I just finished the book Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and in so many ways, it was the perfect book to read at the end of 2017 and beginning of 2018. One of the main characters is Nigerian, and spends a good chunk of time in the U.S. before she returns to her home country. At several points in the book, this protagonist mentions that she didn’t know what it was like to be black until she came to the U.S., that is, race isn’t discussed in Nigeria. From the author’s perspective, the book covers aspects of what it may mean to be black in U.S., which, of course, is a way of looking at our placed-based identities. This is something I’ve thought quite a bit about lately, as moving back to the U.S. was more challenging for me than I thought it would be (I hate driving everywhere. I live in a food desert and there’s no good juice stands on the corner and guys coming to sell me tamales. And the rent is too damn high!). Too, for the last 5+ years, so much of my identity has been tied to getting my doctorate and moving abroad to help farmers in the global south. I no longer directly do that work, and it was more challenging than I anticipated trying to redefine how I see myself and my future. As in, I’m no longer a güera living in Mexico City, doing good work and having sweet adventures all over the country, so who exactly is this version of myself who works in an office and lives in suburbia?
So, reading observations about Americans1 from what is meant to be the perspective of a Nigerian-born American was helpful in reframing how to think about being American. For example, at one point the protagonist states:
“And [Americans] overused the word “excited,” a professor excited about a new book, a student excited about a class, a politician on TV excited about a law; it was altogether too much excitement.” (Adichie, 2013, p. 164)
I laughed, because I’ve heard myself express excitement about things I was only mildly excited about this year. Like, not having to disinfect my vegetables and drinking tap water. Yes, those are nice things, but spending a few extra minutes to get water and wash my veggies is worth it if I feel like my personal identity is validated in whatever context I am currently living in. However, my ridiculous excitement is also part of who I am, and maybe part of my American-ness. I laugh a lot with whomever, I’ll eat way too many s’mores, I love my fat dog too much… And maybe I’m not sure what the future holds anymore, but I am certainly excited that I have choices for my future.
Which brings me to my favorite passage in the book, in which another character is reflecting on the questions he was asked at a dinner party:
“Alexa and the other guests, and perhaps even Georgina, all understood the fleeing from war, from the kind of poverty that crushed human souls, but they would not understand the need to escape from the oppressive lethargy of choicelessness. They would not understand why people like him, who were raised well fed and watered but mired in dissatisfaction, conditioned from birth to look towards somewhere else, eternally convinced that real lives happened in that somewhere else, were now resolved to do dangerous things, illegal things, so as to leave, none of them starving, or raped, or from burned villages, but merely hungry for choice and certainty.” (Adichie, 2013, p. 340)
The first thing that always strikes me when I come back to the U.S. from long stints abroad is the amount of choice in consumer goods (Why are there 15 different kinds of ketchup?!? It’s just sugar anyway! And if there wasn’t an entire condiment aisle, maybe we could build smaller grocery stores and not have so many food deserts! #endrant). But too, it is true that I’ve had so much choice in my career: the choice to leave good jobs and pursue as much education as I wanted, the choice to go abroad and learn more about myself and other cultures, and the choice to come back home and be certain that clean and clear water will come out of the tap when I turn it on.
For me, this is what it means to be American: to have been so fortunate to have been born in an area where choice and economic mobility were possible which allowed two young parents without high school diplomas to raise three healthy children, all of whom were able to choose our own career pathways and make a decent living as adults (shout out to my parents here!).2 I may be feeling a little lost these days, but having the time to read and reflect on where I came from and where I’m going is such an American privilege, and thus a huge part of my identity in itself. And while I figure out what might be next, I have so many choices in how I spend my time and what I can be excited about.
A few other things I’m excited about in 2018:
1 I’m using “American” here to refer to people living within the United States, and not to refer to residents of the North and South American continents, to mirror the language in Americanah.
2 If one can believe the media, many Americans feel that their choices and access to certainty are currently quite limited. However, I’ll save that discussion for a different blog post.