And Where Does That Leave Me?
and where does that leave me?
written by chioma nwana
I’ve always despised categories and labels because I often find myself standing with my feet inside of two boxes or standing with my feet outside of both boxes entirely.
I am Nigerian by ethnicity, and I am American by nationality. From early childhood to my now adulthood, I have been on a continuous journey to figure out where I fit in. Though many of my friends may describe me as one of the most prideful Nigerian women they’ve ever met, I’ve always felt eerily disconnected from Nigerian culture. Both of my parents are Nigerian immigrants, but I’ve only visited Nigeria once, when I was three years old. In America, I grew up relatively isolated from Nigerian family members and Nigerian family friends, as my parents settled down in a city with a low African (let alone Nigerian) population. Though we’d dedicate some weekends to visiting them and they would stop by our house sometimes, the purpose of the visits was never to introduce me and my siblings to Nigerian culture. Every member of my family spoke fluent English, so there was no real urgency for us to learn how to communicate in another language. No one was speaking Igbo, or even Pidgin-English, with the intention of teaching the three English-only speaking children in the room any of their native tongues. As a matter of fact, Igbo, for my family, was often a language used to prevent us from knowing what was being discussed.
As a result, for much of my life, the only culture with which I was truly familiar and into which I was integrated was Black American culture. Growing up, it was all I knew and understood. My elementary and middle school classmates were Black. We spent our time together watching Black television shows, movies, and music videos; we listened and danced to the music of our favorite hip-hop and R&B artists, looking forward to the day that we would be old enough to line the front rows of their concerts.At school, a lot of time was dedicated to revisiting major moments in Black history; our curriculum was filled with stories of the Underground Railroad,the Civil Rights Movement, and the Harlem Renaissance—our teachers acknowledged the demographic of our school and subtly tailored the lessons to cater to us and our interests as Black children. Other than my name and the pungent foreign foods my mom sometimes packed in my lunchbox, there was little that I could do or say to differentiate myself from my friends. I never denied being Nigerian, but at the same time, I had nothing to show for it
That was middle school. It wasn’t until my junior year of high school that the concept of “being Nigerian as a conscious act” began to click for me. It’s ironic that my time spent in a predominantly white high school brought me closer to my roots: in an attempt to feel comfortable, students of color took it upon themselves to create their own spaces within which they could exist freely. Naturally, I gravitated to those spaces and found myself being exposed to frequent conversations about culture. How do I connect to it? How do I preserve it? How do I embody it? I looked inward and realized that I was failing on all fronts. After attending a diversity conference junior year, I decided to make it a point to “be a better Nigerian.” I started listening to afrobeats, proudly wearing the traditional clothing that I once stuffed in the bottom of my drawer, sliding my Nigerian accent into casual conversation, and even participating in my fair share of jollof arguments (call me biased, but I’m sure you can guess whose jollof is better to me). I had reached what I believed to be “peak Nigerian.”
For this reason, college was somewhat of an exciting time for me. I joined the African Students Union my freshman year. Every other Monday, Africans and members of the diaspora congregated to share their opinions on various topics—dating as an African child, favorite African foods, strictness of African parents, etc. It was easy for me to chime in and contribute to those conversations, as I had experienced most of those things firsthand. I was thrilled to find that so many people had similar experiences growing up, and for the first time, I felt that I had finally found a home for my identity. Encouraged by this, I committed the following years to understanding myself and reassessing what it means to be Nigerian. In addition to having conversations with myself and with friends and family, I also looked to Twitter—I had found my way into a community of African young adults across the United States, and even on the continent, widely known as #AfricanTwitter. Many of them often engaged in conversations about cultural identity and what it means to belong. One day, I came across a series of tweets that read something along the lines of, “A lot of these American-born Nigerians truly believe that being Nigerian is just about eating jollof rice, mimicking their parents, and dancing to afrobeats. They know nothing about their country’s history or current politics. They can tell you all about Davido and Wizkid, but they can’t tell you the first thing about Fela Kuti or Oliver De Coque. Sad.” I saw myself in that tweet. I felt exposed by that tweet.
“And where does that leave me?” I asked myself.
I thought I had finally figured out how to be a good Nigerian, but once again, there I was, standing on the outside with no idea how to make my way inside. I spent the following few months feeling uncomfortable with myself and unsure about my identity as a whole.
My sophomore year, I joined the Association for African Development, a club specifically geared towards discussing the less lighthearted side of being African—technological advances, politics, healthcare, education, and more. I spent most of my time that year sitting in silence as I watched other members of the club debate passionately about Africa’s potential for economic success, the “African Brain Drain,” apps that are being created to enhance African commerce, and corruption in politics. It was starting to dawn on me that when the conversation switched from accents and foods and beatings from our parents to advancement, infrastructure, and government policies, I had nothing of value to contribute. I knew nothing. That daunting realization dragged the hurtful memory of last year’s tweet from the back of my mind to the forefront of my consciousness and slapped me in the face with it. Once again, I felt exposed.
“And where does that leave me?” I asked myself.
It’s ironic to me that identity—something that, by definition, is supposed to make one feel grounded and safe—is the cause of much wandering and insecurity. You spend your entire lifetrying to figure out who you are, only for your search to come to a screeching halt when you realize that you’ve been nothing all along. Your search and your understanding of Self are back at square one. All you can do is rebuild.
Rebuilding: I had already done my fair share of wallowing in self-pity, so I needed to find a new approach to my shattered identity. As I mapped out a plan to move forward, I remembered the concept of “being Nigerian as a conscious act.” I sunk my teeth into it, I digested it, and decided to bring that concept to fruition in my life. Little by little, I graduated from simply poking my nose into the general affairs of my country to zooming into the intricate and gritty details. I paid attention to the other members of the club who used their firsthand experiences, their studies, and their personal research to inform their opinions. What stopped me from doing the same?
Since my senior year of high school, I have made it a point to attend the Nigerian Day Parade in Manhattan and have used it as a somewhat of a yardstick to measure my growth and understanding of Nigerian culture. Each year, I reflect upon the various emotions I felt throughout the parade and try to figure out what they mean within the context of my identity. In my senior year of high school, I was proud and excited to have felt as though I finally found a space for me and my jagged edges within the puzzle that was my Nigerian identity. However, a couple years later, in my sophomore year of college, I felt both out-of-place and intimidated—it was as if I reeked of a shameful inauthenticity that everyone could smell. That year, the African Students Union had arranged for us to attend the parade together as members of the club. I was the president of the African Students Union celebrating my own culture at the Nigerian Day Parade and still felt so small and unworthy. The irony burned a hole in my chest.
In the time between that parade and the parade that took place last month, I’ve experienced a great deal of growth. Listening to the advice of some of my elders and following in the footsteps of some of my worldlier peers, I decided that connecting with my culture—while my immediate surroundings may make it a little difficult—is ultimately a choice that Ihave to make. It’s up to me to find ways to learn Igbo, and it’s up to me to push myself to practice with my Igbo-speaking family members and friends. It’s up to me to watch closely and take notes as my mother prepares ogbonno soup and pounded yam. It’s up to me to ask questions and find answers. It’s up to me to read, do my research, and develop my own opinions. The road to understanding may be require a lot of work, but lining the path are lights to show me that the distance between me and my country is not necessarily the length of the Atlantic Ocean, but, instead, the length between me and my computer, between me and the library, between me and my grandmother.