It still surprises me when people here marvel at my English. Living in Lagos, Nigeria as part of a society labeled as developing by the “first-world,” the unwritten mandate given to us was to always strive to advance to the levels of the western world. For a typical citizen of Nigeria, it would not be far-fetched to expect citizens of these western countries to hold some knowledge of a foreign part of the world like where we originate, but that is where we are mistaken.
Moving from Nigeria, or any other country on the African continent, to the US represents a change of culture that is so drastic and daunting that many students tend to struggle with the new environment they are placed in. My personal battles ranged from a striking change in work expectations, to heightened personal responsibilities, an internal struggle to preserve the cultural identity I had developed all of my life, and the dreaded winter. Waking myself up every day in the negative degree weather which I really could not stand, to go to some classes that did not necessarily interest me became my daily routine. Coupled with the fact I now went by my middle name, Simon, I felt very strange within myself. The jokes, the pop culture references, and the previous things I thought to be simple were all different.
The only reason I chose to go by my middle name from the start was the social anxiety that easily crept through me as I tried to actually make people correctly say and get my first name right. “Mobolaji” was always what sparked conversations with the new people I met as a freshman from my residence hall to Church, and eventually I would intentionally veer the conversation away from my origins and culture to something else. What better way to do this than to switch from Mobolaji to Simon? I mean, Simon was what was on my passport so I thought it would be an easy transition, but I was wrong.
Uzo Aduba of Orange is the New Black once complained to her Nigerian mother that the Americans could not pronounce her full name properly so she needed a nickname, but her mother quickly rebuked her saying that if they could learn the tough Russian names, and the adapted western European ones, why not hers? I wish I learned of this before I came to the states. The unintentional consequence of going by Simon was the stripping of who I was before. Simon was different from Mobolaji; Mobolaji was a Yoruba, Lagos-raised boy with a knack for the silliest schemes and a love for all things football. While Simon might have been all these same things, but really going by something else while adapting to a new culture did not make the situation any easier.
What I have learnt while living in the States is to be always be true to yourself, and remember where you came from in addition to how societies differ. It was important for me to understand why someone I encountered may not have heard of Nigeria in the past, or be unable to locate it on a map. It is important to know and understand why people may be surprised at why people from Africa speak other languages. Once you grasp these reasons then it becomes easier to be comfortable with who you are and assume the position of someone willing to educate and engage, rather than run away or hide an identity.
Three years down the road driving around in a Lyft attempting some small-talk with my driver, that unavoidable accent that comes with living in the US brings about different variations of essentially the same question: “I noticed you have an accent, where are you from?” Nigeria, is and always will be my answer, the pride and smile evident on my face. If you are foreign, do not be afraid or shy of your otherness. For, it is most likely central to who you are, and what you can grow up to be.