Americanah & Moving West
Literature can transport us into another realm and connect us so closely to characters that we see ourselves in them. In Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novel ‘Americanah’, Ifemelu is one of those people, and I saw in her the TCK struggles I experienced myself.
In ‘Americanah’, Ifemelu and Obinze are youthful lovers when they depart from Nigeria for the West. Living under Nigerian military rule, they both leave for supposed greener pastures; Western countries which are held as bastions of opportunity. Despite their academic credentials in Nigeria, they initially struggle in their respective countries to leave their mark. Ifemelu’s formative years in the U.S. are plagued by financial struggles, which are compounded because of her nationality and race. Obinze’s struggles are more notable. Upon arriving in England he’s instantly caught in a catch 22 situation; no work permit, no work.
Ifemelu’s story takes a turn for the better. She falls for Curt, a white American man with financial and social mobility, and one who can open doors at the drop of a hat. With one phone call, Curt secures Ifemelu a job interview. She takes up the position and moves with him to Baltimore. Ifemelu eventually moves on from this relationship and into another, which mirrors her first relationship wherein the underlying sentiment is the couple’s struggle to understand Ifemelu’s place in American society as a Black African woman, while keeping track of what Nigeria means for people in the diaspora. This eventually culminates in her decision to move back to Nigeria, where she grapples with a newly democratic, hyper-capitalist country, a far cry from the Nigeria she left.
Obinze’s time in England is a lot shorter. Realising that white collared roles are not on the horizon for him, he succumbs to doing odd jobs with an illegal permit and tries to secure a British passport to reset his life. He finds a shortcut through a sham marriage service but on the day of the marriage registration he is caught out by the authorities and is deported back to Nigeria.
‘Americanah’ really hit home for me. Ifemelu and Obinze are torn between two continents, two countries, and two identities. Circumstances in Nigeria forced their hand in moving to the West, where they realised that things weren’t as rosy as they were made out to be. Both of them struggled in their own ways, but even when the financial issues were resolved for Ifemelu, she struggled to find her place in American society because of its race and identity politics.
My circumstances were different and the same. I first moved from Pakistan to Australia at the age of nine. Even though that was the time when a military regime was taking root in Pakistan, our family was by no means forced to move to Australia. Unlike Ifemelu and Obinze, we had the financial and social capital to continue living a life of relative comfort, with restrictions, given the deteriorating conditions. Moving however, was a choice my parents made as they played the long game of hedging bets that a foreign education and passport would open up the world to us. The end result we wanted was the same as that of Ifemelu and Obinze.
Just like Ifemelu and Obinze, I also arrived as a migrant looking for greener pastures. Over time I became more acutely aware of my identity. Some of my classmates were first and second-generation Pakistanis, so I realized very quickly that not all Pakistanis were the same. Ifemelu and Obinze grappled with this as well, with both having foreign-born family and friends of Nigerian heritage. Ifemelu brings her cousin to Nigeria for the first time well past his adolescent years. It is a homecoming that opens his eyes. I then understood that the first and second-generation Pakistanis I met identify with Pakistan very differently than I do.
I also started noting minor details in migrant families. I saw how most Asian parents would see homework as a necessity, while other parents saw it as a burden. How my parents would prepare food for children coming over whereas other parents would hand their kids 10 dollars and tell us to go to McDonalds or KFC. Ifemelu first got an understanding of this dichotomy when she moved into her share house with her American roommates. The American attitude to intimacy, grieving, and personal space was something she learnt through that experience, and she also learnt to mould herself into being more American in her interactions in order to get through her daily struggles. I saw myself going through this as well, but would see this as a constant cultural tug of war. I would become as Australian as I could be to fit in whilst only retaining those elements of my culture and identity which the average Australian could digest. My accent would change, topics of potential discussion expanded, and my general knowledge and understanding of arts, history and current affairs were further refined so I could fit in wherever I had to. But that was just it. I had to fit in wherever I went. Nobody else had to mould their ways to engage with my understanding of identity and belonging. That’s what led Ifemelu to uproot herself and head to Nigeria and in many ways that’s what uprooted me as well.
Just like Ifemelu and Obinze, my academic credentials were strong but I also struggled to leave a mark in Australia. After working in Pakistan for five years from 2013 to 2018, I returned to Australia to seek opportunities in the development sector, in an industry where your technical and managerial skills are applicable globally and the country-specific knowledge can be learned quickly and readily. Even though I had lived, studied and worked in Australia for half my life, employers would remain skeptical about experience gained abroad (read ‘Pakistan’ or the ‘third world’). This was diplomatically boxed into ‘You don’t fit our values’, ‘We can’t vet your experience’, or ‘We can’t make a case to senior management for such a unique profile’. Comparing how my classmates from my university days have fared, I knew I had more experience and stronger skills than them, but just like Ifemelu and Obinze, moving West has had its fair share of frustrations.
Over the last 20 years I have moved back and forth between Pakistan and Australia six times and found that there have been very few people with whom I have had conversations about this process of assimilation in an honest and open manner. Such people understand that identity and belonging are complex and multilayered. These people are the choice few who can understand stories like mine, Ifemelu’s and Obinze’s. That is perhaps why Ifemelu and Obinze always cherished each other. What it means to be a migrant in the West, whether African or South Asian, can mean being a misfit in both.