Hey APC! My name is Betel Tenna and I’ll be attending Princeton University (‘24) this fall. I’ll be working on a concentration (major) in Computer Science and a certificate (minor) in something (undecided as of now because there are so many good ones offered!). I’m a proud Ethiopian immigrant. I have two sisters and amazing parents. I’ve been studying Spanish for about 7 years now, began studying Japanese at Princeton in summer of 2018, and will be starting French at Princeton in fall 2020. So, right now, I’d say I’m fluent in English/Spanish and a native Amharic speaker. I’m designing and co-developing two mobile applications and managing my own blog right now. I’m honored to be a part of Afro Puff Chronicles and hope to contribute again in the future. I hope you enjoy my writing and feel free to introduce yourself and/or give feedback by Instagram DM @betellxo.
I wrote the following piece, ‘Cultural Dissonance’ on an experience I had studying Japanese as part of a cultural exchange program at Princeton where I felt that being 1/4 black students in a program of 80 students alienated me in a way I had never felt to that degree before. What I highlight in the essay, particularly, is how my hair was often a spectacle which they felt entitled to explore and comment on. It’s especially important to me because I had frequently tried to establish my personal boundaries carefully with my roommate and other members of the program; they either ridiculed my attempts or treated me like I was ungrateful for their participation because they had come from so far and I was pushing them away. This essay illustrates my realization of my voice where I was silenced so many times before this and including this; I internalized the fact that this might be an incessant reality in my pursuit of higher education and juggled the idea of self-empowerment in my journey to the top-tier colleges I always dreamed of studying at. As part of Princeton’s admitted class of 2024, I am ready to take on all obstacles, microaggressions, and growth that will be reaped from my presence on campus.
By Betel Tenna
“You guys want to go in the Fountain of Freedom?” I pose playfully to my peers after our long day of Japanese lectures and exploring Princeton’s campus and our time melts away as we relax in the water, cooling down. A little later, we begin the walk to our dorms. Passing Frist Campus Center, we see Japanese members of our cultural exchange program leaving their English classes. Several of them flock around me, touching my now wet, frizzy hair despite my obvious objections.“Wow, your hair is so different,” I hear. “It’s so rough. Why don’t you make it straight so it can be softer like mine?” a girl prods. Feeling a prey and predator dynamic, I look cautiously at my roommate. When a Japanese student pulled one of my curls without my permission a few days ago, I shared my feelings of being violated with her and thought she would be a source of comfort in this moment. To my surprise, she was smiling with them. I moved away, disenchanted by their ignorance.
It’s nothing new; several times a day, I find myself being the object of entertainment and fascination, like a teddy bear you might find in the back of the toy store with strange fur and pleading eyes.
Walking a safe distance ahead of them them, I arrive at the staircase to my room. Still stuck in my discomfort like a pair of wet socks after a rainstorm, I attempted to recall my excitement the day we got our roommate assignments, but my flashback evaporates before I reach my room to take a shower. In the shower, I pondered how my passion for learning and my pre-college experiences treated each other; I think about being on a college campus that has a history of excluding people like me, a history that so many institutions and organizations share. I had often asked myself, “Why don’t I fit in? Why is it so easy for some people to make space for themselves?” Why it is that a cultural exchange program intended to build bridges across oceans is instead alienating me?
While the program staff was so concerned for the Japanese student’s adjustment and creating a space to include their culture, they forgot to include mine. I tell myself I should just be happy with how far I’ve gotten already. I should be satisfied being one of only four black students here right now.
I can’t accept this pep-talk though. It sounds too much like words used against people like me in the past to silence us.
Feeling stifled by these thoughts for too long, I finish my shower, allowing the idea of complacency to hit the water. The sound of water dropping mimics my refusal to silence myself anymore. I add value to each room I enter, with the knowledge and curiosity I keep in my back pocket. So, no I won’t stay quiet just to make somebody else more comfortable in a space already meant for them. Being at Princeton taught me that many might not want me to speak against them or for myself, but it also exemplified that my success is achieved through embracing who I am rather than focusing on what others expect me to be. After leaving campus, I kept in touch with my roommate in order to ameliorate the gap caused by the summer conflicts. The once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be a part of this program led me to question the sense of disbelonging I tend to face in the academic realm—a realm I actively seek to be a part of—a realm in which I’m currently carving out a space for myself.