Born of Nigerian parents who settled in the U.S., I am labeled a second-generation American–the offspring of foreign-born immigrants. But those words, I feel, inadequately describe me. The term implies that once you become American, you cannot be anything else. I prefer Nigerian-American. The two cultures are equally alive in me, and I am proud of what I am, all I am.
That’s not how it always was, though.
As a child, I was perfectly fine being just American. In fact, I preferred it. Life in America was the only life I knew, and I preferred to blend in. I learned quickly just how to do this. The Igbo words my parents spoke at home, I never repeated outside of it. I had learned all too quickly that they meant nothing but silly sounds to those outside of our bubble, so I didn’t bother learning the language. I dressed typical enough, too. My hair was always in those chunky two-strand twists, and always had little beads on them, like most of the other black girls in my class. But had you have asked me of soul food, Michael Jackson, Michael Jordan, or rap music then, I would not have had a word for you, because I would not have known.
Come to think of it, our house was quite strange those days. In many ways we were the typical house―when we tried to be, that is. My mom went to college, and worked. My dad went to his usual job everyday and us, we went to school. And no one could tell what we were until they looked at our names. Then, their faces turned inside out trying to pronounce it―“Is it ‘Chidee-uh-go’?” “I’m sorry, how do you say it?”
Like I said, we were mostly ordinary. Somedays, we watched TV and ate dinner sitting at the table. We said our prayers, and did our homework, and talked as most families did. Somedays, though, our little house transformed into a little hamlet of its own. The smell of food and all kinds of strong cologne would fill the house, as people from all over the state poured in. On these days I would gaze up in wonder at my two plain parents, transformed in the blink of an eye into the most vibrant, colorful characters, wearing these large costumes, laughing, talking, smiling, and hugging others wearing the same outlandish outfits.
I didn’t belong in that world. The loud laughs of the women scared me, and the long speeches of the men of great ills far away didn’t fascinate me much. My parents often shooed us away as soon as our colorful guests had had their chance to see how much we had all grown. Not that I wanted to stay. Long Igbo conversations would often proceed this, and often much too fast for me to follow anyhow. I looked forward to these times only because I could see my friends of the same plight, the children of the others. At these events, I, my siblings and these children always did the same thing. We put in a movie, or played a game in a room upstairs, far enough from the noise, silently understanding that we did not belong in the world of our parents.
Somedays I would look at my parents, and wonder why they were so different from my school friends’ parents. Though, a little part of me knew then, as I know now, that every family has its own oddities. In America, my family was just more visible in its ‘oddness’. No one dared say the n-word in our house, and cursing was a sin in our house. God was also a bigger part of our lives. It wasn’t just a holiday affair like it was for most of my school friends. Our extended family also, even though most were far away, were central to our home, as well, and Respect. Yes. My parents often tsked at the parent-children dynamics they saw on TV. “Did you see that child?”, they would say, laughing among themselves. It was ridiculousness to them, and they made sure we understood it was not acceptable behavior in our house. Many evenings we spent being talked to about how we were and weren’t supposed to act.
Somedays, though, I wished our family could just be normal. Whenever I mentioned this at home my parents always frowned so deep you would think you had smashed a vase. They would then proceed to give us a long speech about ‘our home’, and how they suffered growing up there and all that. These conversations could go on forever, like a forest fire that could not be quenched. My father added the fire, and my mother blew the smoke. She blew it right up our noses and into our eyes even long after the fire had dimmed out. I quickly got the hint that this ‘home’ should mean more to me than it did then, but it was hard for me to feel the way my parents did about ‘home’. It was simply too far away to mean anything to me.
As we grew older, my parents spoke of home more often, somedays with us in English, other days in Igbo whispers, with silent smiles and glares. Back then, I could only hope that someday soon, my parents would learn to forget this subject, like most subjects they spoke of in this manner. Long story short, they didn’t. One day my parents decided ‘home’ was too important to be left out of their children’s lives, and the next we knew, we packed and left America. I must say, the first days we spent in Nigeria were the saddest days of my young life. I cried so much, my usually stubborn parents worried they had made the wrong decision bringing us so early. However, my siblings did not share my feelings. In fact, they loved it, so much that we stayed, as planned. It was the beginning of the end of life as I knew it. I felt somehow I would gradually dissolve into wretchedness and become like all the poor, naked, sickly African children I had seen on TV. Starting school there brought with it its own struggles. My dreams and desires to fit in were immediately crushed the day the class learned of my American accent. Suddenly I became the ‘Americanah’, the representation of all that Nigeria was not. I was their hopes and dreams of prosperity and wealth and happiness; and for a while I basked in their glory. I soon figured out however, that it wasn’t me they gloried, but the America in me, and so I closed into myself, letting myself vanish into obscurity, unwilling to be a plaster representation of a country. For this reason, for many of my years there I was decidedly alone.
It was in these moments of solitude that I discovered myself, and surprisingly discovered Nigeria, for the first time. Alone at school, I found myself often looking outside of it, trying to understand the country beyond the four walls of my school. In the classroom, I watched, listened and thought for the most part. It was at home among my family and close friends that I was myself. Over time, I grew to see the good in it all. The immeasurable love the people possessed, the culture they held to so dearly, the children of the poor whose hopes could not be crushed stole my breath away. I saw myself in the people, and loved them, for they were not at all wretched, even though life for them was so hard. But even after I had spent years there, part of me longed for America, where I felt I truly belonged.
When I returned to America Fall 2014, it was a pleasant surprise, and just as sudden as the trip we had taken leaving it a few years back. Upon my arrival, I expected life to go back to normal, but America was now different, and, as I would come to learn, so was I. Pretending to be just American didn’t fly as easily anymore now that I had a slight accent, and everyone knew me as ‘the kid from Africa’. Regardless, I was accepted by most. Though, I couldn’t quite fit still. I was still sorta different. I knew this because often, majority of the students with skin the same color as mine hesitated to engage with me outside of school, as they did with others. It was like we were alike, and yet we weren’t. Apparently, things that I had initially perceived as surface level differences drove craters between me and the majority of them, but this reception had been mildly anticipated, at least. What I had given no premonitional thought to, though, had been the children of the others, the ones like me. While in Nigeria, I had eagerly looked forward to our reunions. I looked forward to sharing my stories, and listening to theirs, and getting on, just like old times. But long story short, that did not happen. There was a mild repulsion in the air the moment we saw ourselves. The way they spoke and walked, and thought, it was almost entirely American; barely a trace of the Nigeria I had seen was present in them except the Nigerian fabric they wore religiously to every event. It no longer pleased me to hide and play games and watch movies at events with them. The issues the men spoke of, I now understood and found too real and interesting to avoid. The women’s loud laughs I now understood were just ways of making up for all the ones they had forgone by being away from their own people for so long, and I looked forward to their stories. The adults, they appreciated my presence, but among them, I was too young, and therefore, a bit odd. As for the children of the others, what they saw in me I do not know, but just like my American classmates, I saw none of them came closer. In their presence, I was ever-so-invisible. Again, it was like we were alike and yet we weren’t. This hurt me much much more.
After the first year, after the glam and glamour of returning to America had passed, I subtly realized I missed Nigeria. Waves of nostalgia for these simpler days came often then, almost choking tears out of me each time they came. There was a charm about life there that the hustle-bustle life of America just could not recreate. Life just felt a bit more shallow and quick in America than it had been in Nigeria. I soon learned that just as I had not been complete living there, in Nigeria, simply because I had experienced America, I was somehow no longer complete living here in America, simply because I had experienced Nigeria.
People often ask me now, ‘Where do you like better?’ Perhaps this line of questioning stems more from curiosity than investigation, nonetheless answering it is never easy. Each time I’ve been asked this particular question, answering it almost always feels like choosing between my identities—Are you Nigerian? Or American? It took me a while to realize that I didn’t have to give a one word response to this question because, truth is, I belonged neither here nor there, but somewhere in the crossroads, right in the middle. Sometimes, it’s cool being what I am—two personas, not one—but sometimes, it means I fit nowhere. Somehow I live with that, knowing, at least, that I’ve embraced all of myself.
Those after me will undoubtedly suffer the same plight, but I shall hope in milder doses than I do presently. I strive my hardest to preserve within me the best of both of my ‘selves’, the American side and the Nigerian side. It will be hard, I know, and I may have to make harrowing decisions just as my parents did to ensure that neither side of who they are and who I am is lost in them. Of course, there will always be a more dominant side, a more popular side, but to let that side take over and completely erase a part of who one is, I believe would be a great tragedy. Because, as I have observed, there is greater loss in comfortable, convenient homogeneity than there is in complete and uncomfortable singularity. The dominant culture will always exist, but once one loses their connection with their culture, the part of their identity that makes them unique, they’ve lost a part of themselves that will be absent from everyone that comes after them; precious diversity is lost that can never be quite regained.