continued to tell me that his parents encouraged him to work hard and save as much money as possible. They then matched the money he saved up dollar-for-dollar. As long as they were reasonable and justifiable, they even matched his expenses during summer vacations. So he worked hard and honestly.

One afternoon, he informed me that his mom wanted to meet me and invited me to their house. Apparently, he had been telling her about me.

Once we entered their private gate, we drove almost two blocks to get to their residence. It was a mansion. It had a swimming pool, a tennis and basketball court and a fountain park. His mother and his baby sister with her cat and dog greeted us. His mother was very humble, friendly and easy to talk to.

Robinson was not a doctor at his home. He was a husband, father and down-to-earth. He prepared, cooked, and served food with minimal help from Mark or his wife. Once luncheon started, I was supposed to freely help myself, unlike in parts of Ethiopia where the food is offered and forced on the guest. As we were eating, and as I was the only black person in the room, all questions were directed at me.

After lunch and all the games - from basketball, American football, tennis, swimming and frisbee - Mark's mother approached me to check how I was doing. She was a very pleasant person and wanted to make sure that I was having a good time.

“We will have another event like this before the end of summer. You make sure to bring your girlfriend next time you come," she said. "You have a girlfriend, don’t you?”

No one would ask such a question this bluntly. Here, I blushed, I dropped my eyes to the ground and mumbled like a little kid. That was yet another cultural shock to me.

Years later, after graduating from college and working in the US at various financial institutions at different positions and responsibilities, I realised that Americans work hard regardless of the status and conditions of the work. Their fundamentals of growth and development depended on a hard-working culture developed at an early age. Even those in higher positions of industry and government hierarchy have performed menial jobs such as working in restaurants, gas stations, hospitals, and cutting grass and developed responsibility and respect for work early. They work as though their entire lives depended on it.

When I came back to Ethiopia, I went through the second wave of shock. First, the working culture is poor, leading to a lack of discipline and motivation to accomplish responsibilities diligently. Contrary to American children, boys and girls in Ethiopia hardly work outside of their homes growing up. Even those who work at home helping family are only girls performing cooking and cleaning jobs. Children that grow up in rural areas are by far better compared to their counterparts in cities who spend their days wandering around and accomplishing nothing. Even those attending high school and college hardly work until they finish school.

Thus, when they graduate, they face great challenges. Primarily, it is psychological. Just because they have degrees, they think that they are highly educated and jobs other than what they are trained for are beneath their standard. They become egotistical and ashamed to be seen performing them. They would rather spend their days wandering around being idle.

Another challenge is the dilemma of believing that there are no jobs. True, the economy or the job market is terrible, and even the best and the brightest do not land the ideal career. But job searching also requires skills and determination. In a scarce job market, degrees and diplomas are not the only qualifications. Communication skills, persistency, and confidence are critical factors.

These skills are attained by developing a work culture at an early age regardless of the type of work. It is an urgent culture that needs to be adopted from the United States to Ethiopia to make the latter, like the former, a land of opportunity where dreams come true.

PUBLISHED ON May 08,2021 [ VOL 22 , NO 1097]

Yonas Assefa was educated in the United States in financial management and is currently self-employed.

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