This piece is my Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, a Nigerian writer who made the NYT bestseller’s list last year for her novel Americanah, about Nigerian immigrants living on the East Coast. I admit I have not read it yet (it’s sitting on my bookshelf though). I heard about Adichie when I was looking for a video of Zadie Smith giving a reading, and I found one of the two authors giving a joint reading (video link here, if you’re interested). The piece here was published when she was a senior at Eastern Connecticut State University. She has since received degrees from Johns Hopkins and Yale, and is considered to be a leading voice for this generation in African lit. I think her themes are pretty similar to those in Lahiri and Zadie Smith, as they too often focus on immigrants in big cities, and how they navigate their new world while maintaining their old cultures.
This piece comes from the point of view of a Nigerian teen who battles with her mother about adapting to American culture. Her mother wants to keep as much of her Nigerian culture as she can, speaking in Igbo, preparing Nigerian cuisine, dressing formally, maintaining formality between herself and her daughter’s friends, and reinforcing a traditional virginity culture. This is a story about teenage rebellion where the daughter, Lin, feels like she has so more to rebel against than the average teen.
I particularly appreciated that she discussed the question “Where are you from?” I grew up in Texas (10 years), Amsterdam (5 years) and Denver (3 years), so I’m unable to answer that question as well. When people ask me where I’m from, I’ll say Denver, but I refer to Chicago as “home,” not Denver. (I think my mother cries a little every time I do). While Adichie is speaking to the general immigrant experience, this idea of home is one of the major themes, and physical houses are an important space in the story. Lin tells her mother that Americans say they’re from the place they grew up in or where they have live the longest, but her mother thinks she should still say Nigeria. Although it’s unclear at what age Lin moved to the United States, it seems like it was during middle school, so she would have grown up in Nigeria. By her own definition, she might still say that she is from Nigeria, rather than Philadelphia. Lin continues to say that people can be “from” where they plan to live the longest, essentially choosing where they are from and by that logic she is from Philadelphia. When her friend tells her to be proud of her country, she says she is proud of America; though she only has a green card, she is American. She ignores the Nigerian emphasis on ancestors and kinship (exemplified in Things Fall Apart). This element of desire to fit in is important in immigration stories, especially when it clashes intensely with a desire to remain static. The end of the story, when she can’t bring herself to laugh at Matt’s comments, is almost her reluctantly realizing that not every aspect of American life and culture is as great as she hoped it would be. American teenage boys failed to meet her expectations (big surprise), and she seems slightly disenchanted with her new home. Anyway, here it is:
My Mother, the Crazy African
Amanda Ngozi Adichie
I hate having an accent. I hate it when people ask me to repeat things sometimes and I can hear them laughing inside because I am not American. Now I reply Father’s Igbo with English. I would do it with Mother too, but I don’t think she will go for that just yet.
When people ask where I am from, Mother wants me to say Nigeria. The first time I said Philadelphia, she said, “say Nigeria.” The second time she slapped the back of my head and asked, in Igbo, “is something wrong with your head?”
By then I had started school and I told her, Americans don’t do it that way. You are from where you are born, or where you live, or where you intend to live for a long time. Take Cathy for example. She is from Chicago because she was born there. Her brother is from here, Philadelphia, because he was born in Jefferson Hospital. But their Father, who was born in Atlanta, is now from Philadelphia because he lives here.
Americans don’t care about that nonsense of being from your ancestral village, where your forefathers owned land, where you can trace your lineage back hundreds of years. So you trace your lineage back, so what?
I still say I am from Philadelphia when Mother is not there. (I will only say Nigeria when someone says something about my accent and then I always add, but I live in Philadelphia with my family.)
Just like I call myself Lin when Mother isn’t there. She likes to go on and on, how Ralindu is a beautiful Igbo name, how it means so much to her too, that name, Choose Life, because of what she went through, because of my brothers who died as babies. And I am sorry, don’t get me wrong, but a name like Ralindu and an accent are too much for me right now, especially now that Matt and I are together.
When my friends call, Mother goes, “Lin?” for a second, as though she doesn’t know who that is. You would think she hasn’t been here three whole years (sometimes I tell people six years) the ways she acts.
She still likes to end observations with ‘America!’ Like at restaurants, “see how much food these people are wasting, America!” Or at the store, “see how much they have marked down the prices from last week, America!”
It’s a lot better now though. She no longer crosses herself, shivering, whenever a murder is reported on the news. She no longer peers at Father’s written directions as she drives to the grocery store or mall. She still has the directions in Father’s precise hand in the glove compartment though. She still clutches the wheels tight, and glances often at the rear view mirror for police cars. And I have taken to saying, Mother, the American police do not just stop you. You have to do something wrong first, like speed.
I admit, I was awed too when we first came. I looked at the house and I understood why Father did not want to send for us right after he finished his residency, why he chose to work for three years, a regular job as well as moonlighting. I liked to go outside then and just stare at the house, at the elegance of the stone exterior, at the way the lawn wrapped around it like a blanket dyed the color of unripe mangoes. And inside, I liked the curving stairs in the hallway, the gleaming banister, the quaint marble fireplace that made me feel as though I was on the set of a foreign film. I even liked the clump-clump-clump sound the hardwood floors made when I walked in my shoes unlike the silent cement floors back home.
The sound of the wood floors bother me now, when Father has some of his colleagues from the hospital over, and I am in the basement. Father doesn’t ask Mother to get a little something together for his guests anymore, he has people deliver small trays of cheese and fruit. They used to fight about that, Father telling her white people did not care about moi-moi and chin-chin, the things she wanted to make, and Mother telling him, in Igbo, to be proud of who he was and offer it to them first and see if they don’t like it. Now, they fight about how Mother behaves at the get-togethers.
You have to talk to them more, Father says. Make them feel like they are welcome. Stop speaking to me in Igbo when they are here.
And Mother will screech, So now I cannot speak my language in my own house? Tell me, do they change their behavior when you go to their house?
They are not real fights, not like Cathy’s parents’ who end with shattered glass that Cathy cleans up before school so her little sister won’t see. Mother will still wake up early to lay out Father’s shirt on his bed, to make his breakfast, to put his lunch in a container. Father could cook when he was alone – he lived alone in America for almost seven years – but now suddenly he can’t cook. He can’t even cover a pot after himself, no, he can’t even help himself to food from a pot. Mother is horrified when he so much as goes close to the stovetop.
“You cooked well, Chika,” Father says in Igbo, after every meal. Mother smiles and I know she is plotting what soup to cook next, what new vegetable to try.
All her meals have a Nigerian base, but she likes to experiment and she has learned to improvise for the things that are not in the African store. Baking potatoes for ede. Spinach for ugu. She even figured out how to make farina cereal so it had the consistency of fufu, before Father taught her the way to the African store where there is cassava flour. She no longer refuses to buy frozen pizza and fries, but she still grunts when I eat them, still says that they suck blood, such bad food. Each day she cooks a new soup, which is almost every day, she makes me eat it. She watches as I mold the fufu into reluctant balls and dip them in the chunky soup, she even watches my throat while I swallow, as if to see the balls go down and stay down.
I think she likes it when the people I call our accidental guests come, because they are always over-enthusiastic about her cooking. They are always Nigerians, always new to America. They look up names in the phone book, looking for Nigerians. The Igbo ones tell Father how refreshing it was to see Eze, an Igbo name, after streams of the Yoruba Adebisis and Ademolas. But of course, they add while wolfing down Mother’s fried plantains, in America every Nigerian is your brother.
When Mother makes me come out to greet them, I speak English to their Igbo, thinking that they should not be here, that they are here only because of the accident of our being Nigerian. They usually stay only a few days until they figure out what to do, Father is adamant about that. And until they go, I never speak Igbo to them.
Cathy likes to come over to meet them. She is fascinated by them. She talks to them, asks them about their lives in Nigeria. Those people love to talk about victimhood – how they suffered at the hands of soldiers, bosses, husbands, in-laws. Cathy has too much sympathy in my opinion, once she even gave a resume to her Mother who gave it to someone else who employed the Nigerian. Cathy is cool. She is the only person I can really talk to, but sometimes I think she shouldn’t spend so much time with our accidental guests because she starts to sound like Mother, without the scolding tone, when she says things like, You should be proud of your accent and your country. I say yes, I’m proud of America. I’m American even if I still only have a green card.
She says it about Matt too. How I shouldn’t try too hard to be American for him because if he was real, he’d like me anyway (this because I used to make her say words so I would practice and get the right American inflections. I wish Nigeria hadn’t been a British colony, its so hard to lose the way they stress their words on the wrong syllables). Please. I have seen Matt laugh at the Indian boy with the name that nobody can pronounce. The poor kid’s accent is so thick he can’t even say his name audibly – at least that’s one person I’m better than. Matt doesn’t even know my name is Ralindu. He knows my parents are from Africa and thinks Africa is a country, and that’s about it. It was the sparkling stud in his left ear that struck me at first. Now it is everything about him, even the way he walks, throwing his legs way in front of his body.
It took a while before he noticed me. Cathy helped, she’d walk boldly up to him and ask him to sit with us at lunch. One day she asked, ‘Lin is hot isn’t she?’ And he said yes. She doesn’t like him though. But then, Cathy and I don’t like the same things, its what makes our friendship so real.
Mother used to be cautious about Cathy. She’d say, “Ngwa, don’t stay too long at their house. Don’t eat there either. They might think that we have no food of our own.” She really thought Americans have the same stupid hang-ups people back home have. You did not visit people all the time unless they reciprocated, unless it would seem as though you were not gracious. You did not eat at people’s homes multiple times if they had not eaten at yours. Please.
She even made me stop going over for a month or so, about two years ago. It was our first summer here. My school had a family cook-out. Father was on call so Mother and I went alone. I wondered if Mother used the dark saucers on her face she calls eyes, couldn’t she see that Americans wore shorts and T-shirts in the summer? She wore a stiff dress, blue with white wide lapels. She stood with the other mothers, all chic in shorts and T-shirts, and looked like the clueless woman who overdressed for the barbecue. I avoided her most of the time. There were a number of black mothers there, so any of them could have been my mother.
At dinner that evening, I told her, “Cathy’s Mother asked me to call her Miriam.” She looked up, a question in her eyes. “Miriam is her first name,” I said. Then I plunged in quickly, “I think Cathy should call you Chika.” Mother continued to chew a chunk of meat from her soup silently. Then she looked up. Dark eyes blazed across the table, Igbo words burst out. “Do you want me to slap the teeth out of your mouth? Since when have little children called their elders by their first name?” I said sorry and looked down to mold my fufu extra-carefully. Looking her in the eyes usually prompted her to follow up on her threats.
I couldn’t go to Cathy’s for a month after that but Mother let Cathy come over. Cathy would join Mother and me in the kitchen, and sometimes she and Mother would talk for hours without me. Now Cathy doesn’t say Hi to Mother, she says Good Afternoon or Good Morning because Mother told her that is how Nigerian children greet adults. Also, she doesn’t call Mother Mrs. Eze, she calls her Aunty.
She thinks a lot of things about Mother are great. Like the way she walks. Regal. Or the way she speaks. Melodious. (Mother doesn’t even make an effort to say things the American way. She still says boot instead of trunk for Gods sake.)
Or Mother hugging me when I got my period. Such a warm thing to do. Her Mother simply said oh and they went out and bought pads and panties. When Mother hugged me though, two years ago, pressing me close as though I won a big race, I didn’t think it was a warm gesture at all. I wanted to push her away, she smelled sour, like onugbu soup.
She said what a blessing it was, how I would bear children some day, how I had to keep my legs closed together so I didn’t bring shame on her. I knew she would call Nigeria later and tell my aunts and Mama Nnukwu and then they would talk about the strong children I would bear someday, the good husband I would find.
* * *
Matt is coming over today, we are writing a paper together. Mother has been walking up and down the house. In Nigeria, girls make friends with girls and boys make friend with boys. With a girl and a boy, it is not just friends, It is something more. I tell Mother its different in America and she says she knows. She places a plate of fresh-fried chin-chin on the dining table, where Matt and I will work. When she goes back upstairs, I take the chin-chin into the kitchen. I can imagine Matt’s face as he says, what the hell is that? Mother comes out and puts the chin-chin back. “It is for your guest,” she says.
The phone rings and I pray that it will keep her long. The doorbell rings, and there is Matt, earring glittering, holding a folder.
Matt and I study for a while. Mother comes in and when he says hi, she stares at him, pauses then says, “How are you?” She asks if we are almost done, in Igbo, and I before I say yes, I pause for a long moment so Matt won’t think I understand Igbo so easily. Mother goes upstairs and shuts her door.
“Lets go to your room, and listen to a CD,” Matt says, after a while. “My rooms a mess,” I say instead of “My mom would never let a boy in my room.” “Lets go to the couch then. I’m tired.” We sit on the couch and he puts a hand under my T-shirt. I hold his hand. “Just through my shirt.”
“Come on,” he says. His breathing is as urgent as his voice. I let go and his hand snakes under my shirt, encloses a breast sheathed in a nylon bra. Then, quickly, it weaves its way to my back and unhooks my bra. Matt is good, even I cannot unhook my bra that quickly with one hand. His hand snakes back and encloses the bare breast. I moan, because it feels good and I know that is what I am supposed to do. In the movies, the women’s faces always turn rapt right about this point.
He’s frenetic now, like he has a malaria fever. He pushes me back, pulls my shirt up so it bunches around my neck, takes my bra off. I feel a sudden coolness on my exposed upper body. Sticky warm moistness on my breast. I once read a book where a man sucked his wife’s breast so hard he left nothing for the baby. Matt is sucking like that man.
Then I hear a door open. I grab Matt’s head up and pull my shirt on in the space of a second. My bra, startling white against the tan leather furniture, is blinking at me. I shove it behind the sofa just as Mother walks in.
“Isn’t it time for your guest to leave?” she asks in Igbo.
I am afraid to look at Matt, I am afraid he will have milk on his lips. “He was just leaving,” I say, in English. Mother continues to stand there. I say to Matt, “I guess you better get going.” He is standing, picking up papers from the table. “Yeah. Good night.”
Mother stands motionless, looking at us both.
“He was talking to you, Mother. He said goodnight.”
She nods, arms folded, staring. Suddenly a burst of Igbo words. Was I crazy to have a boy stay that long? She thought I had good sense! When did we leave the dining table and come to the couch? Why were we sitting so close?
Matt shuffles to the door as she talks. His sneaker laces have come undone and flap as he walks. “See you later,” he says at the door.
Mother finds the bra behind the couch almost immediately She stares at it for a long time before she asks me to go to my room. She comes up a moment later. Her lips are clenched tight.
“Yipu efe gi,” she says. Take your clothes off. I watch her, surprised, but I slowly undress. “Everything,” she says when she sees that I still have my panties on. “Sit on the bed, spread your legs.”
My heart beats wildly in my ears. I settle on the bed, spread-eagled. She comes closer, kneels before me, and I see what she is holding. Ose Nsukka, the hot, twisted peppers that Mama Nnukwu sends dried from Nigeria, in little bottles that originally held curry or thyme. “Mother! No!”
“Do you see this pepper?” She asks. “Do you see it? This is what they do to girls who are promiscuous, this is what they do to girls who do not use the brain in their heads, but the one between their legs.”
She brings the pepper so close that I pee right there, and feel the warm wetness on the mattress. But she doesn’t put it in.
She is shouting in Igbo. I watch her, the way her charcoal eyes gleam with tears, and I wish I was Cathy. Cathy’s Mom apologizes after she punishes Cathy. She asks Cathy to go to her room, she grounds Cathy for a few hours or at most, a day.
The next day, Matt says, laughing, “Your mom weirded me out last night. She’s a crazy ass African!”
My lips feel too stiff to laugh. He is looking at some other girl as we talk.