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. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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

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