They Lied About ‘Merica
Immigrant reflection on a few things I wish I knew
As a kid, I always knew I’d leave Cameroon to pursue my education. It was the default conclusion. My older cousins had left. Talks about higher education in the country never had any hopes left. I was the first born son — it only made sense that my parents would go into debt, borrow from ‘ndjangui houses’(vibrant community credit unions) and find a way for me to join my cousins in Germany or the USA.
The image of my impending escape was so clear that after I wrote my Advanced Level and didn’t leave Cameroon, I had no idea what to do with my life anymore. I think this crushed me so hard, I almost never took the leap of faith again.
I can only realize and write this after a decade of introspection — of wondering what happened during those years where I was simply floating from one department to another, having no dreams and ambition, being completely absent in the flow of my own life.
At 17 I lost all hopes of building a future in my own country. Part of the reason was that I let my parents point of view overshadow mine. But another reason was that I didn’t have a plan if the dream of leaving the country failed.
But no one knew this was going on. Even I didn’t.
When I moved to college to study whatever I could (so my parents would let me be), I had a lot of adventures in many areas of life: I lost my virginity. I found friendship. I got drunk to stupor. I broke hearts. I got my heart broken. Between 2007 and 2012, I became who I thought was myself. I had an identity — some sort of image of what I thought my life meant.
A lot of my world view was influenced by the books I read, the videos I watched and the podcasts I listened to. I found mentoring in these people who showed me a world I couldn’t see around me — a world where one could work towards a chosen outcome, where learning anything simply required that I made the time to learn. A world where it was okay that no one understood who I was.
Today, there are many names for this world: Self-help, personal development, self-improvement, etc. Even though I didn’t know it at the time, it’s this world that allowed me to cope in a body I barely knew and to follow ideals I barely accepted.
Part of me was aware of how different my world was from these authors and speakers. But I desperately believed in them. I started thinking like them, walking like them ( in my mind, at least) and quoting them every chance I got. There was truth in the power of belief and hustle. But there is also truth in the reality of being born into privilege and not having to deal with the color of your skin among other things on a daily basis. Or being creative in a country that didn’t give a bird’s poop about it.
But, the people who never took it upon themselves to paint an accurate reality of this world I believed in, the people who didn’t take the time to warn kids like me, and others who had lost any hope of a future in Cameroon, are those who left before us. Those we’ve always called “bushfallers”, because they went to “bush” which is, essentially, greener pastures compared to our ‘shit-hole’.
Those are the people who lied about America.
I will be the first to admit, now that I have been here for almost a year, that the reality of living abroad hits you in waves most people aren’t equipped to either understand or process.
If I tell someone for example that I got lost using the RDT bus service, I would need to provide details of how this service works: map routes, the general feeling of unease I experience, as well as weather factors that may or may not improve my chances of having a great experience. Or, if I tell someone about being in Walmart or King Soopers and looking for the best prices while purchasing, it may not register to them what the difference is between organic and ‘regular’ products.
If I tell them about subtle racial prejudice only realized after hours of introspection, they would find it hard to understand how this feels. The simplest example of these differences and the difficulties to communicate is snow: at some point, in a foreign movie, most kids have seen snow. But they’ve never touched it. They’ve never watched it fall on their skin.
How do I expect them to understand how it feels to be in a snowstorm or drive in the snow?
There are many parts of living abroad that cannot be explained. Those are, unfortunately, the parts that many of the bushfallers spend time on: there is racism in America, you pay a lot of taxes, you work all day, the food is different, the roads are huge.
These things — though helpful— steal from the range of truths that an immigrant needs before leaving his or her home country.
This is why I think they lied. Whether it was intentional or not, whether by omission or ignorance, the bushfallers we meet in Cameroon never paint an adequate image of what it means to leave behind everything you’ve ever known to build an identity — and home — in a new land.
I wish they’d told me about health insurance and how it worked so that I’d consider streamlining my nutrition, sleep, exercise so that ceteris paribus, I never have to go to the hospital, especially before I get any form of medical insurance.
I wish they’d hammered on the necessity of learning how to drive before I left Cameroon, because it would be arduous to take the bus, expensive to use Uber, and that walking in the winter (or any other time for that matter) was incredulous and highly inefficient unless it was part of a bus route( and jaywalking is an actual crime).
Talking about the bus routes, I wish they’d said more about the timeliness (or lack thereof at key times) of each bus and how vigilant one would need to be when taking said buses to any location.
I wish they’d not focused so much on the lack of food from Cameroon, but rather given examples of other foods to try and explore that could lead to new relationships with other cultures and people.
I wish they’d talked of the stress of having internet 24/7 and how without preparation, one could easily succumb to mental exhaustion and need months off the internet.
I wish they’d told me more about the time difference, not just because of jet lag, but how it would influence all communication with home and even within the country.
I wish they’d told me about the importance of politics in the nation as compared to Cameroon, so I’d be more open to learning and participating in the dialogue on subjects that would literally redefine how I saw leadership.
I wish they’d said that I learn about my money story and think more about investing instead of hourly work.
I wish they’d made it clear that many people don’t even understand how racism affected others because they’d never had to experience it.
I wish they’d told me that being black in America meant something else for every black person in America because like me, some people just moved here and they’d never had to face their color as a cultural construct and lifetime hurdle.
And finally, I wish they’d told me to take time to say goodbye to friends and family because once I left Cameroon, things would never be the same again: some relationships will crumble, some would strengthen and others will simply disappear into the ether.
I am lucky. I’ve had my wife, my in-laws and my extended family all the way in various degrees. Without my wife, I would have failed miserably at moving to the US. No amount of reading, videos, podcasts, would have prepared me for what I have experienced and what I am yet to experience. I feel even more grateful for her because, after 12 years here, she now has to adapt to me — someone who has a life and career choice in a field tangential to hers as a medical doctor.
It’s been hard for me to adjust. It’s been hard for me to try to dispel some of the idealistic images many of my peers have about America or other countries in general when I talk with those back in Cameroon. It’s harder because I can see, through them, where I was.
I can see how hard it must have been for these people who left like me, to burst the bubbles: to talk about taxes, education, healthcare, racism, relationships, spirituality.
Even as I say that they lied, I can understand how dealing with your own issues can take over trying to help others understand what it means to live in another country. A realization that gets more and more concrete for me is the fact that no matter where I go, I might never have a physical home anymore. There will never be a country I fully belong to.
I was born in Cameroon, I will live in America. I will never be enough to be a full member of any.
I think that’s a duality many people learn to live with. It may even cloud the differences. I was part of both cultures in Cameroon by virtue of birth and education: francophone and anglophone, which made me, and many others, aliens in their own rights. Now I get to live in a country I had always dreamed of, I carry stories from where I was born and adapt to where I am reborn.
When I squint a little and peer into the future, I can almost see myself lying about it all too.