Becoming American


Writing about the ways your accent is at war with itself is like taking a knife to your tongue and splitting it into two unequal parts and then telling everyone what you did. One part of your tongue is who you have always known, a thick Port-Harcourt-Lagos-Nigerian accent that says, “Ogbeni, where you dey go?” and sprinkles “ha,” and “ehen” in conversation like thyme in a pot of tomato stew. The other is different, like American things are when compared with the rest of the world. Instead of Celsius, they use Fahrenheit. Instead of day-month-year, they use month-day-year. Instead of “Can I have some waTer,” you say, “Can I have some wada?” your papillae expanding to accommodate this foreignness. So, you alternate who you are—an endless tripartite purgatory. With your African friends, you are a vibe, who feels at home, singing and dancing to Burna Boy’s “Bank On It” or Fireboy and Asake’s “Bandana” as you scoop different variations of jollof rice into paper plates and fall over laughing at the jokes. Here, the larger half of your tongue is free. With your Black friends, you are not quite at home, but it feels so close because there are shared eccentricities: laughing about how your mothers gave you the eye when you misbehaved; random conversations about race when another Black person is killed by law enforcement where you learn that in America, you are simply Black—not African—just Black; and a shared love for Beyonce’s music. Here, your tongue hangs in the balance. It rocks from one side to the other. With your white friends, you overthink more than all the other times you overthink put together. Because even though you know you are pretty cool and funny, it is a cool and funny that is Black and African. With white people, you sometimes don’t know where to insert a funny comment, or if you will say it loud enough, or if they will ask you, “Please, repeat that,” because this other smaller half of your tongue is awkward, and honestly, sometimes foolish. It tries too hard. It has to give itself a pep talk before it walks into class and still stumbles over words. It says it will not try to sound like other people, that it will stay true to its Nigerian-Port-Harcourt-Lagos-accent self and repeat itself as many times as possible until they hear it because that is who it is. But when it moves, it forgets the oath of staying true.

One time in class, you find yourself having to say “murder.” You don’t remember why you had to say murder in the middle of an ENGL 650 poetry workshop, but yes, you had to say it. It was only when three people said, “What? Could you please repeat that?” that you realize you said something that is a mix between the American, British, and Nigerian pronunciations of murder—it sounded like “mawrda.” You remember how self-conscious you got and always get when you have to repeat yourself, and you feel something like shame which you shake off quickly. Your accent is not a weakness or a failure, it matters too. You play Yinka Ayefele’s “Asegun Ni Wa” on your way home, blasting talking drum through the Bose speakers of your Nissan Altima so you can hear a voice that feels familiar, that feels safe. As you drive, you cannot help but think of the tower of Babel in Genesis 11:1–9. The Bible says that all the people of the world spoke the same language and they decided to build themselves a city, with a tower that reached to the heavens, so that they may make a name for themselves. When God saw what they were doing, He confused their language so they would not understand each other and had to abandon the project. You cannot help but wonder how much their desire for power has ruined the world and your chances of ever being fully comfortable in any country that is not Nigeria because you will never really speak the same language.

You also think about how safe the Yoruba language feels now that you don’t have to speak it with people who can actually speak it well. In Nigeria, especially in Lagos, you will try to earn your very common Yoruba name and you will try to speak Yoruba language with your Igbo-sounding Port-Harcourt accent. You will get laughter, a lot of it, because you sounded ridiculous. You will learn to stick to English. In Hampton Roads, Virginia, no one cares that the way you speak Yoruba sounds Igbotic, or that it does not quite roll off your tongue—you always have to catch a breath in the middle of your sentences. They don’t even care that you mix it with English so much that you wonder why you attempted Yoruba anyway. They only care that you are Nigerian, African, which is somewhat exotic in this very military area. So, you speak away. You force your unequal tongue to take on the weight of language you should have always known. You listen to Ebenezer Obey, Tope Alabi, King Sunny Ade, and Pastor J.A. Adelakun a lot. You train your ears to imitate, to inflect where they do, to hum when they do, and you teach yourself to bask in the musical flow of Yoruba language, to be fully home so far away from home.

You are still teaching yourself.


Writing about the random ways you ache for home is like dancing naked to the sound of your family’s laughter that only you can hear. Your first job in America was at a Mexican fast-food chain on campus where you washed more dishes than you ever had in your life at $8 an hour. It was also where you made your first African friend from Zambia. You had never met anyone from Zambia before.

As you bathed pots and sharp knives in sanitizing solution, you wished for the times you and your siblings argued about whose turn it was to wash dishes. You probably would still not be willing to wash dishes but at least you would have been around people you loved. It was at this dishwashing job that you first learned how alone people are in America, and how disconnected they were compared to the almost-forceful community in Nigeria. On many occasions, you will have to wait for Ms. Z or Mr. O or Mr. M, who are Daddy and Mommy’s American friends, to pick you up at the back door of the student Webb center of your university, and depending on the day, it could be late at night or in the mid-afternoon. On one of such late nights, you will have to wait for about an hour for Ms. Z to wake you up, and as you wait, your “colleagues” will walk past you muttering, “Good night,” as they hurry to their cars in the cold. You will ache for home when they all pass you by without asking why you are sitting there alone, and if you have a ride to get home. You will long for the nosiness of Nigerian aunties and uncles. You will crave a community that asks questions that they probably already know the answer to. They ask anyway because sometimes the love is in asking the obvious questions. In saying, “Are you eating at all?” when they want to say you have lost weight, in pulling your fattened cheeks to say you have added weight, in asking where your mommy and daddy are when they see you sitting alone even though you are an adult in your twenties. It is letting you know they see you even when you do not want to be seen. Honestly, you hated those things when you were in Nigeria but there is something about the loss of all you have ever known that makes both the good and bad beautiful in your memory, poetic even. This was the first of these kinds of longings.

Other times, it is in the shortness of your church’s services, the dressed-down look which you now went to church with, to school, to anywhere, really that made you ache and long for home. You will learn this lesson the extravagant way. For the opening ceremony of your MFA program’s literary festival after COVID, you will wear one of your favorite dresses, a form-fitting purple Ankara dress that seemed perfect for the opening dinner of the event without doing too much. You do not like to be in the spotlight. You will be flung into it because of your dress, and realize that the way we dress in Nigeria invites the spotlight in America. People will compliment how nice your dress is and how beautiful you look in it, but you will be angry at yourself and them as they lounge in their regular shorts and T-shirts on the chairs of the restaurant. That is the first, last time you really dressed up for a school thing. Now, you only dress up for the church, the not-quite-two-hours service, because you are Nigerian, and going to church is a cause for celebration and extravagance in Nigeria.

You are still a woman of culture.


Writing about the ways you learn to eat American food is an admittance that you are grateful for the range of people that exist in this country. It is a reintroduction to salt, sugar, and a lesson about decision-making for your indecisive self. You will walk into Walmart and stare a lot, you will also wonder why the hell there are so many cereal brands—several hundred feet of pure sugar. Before you came to America, you only knew Kellogs, Nasco, and Good Morning. It was the same couple hundred feet of candy, rice, pasta, and cookies (which your former-British-colony self called biscuits). There aren’t so many varieties to choose from with fruits and vegetables; they have two kinds—organic and non-organic. Of course, you google because you do not know how things that grow from the ground can be inorganic.

You might have a higher chance of dying or getting sick, you learn when you google the difference, but you put the inorganic brands into your cart anyway. They are cheaper. You are a student. Despite the limited stipend, a part of the American dream is trying McDonald’s and Chick-fil-A because they are the best fast-food companies, that is, if the high school books you used to read on Wattpad are anything to go by. Once again, you will have to make decisions. There are several chicken sandwiches to choose from: fried or grilled chicken, spicy or deluxe spicy, large or medium fry, lemonade or milkshake—you will eventually decide, but you will forget to say, “No ice, please,” (a lot). Ice is the most American thing of all the most American things. You will try the fries (not chips) from McDonald’s and wonder why there is so much salt. You will also wonder why the chicken is fried with flour or breadcrumbs and not by itself. This is also another most American thing from your list of most American things.

The American Immigration Council’s website says that as of 2019, 44.9 million immigrants (foreign-born individuals) comprised 14 percent of the national population, and that number continues to grow. The top countries of origin for immigrants were Mexico (24 percent of immigrants), India (6 percent), China (5 percent), the Philippines (4.5 percent), and El Salvador (3 percent). You are grateful for all the visa officers who made this happen because Mexican, Indian, and Chinese foods feel most like home. You remember the day you first tried chicken masala after you told a friend from school about your food homesickness, and she drove you straight to an Indian place from class. The slap of spice on your tongue almost made you cry in relief. There is pepper! There is actually pepper. Now, you have never been a fan of pepper, at least not the Yoruba kind that leaves your nose runny and your bowels inflamed. But American food made you long for peppery food that always left you laying on the ground with your water-filled stomach taut and facing the ceiling while the empty large bottles of Eva water rolled around on the tiled floor. Chinese and Mexican food also make you feel safe and make you grateful for the similarity of flavors.

You still have to cook a lot more than you like to, though.


Writing about the ways you have to explain who you are is a test that shapeshifts from situation to person; you are constantly reliving how you negotiate your identity when you have to give a back story about almost everything you say. You practice before conversations, especially when they are serious ones, like a job interview. You stand in front of your mirror littered with toothpaste debris and practice your answers to questions, but with American alterations, so they hear you clearly and you don’t have to repeat yourself. You remind yourself to tap your t’s; say “I grew the social media followers by “forDy” percent, not “forTy” percent. It is a job interview after all. When you randomly find yourself saying “ogbeni” or “pele” in conversation, you immediately recognize the confusion on their faces and you brace yourself to explain as soon as you finish whatever it is you are saying. “Ogbeni” is Yoruba for “Mr.,” but it is mostly used as a slang to say “guy,” particularly in argumentative banter, or “pele” is for showing empathy. It is like “sorry,” but it just means more. You will say “In Nigeria” a lot. You will explain the songs you like and what they mean, you will offer a synopsis of historical events or movies, and you will explain how you know that someone is Nigerian just by seeing their name. And you don’t mind, mostly. You have always been a bit of a teacher and too much of an explainer, anyway. But on some days, you wish you didn’t have to. You wish you could season conversations with your slang and random historical facts without having to wet the ground with context.

You’re studying creative writing. You will take a lot of workshops in poetry and nonfiction and more often than not, you will be the only foreigner (international student) on the benches because Nigerians tended toward serious STEM courses, not things like poetry. Other times, you will be the only Black person, and no matter what, you will get comments about offering more context. One time, you will get a comment from someone who specifically asks to “see more Nigerian culture” in your narrative, when you are only trying to write an essay about family ties. You will always take this feedback into consideration. You will add long sentences explaining that the character in your essay is spraying money on the celebrants or what masquerades mean. Sometimes, you explain too much, and other times, you don’t explain quite enough. You will explain so much that you forget what your sentence was about in the first place. You will obsess about footnotes and ask for context from others too for their American expressions and inside jokes. Every time, you are the only one doing the asking, so eventually, you stop. You will learn that there is only so much you can explain, some things are simply rooted in a shared experience, not everyone will understand, and that is okay.

You have to constantly remind yourself of that last sentence.


Writing about becoming Black seems almost ridiculous. What do you mean when you talk about becoming Black the moment you arrive in America? You will explain as best as you can within the limits of the English language. When you have always lived in Nigeria, one of over two-hundred million people that make it the most populous Black nation in the world, you only know of race from watching the news, where Black people like Breonna Taylor and Tamir Rice were killed for no reason, and reading books by Black writers like Toni Morrison and James Baldwin. You cry sometimes, like when you watched the Charleston church massacre tribute, or when you watched documentaries or movies like 12 Years a Slave. But nothing will prepare you for trudging through a crowd of people and realizing that you are in a sea of white, that you stand out without even saying a word. You will start to frantically search, your eyes darting through walls for another Black person who will nod at you to say, “I see you.” You will smile a wide smile when you receive the nod for the first time from an older gentleman and you will gush to everyone who will listen about how the subtle bobble of his head made your body delight in the sacredness of belonging, of being one of us. Because that is what happens in America. No one cares that you are from Kogi State and grew up in Rivers State or how many places you have visited in the world. The thing that matters most, before you get the chance to speak, is race.

It hangs in the air every day you wake up in America.

Photo by Luke Stackpoole on Unsplash