Where #ImFrom: Both sides of the hyphen
By Ngozi Onike
I spent most of my childhood navigating two cultures. I grew up in South Bronx with Nigerian parents who never taught me to speak their Igbo dialect, but expected me to understand it. I was taught to greet my elders with my right hand and never pass anyone an item with my left. I spent my Saturday mornings listening to Peter Nwokocha’s music as I did my chores, and every Sunday afternoon, I quietly sucked my teeth as I ate white rice and peppery tomato stew. I wanted McDonald’s so bad.
I grew up dreading roll call on the first day of school, listening to the teachers pronounce my name “Nah-go-zee” as I wondered why my parents did not choose the name Nicole or Naomi instead. I laughed awkwardly at jokes about being an African booty scratcher. I even once had a classmate ask me if Africans chew on the extra string that sometimes hung from my shirt. And when asked if I spoke “African,” I would give a blank stare and reply, “no.” I did not correct or inform; I just said no.
Though I was born in the United States, I never really felt “from” here. I lived in the same neighborhood for 25 years and itched to leave for most of it. It didn’t matter that I had only visited Nigeria three times. No one cared how many pop song lyrics I had memorized, and I did not get cool points for knowing the best places to get pizza or Chinese food. My name and dark skin always made me different, and I was uncomfortable. I was undeniably African.
My perspective began to change in college when I made the decision to embrace and identify with my “Nigerianness.” Freshman year, I joined the Nigerian Students Association. I stayed on campus after classes rehearsing with the club’s dance group. If you passed by my dorm room, you would likely hear Wizkid or D’Banj blasting from my speakers. My friends and I bonded over stories of Sunday rice and stew. Most importantly, my name was pronounced “in-guh-zee” not “nah-go-zee.” It was correct, and I liked it.
I was proudly Nigerian, and though many responded to my pride with interest and acceptance, I was occasionally reminded I still didn’t quite belong. I had family members who called me “the American.” I would sit quietly, like an outsider, as I listened to my cousin tell stories about gatherings at my grandmother’s house in Osina village. I still felt guilty for avoiding phone conversations with her before her death in 2011, embarrassed that I could not respond to her in Igbo and English was not easy for her to understand.
So where do I belong? Where am I really from?
It took some time, but recently, I found peace in my place between Nigerian and American. I have settled here, occasionally pulling from both sides of the hyphen freely and without self-placed pressure. I am comfortable here. I met my Nigerian-Ivorian husband on this border line, and I gave birth to my daughter here. It won’t be long before she too will wonder where she is from, and I hope, like me, she will eventually find her home.
This is part of a series called #ImFrom, where members of the AJ+ community share personal stories about the question, “Where are you from?”