This is going to be a quick one—there are just so many aspects of Ethiopian culture that I want to capture and share, even if it means writing in small snippets here and there. So here goes…
Like many countries around the world, Ethiopia is all about the PDA (physical displays of affection). However, unlike America, this PDA is strictly not to be directed towards significant others—in fact, public physical contact between romantic partners is almost entirely nonexistent and severely frowned upon if one wants to remain within the confines of social norms. Instead, physical affection is directed toward friends and is a signal of platonic fondness for one another. As such, men are frequently seen holding hands with other men, women walking side by side, arm-in-arm, and I find myself walking to and from all of my classes with a glom of students at my side, arms around my waist, holding hands, and leaning against me. When I first arrive in class, all of the girls run towards me and kiss me on the cheek, and the boys shake hands and bump shoulders with me (this is the traditional casual greeting for men—for women the European kissing of the cheek, minus the jubilant cannon-ball-like hug is common, but my students are great and full of love, so what can I say?!)
As an American, where platonic touching is almost completely culturally forbidden, I must admit it was a bit off-putting at first—the prolonged hand-holding throughout the twenty-minute walk to the main road produced a level of awkwardness that almost made my stomach churn (although I obviously made no indication of this to my students, as it was clear that I was the odd man out for maintaining this sentiment). However, having been here for a month or so now, it’s strange how comforting touch really is—I now count myself among the locals, who feel more awkward when walking or sitting next to a friend and NOT holding hands or touching in some way. And it’s nice to be able to give my students a pat on the shoulder for a job well done, or a small hug if they feel embarrassed after speaking incorrectly in class, without worrying that such a gesture will be misconstrued or that I will be reprimanded for such an action.
It is also comforting, because since touching is a sign of friendship, it is equally inappropriate for strangers to touch, so unlike in Botswana, where I was constantly groped, pulled on, and expected to put up with it because to refuse to be touched was considered rude, here when the occasional guy tries to grab my hands, it is entirely socially acceptable for me to pull away and tell him “no.”
…like I said, this was a short one, but just one of the many cultural nuances that I love and wanted to convey.