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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  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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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