Negotiating Foreignness in a Foreign Country

I loved Americanah! I thought it was a very discerning and thought-provoking novel. It made me nod my head in agreement multiple times and often challenged me to look at things I had always taken for granted from a different prespective. I think part of the reason I was so enthralled by the book was that as a foreigner in the United States, I have often experienced some of the same musings, confusions, and anxities, which people might collectively refer to as a ‘culture shock’, that Ifemelu experienced during her stay in the States.

However, what I found to be most fascinating about the story was that not only would I see my thoughts about the States reflected in Ifemelu’s descriptions of American lifestyle and culture but I would also find my experiences in Bulgaria mirrored in aspects of Ifemelu’s life in Nigeria. For example, just like Ifemelu who would often get surprised reactions from people whenever she would complain about being hot, I will also often get bewildered looks whenever I say I am cold; for some reason people assume I should be used to the cold because I come from Bulgaria even though we have four seasons with winters no more different that the ones in Providence. Another anecdotal example from the novel that I thought was analogous to my experiences back home is when Ifemelu comes back to Lagos and discusses what she misses the most in the US with her friends; one of them, Bisola, describes the customer service in Lagos: “Folks here behave as if they are doing you a favor by serving you” (408). I am pretty sure I had expressed my sentiments about the quality of customer service in Bulgaria using the same words at least once. What is interesting is that I had not really noticed this until the first time I came back home from college and made me wonder much like Ifemelu if it was me or Sofia that had changed during my time away from home.

In addition, not only could I relate to Ifemelu’s experiences in the US, but I could also find analogies between my friends’ experiences in the UK and Obinze’s experiences in London. From what they have told me about studying and living in the country and from what I have read on the news about Britain’s immigration policies, I have come to realize that there are a lot of negative stereotypes surrounding Eastern Europeans such as being lazy, uneducated and unprofessional; as a friend of Emenike and Georgina proclaims, Eastern Europe is “[their] Mexico.” Obinze ends up cleaning toilets at one point even though he has a university degree from his home country because his status as an immigrant has put him in the same boat as every other immigrant in the UK, despite their diverse education backgrounds, nationalities and ethnicities.

This reminded me of a documentary film I recently supported on Kickstarter, The Summer Help, by Melody Gilbert.

“At their universities back home, they are future politicians, journalists and bankers, but in America they are just ‘the help.’”

It tells the story of international students – many from Eastern Europe- who “descend upon America’s summer resorts to clean hotels rooms, wash dishes and do the jobs many Americans avoid.” The film examines who they are, why they have come to America and whether they manage to find what they thought they would find in the States. I am happy to say it reached its funding goal a few weeks ago and will be able to tell the stories of these students who come from elite universities in their home countries but decide to come to the US in search of something ‘better’. The notion of something ‘better’ that many young people from less developed countries, including myself, have had to grapple with was I think perfectly captured in “the need to escape from the oppressive lethargy of choicelessness” that is discussed in Americanah (278). People leave not because they run away from poverty, hunger or war. They do it because they know their education and skills will not be fully appreciated and they will not reach their full potential if they stay.

Another connection I was able to make while reading Americanah and its exploration of Nigerian married men taking in mistresses and buying them gifts was a book I read last year in my anthropology class, called AIDS Doesn’t Show Its Face: Inequality, Morality and Social Change in Nigeria by Daniel Smith. The book tries to understand morality as a crucial factor in explaining health behavior in the country by discussing the stigma around condoms and their association with promiscuity and immorality, and the notions of modernity and masculinity which dictate that people must value money, power and individualistic freedoms. Dan Smith argues that rich married Nigerian men often have girlfriends  because in that way they can display their power and wealth in front of others; however, it is rare for men to leave their wives for their lovers, because of the social pressure to stay married and Nigerians’ perception of masculine behavior, which even though encourages extramarital sex, looks down upon neglecting one’s responsibilities for one’s family. This was echoed in Okwudiba’s words:

Look, The Zed, many of us didn’t marry the woman we truly loved. We married the woman that was around when we were ready to marry. So forget this thing. You can keep seeing her, but no need for this kind of white-people behavior. If your wife has a child for somebody else or if you beat her, that is a reason for divorce. But to get up and say you have no problem with your wife but you are leaving for another woman? Haba. We don’t behave like that, please (472).

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