Saturday, April 20, 2024

My Dating Life as an Eritrean-American

April 3, 2010  
Filed under Global Spotlight

On the prowl—them, not me.

By Semhar Debessai —

Silly me. Single, and just days into my 27th year, you’d think that my biggest dating fears would have been overcome by now. I—at the very least—thought I was sure of how the story began: boy meets girl, girl likes boy, boy and girl attempt to have a not-too-awkward first date. But it only took a couple of weeks in my hometown of Seattle to realize that even this chapter in the book of courtship had been accepted, on my part, in error.

I should explain first that I am a 1st generation, American-born woman of Eritrean descent (Eritrea is the farthest, eastern corner of Africa). And like many 1st-gen’ers of non-Western roots, the pressure to marry someone with the same cultural make-up hovers obtrusively over your prime dating years. Quickly, you realize that there’s no such thing as “casual” dating. Instead you have a population of young kids weened on the “Don’t forget where you came from” rhetoric of their melting pot-averse immigrant parents.

So, no offense to my twenty-something brethren of the dating world, but the stakes are much higher (and scarier) when you’ve got the aforementioned population giving each other the side-eye, carefully examining their choices because should you *gasp* not have anything else in common besides your parentage, it could very well become headline news in your respective, tight-knit (and undoubtedly gossip-prone) enclave.

But it isn’t the prospect of being fiercely prospected by the opposite sex in my community that has me frazzled. It is the presence of a new participant in this nationalistic romance roulette that has me redirecting my side-eye stare.

Enter: the mother of the (prospective) groom.

With the discovery that the legitimacy of an “arranged marriage” is not a pill that their Americanized offspring are willing to easily swallow, these new Eritrean moms-in-law-to-be have opted for a different, not-so-subtle approach to ensuring an ethnically homogeneous legacy.

Rewind to a few weeks ago. The scene: An uncharacteristically sunny Sunday in Seattle, at church with a predominantly Eritrean congregation. I sit with my mother waiting for service to start when a “church friend” of hers turns around to ask, “Is this your daughter?” My mother smiles and nods in confirmation as I reach my hand out to introduce myself. She accepts my hand and proceeds to inquire further about who I am—basic questions on how old I am, whether I was still in school, did I speak Tigrinia (our native tongue)—and with the occasional observation on aesthetics (“Such a nice smile”).

Now, this would be totally fine if (a) she was actually asking me these questions, but she wasn’t—she was asking my mother from whom I sat inches away; (b) dropping unsolicited information about her son, who, to my relief, wasn’t there; and (c) the whole thing didn’t begin to have an unsettling, used car dealership vibe to it.

Yeah, you know. It’ kind of like the questions you’d ask if you were looking to buy a, say, 2002 Honda Civic: “How many miles she got on her? Any recent accidents?” The whole exchange ended short of the overly inquisitive woman asking to look under my hood—(for the record, I draw the line at being taken for a test drive).

I guess now would be a good time to say: Gee, I’m proud to be an Eritrean.

With that said, I’m merely speaking on behalf of my culture-juggling generation. Having mastered the balance of having intense cultural pride and, explaining that, yes, I can wear a mini skirt and still be considered a lady, I suggest that the older generation in question slightly adjust their approach to playing Cupid.

One solution would be to let them date. I remember when openly having a boyfriend while still living under our parents’ roof was unheard of in my circle of friends. So how and why, all of a sudden, upon graduating from college, am I expected to swiftly find Mr. Perfect out of this pre-approved pool of Eritrean men?

Most of you probably never heard of Eritrea so you can imagine just how small that pool is here in the States.

So, yeah, no pressure there.

I think anxiety-ridden immigrant parents will find it a lot easier in the long run if they’d allow us the time to decide, through our own experience, who we like. Then picking mates won’t feel like Toys R’ Us during Christmas season—a mad rush that can end with injuries.

Instead, leave the manic, intensely critical inspections of our mate-titude to us: me and the guy who may or may not fulfill all the prerequisites of a community trying to maintain its identity in the ever-changing, multicultural face of America.

And if they still can’t avoid the desire to meddle in our dating lives, I’d also suggest they remember the one thing that remains the same, in any country, for any ethnicity, and at any age. Our initial instinct will usually be to do the exact opposite of what our parents tell us to do. (I’ve got the piercings to prove it.)

Further reading by the same author:


55 Responses to “My Dating Life as an Eritrean-American”
  1. Erigirl says:


  2. Erigirl says:

    I have similar problem with my dating life. I am Eritrean, came to U.S when I was 15 now I’m 27. I happen to fall inlove with a black guy. I want to see where our relationship goes. It has been 2 yrs since we have been dating and my family refused to except him and Meet him even. I love him but I also hate to dispoint my family as well. They say hateful things like, how my babies will be ugly because they are mix with black, also how the society with look down on my family. I am in between. Please any advice would help? Thank you,

  3. Antonette says:

    I’m in a relationship with a eritrean man and were expecting but he is so afraid. Because he says he will lose his whole family if I have our child. I guess due to his strict culture. He Always say I don’t understand Because I’m American which in ways I don’t but to have to get rid of a child because his family is crazy to me. Now I’m scared because the choice I am faced with

  4. Prince of Asmara says:

    Some Eritrean girls are running away from their culture. They don’t realize that there is no place like home. You cann’t run away from yourself.

    You lament the lack of ‘qualified’ Eritrean men, but yet hold your nose in the air when you get approached (arranged or not).

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