America is a terribly lonely place. The loneliness begins the moment you wave goodbye and walk down that long airport corridor in your country, to board a flight that would take you away from all that’s familiar and understood, all you’ve known all your life. Still, it is bearable on the airplane. Many of the other passengers are also Nigerians. The loneliness really begins to hit harder when you switch planes at Heathrow or Brussels or wherever, and you’re sticking out like a thumb, sore, the only black face in in a cabin of strange skins – on your speedy way to a country of strange skins. From that moment on, you’re never not lonely anymore.
America is a lonely place for the immigrant. This is forcefully obvious to those who arrived her shores as adults. Every pop psychologist will tell you it’s much more difficult for adults to break the barriers of prejudice and restrictions that stand in the way of new friendships. When you arrive a strange land as an adult, all those barriers have been formed and you never truly let your guard down enough… Is there anything better than the company of true friends to assuage the lonely spirit?
Friends are usually people we’ve known a long time. You probably attended some school or Church with them. Been through all shades of bittersweet experiences. You never have to tell them you’re in pain anymore. They just know. Back home, you don’t have to call ahead to tell a friend or neighbor you’re coming over. You just knock on the door and they let you in. That’s why you’re friends. It is a pleasure to have you visit. They meet you at the doorway with water to wash the distance off your feet, a smile to warm the heart and a steaming bowl of rice to quell the monsters roaring in your belly. You’re home. You’re a child of so many homes. Even the streets are familiar and you feel at home. You can walk the streets without feeling like a stranger even in a strange town.
Lonely Street is a familiar terrain if you grew up in that place far away. In that distant place, the environment was your friend. You understood her moods and antics. The seasons were like family. The noise of the streets, the dust of untarred roads, the polluted air sticking to your sweaty face at Oshodi, the wail of beggars, the corruption worming it’s miserable path through the marrows of the system, you knew and understood them. You grew up with them and although you hoped things would change for the better, you knew and accepted your reality. One big family all!
Here in America, it’s a different ballgame. No matter how long you’ve lived here, the country will still spring surprises on you. It doesn’t matter how loudly you declare this place is now home, if you came here already a grown man or woman, home will always be someplace else and loneliness will always dog your trail like a shadowy companion. You will walk the well-lit avenues at night and flash back to the darkness of the 3rd Mainland Bridge. You will speed down the Turnpike in constant alertness, wary of a tire rim hurled from the Expressway brushes. You will board a bus heated in winter or cooled in summer and wonder whatever happened to the old 9.11, aka Molue. It isn’t that you want that chaotic existence back, no! It’s the nostalgia! You miss the good as well as the bad because you can’t pop your head out the window to see it at will. It’s the nostalgia…and that’s just a nice name for that tug in the heart called loneliness. Catch my fire now?
Ever sat down to watch kids playing? Color means nothing to them. It means zero that they were born elsewhere and now live nowhere. They play with all the innocence and truthfulness of an open arm promising a hug. It’s a different world for kids.
But when adults interact, it is from a distance. Both of you carry all sorts of preconceptions and prejudices mostly created by media hyperbole. How can you be friendly when you’re busy thinking of what to say that won’t be misinterpreted as racist or sexist or worse? All sorts of mental defences are erected like cruel walls between you. You start thinking, are they going to welcome me, accept me? Are they going to think I speak funny? Once you speak different, you’re either a quaint attraction or the outsider. Outsider? Aha! Lonely guy!
When I got here in ’97, I carried over a habit of taking long meditative walks that had started in Lagos. It allowed me to think through ideas, lost in my own private heaven or hell. Here, it also served a crucial purpose. I needed to know places quickly, know people, understand the mountains and valleys of this strange land I’d relocated to. So, I took long walks. I took long walks and aimless bus and train rides that afforded me the opportunity to see the people and observe them in different environments, under changing conditions…
On the street, walking about, staring at houses made of wood, I would walk and stare and get stared at in return. I noticed quickly that skin color influenced to a large extent where people lived. There were fewer areas of mixed residency than there were of color coded population. This didn’t bother me much though. I wasn’t American and I wasn’t going to be affected by whatever undying factors that kept the many worlds of America apart. At least that was my thinking.
I was only fooling myself though. I soon stopped taking long walks in the black neigbhorhoods. I was saddened by the sight of able men and women who scavenged on the streets for quarters that were immediately expended on beer in a brown bag. I got weary of running into kids with anger sunk so deep into their souls, you couldn’t even see it’s roots anymore. Only their actions spoke for them and they spoke a language I couldn’t understand (I was Johnny come lately). I wasn’t sad and lonely because I’d never seen hunger and rage and pain before. I’d seen plenty on the streets of Lagos. This was uniquely depressing because I was obviously a witness to lack in the midst of plenty. But I didn’t know enough to draw conclusions then. I just felt depressed. And lonely.
As for the white neighborhoods, I stopped taking those leisurely walks there because I noticed the nervous stares and hesitant greetings…I may be wrong, but it felt then like they said hello with the hope that I wouldn’t do the unpredictable. Hello was the temporal bridge, the wooden hand reaching out across the chasm to shake mine, the smile saying “don’t hurt me, I said hello.” I realized I was just another black guy to them. Nigerian wasn’t written on my forehead, so they couldn’t have known I wasn’t American. It probably wouldn’t have mattered. I was just another black guy probably checking out their exclusive neigbhorhood for something to pinch?
The clincher? A Beckley Heights patrol car pulled up beside me one day and a cop in it called out. I walked up to the car. He asked me if I just got off a train that was about pulling off from the station behind me. I said yes. He said I fitted the profile that had just come off of his radio of someone who had held up a grocery store nearby. I exploded into a laughter full of surprise and amusement. Who, me? Hold up a store? Where was I going? To a job interview down the road. He’d heard my “accent” now… He wished me a nice day and drove off. I realized if I hadn’t just stepped off the train, he would have picked me up, if only to make sure I wasn’t the black stereotypical chap who held up that store. Come on! A grocery store? Some mom and pop place? If I wanted to rob, I would pick a worthy place! And I definitely would do it with more panache.
Still, I didn’t stop my rambling until I noticed on some quiet streets whenever I found myself behind a man or woman (of any color) walking ahead, there was often that almost imperceptible tightening of the grip on a wallet or bag or something… Tension… Some would walk faster or step out of the way altogether, far out of the way…giving me more room than I needed to pass. Soon, I realized I was stepping far out of their way long before they stepped out of mine. The sadness and loneliness fell upon me then like a sack full of thick bricks.
Picture in your mind then Nigerians who arrived the US all alone, with only a few dollars in the pocket and no one to temporarily squat with until they understood the system enough to forge a sense of direction…Can you imagine the loneliness? A handful of my friends throw jibes at me when I complain. They tell me I had it easy, after all, I came into the country with a permanent residency visa in my pocket and a friend waiting to temporarily accommodate me. They narrate stories of hunger, nights out in the cold, getting duped of the little they had by fast talkers…Can you picture the pain and loneliness? Some had to leave a spouse or child at home – now, that is loneliness raised to the nth power. How about those who can’t go back even to pay a visit because JFK is the portal of no return…
Recently, my wife and I found ourselves in the eye of the storm of loneliness afresh. We had just been told by the doctors that we couldn’t keep the one thing that would have elevated our status from man and wife into “a family.” We needed to talk to someone who would know what to say…Not some stranger with a counsellor name tag. We needed someone close enough to listen and comfort and advice immediately. Back home, a horde of experienced aunts and uncles would have gathered immediately to provide the comfort of family and friendship and love. Where is the extended family in America? Your friends? They have all gone out in pursuit of the ever elusive dollar. Perhaps it is time for the Nigerian community in America to consciously evolve a close-knit family away from the larger family we’ve always known and taken for granted for so long. That just might be the salvation for some of us caught in this endless wash of sadness and loneliness. Any place away from your own to lean on in times of trouble is a sad and lonely place. What you hear just may be forced laughter.
So go back, friend! Or shut up?