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. 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

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

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