Updated: Nov 13, 2019
My name is Adebare Tella and this is my story.
I was born and raised with 3 older sisters in Chicago, Illinois by two hardworking Nigerian immigrant parents. My father was fortunate enough to win the Visa lottery while in Nigeria which made it possible for my sisters and I to be raised in America. Prior to moving here, my father worked for a popular energy company, Chevron Corporation, and was able to attend both high school and college. He later came to America, where he began working as an Information Systems Computer Analyst. At the same time, my mother worked tirelessly to attain her nursing degree and license while raising four children. However, life began to happen quickly; my father fell on hard times and was unemployed for a long period of time and my mother was diagnosed with an auto-immune disease, Sarcoidosis, which made her unable to work as much as she previously had. With such accomplished but struggling parents, failure was not an option for my sisters and I.
Education, which is at the core of the expectations of most Nigerian parents, was very important in my household growing up and my parents made many sacrifices to send my sisters and I to the best schools in our city. My sisters and I all went to the same elementary school, which was predominantly made up of students of African descent. We all performed well and grew close relationships with the other students who looked like us, sounded like us, and had similar experiences to our own. We would all joke about the strict yet humorous nature of our parents, while still being able to understand the pressure each of us was under to make our parents proud. To put it simply, things were comfortable.
This all changed when it was time for me to move on from elementary school to high school. My parents decided to send me to a school where they thought my academic talents would flourish best despite their financial circumstances. This school was comprised of predominately White students from wealthy backgrounds. They drove in fancy cars that they owned to school while I took public transportation daily. They went on vacations to every place you could think of while I stayed at home for every single break. They had maids and cleaning services while I was the ONLY cleaning service my parents would ever use. They all had a certain privilege in their walk that allowed them to move with their heads held high and to talk to people in any manner they wished. Attending this school opened my eyes to the many cultural differences between American and Nigerian lifestyles.
The first most obvious difference was in both the language and accents. My parents speak English but have always incorporated our native tongue of Yoruba into daily conversations. My parents have distinct accents which would slightly alter the pronunciation of certain words. These slight alterations gradually influenced my own pronunciations of these words which made communication with my fellow students, who had Valley girl accents and immense vocal fry at times, a source of embarrassment for me. The differences in culture would also be apparent through traditional meals. I would pack my lunch of jollof rice, stew and meat, and plantain but feel a bit uncomfortable eating it around my non-African counterparts who had sandwiches and chips for lunch. All these differences in my culture in comparison to American culture became very evident to me in high school, but when I began college this changed dramatically.
At my university, I encountered people from all walks of life. I became more aware of the dangers of assumption as well as the severe issues that followed not properly educating yourself on a matter. My college campus tackled very heavy topics in the span of time I have spent here. I then realized the major difference in the stance of Nigerians and Americans on controversial topics such as Religion, the LGBTQ community, and mental health. If you are a Nigerian-American, you probably know how much attention, or the lack thereof is given to each of these topics. It was intriguing to see people following religions I had never heard of or no religion at all. It was intriguing to see people ask one another what pronouns they preferred when addressing them. It was intriguing to have unlimited resources to care for mental health as well as the option to visit a therapist on campus.
These were all things that were never addressed in my household. Religion was often used as a tool to resist differences in sexual preferences/gender and difficulties with mental health which many African parents unfortunately view as issues that are solely “solved” with prayer. This pushed me to open tougher conversations up to my parents to help give them a fresher perspective on how culture and sexuality has developed in America. I would be lying if I said that they were always receptive, but these conversations were necessary to at least educate them on new information they may have not taken the time to acquire otherwise.
My advice to the children of Nigerian immigrants (or any similar foreign country) is to never be ashamed of your heritage and culture. You do not have to fit the American mold. You do not have to speak a certain way, nor do you have to act a certain way. You can express yourself through both your African and American experiences. You do not have to pick one. Take opportunities to educate others on your culture but you do not have to be a token. You are free to be whatever it is that you want to be because there is no one right way to live. In terms of communicating and living with your parents, I would recommend forcing yourself to have tougher conversations with them. Show your parents movies or television shows that have characters that are drastically different from what they are used to. Be patient with your parents but at the same time do not be too lenient with them. Gently correct them when their statements are offensive and educate them on why they are viewed as such. I know that not all parents may offer a safe environment for such dialogues, but you can still attempt breaking the ice and hopefully with time they will begin to see that though their views are different from American views, everyone’s experience and truth is still valid.
Written and lived by Adebare Tella
September 25, 2019
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