Lost in America – Coming to America!
by Ikhide R. Ikheloa
I don’t know why I came to America. The year was 1982. Nigeria was a world super power, our embassies all over the world routinely denied white people visas to come to Nigeria (yes, we did!). Sisi Clara at the embassy in Washington DC would take one withering look at the pale jelly fish quivering in her presence at the embassy, stamp a lusty DENIED! on his passport and shoo him off with the sage words: “Gerraway jo! Olosi! Your father will not see Nigeria, your mother will not see Nigeria! You will not see the yansh of Nigeria! Olosi! Olori buruku! Moose from Alaska!” And the wimp would slink off wailing: “I want to go to Nigeria! Waaaaaaaaah!” Those were the days. The Naira was stronger than the American dollar and university graduates were paid N300 a month. That was a lot of money in those days. I would know. So, my friend Fat Stanley and I were really enjoying life. We walked around telling people that we were university graduates and people gave us things for being graduates; their money, their daughters, their chickens and their goats. Sometimes they tried to give us their wives. Life was good. The Gulder was flowing, the suya was on the barbecue grill everyday, man, life was good.
So, I don’t know why I came to America. I am a Nigerian in America. I have been a Nigerian since escaping to America. I have been trying not to be an American since I came to America. The harder I try, the worse it gets, this Nigerianness. There was no reason for me to leave Nigeria. It was 1982, Nigeria was a world super-power, richer than even America. My best friend was Fat Stanley and we were members of a posse of irresponsible Nigerian youths. We were irresponsible because there was nothing to be responsible for and about. Anything we wanted, our parents gladly gave to us. But we were miserable; America was calling out to our restless souls. In Nigeria, like most Nigerians, I did not enjoy being a Nigerian. I wanted to come to America to be an American. Fat Stanley wrote me long letters about the heaven called America and the nightclubs and the women. He wrote about enchanting evenings with American women spent on a strange American activity called a “date”, a ritual that seemed to involve spending dollars. But not to worry, Fat Stanley wrote, the dollars are there. He wrote me in the winters of his exile and my despair and sent me pictures of himself, plump, well fed, leaning on his Cadillac, his winter jacket draped in the dreamy white of snow flakes. He complained a lot in his letters: about the stress of having so many girlfriends, white, black and brown! White girlfriends! He complained about the sex, sex, sex, too much of it, because, you guessed it, he had too many girlfriends! He complained about the food, the chicken that you could have all to yourself, how boring! And the turkeys, he said were of the mutant varieties, giant birds that would make our Nigerian turkeys look like distressed pigeons. I cried and refused to be consoled until my family, actually, my entire village came together and stole enough gofment money to take me to America.
And then I came to America. It was great to see Fat Stanley. For ten minutes. And then I found out a few things about Fat Stanley and America. The Cadillac was not his. Fat Stanley loved taking colored pictures of himself posing by other people’s cars in the parking lot of American shopping malls. Even the winter jacket was not his. Fat Stanley no longer liked us holding hands with me for long walks, any walk, even like we used to do over and over back home in Nigeria. He said it was too gay, whatever that meant. Fat Stanley got one thing right though; there were lots of huge women. I vividly remember my first iyawo. Her right arm alone weighed more than all of my skinny little self and she ate like a starved elephant. Fat Stanley’s Nigerian accent was no longer his. He spoke like a masquerade – through his nose and with his tongue tied in several alien knots. I loved that part about him. I loved his new accent. I simply could not wait to sound like him.
When I first came to America, whenever I opened my mouth, Only Fat Stanley could understand me. Americans avoided conversations with me; they would bribe me with hamburgers not to talk to them. My lecturers promised me top grades if I didn’t raise my hand in class; it was just too stressful for them to decode my guttural sounds. My situation was very stressful to Fat Stanley. Each time, I opened my mouth, Fat Stanley would whine thusly: “Abeg arrange your mouth! Dem nor go understand you!” Fat Stanley told me I had to take accent reduction classes if I was to survive in America. I took the accent reduction classes in Mazi Okezie Ekene Dili Chukwu’s one-room “apartment.” Mazi Chuck as we called him had been in America for twenty years; he spoke like a Made-in-Aba American. I liked that. I took his classes and now no one understands my accent. Not even me. Whenever I open my mouth, Americans coo “I love your accent! Is that British?” I find this habit racist, definitely aggravating. The people that irritate me the most are the Nigerians that come to the restaurant where I work. They step into my fast food restaurant and even though my name tag says JEFF (not my real name, long story, you won’t understand, trust me!) these bad belle messiahs would go “Nna men, na where you come from?” I always say Pittsburgh! They don’t like that. But who cares? Fat Stanley and I are still here, middle-aged dreamers luxuriating in the wretched promise of America’s love that never shows up. Fat Stanley is now simply Stanley, gone scrawny from shoveling snow and America’s bullshit off his driveway and his dreams. But who cares? We are Americans!