By Firdaws Hakizimana
So, I remember being 11 and realizing for the first time one of the unspoken rules in my house, and – I would later find out – in my entire culture.
When I was nine, my mom, my dad, my three siblings, and I had packed up our stuff and moved from Houston, Texas, to Lansing, Michigan. I was pretty devastated. Not only were we leaving behind everything I knew, but most of my mom’s relatives lived in Texas, and that was too far now for visits. Two years later – when I was 11 – my grandmother and my mom’s younger brother came to Michigan to live with us. What shocked me then was that my uncle, whom I had always called Ally, suddenly insisted we call him Uncle Ally.
I understand better now what transpired that day than I did at the time. My uncle had been just a child when I was born, not even a teenager. But when he came to Michigan, he had become a fully grown adult – and we needed to treat him like one. When my brothers and I asked for an explanation from our mom about why we needed to call him Uncle Ally, she responded by telling us never to call an adult by their first name. “It’s a sign of great disrespect. The kind that would get you a whipping in Africa,” she explained.
This wasn’t a rule my mom had to get us to follow with threats. She simply followed it herself, and we just followed her example. Addressing an African person is complicated. They aren’t “Mr.,” “Mrs.,” “Ms,” or “Mr.,” but instead are “Mama,” “Papa,” “Uncle,” or “Aunty.” When my mom was younger, she lived with four teenage boys she was told were her uncles. One day she asked her mom how she was related to them. It turned out that she was related to only one. That was when she learned that titles in Africa are complicated.
Recently, I’ve had to explain why I use titles to address people. How do you explain that this is a sign of respect, but also all you’ve ever known? It usually feels like I don’t have enough time to explain to my interlocutors why I use titles. “It’s an African thing” has become my default response. But we live in America, so why am I following African customs? It’s the result of a clash of cultures – each culture perceives the other as extreme. Africans view Americans as impolite in this matter, and Americans see Africans as too restrictive. Where is the middle ground?
Now I am no longer a child, but instead a teenager who will soon become an adult. As such, I’m on an almost equal footing with adults when we have a conversation. I have come up with a plan to follow for when I address adults. When I first meet a person, I will call them by their last name and add a title. For example, following this rule my name would be Ms. Hakizimana. If someone asks me to call them by their first name, then I will do so. With this plan, I’ll be balancing what I’ve been taught at home and what’s expected in this culture. Growing up is all about making your own choices, however shaped by others you may be. I will probably always call my elders “Mr.,” “Ms.,” “Mrs.,” or “Mr.” because that is how I’ve been taught. But, now that I’m not a little kid and people are starting to treat me like a grown up, I am going to begin using first names.
Firdaws Hakizimana is a student at Cape Elizabeth High School. She loves terrible puns, writing, and is one of a kind.