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At home in two cultures

A Nigerian woman talks about others' perception of Africans.

From the October 2001 issue of The Christian Science Journal


"WHOSE CHILD are you?" In my native village in Edo State, Nigeria, you don't answer this question simply by giving your family name. The question is meant to draw out your ancestry. Invariably, bystanders join the conversation, chiming in with what they know about your background. In fact, this is how I discovered my paternal great-grandfather's profession as an herbalist and his avocation as a community activist.

But in the United States, where I have lived for the last 22 years, the same type of question has a different outcome. As soon as I speak, people notice that I wasn't born in the US. Never mind the original topic of conversation or its gravity, the subject shifts, and I'm asked, "Where are you from?" I used to dread this question. In the Africa of my youth, it was a way to draw out my heritage, but in America, it made me defensive. Quite often, my questioners wanted to share with me whatever unflattering tidbit they'd read or heard about Africans or Nigerians. For a long time, I took their comments to heart, as if they were a direct attack on me. As a result, the same kind of questioning from my childhood that had led to pleasant attention and interesting discoveries, I now found stressful.

Then, as an adult visiting Nigeria, I discovered that, because of my Americanized speech, my identity was under more scrutiny in my homeland. So, on both sides of the ocean, my approach to life became a juggling act. For a while, I never felt completely at home in Africa or America.

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