Dear Tobore, or America through my eyes and ears.

Dear Tobore,

You’re probably one of my few friends who has never gotten a note or letter from me. I’m sorry and at the same time not sorry that my first letter to you is public. It’s 1:45 am in the US right now, and I have heavy palpitations, It’s like a marching band lives inside my chest. They keep marching and drumming with the enthusiasm of dolphins. We've had some ongoing conversations about what America is like, and I said I was going to write an essay at some point. I have decided to write you a letter instead. For the longest time, I didn't know how to start writing this, but I've had a chance to observe and process some of the sensory data I've gathered in my short time here.

My port of entry into the US was New York. Just as my flight arrived, I took the escalator to the "International arrivals" section. It was a long escalator ride, and I was eavesdropping on the conversation between two black women close to me. "Well, back to reality," one of them said, "Back to reality," the other woman replied, in a tone that suggested self-pity. I thought about that brief exchange, and my mind still returns to it. There I was, full of hopes and dreams, thinking about the type of salvation that America might offer me, yet two American women spoke of it as an inevitable reality they've had to come back and face. Their facial expressions and disgust made it seem like America was that meal you hated so much, but you just had to eat because your mom cooked it for dinner.

I’m still finding my voice. Whenever I want to talk in front of people or ask a question in class, I start to panic about how I sound and what people are going to think about my accent.  I started to diagnose the cause of my panic and I figured that I was extremely worried about exposing my difference and spotlighting myself. I could just sit quietly amongst people and no one might know that I'm African and different. Anytime I'm in a group of people who are introducing themselves to each other, my anxiety heightens and my heart starts racing like a rat trying to avoid being caught. "Now they are going to know I'm different," "I wonder what they'll think when they hear my accent and I tell them I'm from Nigeria." These are samples of thoughts that run through my mind before I finally say, "My name is Kelvin. I'm from Nigeria." The moment you open your mouth to speak, people turn around to look at you with inquisitive facial expressions. I’ve learned that the way to handle this is to not look at people's faces when you speak. That way, you shield yourself from noticing anything that'd make you scared and anxious. I’ve started to think about what this might cost me in the long run, it would mean that my voice is never heard, even in the times I feel uncomfortable and need to speak up, and my personality and stories remain buried because I'm afraid to use my voice. It's easy to lay low and never talk in a group or class, and it’s easy to not out my difference in the midst of people, but I do not want to be a background character who is constantly forgotten, I want to matter. I was hoping we could have a conversation about this.  When I was leaving Nigeria, I thought it was finally time to leave behind some of the things I'd known, but it’s been hard. Nigeria is that obsessed girlfriend that follows you everywhere, she’s in your voice, your face, your name, your careless mannerisms. You might leave Nigeria, but she doesn’t leave you.

A lot of people talk about being alone when they migrate to a new country. I would often laugh it off because I did not understand it at the time. There's a way this loneliness expresses itself; it's not the lack of people around you or the fact that you miss your friends and family. This loneliness arises when you slowly begin to realize that pidgin English is not something you can comfortably speak anymore, even in informal situations. The type of jokes you could tell in Nigeria to bond or start a conversation might no longer serve you here. The type of familiarity that you form with neighbors or store owners close to your house doesn't exist here. I have always been the type of person who loved being alone for extended periods, but the truth is that I always had friends in the same time zone whom I could always call when necessary, I had friends whose houses were within walking distance from mine, and I could easily go into their space without an invitation. It slowly dawned on me how huge of a deal this was. I had suddenly lost spaces I could walk into and melt away. Now I have to speak English, both in formal and informal circles, I have to be prim and proper, and I have to watch the way I laugh, the way I talk, and the way I eat. So this loneliness doesn’t necessarily arise because you miss Nigeria and you’d like to go back, it arises because you notice how parts of who you are begin to disappear, you miss yourself and the world that has always interacted with you and you with it. 

I mostly stayed to myself in Nigeria, but I was never lonely. I was in a place where people talked like me, looked like me, and gestured like me. There is something in the air that connects you to another Nigerian in Nigeria. Two strangers in Nigeria with completely different lives can be placed in a room and still find something to laugh or talk about because there is a particular Nigerian story and experience that binds the two of them. It is this sort of connection that you lose, especially if, like me, you live in a predominantly white neighborhood and attend a predominantly white institution.

I started this letter in a tone that suggested complete pain, but it would be dishonest of me to not mention that the quality of my daily life has become better. I’ll give you three examples. Firstly, I do not have to worry about petty issues like bad electricity and internet; they have become constants that I do not think about. Back in Nigeria, I’d probably have issues with the electricity and internet every day, and I constantly think about them, I’ve not experienced a blackout since I came here, nor have I had to curse and scream at my laptop because of bad internet. Secondly, the roads here were designed with pedestrians in mind. There are good sidewalks and a well-controlled system for pedestrian crossings. If there’s a zebra crossing, you simply push a button and wait for a signal to cross. If there’s no button, there's usually a sign that says "Yield to Pedestrians," a way to tell drivers to stop for a pedestrian crossing the road. Lastly, there’s a different type of calmness you feel when you notice that your institution's professors and staff are there to help you, I mostly don’t stress or panic when I have an issue because there’s an assurance that someone will be able to help me navigate it. This is unlike Nigerian institutions where blame is always put on students and you are left to figure out issues on your own. There’s a support system for you here.

I mostly think about you when I see the type of freedom the people here have with their clothes, bodies, and sexuality. You’ve always talked about what it'd be like to live in a country where you don’t have to hide who you are and what you fancy. In my institution, women can wear whatever they want without fear. Back in Nigeria, women can get called out, suspended, or even harassed for as little as wearing mini-skirts or bum-shots, I’ve not seen that happen here. Of course, I am a man and might not know the full details of harassment here, so I write from my perspective. Most people don’t hide their sexuality here. I have a friend who would talk to me about him and his fiancé as freely as one would talk about what they had for dinner last night, there’s less fear of judgment, attack, and harassment. I hope that one day you live in a place where you can freely take a walk in the park with your partner while holding hands and showing affection.

You’ve always asked what I do for fun since I came to the US. The truth is, there’s so much you can do to have fun here, but you have to be in a group to enjoy it, and I haven’t made friends who I can randomly text or call to hang with me. When I first came here, I would hang out at bars and talk to random people, but I’ve grown to hate it because beer in America tastes bad, it’s like drinking water that tastes bad. I got tired of spending money on bad beer for the cheap excuse of socializing. I believe in first-time encounters that touch you deeply, and I also believe that you can know people for a certain amount of time before they slowly become a huge part of your life. That’s how I’ve always made friends. I would neither rush to make friends nor engineer them.

I wanted to talk about the magnitude of American poverty that I have seen firsthand, as it is not often talked about, but I would leave that for another letter. Stay well, Tobore.

Until next time, love and best wishes,

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