In October, I will be heading back to Naija for the first time in 9 years. I am sooooo excited. I will get to see my family and friends again. With my excitement, there are also anxieties anyone in my shoes would normally feel. I constantly asking myself: How much will my finances suffer with this trip? Am I going to forget to get gifts for someone or the other thereby incurring their wrath? Is my Igbo still Igbo enough? Granted I can’t remember some words and my fluency is really shaky at best but I can still pass with Engiri-Igbo right?
Funny thing is of all these anxieties, the one that has me really scared is this thing called Personal Space. Oyinbo call it the region surrounding each person. It is the area which a person considers his/her domain or territory. Let’s get to specifics: Public Space is described as an area about 25 feet away from an individual, Social Space is 12 feet, Personal Space 4 feet, and Intimate Space (for you lovers out there) is 1.5 feet. You know Personal Space is something that is purely cultural because back home, there is no such thing as extended families share a house and up to five people share a room or bed. Personal Space is a foreign concept in Nigeria and rightly so. Oyinbo people are nuclear by nature. They have this whole individualistic thing going where every one is expected to be independent of each other. Very few of them practice communal living, the type most of us grew up with. I can’t remember a time when I was not sharing something with my nine siblings, clothes, TV time, food, sleeping quarters etc. In fact due to the fact I have almost always had hand me downs, I am obsessed with clothing and fashion. As we had only one TV in the house full of siblings and relatives, now I have a TV in every room in my house. As for the size of my bed, that one is another matter…
Flash back to 1998 when I was a JJC living in Boston. I remember my first job as a cashier trainee. My trainer was this elderly woman and I will never forget my first lesson on Personal Space. While trying to learn how to use the cash register, I moved closer to peer over the shoulders of the woman who was huge at about 6 feet and really heavy set. She promptly told me to move back a couple of feet as I was too close to her. At the time I did not understand. I thought she was being such snot. Fast Forward to 2002. I was working in a nursing home when a male nurse, also a fellow Igbo, displayed understandable excitement at meeting another Igbo on the job. He proceeded to playfully hug me but I froze and did not return the hug. That was the first time I knew I had acquired a Personal Space. Fast forward to 2007. I know I have definitely acquired Personal Space as:
1) I don’t like being touched unnecessarily,
2) I don’t like crowds,
3) I avoid Nigerian parties or gatherings where everyone is always hugging and hanging out in close quarters.
Hey, the social gatherings I have gotten used to, everyone kiss-kisses the air, cheeks inches apart all thee while maintaining that distance with butts sticking out.
As I prepare for my trip, I will have to constantly remind myself to relax when I am with old friends and extended family – with their hugs and laid back manner – because my immediate family is huge, my extended family is even bigger. Or maybe it won’t be such a problem. Maybe I will automatically revert to my old ways of sharing everything including space. I guess I will just have to wait and see.