What it means to be Nigerian in four emotions

A student reflects on how living in the U.S. has impacted their understanding of their culture.


“Are you Yoruba or Igbo?”

This is one of the many questions I’m always asked when I tell someone that I’m Nigerian — that is, after the initial shock of discovering that I’m not American wears off. 

Not wanting to seem hostile or rude, I usually follow up with an awkward laugh and say, “No, I’m actually Isoko, it’s in Delta State… in the South.” My answer is usually followed up with, “I didn’t even realize you were Nigerian.” 

To me, I’ve always been Nigerian. I’m not part of the main tribes, but I was still Nigerian. But since I started college, and got these questions more, I find myself asking, “Am I really Nigerian?”

At home, I never doubted myself because I was mainly around my family. To my family, being Nigerian meant my mom would talk to me in her language and I would respond back in English. 

But in college, I had to create an identity of my own — one that always starts with “I’m Nigerian.” But the disbelief from others is something I’ve had to grapple with, especially as I’ve acquired American accent, started listening to American music and embraced American culture. 

These two identities never clashed until college, when I wasn’t around my family to assure me that I’m Nigerian. But this past year, I attended a summer cookout hosted by a family friend — all of the attendees were Nigerians and I found myself instantly lost.

That day, I discovered emotions defining what it means to be Nigerian. 

The first was confusion. The songs played weren’t the typical songs I was used to hearing back in Nigeria, like D’banj or Wande Coal, but more modern songs: Afro beats, with new artists that I had never heard of, like Juls. 

Priding myself on being a “mascot for Africa,” I was confused when I didn’t know the lyrics to that music.

The second emotion was denial. I would try and lip-sync songs and follow the beats. But that became too hard when the artists would start speaking Yoruba, and I’d find myself confused and looking around to make sure no one saw me stutter my way through the song. 

The third emotion, the one that has stuck with me since then, is sadness. I was consumed by the realization that the one identity I was born with could be threatened by me not knowing the lyrics to popular songs. 

Looking back, it’s absurd to think that something as little as that could be so jarring. But at the moment, I felt ashamed and questioned if I had abandoned my Nigerian identity to adapt to American culture. 

The fourth emotion — acceptance — came later that year. For a final paper in an anthropology class, I decided to write about Nigerian churches in Philadelphia. While I enjoyed writing the paper, it was meeting older Nigerians outside of my family that affirmed my identity and created a whole new meaning as to what it meant to be Nigerian. 

Through interviewing women who were born in America, but were Nigerian, the group quickly shut down the idea that one had to behave or speak in a certain way to qualify as Nigerian.

To them, being Nigerian meant loving the culture and everything that came out of it. We discussed its history and politics, and they shared music with me. This happened over the span of four weeks, and in the end, I realized that just surrounding myself with other Nigerians affirmed my identity in ways I couldn’t have imagined.

We are all so different — whether it be age or the country we were born in — but we have one thing in common: we are Nigerian. 

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