African in America : A quest for cultural identity

Reading time 5 min.

My very last memory of my grandmother is her pulling me into a close hug and a kiss before we left our apartment in Lagos for the airport. She whispered into my skin, holding me desperately, “Don’t come back with a white woman.” I smiled like a fifteen-year-old, not sure at the time exactly what she meant.

By Nonso Christian Ugbode

It has been almost ten years, and everyday I find a new meaning to her words – “Don’t forget me,” “Don’t forget yourself,” “Don’t become them.” Incorporating these words into my daily existence, as many in the Diaspora will attest, is often a precarious juggling act.

Leaving Africa

Before my family left for the US, we went through months of waiting in line at odd early hours for our visas at the embassy, and finally that day had come: the day it seemed we were walking towards all our lives – we were off to America. There was immense relief in me the day we received our visas, mostly because it had been such an arduous process. It is that
feeling of being chosen, one of the few “saved.” Several years down the
road – New York City, in this case – and that relief constipates itself into a very complicated mélange of guilt, loneliness and a sense of loss, often profound.

Never before has it been more important for us, seemingly self-displaced
Nigerians, to come together into an identity. Our fathers did it, in London
and in New York, with their eyes towards Nigeria for retirement, but
increasingly that is not our only option. We can imagine our later days in
so many new and fascinating ways. As a result it is very simple to forget
that poor mass of West Africa all together – simple, but dangerous.

Dealing with identity

We, the younger generation, must discuss our evolving culture, understand it, and finally, apply it by creating a viable net of mass communication, such as magazines, parties, blogs. Knowing only my own story, it is the primary lens through which I understand and share my musings about the world, and in that vein, I know that my experience here in America has been a heavy mix of confusing, often conflicting choices of identity and self.

Of all the choices we as the neo-Nigerians make on a daily basis, none is more important, perhaps here in America more than anywhere else, than the way we choose to speak – to our friends, our families, to Nigerians, to Americans. I am talking now about cadence, not language.

Recently, I was on my cell phone while having dinner with some friends, most of them American, and on the other end of the line was my brother. My brother and I have a habit of getting loud in conversation, falling into
lengthy ranting, which is a mix of our hybrid-Igbo, outrageous inside jokes and general nonsense. At the end of that call, someone commented on how different I had sounded on the phone as opposed to when I spoke in person.

It took me almost an hour to explain to her how it was possible that I could sound different to her than the way I sound speaking to my brother. She seemed almost offended, as though in all the conversations I had ever initiated with her, I had lied to her. She was genuinely hurt. And I suppose in a sense I had lied, but I felt no instinct to apologize.

“Your English is so good” verus “Naija speak”

Many Americans, perhaps I mean to say some, do not often grasp how easy it is to sound American. (Perhaps it is that they cannot grasp the reality of being plunged into a culture that is not one’s own.) I can’t blame them; I get the same flabbergasted look on my face when I hear Collin Farrell speaking comprehensibly outside his thick Irish brogue.

Most Nigerians have had this classic interaction: you introduce yourself, say your name, and instantly there is confusion on the face looking to you and a few minutes down the line, you’ll hear it, “Your English is so good.” Of course they don’t mean your grammar; they mean to say, “Your American is so good.” Often I want to say, “Well, it has to be.” But these days I just re-direct the conversation.

Nigerians, I find most “third world” citizens in fact, who arrive in their adopted lands at a young age to stay, adapt quite well to the local
dialects, usually as a reactionary means of survival. You can only be mocked so often in the cafeteria before you catch on. Maybe it is because you want to show them that their accent is not so special, or particularly more intelligent than yours.

Whatever the reason, this reality gives birth to many permutations of “Naija-speak,” so much so that it never seizes to thrill me secretly. It is one of those thrills, which excite and frighten you simultaneously. There we are, secret agents amongst the local people, able to “tongue-shift” and blend, evolve into ever more interesting versions of blackness, yet hidden.

Managing duality

There is fun in it, but there is also a great danger. The danger of forgetting what yesterday has to give to today. For me, there was also a small amount of shame. I felt I had somehow disowned my grandmother every time I spoke like an American.

I learned to balance the duality of speaking “Nigerian-English” with my
family at gatherings and speaking “American” to the outside world. It is
a feature we’ve got on automatic at this point. The danger for most will
come when we no longer have a place to go back to, when we lose ourselves to the American way without returning to that African pool for replenishment.

To become the true, complicated identities we embody so effortlessly, we
have to take half a step back. I will not be so technical as to instruct you
when to use Pidgin English, or mix Igbo, or Yoruba, or Hausa, or whatever, into your English. I will only say that once in a while, do it, because if you do not use both tongues, your will lose the old, and then you are without a past, and only then will you be the victim. Taking from the past, with a firm eye on the future, will only empower you.

“Two and a half tongues” was originally published in BHF magazine

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