Any child of immigrants will attest to the fact that there is a ‘moment’ you realise your home life is distinctively different from that of your peers. Mine came when I was corrected on my pronunciation of the word “crisps”. I always thought it was “crips”. When I exclaimed to my friend “but my mum says it CRIPS” she seemed rather appalled and retorted “well your mum’s saying it wrong”. Over the years it became apparent that it wasn’t just the way my family spoke that was different, it was also the way we lived.
Though there are similarities, children of immigrants don’t all have the same story. Some of our parents pushed against assimilation and others encouraged integration. Then there were the parents who feared the dilution of their core cultural values, but didn’t want their children to feel left out, so they promoted both integration and rejection.
Depending on their experiences growing up and the ideologies they adopt as an adult, we invariably have radically different perceptions concerning our identities. Some us struggle with a sense of belonging and ask ourselves “where do I belong?” Others aware they’re fortunate to have been born “abroad” wrestle with internal guilt. The privilege that comes with being born in the West (especially when juxtapositioned with the perilous state of much of the developing world) burdens many with a sense of responsibility they haven’t chosen to bear.
Then there are those like myself who for whatever reason have never been preoccupied by such questions. However the fact we’re not preoccupied by our national identity and picking a side, leaves us vulnerable to accusations of being a ‘sell out’ or not knowing who we truly are.
The politics and complexity of identity aside, I’ve found “belonging” and being familiar with two worlds means my life is richer. I have a deep insight into two cultures. I’m aware of their points of tensions and areas of overlap. My perspectives and experiences have a width and depth they would otherwise lack. This means I understand cockney rhyming slang and Igbo (sadly I speak neither). I can make bangers and mash and then pound yam for my dad (the quality of both dishes is horrendous). Ultimately being from two worlds has taught me the lesson that all people have more in common than they believe. We all seek the same things, love, acceptance and security; we simply have different methods of pursuing our aims. Finally, if a person is good (or bad) it is not because of their culture or nation of origin, it is in spite of it.
I remember growing up and cringing at some of my parents idiosyncrasies. Now I look back and marvel at how two individuals who came here with nothing built incredible lives for themselves and their children. This story of hustle, determination, tenacity, belief and vision is not unique to my parents. Despite what the Daily Mail and other right wing news outlets like to propagate, most immigrants don’t migrate simply to take from society, they come to give. They seek to give to a better life to their children, give to their families back home and ultimately they give back to society.
Today I’ll focus on some of the random experiences that occur when you’re raised in the West by parents from Africa. I shared some of these thoughts on Facebook and Twitter earlier last week and two things struck me. Firstly, the sheer number of people who identified with what I wrote. Secondly, how people from other cultures, be it West Indian, Irish, Indian, Arab, English or Polish, also identified with my anecdotes. Apparently it’s not just African parents, all parents are a bit special (crazy).
Things that occur when Growing up African…..
That moment of shock when you discover everyone doesn’t bath with a bucket and sponge.
That day you discover that they don’t serve Supermalt in pubs. In fact they don’t serve it anywhere. Most people outside your milieu have never heard of Supermalt. This fact will puzzle you forever.
Finding out the woman you call grandma isn’t your grandma. Neither is your aunty, your aunty. Or your cousin, your cousin. In fact 95% of the people you refer to with a term that suggests they’re a blood relation are not.
Contrarily, you’re often dragged to parties and introduced to someone you have never met who is actually your cousin, aunty or uncle. Due to convention you must then have a conversation where the starter question is “how is school?” No matter how school is going you say “good”
The realisation “how is school?” will be the starter question for every conversation you have with an aunty or uncle until you graduate. When you graduate the question becomes “when are you getting married?”
Going to parties and there’s a high table for special guests. Ironically the table is often not that high. It’s just an ordinary table covered with wrapping paper and draped with Christmas lights. At some parties there are more people on the high table than at the rest of the party.
Weddings usually begin 1-3 hours late.
Conversations that begin with rhetorical questions such as “Am I your mate?” and “Are you calling me a fool?” rarely end well.
The phrase “Can you imagine” never requires the use of your imagination because it normally follows/precedes a story told in vivid detail.
That embarrassing moment when you go to the airport and despite obsessively using the scales at home, your mum has excess luggage. You stand at the check-in desk watching your parents try and negotiate a deal so they don’t pay for excess luggage. When that fails, they start to “spread the weight” across the suitcases. When that fails they eventually hand over the stuff they really didn’t have to take to the relative who drove you to the airport. The first 3 hours of the flight back to Africa is spent with your mum lamenting over the luggage lost.
The shock when you discover that using “Plum Tomato” isn’t the only way to make stew.
The phrase “the devil is a liar” is used as an exclamation, response, question, and declaration.
That moment of confusion when you realise that women getting money thrown at them whilst they dance is considered objectification. At the parties/weddings we’re taken to, having a bunch of dollar bills thrown at you is called getting ‘sprayed’. It simply means you’re dancing well. And if you’re anything like me you’ve discovered it’s a great way of funding your shoe fetish…..
Going to parties in school/community halls and all the drinks are in a big black bin filled with ice.
Living in a house filled with “Souvenirs” collected from parties means you can start the day drinking tea from a mug with a dead man’s face on it. On the mug are the words “Chief Adeyemi goes to glory. Sleep well Daddy. Psalm 23:1”
Pretending to be dead after a severe smacking. Your parents never believe you’re dead and if they do they either 1) Smack you more to wake you up 2) Leave you for “dead”
Being called downstairs to change the channel, even though the remote is NEXT to your mum.
Trying not to stare at that aunty who shaves off her eyebrows and draws them back on.
That awkward painful silence that envelops the room when a sex scene comes on TV.
When the ends of your extensions have been burned and keep sticking to your school jumper.
The first time you decided to experiment and told your parents to ‘shut up’. What happened after is too painful to share on this blog.
Discovering you won’t have a room for months because an ‘aunty’/’uncle’ is coming from back home and they’re taking your room. If you’re fortunate you’ll be notified a day prior to the event.
Microsoft Word putting a squiggly red line underneath your name after you type it. Actually that still happens….
Your mum saving oil to refry food in it. So your plantain tastes like fish. Or your chips taste like plantain.
Your dad giving your schoolteacher permission to “cane” you. She looks appalled and politely refuses. He’s disgusted.
Being threatened with getting sent back to the “village” whilst your friend Tommy gets put on the “naughty step”
“Dad I got 96%!!” “Where’s the other 4%? The girl that came first did she have two heads?”
Going into the freezer, taking out a tub of ice cream, opening it and feeling devastated when you discover it’s frozen stew. This still regularly happens to me
by christiana mbakwe