Ijeoma Kola wearing AU Gold Top with a fiddle leaf fig plant

Never Nigerian Enough: Reflections on Being a Third Culture Kid

There are a few things that trigger me. When people say that I sound white. When people suggest that I HAVE to do something (the only people who can tell me what to do are the two people who brought me into this world, and even still, I don’t HAVE to listen to them). When people don’t believe that I was born in Nigeria. And when people say that I’m not really Nigerian for xyz reason.

Aside from people telling me what to do, most of my triggers have to do with questions about my identity, the core summary of who I am. A Nigerian woman raised in the United States currently living in Kenya. So when, earlier this week, I saw social media posts suggesting that anyone who hadn’t posted about the anti-SARS protests in Nigeria was not a real Nigerian, I was definitely triggered.

Being a third culture kid is lonely. You never quite fit into your new country because your parents still raise you with the habits, traditions, and expectations of their home. My mom threaded my hair when I was in elementary school, and my schoolmates called me Medusa during recess. I didn’t even know who Medusa was at first, so it didn’t bother me, until I went home and looked her up in our copy of the Encyclopedia Brittanica. I was told that I smelled like fish, which in retrospect was a fair point, as the stockfish that is used to make many of our staple soups is quite strong. The aspects of my culture that intrigued and excited people when I was growing up were the ones that were loosely relevant to my everyday life, like the fact that my great-uncle is an “eze,” the king of a village (a fun fact forever immortalized by my original AIM account and first email address: nigerianprincess1023). Or the ones that were plain fantasy, like the idea that people in Africa lived in huts with lions.

Then when you go back to visit your home country, people make fun of you for sounding like “onye bekee” (white person) or “akata” (Black person) when you talk. Your desperate attempts to immerse yourself in a language that is difficult to retain without having many people to speak it with, is met with laughter and mockery. When I was 14 or so, I went to Nigeria for Christmas and went to get my nails done in a salon in Umuahia. The women in the salon, all adults, made fun of me in Igbo for at least 30 minutes straight, until I finally meekly blurted out “ana m anụ ife ụnụ na-ekwu,” meaning “I can understand what you’re saying.” Until now, I am often nervous and embarrassed to speak Igbo with others besides my family, worried that I’ll stumble over my words and hear those four words that have plagued me my entire life: “you’re not really Nigerian.”

Now that I live in Kenya, being a Nigerian raised in America (I’m no longer Nigerian-American until 45 is out of office), is an even more complex identity met with its own sets of challenges and disappointments. When people speak to me in Swahili and I tell them I don’t understand because I’m not Kenyan, they are often surprised, and hesitant to believe, that I’m originally from Nigeria. Once I say my name, my story is more believable, but then people ask me about life in Lagos or whether I’ve seen their favorite Nollywood film (spoiler alert, I probably haven’t because I’m too busy watching The Home Edit). I then have to explain that yes, I’m Nigerian, but no, I haven’t lived in Nigeria for an extensive period of time, so I can’t really speak to how life is there. I’m often met with confusion, and then dismissal: oh well then you’re American, not Nigerian.

Now that I have a child and am raising him, at least for the time being, in a land that is neither my first or second home, I feel immense pressure to be as Nigerian as possible, so he feels a connection to his Nigerian heritage and identity as he grows up. But what does being Nigerian even mean? To me, it means just being myself. But to others, being myself is never quite Nigerian enough.

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Comments

  1. Your position is valid. I worry about my kids who were born in America by Nigerian parents not being Nigerian enough as time goes by. I take my kids to Nigeria to visit often; however, it’s more of a vacation to them than their home. Ironically, the next generation of Nigerian Americans seem to shrink from the Nigerian culture as the world becomes more global.

  2. I think if we have to live through this life by benchmarks other people/society put on us, we can’t attain individual self worth. You remember when Condoleeza Rice was accused for not being black enough because she hadn’t hired enough black professors and also enrolled more black students in her stint as a senior professor and her answer was simple; ” I have been black all my life”.
    I understand the importance of learning our own history and culture but I don’t believe I have to practice it fully to get the sense of belonging and neither do I have issues with those that think they have to fully conform to cultural demands of their society.

  3. I will never understand your prospective but my four children do. Born and raised with Igbo values in America. Keep doing you .

  4. Akata does not mean Black person. Akata is a word that refers to a cat lost from home, which is often used to denigrate African Americans.

    I am also a person lost in two cultures, but the main thing is to remind yourself of who you are and love your culture. Igbo culture is rich, and so are various cultures in Nigeria. If we don’t want our cultures to die out with our generation, we have to continue loving it and living in it but in ways that are also incorporative of our values and parts of our new culture. We have to do our best to support our home country and connect, because many people wish they had a culture like ours. Those who are naysayers, don’t matter. Keep doing your thing, mara mma

  5. Just my opinion, but I think that in order to be at with yourself you should just embrace all those different parts of your ethnicity and heritage – the Nigerian, American and now Kenyan parts of you. And allow your son to do the same. Embrace them in their fullness. Being Nigerian isn’t what you do, it’s what’s already embedded IN you. Don’t let anyone put you in a nice neat box. They don’t make the rules. But, you have been given power by your position, and that’s quite a different thing than your identity. So whatever you identify as, use your power, as you are currently doing, for the good. To whom much is given, much is expected. Keep pushing. Much love.
    Som

  6. There is a lot to say. But where to begin from, I don’t know. All I want to say is that I love you and please keep letting your heart lead you. As long as you are pleasing God, that’s all that matters.

  7. My mother came to the US at 14 and raised us with American values in Kenya. Now I’m in the States and I don’t fit in anywhere. Not Kenyan enough, not American enough, not African enough. It gets very lonely.

  8. I am so sorry that you have experienced that . I think people are just ignorant saying that . But I can relate cause they use to say I don’t look Jamaican.

  9. Definitely relate to this, Ijeoma. I’m the daughter of a Nigerian father and Black American mother and was born and raised in Texas. Growing up, I’ve never felt quite Black enough with Black Americans and certainly never Nigerian enough with Nigerians…and learning and working in predominantly white spaces is another challenge altogether. But I’ve come to terms with my identity being uniquely mine and truly appreciate the duality of it.

  10. Being a diaspora in UK originally from Zimbabwe l feel as humans we are ever evolving. When l first came to the UK over 20years ago l wanted to fit in so badly l embraced the English culture to a point where l forgot to celebrate my own.As l got older and realised not everything was as brilliant as it’s made out to be.l made sure my kids learnt and understood a lot of my culture both the great and not so great bits.Then my daughter who was born in Zimbabwe but raised in the UK said something that made so much sense to me; she said she was an amalgamation of all the countries and cultures she has been exposed to while growing up.So maybe one can never be truly just Nigerian, British, Zimbabwean or American only, but rather we are what we have assimilated over the years through our parents,travels,peers and freindships who says you have to be only one of each.

  11. Interesting! To me, I feel like you’re very fortunate to be a 3rd culture kid. The journey may not been nice but you’re very blessed.

  12. Identity is always a tough thing to deal with. I think the conclusion you came to about just being you is the best because if not, you’ll go from trying to prove that you’re Nigerian enough to proving you’re Igbo enough and then next thing you’re also doing sufferhead Olympics. It’s not worth it. All you can do is try to stay updated with news and keep learning more about the culture at your own pace.

  13. I think this is such a complex conversation and it’s really great that you have taken the effort to dissect it like so. I think it’s also important to understand the nuances of a topic like this. I, too, always marveled at the idea that someone could be accused of not being “Nigerian enough”. Whatever your Nigerian experience is, whether home or abroad, it is VALID. It’s weird because Americans too would try to otherize us and tell us to “go back home”. So it’s an ever confusing “in between” to be in.

    I remember someone literally abusing me a year ago for criticizing Nigeria when my family and I didn’t even live there, like how dare me. And she’s always so angry about the fact that I don’t live in Nigeria. I say all this to say I know where you’re coming from.

    That said, in this case, Nigerians in Nigeria who have been criticizing those of us in America for not speaking up against injustice in Nigeria are a hundred percent correct. I think for me personally, it’s been maddening to see some Nigerians abroad treat Nigeria like a “vibe”, but don’t actually care for the country. That is why the initial conspicuous silence of a lot of Nigerian-Americans was deafening. How could they? When just less than two weeks ago, they were all on Instagram celebrating independence in the most outlandish way? So when it comes to making jokes, when it comes to the caricature accents, when it comes to “jollof”, when it comes even to ankara and gele or whatever, they could be loud and proud. But when it really mattered, they either had flimsy excuses like “we are conducting research” or remained quiet. That was mighty disappointing.

    This is even wilder when juxtaposed against the black lives matter movement that was a rallying cry a few weeks ago. I think us Nigerian-Americans must ask ourselves why it is easy to [rightfully] empathize with and fully understand the plight of African-Americans, but then find it so hard to empathize with Nigerians in Nigeria facing injustice? It’s not about any one of us, this is about justice and the fight against oppression so I think if we took a step back, we could understand the charge that any Nigerian who did not speak against SARS is not Nigerian enough. I don’t ever think a bunch of strangers have a right to define my identity [or anyone else’s]. But pungent as it is, this is the one time I can understand monopolizing identity. This is the one time I can understand the gut reaction that propels the accusation “you are not Nigerian enough”.  Ugh sorry for the long ramble. I should’ve just made an entire blog post but *laughs in laziness* lmao

  14. Oh my gosh, this blog post is so deep on many levels. Lovely and light to you, just be your authentic self, you will make mistakes but learn, be comfortable in your skin and with your choices and actions You’ll be fine. Talk to ABBA about it too, it helps.

  15. Having a good life without being third culture usually means being very privileged. How many countries in the world are there in which you can be born and bred and be guaranteed a good life without ever having to move away for several generations? Not many… At the same time, being third culture also brings enormous privileges to the individual when it is embraced and respected by the educational establishment (which it often isn’t, let’s be honest) : multi-lingualism, access to information and news from radically different points of view, critical thinking, more types of entertainment. I was lucky to be blessed with three different cultures: Greek, Belgian and English. I love the fact the I can read the news in three languages, follow politics, tv series, podcasts, blogs, books etc… With time, I feel like I’ve started to learn which of my three cultures to turn to for different things: English-speaking humour and music, French songwriting, Greek poetry etc. Keeping the different cultures active requires some motivation and dedication and maintaining a social life with people from all the different cultures is the hardest. The benefits, however, are really worth the effort I think.

  16. Can’t imagine people are going through all these. Being a Nigerian should have nothing to do with where you grew up. I think is high time we accept people for who they are despite some differences we might have.

  17. I love that you said being Nigerian, to you, just means being yourself. I’m Liberian- American and I think about culture/ heritage consistency a lot. I think of all the ways people try to downplay how Liberian or West African I am based on standards that don’t really mean much to me and I wonder about my ability to pass down the culture to my future children. I don’t have any conclusion but I’m glad that you’re exploring this.

  18. Yikes… this article is extremely tone deaf. How do you compare folks saying not speaking up about SARS = not Nigerian to when you were teased as a kid. Your experience is very valid but this is not the same.They are talking about folks/influencers that are quick to say they are Nigerian when it’s all fun and games but not when they protesting for their lives, LITERALLY. Ronke Raji should be an example to all of this. There’s more to say to but please, now is not the time.

    1. How are my experiences valid, but my interpretations of them are not? The point of this post was not to say anything other than “these are the things that make me feel like others don’t see me as Nigerian,” and it surely has nothing to do with any other influencers.

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