People sometimes ask me what it was like to grow up as a 1st generation American. (And by people, I mean I was specifically asked to do a write up on my experiences growing up as a 1st generation American.) I can usually come up with some fun, wordy, impressive response, but in reality I can sum it up in one word. Growing up as a 1stGen was…
That’s it. It was isolating. Sometimes painfully isolating, though I didn’t want to admit it. Few people – if anyone – in your environment can relate to or understand what you’re going through or your experience. And you feel like an “other” at the one time in your life when you just want to blend in with the crowd. Also, I grew up never feeling good enough.
…Not good enough for the Africans/Nigerians because I was born and raised in the US.
You don’t speak the language.
You can’t cook the food – I learned much later than my Nigerian-born counterparts.
And you had a “privileged life”. – Whatever it was, it wasn’t a 3rd world upbringing.
…Not good enough for the African-Americans because I wasn’t one of them & they remind you of it at every opportunity.
The kid with the weird name.
Why do your parents wear ‘those clothes’ to church?
Does your family own an elephant? (real question)
And worse I found myself defending both sides against attacks from the other – even though neither would do the same for me.
“African-Americans aren’t lazy. There are structural and institutional barriers in place that make it more challenging for them to excel.”
“Africans aren’t un-necessarily mean/rude. They’re defensive because they’ve felt discriminated against by African-Americans and yes, they think you’ve squandered the many resources that are available to you – but mainly they don’t understand.”
One of the more confusing parts of my childhood was how isolated and confused I felt when I first started to attend a school that was primarily white. The racism from the white kids was expected. The racism from the black kids was not. But it set the tone. I was on my own in this struggle. No one cared about my problems. And no one would sympathize.
So how does a 1stGen thrive as an “other”?
1. You learn to accept who you are and to stop apologizing for it.
– ‘I can’t speak my native language because my parents didn’t teach it to me, but I’ve heard it enough to understand it…. aaaaand I know what you’re saying.’
– ‘No, I don’t speak “African”, do you speak “American”? Oh.’
Ha! So basically I learned to become a defiant, smart ass. Shrug.
2. You figure out the gaps and find a way to fill them or ignore them. An on-going challenge was figuring out how to balance being both a Nigerian-American and an African-American. And it always manifested itself for me during Black History Month.
See BHM is really “African-American” History month. There’s a difference there that few acknowledge (especially in the primarily White neighborhood I lived in during high-school). But because I’m Black, I was still lumped in with all of the African-Americans even though I literally knew nothing about African-American history. I was expected to participate in a month that celebrated a culture that no one had bothered to teach me (obviously not my parents – it wasn’t their history & obviously not the public school system – obviously). It also didn’t help that my family (parents, aunts, and uncles) consistently reiterated that I wasn’t a Black-American, I was a Nigerian-American. Even though I am Black and was literally born and raised inAmerica. #sigh (And no. Africans don’t use the term “African-American”.)
In my frustration, I started out rejecting both. Then I chose one, but eventually I embraced both and willingly carried the weight of learning about both of my cultures on my own.
(Also, my mother never helped me with my History homework (Pilgrims, Mayflower, etc.). Her literal response was ‘That’s not my history.’ [end scene]) Looking back, her response was hilarious. But at the time it was frustrating because I really just needed help with my homework. — I needed to get that out. —
3. If you’re lucky, you connect with other 1stGens and share stories about your experiences. It doesn’t matter which race, ethnicity, or culture – we can all relate to this unique experience. For me, college was great for this. My school had what to me was a large population of 1stGen Africans and West Indians and I LIVED for it. I couldn’t believe that my experience wasn’t just MY experience. Other people had been through it.
Parents and their “creative” punishments. The things you were punished for to begin with. Ignorant questions from friends. The threats of being sent back ‘home’. Rarely inviting friends to your house because you don’t want to explain the parts of your culture that at the time even you didn’t understand and found strange. Every single traditional event & how unbelievably long they are.
It was great. And it helped me figure out how to embrace BOTH of my cultures/identities and how to merge them in a way that worked for me without discounting either.
4. You start to see the benefits. Basically, we’re better than everyone else. 🙂 Why? Because my life is a case study for navigating through cross-cultural interactions and environments. I am a mask-switching maven. Also, we get double of everything. Twice the culture: food (baked mac & cheese AND jollof rice), music (R&B and Highlife), movies, stories, history, dancing. We get it all. And if you have 2, then we have 3. Basically – we always win.
Did it make growing up easier? No, but I got through it and eventually found my community. To this day, I LOVE talking to other 1stGens and sharing our “war” stories. Telling jokes we don’t even have to finish because we know how they end – while others just look on and try to catch on. I’m part of a small minority. An overlooked minority. But we have each other and our stories and our blog posts and our memes and our YouTube videos – and as long as we can laugh at and about them together…. I’m good. The isolation is gone and I figured out how to balance and embrace both of my identities. That was all I needed and wanted.
Basically, the first 45 seconds of this >>