Born American, becoming Nigerian
One Lagos morning in 2017, I awoke to the realization that I was Nigerian.
I‘ve had dual American and Nigerian citizenship all my life but it’s only recently that I’ve been able to feel a purely “Nigerian” sense of national identity.
All types of identities — not just national — are cast upon us the moment we enter the world. Taking ownership of them helps us learn who we are, how to navigate the world in our skin, and serve as a reflective lens to perceive how others see us.
Like many third culture kids, I grew up struggling to understand my national identity and developed four over time:
- Nigerian. American.
Each was developed during a different period of life but the last one didn’t come until that recent morning in December 2017.
Mentally, I code-switch between these 4 all the time and the current-working identity comes down to where I am, who I’m talking to, what’s going on around me and which I believe will be the most beneficial.
American. (Developed 1982–1996)
I was born in one of the most iconic American cities (San Francisco) and raised in one of the most iconic American states (Texas). I remember learning the Star-Spangled Banner before entering elementary school and pledged allegiance to the American flag nearly every day from 1987 through 2000.
Like most kids, I desperately wanted to fit in and dreaded the first day of school because it meant the first time a teacher would see my name, pause, not attempt to say it, spell it out, and remind the rest of the classroom of my ethnic-otherness.
Other school officials didn’t necessarily make it any easier. At one point I was put into a remedial English class for students who had “English as a Second Language” because they met my parents, couldn’t understand their accents and so assumed that English wasn’t spoken at home.
Things continued as I moved into junior high and attended a magnet school for one year.
The magnet program at this middle school was focused on math and science, and so although it was in a low-income and predominately black area, it was also full of white kids from very upper-class backgrounds bused in from very wealthy areas of Forth Worth.
I had never come into contact with that demographic before. Their parents were executives, doctors, lawyers and professors. They indifferently wore brand name clothing and spoke about money with a confidence that showed that they had never known what it meant to be without it. They had high ambitions at age 12 and aspired to do great things when they grew up.
And they were classmates. Not only that, but I ended up testing into the most advanced math class which made me realize that although we were peers for most classes, that when it came to math, that I was one of the academic elites. I was the only black student in that class and so the otherness was still felt. However, that difficult year also led to the realization that if we were at the same level, and they believed that they could achieve whatever they put their minds to, that I could too and achieve my own version of the American dream.
But I still wanted to fit in and so rejected my heritage hard in an attempt to do so. In 8th grade, I asked everyone to start calling me the most stereotypically American name that I could imagine: “Bob”. It was a Kunta-Kinte-to-Toby transformation of my own doing, self-imposed by my own insecurity.
And so it was during this period that I first started feeling “American” and developed a belief that I could achieve anything I put my mind to…with one false caveat: that in order to do so, I’d need to shed all notions of otherness, try to be as stereotypically American as possible and forego the culture, heritage and experiences of my parents.
Nigerian-American. (Developed 1996–2003)
Although the name “Bob” stuck with me until I graduated high school, at some point I started hating it and began signing assignments with all 31 letters of my full Yoruba name.
The transition away from my earlier notion of Americanness started as I came more into contact with other 1st and 2nd generation American children with whom I could relate. High school, and later university, introduced me to Mexican-Americans, Korean-Americans, Indian-Americans, Vietnamese-Americans, Taiwanese-Americans and more at a time when I was mature enough to recognize & appreciate our similarities.
In addition, university introduced me — for the first time — to 1st and 2nd generation Americans of Nigerian descent who were strangers. Before then, I had yet to ever meet anyone like me whose family I didn’t know, whose parents I didn’t call auntie or uncle, and whom I didn’t call my cousin. And so even though I knew a large number of Nigerian-Americans before then, I never really thought of us as having a distinct identity; I just saw us as family.
It was during this 7 year period of time, through the interactions and friendships with so many other ethnic-Americans like myself, that I came to better understand the idea of a hyphenated American. Becoming active in UT’s African Student Association and meeting more 1st generation Americans of African descent; watching and discussing movies like Better Luck Tomorrow and American-Desi with Asian-American friends; forming a breakdancing crew of predominately ethnic-Americans; having multi-cultural Computer Engineering study groups and project partners — these all helped lead to me start identifying as “Nigerian-American”.
Fundamental to this change was an evolved belief that America as a “melting pot” was not about assimilation of immigrants at the expense of a parent culture and that the country’s diversity was part of what made it so great. And with that updated belief came increased acceptance of my two nationalities, which also freed me up to accept more of myself in general.
Being Nigerian-American didn’t mean that I was any less American; it was just another form of being American, a hybrid-blend of both; and not only was this okay, it was something to be celebrated.
Nigerian. American. (Developed 2003–2015)
Externally, Nigerian-American worked well in answering questions of those without a connection to Nigeria like “where’s your name from?” or “what’s that gown (an agbada) you were wearing in that picture?”
But internally, within the Nigerian community that I grew up in, things were different. Trying to explain beliefs or decisions from a “Nigerian-American” lens would often be written off as nonsense because we were simply Nigerian.
During the early 2000’s, for example, my brother started growing dreadlocks. Although the hair style is globally-accepted as stylish these days, back then it was rejected inside every stateside Nigerian home we entered because just about everyone over the age of 40 associated it with being a babalawo.
And before graduating from university, a non-trivial number of aunts and uncles from the community asked me when I’d be going for my masters. When I said that I wasn’t planning to, they wrote off my reply as if I didn’t understand the question because for us Nigerians, masters degrees were the minimum.
In navigating that world, “American” wasn’t enough, “Nigerian-American” wasn’t enough, and “Nigerian” felt incomplete. In addition, taking on a “Nigerian” national identity at that time felt like it would be denying a very real part of my identity — the American side — just as I had done in my early years by rejecting my Nigerian side.
Conversations with other hyphenated Americans led to the realization that most of us experienced this, and that they dealt with it by having their nationality-related identities exist in parallel at the same time, without hyphens. And that’s how I developed my 3rd identity: “Nigerian. American.”
Part of the beauty of this identity was that it helped me start becoming deliberate in code-switching to what made the most sense at any given time. Developing the idea that I embodied multiple national identities at the same time made it easier to compromise and I found myself generally less frustrated. I could deal with my Nigerian community as a Nigerian, American society as an American, and do so without feeling that I was being untrue to myself.
This was tested a number of times though.
For example, while working at an e-commerce startup in 2008, I was introduced to the economic realities that Nigerian Yahoo boys had on businesses, and how that impacted people’s perception of Nigeria. Inside the company, we spoke frankly about the number of fraudulent orders coming from Nigeria and whether or not to continue accepting orders from Nigerian shipping addresses. As a “Nigerian-American”, this embarrassed me and made me want to protest. But as a “Nigerian. American.”, I approached the discussion as an American, while concurrently started forming a quiet resolve to help improve this country’s perception as a Nigerian.
Another test came while teaching English in Japan. The island nation of Japan is largely homogenous (roughly 99% Japanese) and most saw the world through the lens of being either Japanese or gaijin (“foreigner”). The idea of having multiple national identities, and how I could be both Nigerian and American, was largely a foreign concept but I made headway with a number of my students. But when stopped by police, I would simply say that I was American because of the stigma that Nigerians in Japan.
Nigerian. (Developed 2015–2017)
This “Nigerian. American.” identity by and large stayed with me, but there were setbacks, with the largest one being my first trip to Nigeria in 2005.
It was during this trip that I realized that although I was “Nigerian. American.” and could occupy two spaces, that the “Nigerian” space that I navigated in the US was not the same as the one that actually existed in Nigeria. I hopped on my first flight to Lagos with hopes of a homecoming but returned with doubts of my duality.
The infrastructure was like nothing I’d ever seen, things felt chaotic, aunts and uncles made it seem like armed robbers were everywhere, speaking in public drew too much attention, I couldn’t move around solo, people’s views were far from my own, and it felt like Yoruba — which I don’t speak — was necessary to survive in Lagos or Ibadan.
It was uncomfortable and foreign, and so when I returned from that first trip, I knew that Nigeria was my heritage, but questioned whether it could ever be home. And although I could navigate the Nigerian community in America, I felt like the culture that existed there was a different form of Nigerian culture than what actually existed in the motherland.
And this was the mindset I carried with me when I moved here in 2015.
In addition to the opportunity to further the goals of my company, one of the things that led to the move was a desire to better understand my roots and address that aforementioned doubt.
I was scared AF though. Outside of work, my first month in Lagos was comprised of the buddy system, a strong opposition to speaking in public, a fear of walking around my own neighborhood and a heavy case of Nigerian imposter syndrome.
But things changed over time.
Last December, when I had the epiphany that I truly felt Nigerian, it was actually after spending 2.5 months in Kenya. I remember thinking about how easy it was for me to readjust back into life in Nigeria, compared it with my first month in 2015, realized that I no longer felt that different from the Nigerians around me, and starting thinking about how it happened. I know at least two things helped:
- Becoming independent and learning to move around by myself.
- Learning that we were more similar than we are different.
Becoming independent and learning to move around by myself. The first time I ever left my estate by myself was to walk to a Sweet Sensation restaurant. It was located 10 minutes away, but that first trip took me 30 minutes. Wearing sunglasses, I walked slowly and cautiously, and would make random stops to see if anyone was following me. The sunglasses were also not just to block the sunlight; they were also to allow me to look around while keeping my head facing forward to see if I was drawing unnecessary attention.
And guess what? Not a damned thing happened to me. So with that, I was emboldened to slowly but surely extend my solo movements. For the next couple of months, every weekend included pedestrian exploration with aimless wanderings around my area for hours. Later, I extended this beyond my neighborhood by going to random parts of Lagos and doing the same thing there.
The significance of this increased level of comfort is that it led to mobility and independence which in-turn led to discovering things outside of what I was limited to during my earlier sheltered experience — and discover my own Nigeria.
Learning that we were more similar than we are different. In Japan, I developed a strong belief that people around the world were more alike than different, but I didn’t initially carry that conviction with me to Nigeria. I had assumed a certain level of homogeny because my prior visits limited my exposure to the diversity that exists here. After moving here, however, a number of connections expanded my thinking:
- Techies. I knew that my company was full of techies but didn’t appreciate our similarities, nor of that of others within the larger Lagos tech ecosystem, until I moved here. I’ve since passionately geeked out about software development, product management and design countless times with others who have professions or hobbies in the same space.
- Breakdancers. Breaking was a large part of my life for the better part of 20 years. After moving to Nigeria, I discovered and started getting involved in the Nigerian breakdancing scene.
- Rock music enthusiasts. Rock and roll moves my soul and at one point, I found a community of rock music lovers in Lagos. I initially thought that hip hop and Nigerian music were the genres of choice for all but those ideas flew out of my head while headbanging at a bar in Lekki.
- Relationships. I’ve had some bad experiences dating in Lagos, but I’ve also met some amazing women with whom I connected with in ways beyond anything previously experienced. I’m still single though.
My connections with these Nigerians helped me see that our similarities resonated more deeply than any differences could set us apart.
And although there were differences, the reality is that there are differences between everyone. The differences between other Nigerians and myself aren’t necessarily any different between other Nigerians, nor are they all that different between other Americans and myself.
In short, I was humbled.
But outside of those two humbling developments, I don’t really know how I came to start feeling Nigerian. And to be honest, I was low-key hoping that writing this post would help me figure it out. But maybe there doesn’t need to be more than that? Maybe it’s always been there but just required time being here to let it out? Maybe it’s something else entirely?
All I know is that I was born American, but I’ve become Nigerian.
Over the years, I uncovered these nationality-related identities and with the development of “Nigerian”, I’ve further progressed down the road of self-understanding. Each identity is a blessing and has equipped me with tools to navigate the world around me:
- My “American” identity inspired me to dream.
- My “Nigerian-American” identity led to self-acceptance.
- My “Nigerian. American.” identity taught me compromise.
- My “Nigerian.” identity reminded me to be humble.
I don’t have to choose just one because they all live in parallel, inside of me, and contribute to the fabric of my overall identity.