Anuka Emezulike is an immigrant who arrives in the United States for her Master’s program and receives appointment to teach College English to undergraduates. Her students are young, well-behaved, eager to learn, quick to smile. They make the teaching job easy for her, make it easy to settle into the new education system. The semester draws to a close and the Student Evaluations are assigned and returned. One of her students writes that Anuka is their best teacher for the semester, but wished that she spoke in a different accent. Anuka knows that this different accent, this preferred one, is the American accent.
A new semester strolls by, and Anuka tries speaking English with an American accent, not minding she has been in America barely a year. She tells herself it is to ensure a smooth learning environment, so that her students can understand her clearly. But she chides herself as she realizes how fake she sounds. She decides that her students must make effort to understand her Nigerian accent, just as she does their American accent. It is important to point out here that accent is loosely used in this essay in reference to difference in culture, mannerism, language, personality, and an overall difference of outlook on the world.
Still struggling internally to get the reins of her life in the new environment, Anuka receives another jolt when, in one of the courses she takes, her professor, whom she admires, and who has been otherwise amiable, tells her during a workshop class that being Americans, the class does not understand the kind of story she has written, and her classmates, who are all Americans, share an uncomfortable silence in deference to the professor. Anuka’s stories employ fluid movement from the English language to Igbo in code-switching and code-mixing, and has characters who are from her culture, with names her professor says are too difficult to pronounce. Anuka wonders if by saying that, the professor is implying that Americans are either too dumb or too self-absorbed to understand and interact with other cultures. She wonders why her professor feels the need to be a spokesperson for all Americans. She thinks of pointing this out to her professor but holds her tongue––there are many paths to the stream, many ways to address the issue.
Being different from the mainstream culture situates the immigrant into the identity of the ‘other’ who must try to maintain composure against the disorientation faced in a new culture which has an unspoken demand to remold the designated ‘other.’ Anuka, as a Nigerian, is a child of two worlds. She comes from a borderland, a place where she is part of her former English colonizers yet removed from them. She straddles the two very different worlds of the ethnic Igbo group of West Africa, and the world of her former English colonizers; she speaks English, and also speaks Igbo, but identifies more with the latter language to which she owes her identity. Anuka is torn between pride in her difference and awareness that this difference sets her apart from the new culture. She suffers a crisis of polarized identity, is torn between feelings of guilt and betrayal, thinking that to survive in her new environment and be accepted, she has to yield to it and bear whatever consequences that arise.
The Igbo language cements itself on her tongue and by extension, her stories, and claims ownership. It bears force on the English language to bring forth a new order–Ngili-Igbo. Ngili-Igbo is a product of the tug-of-war between the Igbo and English languages in the mouth of an Igbo individual, where both languages fight for supremacy of place in speech formation. Igbo insists it has a high stake on its native speaker’s tongue because the speaker’s tongue is moulded from its soil. English cannot deny that truth, so it makes a suggestion: the Igbo language can render English words with Igbo inflections, but it must give it a new name––Ngili-Igbo, and divorce itself from the language canon. Disregarding the latter demand, it is this otherwise democratic arrangement the American culture makes an unspoken demand on Anuka to do away with if she is to be accepted into the fold. What choice does the immigrant have? Melt away or stay the course?
America found itself in a similar situation years ago. After independence, and desperate to be as different from its mother as was possible, the new country coined new manners of speaking and reversed meanings of English words. In 1828, in pursuant to a distinct identity for the American people, Noah Webster wrote the American Dictionary of the English Language where he showed preference for or, er, ize, endings of certain words as against the our, re, ise spellings in the mother language, so that the British looked down on the new language. For instance, nouns like trunk, boot, hoodand bonnet, mean different things in the American and British Englishes, nouns like elevator and lift, mean same thing but communicated with different symbols. So, America understood that to be autonomous, it had to wean its tongue, it had to create its own language. Just as America converted the English language to itself and formed an American accent, a Nigerian immigrant should speak English with any of Nigeria’s many accents, like the Igbo accent, the Hausa accent, the Yoruba accent, or the many others from the over 250 language groups that has a home in Nigeria. The colonizing enterprise of the British world gives impetus to a pluriversal rendering or interpretation of the English language.
Anuka’s stories have characters who speak English like this: “Go and bring the salt, osiso!” “Before I close my eyes and open them, let it be that you have gone to the market and come back, if not, kitikpa a lacha gi anya!” How can these expressions be made readily available to native speakers of the English language without losing their identity, their beauty, and essence? What can the immigrant do?
Gloria Anzaldua, in her book Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza, theorizes on the concept of borders as it pertains to her experiences as a woman straddling the Texas-U.S Southwest/Mexican border. She also uses border as a concept beyond its geographical implication to mean the psychological situation that exists: “Wherever two or more cultures edge each other, where people of different races occupy the same territory.” As she rightly says, it is not a comfortable place to live in because, “hatred, anger and exploitation are prominent features of this landscape.” The creation of the yardstick to measure and differentiate the ‘centre’ from the ‘other’ is what she calls the border and this border is set up to “define the places that are safe and unsafe, to distinguish us from them.” This ‘othering’ ensures that the issue of belonging is fraught with tensions and so will be found lacking despite the inclusive culture institutions try to uphold or encourage across all quarters, as inclusivity goes beyond ensuring that all races have representation in government, university admissions board, or as the case may be.
But it is not a clear-cut black or white situation, Anuka will point out. The new culture has been good to her. It offered her full tuition waiver worth thousands of dollars, something she never could have taken care of on her own, and something her own country never did for her, which, when she told her mother on the phone, made her mother break into an Igbo song of thanksgiving. It also gave her a job––her first serious job since her National Youth Service four years ago. These make her think she can conquer the world. Also, her professors, save for that one slip, are thoughtful and carry every student along, centred or bordered. So perhaps, that could explain why she is torn between what to accept and what to reject––she feels she has to yield to the subtle demand, in gratitude, but will also be betraying her identity if she did.
Everyday, before she goes to bed, her mother calls to know how she is faring.
“I am doing great, Chy,” Anuka always says, brightly, lifting her voice to convince her mother that she is indeed doing great. She calls her mother by her first name whenever she wants to be playful and get her to smile, and because the relationship between them is more of sister/sister than mother/daughter. But the silence that stretches after her response would tell her that her mother isn’t convinced.
“Gwa m eziokwu.” Tell me the truth, her mother would continue to prod, listening intently like a detective, for clues that her daughter was doing well far away from her.
“Eziokwu kwa?” Anuka would laugh. “There is no lie to tell here, Mummy. I am doing very great.” She would drag the ‘very’ in a sing-song, silently praying that her mother would drop the inquiry, because she was in America, what else could she be but great? She couldn’t tell her mother that she had begun to question what she came to America to do.
“Do you still have food? Our food, I mean?” her mother would ask, and Anuka would say yes, even though that wasn’t true, and she had begun to visit food pantries for food. Thank God the food is free, and thank God America thinks of everything, she would say each time she returned to her apartment with a load of free food. The last time she had restocked on foodstuff from an African food store so she could make jollof rice for her students, she had sworn never to visit there again. Items at the store were too expensive! She was running low on food and money, but she didn’t tell her mother that.
As their conversation drags on, her mother would fill her in on news from home about this and that relative; the women’s meeting she went to in their hometown last week; how well her arthritic legs were responding to treatment, Anuka would marvel each time, in the darkness of her room, at the thousands of miles of distance that separated them now, that made one of them sleep while the other was just waking up to a new day. She would be overwhelmed by it all, and ask herself over and over again what she was doing here. What she was doing all alone in a country that was miles away from home.
Anuka, as all immigrants with similar feelings of displacement, go through what Gloria Anzaldua calls ‘psychic restlessness’ which arises from disorientation that leaves in its wake “ambivalence, indecisiveness, insecurity, and perplexity,” and I would add, mental instability, and the resulting need to latch onto what is familiar in order to survive, “to keep intact one’s shifting and multiple identity and integrity.” Immigrants like Anuka, feel the ground pulled from underneath them and must find ways to hold on or cave in. Anuka’s professor, by that unguarded slip, pushes Anuka to the periphery where she has to decide between casting off her native clothes and donning on the one the host culture hands her. She makes Anuka wonder if she is in the right class after all, and not wasting time with people who cannot make effort to understand her stories, or at the very least reach out to Google for help.
The issue of accent which is emblematic of this situation is a rude awakening for Anuka. Anuka’s accent sets her as outsider owing to circumscribed paradigms set in place to mark her brand of English as unacceptable. The questioning look she receives when she speaks, the laughter she finds lurking in the eyes of her listeners, thrusts her into a psychic battle she must fight, against the demand of silence covertly imposed by the self-styled centre culture. According to Anzaldua, one method of silencing bordered or othered cultures which contributes to this psychic restlessness, “is the refusal of the dominant culture to take seriously the perspectives of those marginalized.” In a poetry class, Anuka creates a two-lined poem using an Igbo proverb as material which she then transliterates into the English language. A white male classmate in his appraisal of it, calls it ‘stupid’ to the hearing of everybody, who did not call him out, perhaps because they are in agreement. So, in this landscape of difference, the immigrant voice is either marked as ‘other’, ‘stupid.’ This silencing from the dominant culture also finds bordered individuals silencing themselves in turn and caving in to feelings of insignificance. As Anzaldua points out, the imbibing of this conflict arising from the culture clash, makes Anuka wallow in a pool of worthlessness, as she realises that authenticity is not a virtue expected or admired at the border, or at least, from what she has experienced around her.
Simone de Beauvoir argues that one isn’t born a woman, one becomes one. Similarly, one isn’t born othered, one becomes othered. Anuka was not aware of her accent until she moved to the United States. Just as patriarchy demands certain characteristics from a woman (sweet, quiet, peace-loving, submissive, motherly), and views all qualities contrary to these as deviants, the self-styled dominant culture demands submission from the other.
But to say all this does not answer the question of how an immigrant can find a sense of belonging in a new culture, or how both cultures can co-habit in peace or assumed peace without the one trying to deface the other. Or better still, how both cultures can learn from one another.
In Making Faces, Making Souls, Anzaldua meditates on what she calls haciendo caras, which translates to making faces. To make a face implies hiding behind a true identity. Changing faces means to “acquire the ability, like a chameleon, to change color when the dangers are many and the options few.” Although this encourages inauthenticity, the concept agrees with the proverb that says, to withstand the wind and not break, one must bend to it like the bamboo.Making faces entails dancing to the rhythms of the new drums and discarding the face when alone; that is, taking on the mannerisms of the host culture, and doing away with it when away from the situation that demands it. As Anzaldua points out, the mask is used to control, conceal, and endure the new reality, and to escape from oneself. But if Anuka is not an actor by trade, she will find this an emotional nail-pull. So, what other suggestion is there?
Anzaldua offers four metaphors as devices to create connections, or create faces between people with cultural differences. These are the Island, the Drawbridge, the Bridge, and the Sandbar. The Island state of mind, just like the name implies, offers no means of connection between peoples of different cultures. One is an island if she/he runs from connection and closes off from difference. In a ceremony organized by her school, Anuka looks at the line-up of buffet of foods she had never eaten and asks her colleague, Alice, what the congealed cream-colored substance on one of the trays is. Alice, looking incredulous, tells her: “That is mac and cheese.” Anuka says matter-of-fact that she has never had it, and Alice’s eyebrows arch upward in wonder, making Anuka almost blurt out: Alice in wonderland. “You mean you’ve never had mac and cheese? That’s odd,” Alice says, scooping a spoon into her plate, and moving to the next tray. Anuka feels attacked and decides to defend herself. She asks Alice if she has had egusi soup and pounded yam before. “No, what’s that?” Alice responds. “My point exactly,” Anuka smiles and walks away with a lift to her gait, happy she dished it back. This is the Island state of mind. Anuka and Alice, by being defensive and closed-off respectively, create no space where both can learn from each other. Anuka loses out on the opportunity of trying new food at that moment, while Alice loses out on teaching a non-American the American food culture. Although this state of being offers no opportunity for connections, it does offer a place where the immigrant can build a thick skin needed to survive the attacks that accompany issues of difference. Anuka’s come-back serves this purpose, as this position also offers options for rage and resistance against the dominant culture.
But Anuka has a different experience with her students who enjoy the jollof rice she makes them on each last day of class to mark the end of each semester. Even though the spiciness makes them sniffle and makes their faces turn red, they nod to the Nigerian Afrobeat music she plays on her laptop to simulate the festive Nigerian spirit. Although they mildly complain the food did not keep to the spice tolerance level they requested (Anuka used very little spice!), they tell her how happy they are to taste spicy Nigerian food!
To adopt the option of the Drawbridge is to move between options. One can choose to connect with the different culture and retreat for self-preservation, like making faces proposes. Like the drawbridge, individuals can choose to be drawn up, to retreat, or lay down their guards and connect. One of Anuka’s students was fond of showing her little finger while saying: “I pinky promise this will not happen again,” if she was late to class, and even though Anuka wondered what made the promise pink, she learned to say it to them too, although she knew taking her index finger to the ground and bringing it to lightly touch her tongue while she said, “True to God,” was more binding. But she made sure to maintain that unique Nigerian sensibility when she spoke with family and friends back home. Like the drawbridge, Anuka set aside that Nigerian way so as to connect with the host culture. Her students, also, for trying to enjoy a food that was alien to their tastebuds equally belong to this consciousness.
The Sandbar, as a consciousness, according to Anzaldua, offers fluid movement, and “allows for possibility of shifting emphasis and not always makes a bridge available.” It suggests the choice of who and what to allow into one’s space, that is, who to make connections with, and also offers more freedom than the other options on what faces to make at specific times, according to one’s need. The immigrant, like Anuka, can choose to make connections with specific individuals in the centre who express genuine interest in and acceptance of the difference between them. In this way, Anuka’s professor, the white male classmate who regarded her poem as stupid, and her colleague, Alice, are examples of individuals not to make such connections with.
Being a Bridge entails being available to connect with different cultures at all times. Since this seems to be draining, the immigrant who chooses this option has to determine how satisfying the benefits of this availability are, and if they’d rather not choose to be anything else.
While these metaphors serve as inductive guides to individuals on the border on how to navigate the murky waters of displacement, it is by no means for them alone. While Anuka and other immigrants can choose to stay on the island for as long as they are able to build the strong defence needed for the eventual time they draw down their bridges to interact with the new culture, the self-styled dominant culture likewise, can emulate the metaphor of the drawbridge. It can genuinely connect with other cultures and not view them as stupid, or insignificant, or situate them in the margins of other. It can learn, according to Chinua Achebe, that “diversity is not an abnormality but the very reality (and uniqueness) of our planet” and that the right to self-determination is the inalienable right of every individual.
But enough with this ‘othering’ and ‘bordering.’ It is highly imperative that the ‘othered’ individual shirks that cloth to say: “I am the Center!”
About the Author:
Chinonyelum Anyichie holds a Bachelor’s degree in English and Literature from Nnamdi Azikiwe University, Awka, Anambra State, and a Master’s degree in English (Literature) from the University of Ibadan, Oyo State. She is currently an MFA candidate in Fiction at Wichita State University, USA. Chinonyelum is an Elizabeth George Foundation grant recipient, and is currently working on her debut work of fiction. Her work has appeared in Brittle Paper, SoroSoke: An EndSars Anthology, The Shallow Tales Review, and forthcoming in others.
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