Either Here or There: Coming to America…

by Ejiro Osilama

“America? That’s kind of far away, will we come back before exam starts?”

That was the up most question in my mind that day when my dad picked us up from school and announced that we were going to America. It did not occur to me, that we were going with an indefinite return date. My dad quickly cleared up any confusion regarding that, we were going to live in America.

My world fell apart. My aunty Rose said that it would not be so bad, we could come back home to visit any time we wanted, but I knew she was lying or at the very least, wrong. I knew were America was and it was very far away, further away even, than Switzerland where Uncle Charles moved to and we hadn’t seen him since he moved. America? Ahh?!! It was on the other side of the Atlantic and it was filled with strange creatures, like Oyinbos, Akatas and others. An eclectic mix of people, none of whom shared anything in common with me, nothing even as basic as a common language. I had heard that Americans did not even speak proper English. Imagine! As a private school bred and buttered Nigerian that was just scandalous. I mean, what other kind of English was there? It’s not like they spoke pidgin either.

I have never been a big adjuster to change, no matter how sudden or gradual. I immerse myself in the familiar and comfortable and hold on tight, rebelling against any shakeups to my familiar and comfortable existence. In addition to that, I was finally coming into my own at school. My older sister had just graduated and left, so I had finally stopped being known simply as ‘the other Osilama’ and was beginning to hold my own among my peers, I was even made a prefect! Our family was comfortable, happy. My dad was not a politician, so he had no reason to run from Nigeria’s changing political climate. I did not understand why we had to leave, my life was good.

Transplanting into another culture is always a bit intimidating and scary. In this case, I was crippled with fear. I cried and begged my dad to leave me behind. I was afraid of leaving my family, afraid of losing my friends. I was afraid that I would never fit into this brand new world, that I would always be the stranger, the African girl, the only one among a sea of people, who actually spoke proper English.

More than that though, I was afraid that I would become a stranger to my own family and my own friends. I knew that it happened. I would move to America and begin to talk funny, forget how to speak Pidgin English and what little vernacular I knew. Then, even if I was ever to see my friends and family again, they would all stare at me in confused horror and / or amusement, every time I spoke. I could see the future and it was not pretty! In America, I would always be the African girl who sounds different, looks different and just could never quite blend in. In Nigeria, I would become the American girl, who could not speak pidgin and could not make ukodo, yet who insisted that she was Nigerian. Every time I get on either side of the ocean, I would have to start all over again, readjust to semi new friends and react a little late to changes and updates. Moving to America would simply get me stuck between two worlds, not really an American but no longer quite a Nigerian.

All this of course, was ten years ago. Today, I feel as American as Apple pie. I no longer speak ‘proper English’ but ‘American’, my sentences peppered with “cain’ts”, “ain’t’s” and “ain’t no'”s. I have replaced Pidgin English with Ebonics and peppery egusi soup with garlicky chicken noodle. I have even caught myself enjoying Boston’s rigid winters and colorful falls. Ironically, my Nigerian-ness (is that even a word?), is probably one of the greatest factors in making me an American. In a country where everyone looked different and spoke differently, with an abundance of racial, national and ethnic identities, my African, Nigerian, Edo / Uhrobo identities, quickly mixed in with the rest, making me simply, one of a million strangers that are Americans. Ten years after my trans-continental relocation, which I was sure would scar me for life, not to mention destroy my life, I have fully become American. One in a sea of people, with impossible mixes of ethnic, racial and national identities, I have simply blended into the waves.

A few years ago, my dad finally insisted that we had to go to Nigeria, if only for a visit. It had been 10 years since we left. I had lost touch with all the friends my teenaged minded thought that it would love forever and I only spoke to a few of my cousins and only when they wanted something.

I had not wanted to leave, but now, I was hesitant to go back. Africa? Ahh!! It’s on the other side of the Atlantic. A far away place, filled with strange creatures, like aunts and uncles who expected you to brutu, bending a knee down to the floor in the traditional show of respect, when you greet them. It was dull and boring with constant heat and no electricity. All I know of Africa was that NEPA was always ‘taking light’, there were no KFC’s or Dunkin Donuts on any corner and the untarred roads were paved with poor, starving, orphaned children. How would a sophisticated American, such as me, ever survive such deprivation?

My first trip back was in the middle of December, after Boston’s lower than low winter cold, being greeted by the burning heat of Harmattan in Lagos made me feel like I was landing in Jupiter. I was greeted by the old familiar languages as well as the old comfort of speaking them. Pidgin English filled the air and I understood every word and every gesture, even picking up on the new slang’s and phrases. The people were a strange sight as well, they were all black and looked like me and they spoke with an accent I now only hear when I speak to myself or to my immediate family. As they all laughed at my funny American accent and insisted that I ate food so spicy that I needed jugs of water on hand, I knew that Nigeria also, would always be home. In Nigeria, it is our similarities in heritage and racial identity that seal our fates as Nigerians. I had simply and easily blended into a sea of people who looked exactly like me and who, despite my slight American tendencies, shared my most basic traditional ideals and values. More than ten years later and in just an instant, I had simply reverted to being a Nigerian, screams of “ay, NEPA!” and all.

I don’t know, I guess you could call me a Nigemerican.

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NneGood April 4, 2007 - 12:27 pm

My dear . . . you wil always be a Nigerian! How you speak and where you live has nothing to do with who you really are. Regardless of how long you've been in this country, you won't forget your mother tongue unless you want to. It saddens me to see how quickly our people are willing to loose who they really are just to be like another. You sound proud to have lost your accent and all the things that make up who you really are. You say that you are proud to call yourself American . . . but how proud do you think the Americans themselves will be to call you American? Why are you so quick to disrobe yourself of your culture and history? I was born here in this country many moons ago, but I can speak and write Igbo just as well as anyone at home and I'm darn proud of it. I'm not totally lost when the elders start speaking in proverbs or when the men are passing around the kola nut at a cultural event. I can actually tell you who the kola nut will be passed to next and why. A lot of us have this notion that everything non-Naija is better and that saddens me greatly. These Americans you want so badly to loose yourself to be like wish so badly that they had "cultures and traditions and a language" to brag of. If you cannot be proud of who you are, how can anyone be proud of you? Change as much as you want, it's only a facade . . . deep inside, you are still that young lady who left Nigeria 10 yrs ago. Don't get me wrong . . . I understand that the minute you landed in Naija, you became that person you were 10 years ago — A Nigerian. But that should be who you are at all times. Be proud of yourself and where you came from.

feyi February 3, 2007 - 11:57 am

this is a very interesting article and i think that it is something that we as Africans especially Nigerians do. I was born here in the US but i go home to nigeria every christmas, i speak very fluent yoruba that my cousins think its weird. it is all about how we feel about the accent. you can never lose your Nigerian accent if you dont want to, i have a very thick American accent but my yoruba is also unbeateable. i can say its about how the person feels about being an American in Nigeria and how they also feel people will react to them

Mist January 15, 2007 - 3:17 pm


I completely understand many of what you've written below in your article….My family and I went through a very similar experience when we emmigrated to the US…its nice to know one is not alone…Kudos to you! 🙂

Moni January 12, 2007 - 6:29 pm

I found your article very heartfelt. I enjoyed reading of your experience.

Elizabeth January 12, 2007 - 8:06 am

Asuquo, I think I understand Ejiro's point. It's not that he has lost his Nigerian accent as such, (he did mention that when he got to Nigeria, he was able to speak and understand Pidgin even with the latest slangs)it's more about assimilating into the American culture. Unbeknownst to some of us, we do lose a bit of our typical Nigerian accent after living overseas for a number of years. The only proof you need is to go back home for a visit and have everyone point out your "American accent" to you.

E_ji80@hotmail.com January 11, 2007 - 2:52 pm

in response to Asuguo. I have 8 cousins named Ejiro, so I guess you could say it is a slightly common Uhrobo name.

Also, I do not claim to have lost my Nigerian accent. My point is that no matter how vague or even none exsistent I think it is, on either side of the ocean, I have a foreign accent.. even when I am speakin pidgin english

Efe January 11, 2007 - 2:13 pm

I understand completely. I left Nigeria as a teenage too and I felt completely lost. Although now, I feel too African in AMerica and too American in Africa

Anonymous January 11, 2007 - 1:35 pm


Asuquo Ema January 11, 2007 - 1:22 pm

Hello Ejiro

You happen to be the namesake of a friend of mine in high school back in Nigeria who happens to live in Texas.

I enjoyed reading your article but at the same time I question you when you say that you have lost your Nigerian accent. You have only been here in the United States for ten years and you have already lost your accent? I have lived here for thirteen years and I still have my Nigerian accent although I have greatly improved in my communications skills and my use of the English language.

It's very difficult for one to lost their accent especially at an older age. I know of friends who came to the United states at the age of nine and even twelve years old and they still have an accent. You moved here after high school and so your accent shouldn't have changed that much.

I know that some of we Nigerians are very good at switching accents especially when we are at the workplace (understandably so) in order for our American co-workers to understand us but our natural accent stays on.


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