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  • Writer's pictureVala-Amanda O.

LETTER FROM AN UNAPOLOGETIC NIGERIAN-ATLIEN

By Vala-Amanda O.


In the 2002 movie “A Walk to Remember,” based on the novel by Nicholas Sparks, the lead character Jamie has a bucket list. One of the things on her list is her desire to “be in two different places at the same time.” Her love interest in the movie, Landon, initially is confused about the wish, not thinking it’s possible. Jamie just laughs it off. Throughout the movie, Landon tries to help her cross off everything on her list, though still unsure about how to accomplish being in two different places at the same time.

A scene from the movie “A Walk to Remember”

Then one day, he finally figures it out. He drives her to the state line and tells her where to plant her feet. She has one foot in Virginia and the other in North Carolina. Confused, she asks him to explain and he smiles and tells her, “you’re in two places at once.”


While this was a satisfying moment for Jamie because she got to cross another thing off her bucket list, to me, this was a metaphorical representation of my life as a Nigerian-American. And for any other second generationers out there, as the kids say, “if you know, you know” #iykyk.


Born and raised in the American South, when I stepped outside my family’s suburban home I would be hit by the clammy heat, mosquitos, and greenery. Across the street we’d wave back at our sweet, country neighbors, Lacosia and her parents. They were the epitome of southern hospitality. Lacosia taught my sister about crabs and thick butter sauce, that’s how southern they were. Monday through Friday I would hop on the bus and hear thickly-accented “hey yalls” and Atlanta slang that I pretended to know until I caught on. Driving by, we would pass by more chicken spots than I could count. If I was riding around with my dad, I’d sing along to the oldies and new R&B on Kiss 104.1 FM. I blended in. I knew the songs, I learned to draw my words out like them. I’ve always gone by Amanda so I didn’t have to worry about having one of those “long Nigerian names.” I was the regular Georgia girl.


Then I’d come home from school and walk back into the house and as soon as I would close the front door I would be mentally teleported to Nigeria. I was always hit with the smell of onions and African peppers.



Ma would be in her wrapper, sweating over the stove. She knew she only had a few hours before everyone would be home and ready to be served dinner. I wouldn’t even dream of walking upstairs to my room before going to greet her, one of the first, most important lessons I learned as a Nigerian child. You don’t greet your parents, you’ve committed an ultimate sin. On days when she wasn’t cooking yet, she’d be on the couch watching American soap operas – General Hospital was her favorite – while chattering on the phone loudly in Igbo.


My mother Mercy Oduah and my two older sisters

She’d ask me and my brothers how school was and then immediately give us our “afterschool instructions.” But before we walked away, she’d stop us and ask, “are you hungry?” She wouldn’t dream of letting us walk upstairs without making sure we were fully taken care of. That’s one of the first and most important lessons she learned when she became a Nigerian wife. You don’t constantly take care of your husband and kids, you’ve committed an ultimate sin. We would eat our snack, take a nap, do our homework at the table and eat our dinner together. Ma would dish out seven plates of rice and stew or fufu with usually egusi or okra soup and line them up. We would run out one by one and stand by the counter waiting for all seven kids to come out. We could never just grab a plate because we’re Nigerian and the oldest always chooses first. We would tease each other sometimes. One of the older siblings would purposely choose the plate the younger sibling had his eyes on just to see him pout. We ate dinner, studied some more, and then went to bed. We weren’t allowed to watch tv on weeknights. But some nights my mom would relax and let it slide. We’d go into the living room to choose a movie. On one side of the entertainment center we had our American movies. Our Disney collection, Eddie Murphy films because he was my dad’s favorite, and any other random American classics like the Rocky Franchise and Lean on Me we needed to be “All-American.” On the other side of the shelf we had our Nigerian VHS TAPES. Parts one, two and three of films starring Genevieve Nnaji, Patience Ozokwor and Pete Edochie.


"I’d come home from school and walk back into the house

and as soon as I would close the front door

I would be mentally teleported to Nigeria. I was always hit with the smell of onions and African peppers."


I’d lay in the queen-sized bed I shared with my sister Vanessa and we’d talk until we fell asleep. We’d get ready for school the next morning, taking bucket showers two-by-two even though we had working showers. I think my mother made us take baths like that when we were young kids because deep down she missed being back home sometimes. She raised us mirroring the way she was brought up in her strict, close-knit family. Far away from home, I think the bucket showers probably took her back to her days growing up in Umuobi village of Awkuzu town in southeastern Nigeria. Her own mother also had seven children, so my mother saw what it took to run a household.


A house of one of my relatives in Awkuzu

People always ask how it was growing up in such a big family and I would always say, “Loud and a lot going on but we were a well-oiled machine.” My parents are strong believers of structure, no wahala. I myself, learned to be a well-oiled machine.


I could code-switch with ease, turning on my “Nigerian” when I got home and switching it back to American when I was at school. And if I ever forgot to switch it back my parents would not hesitate to remind me.


“You’re not one of these American kids!”


I started to create a line between the two, creating two different worlds for myself.


It doesn’t seem like being bicultural would be a big deal, but when I look back on my life I spent so much time EXPLAINING. Explaining, correcting, defending, learning.


But now, thankfully, I am unapologetically, pridefully living.


Looking back I think one of the main reasons I would always separate the American me and Nigerian me is because other people would always point out that I was different. I would go to school and I would be the American girl, no different from anyone else. Then the teacher would do a roll call and easily say Amanda but stumble over Oduah. I eventually stopped waiting for them to try and would just immediately say my last name for them. Then everyone would look at me confused. I’d awkwardly avoid eye contact until someone would blurt out, “AYE YOU MUST BE AFRICAN!”


“I could code-switch with ease,

turning on my “Nigerian” when I got home

and switching it back to American

when I was at school.”


I’d nod my head and simply reply “yup.”


And afterward, I’d hear the snickers and giggles. I never knew what was funny. I just knew I was embarrassed because they felt that I should be. And from that day forward I would always be “the African girl.” So I would work harder to blend in. Thankfully, I wasn’t tormented over it so I didn’t consider it too much of a problem so I would never outright deny being Nigerian, but I would never lead with it. And I would always make sure to add, “but I was born here,” just so they wouldn’t think I was too foreign. Back then the only “foreign” black people acknowledged was the two percent Cherokee Indian they claimed to have in them. I would get so many different reactions sometimes I would just say anything to avoid any reaction at all. I once purposely mispronounced my middle name Nneka as NAH-KNEE-KAH so that it sounded American. But as much as I felt like I blended in enough, something would come up and other people would point it out for me. The food and “culture” questions usually outed me.


“You like chitlins?”


“I’ve never heard of that.”

And then it’s, “Oh yea, it's because she’s African.”


“Yo mama spank you with a switch?”


It took me way too long to figure out that a switch was a branch from a tree. My mom used the fufu stick to spank us.


“You African, right?”


That was when I knew I could never run away from being Nigerian, so I embraced it more and more the older I got. But back then embracing it took me into the explaining, correcting, and defending phase. I refused to let myself be embarrassed about being Nigerian so I would go toe-to-toe with anyone who would say anything ignorant. The most “hate” I got about being African was from African-Americans and it angered and confused me because, as I would always say “that’s where yall came from!” When I hit middle school we had joined a Nigerian church, Jubilee Christian Church International in Stone Mountain; I was taking road trips with my whole family every summer going to Ogbaru conventions; the countless Nigerian weddings; graduation parties; in high school I had joined an amazing group, Nigerian Youth Alliance. Besides school, my entire life was surrounded by Nigerians.


Me with members of the Nigerian Youth Alliance based in Atlanta, Georgi

The culture is here. The community is here. I’ve known some of the same people from diaper days and we still are connected because of the many Nigerian social groups here in Atlanta. All my “lil boyfriends” were Nigerian. American guys didn’t hit on me as much as Nigerian guys did so I was more confident being around Nigerians. I was always in the middle of the dance floor at Nigerian parties. I felt like I belonged. We were all second gens so we all knew what we're going through without even talking about it. We didn’t have to explain the goat meat smell when we went to each other’s houses. We knew the pain of drinking sprite after eating spicy jollof rice. We all knew we had to code-switch when we were back in school. All my friends with Nigerian first names used their American middle names. We would be at our parties belting D’banj, winding our hips hard to Awilo Longomba. Us Igbos would grab our white napkins and bend our backs low, sweeping our feet up after each move. My siblings and I would watch all of our aunties and uncles closely. Then we would get home and laugh and imitate them in our rooms. We were laughing but we were also learning our traditional dances to our traditional local music. We learned the rituals and rules. We learned how a traditional Igbo wedding is done. We learned the importance of the kola nut and tasted its bitterness. Atlanta was Nigeria for us.


"That was when I knew I could never

run away from being Nigerian,

so I embraced it more and more the older I got.”


We danced and sang our hearts out like it was the last dance. Sometimes we didn’t know when the next event would be so we knew it would be a long time of “code- switching.” We loved our American friends, but we were our own community. We were FRamily. I was falling deeper and deeper in love with Nigeria but it still wasn’t the “cool” foreign country. While you’re reading this, keep in mind that this was way before Black Panther Wakanda America, before “afrobeats are on the map. I fuck with Burna boy” America. I’m not speaking of today’s “Africans are cool, I worship Oshun” era. I’m taking you back to the “African booty scratcher” era. I’m in the “why you so black, you African?!” being an insult era. I’m in the “you play with monkeys and fight lions,” “go back to Africa!” time. It was a different scenario back then.


As much as me and my fellow Nigerian-American friends felt we were surrounded by the culture and we were proudly Nigerian, we never really acknowledged the privilege we had growing up in America. We loved the culture out loud but truthfully most of us probably wouldn’t have been able to last more than two weeks in Nigeria. We ignore our distant cousin’s message on Facebook because we don’t want them asking us for money. Even though I felt like I had a community here, I did envy Americans because they had their whole family in the same place. They could have their family reunions. All their cousins would gather at grandma’s house. Nigerians definitely learn about barbecues from Americans. My Nigerian-American friends and I never really acknowledged the gaping disconnect we have with our families back home. My first cousins in Nigeria used to feel like strangers. My maternal grandmother came to America and it was 18 years before I saw her again when I went to Nigeria. I never got the pleasure of meeting my grandfathers. We stay in our bubble here in America. We feel like we have the best of both worlds and that is enough for us. We have the culture but not the Third World problems.


Then a shift happened.

Me and my classmate during freshman year at Columbus State University

For a while, even for us, Nigeria wasn’t the “cool” country. Maybe it was when we went to our American colleges. We joined American sororities and fraternities, and went to American clubs. Sure we joined our school’s African Student Union, because we always need that community but we weren’t thinking about Nigeria as much. We weren’t following up with current events unless it hit American news. We hashtagged #bokoharam and #BringBackOurGirls but we didn’t keep up. We were too busy to come home so we weren’t going to those Nigerian functions with our parents anymore. We were drifting apart so we weren’t attending that random friend we knew from childhood’s wedding just for the food anymore. Atlanta rap had taken over, Roscoe Dash, Wacka Flocka Flame, Young Joc made us rep our city. TI made us go learn what zone we’re from. We were proud to say we’re Nigerian-American, leaning heavier on the American. And as more Nigerians moved to America it became Nigerian-American vs. Nigerian.


“As much as me and my fellow Nigerian-American friends

felt we were surrounded by the culture and we were proudly Nigerian, we never really acknowledged the privilege we had growing up in America. We loved the culture out loud but truthfully most of us probably wouldn’t have

been able to last more than two weeks in Nigeria.”


Then came the “how Nigerian are you? test.” Do you speak your native language? Where were you born? When did you move here? Suddenly, I was told “you’re not REALLY Nigerian.” I started building resentment towards my parents for not teaching us Igbo. I would randomly call them on the phone and ask them why. Again, the constant need to defend myself came up again. This time to other Nigerians. Now, I was making sure to follow with “I was born here but my two older sisters were born in Nigeria,” just so they know there wasn’t that much separation. They would act surprised when I say I’m Nigerian. They would give me instant pop quizzes to see if I really am. I would answer all their questions then they would hit me with the “have you been there?” I would lower my head and hesitantly say, “no.” They would point and say “ahhh!” as if it’s “ha! I got you! Your parents are Nigerian.” Where was my community going?!


After college, going into my adult life I was blending in both cultures just fine but I was still keeping them separate. I would go out with my Nigerian friends and wouldn’t invite my American friends and vice versa. It wasn’t because I thought they wouldn’t get along. I just didn’t want to have to explain anything to my American friends. At this time the divide between Black Americans and African- Americans had become bigger. Rappers were getting bolder and bolder with their colorism. Because there were more and more Nigerians populating Atlanta, I was hearing about more negative encounters between Americans and Nigerians. I just went back to code-switching. Then I got older and cared less and less about people’s opinions and ignorance. I met people who became real friends to me. I met people who cared about me and were interested in truly getting to know me. All sides of me. My American friends would ask me about Nigerian food and beg me to take them to a Nigerian wedding. I started to blend my crew because I just wanted the right people around me regardless of their nationality. The line I drew for myself began to blur. And more and more Nigerians were coming and taking over Atlanta. We were dating and marrying Americans, blending cultures. The more I blended my two worlds the less I focused on the differences in our cultures and instead noticed the beauty in our similarities. My sister, Vanessa, went back home and when she came back to the state she showed us her pictures. There was a picture of my late grandpa, Godwn sitting on the balcony looking out, talking. She said he did that most of the time. Just sat outside talking to her. Giving her wisdom. And here in America there’s an old man around the same age sitting out on his porch giving his own wisdom. In both cultures there’s “mama.” She’s outlived all her family and friends and all her children and her children’s children take care of her. She still puts on her gele and gets her lace tailored and makes it to most of the functions. There’s “aunties” and “uncles.” There’s the cousin who’s not really your cousin, yall are just from the same small town. There’s beautiful wedding traditions; there’s the beautiful southern black bride jumping the broom while the lovely Igbo babe is walking around pretending to look for her husband holding a cup of palm wine. In both cultures it’s, respect your elders and don’t spoil those children. What I’ve really learned from both cultures is PRIDE. Georgia bulldogs grace the exterior of almost every pickup truck you see riding down the highway. You don’t even have to attend UGA to rep for it, you just do it because it’s the University of Georgia. The Falcons and Hawks constantly disappoint us, yet they have one of the most loyal fanbases I’ve seen.


Truist Park, the Braves Stadium in Smryna, Georgia

We chant “ATL HOE” any chance we get, and we sing about it in the club. We’re a staple.


A sign outside a bar on Edgewood Ave. in Atlanta, Georgia

Because this is Atlanta – the city known for black excellence. This isn’t just about America, it’s Georgia on my mind. I love Atlanta deep in my heart. And then there’s that green and white flag that graces my wall that I look at every night before I go to sleep. When I think of who I am, my life, where I come from, my family, it’s Nigeria.




My dad, Dr. Emmanuel Oduah, as a younger man

It’s a privilege of being able to go back and walk the same streets my father walked as a child. The young man who left Nigeria by himself to come to school made a good life for himself and his family and just finished building his beautiful house in the same village he grew up in. My father, the wise sponge. He not only adapts but he truly learns where he is. He is Odekpe through and through, but Atlanta is his home away from home. My siblings and I jokingly refer to him as the human GPS because he has driven the streets of Atlanta so long he knows every landmark, any street. He’s proud of the history of this community. He still has most of his memorabilia from the 1996 Summer Olympics games that Atlanta hosted. He has lived such a big life and he has so many beautiful stories to tell and they are about Nigeria and Atlanta. When I went to Nigeria, I tightly hugged my grandmother in the same home my mother grew up in all those years ago in Awkuzu town. When my uncle drove up to the Nsionu compound, he proudly said “my father built this home with his own hands.” After we hugged, my grandmother grabbed my face and just looked at me and smiled. She probably saw my mother, her first daughter in my face. I sat in the same living room my mother must have played in with her siblings. I felt home, connected. It felt right. I was raised in America but Nigeria is me.



A local market in Anambra, Nigeria

Today, I’ve completely merged the cultures. I love American soul food, but my default soul food is still rice and stew with plantain. I’ll blast and belt along to “welcome to Atlanta where the players play” on my way to dance to Asake all night at a Nigerian lounge. When I’m talking I’ll jokingly switch into a deep Atlanta accent and seconds later switch to a Nigerian accent to emphasize something. My childhood is Brandy as “Cinderella” and her evil stepsisters and it’s Genevieve Nnaji and Omotola Ekeinde as “Blood Sisters.” It’s “Mean Girls'' and “Blackberry Babes.” It’s Usher and Flavour. Both Dave Chappelle and Nkem Owoh crack me up. It’s beautiful history on both sides. It’s sadness and division in both cultures. The Nigerian village is the Atlanta hood. Lekki is Buckhead. It’s crazy politics and corruption in both cultures. But it’s so much progress and potential. In both cultures there is so much success. Records broken. There are heroes, legends. Both cultures have triumphed. Our smiles are big and beautiful. Our celebrations are tear jerking. Our souls have so much depth. We are all our ancestors’ wildest dreams. And I’m proud to be in both of these communities.


Signed,

A unapologetic Nigerian-Atlien.




Vala-Amanda is a writer, actress, and singer based in Atlanta, Georgia. She is the photo editor of DIASPORA.


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Convidado:
10 de jul. de 2023
Avaliado com 5 de 5 estrelas.

Very nice read.

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Convidado:
05 de jun. de 2023
Avaliado com 5 de 5 estrelas.

What a fantastic and wonderful writing. Amanda you can really write very well, quite interesting. Dad. Emma Oduah

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Convidado:
03 de jun. de 2023
Avaliado com 5 de 5 estrelas.

breath taking writing ✍️

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