Dear African immigrant parent,
The beautiful thing is, we come into this world not yet knowing who we are. This means that just like everyone else, the purpose of our lives is to figure out how we can help, what we can do, the legacy we can leave, the hugs we can give, the purpose we can find. But, after we turn 10 or so, the pressure starts. It is often subtle, so you may not notice you are doing it. You whisper secretly to our aunties about what the “plan” for us will be. You tell us, while we sit in the kitchen on 10 pound bags of rice you bought from the nearby African store, that no one will marry us if we don’t learn how to cook.
And there we were thinking about boys and our new outfit on sale and just how we would convince you to buy it for us, and we are brought back from dreaming into the reality that is our lives. Someone will want to marry us, especially the girls. This will not happen that soon, especially since you want us to go to college. This will happen in the future, maybe in our early 20’s when college is over. The thing you do not understand as our parents is this: fear, once instilled, is hard to get rid of. You say this marriage won’t happen for some time. For us, it’s happening tomorrow. We get confused, and uncertain. We are only 10 years old and already we understand the meaning of words like must, will, force.
And the way we understand them makes us stay up at night. And this is the story for those of us whose parents went abroad. The golden ticket came to our doors one day while you, our parents, were still in the village. And all of a sudden, everything changed. Change is not always positive. You were excited, waving that college acceptance letter around and dancing with our grandparents. Beke, they called you, my mother. The one who went overseas. And we all arrived to see snow for the first time. And the years piled up and the father’s hands hit the children’s faces. And the girls knew learning was important, school was second only to god. And the girls thought about two things: marriage and books. There was no room to think about boys.
And this is how one childhood disappears. It is a subtle thing sometimes, but other times it is quick and swift like an overnight storm. We are all sleeping when it happens, only to see the chaos of trees cracked at the spine the next morning. For all of us, for me, the change happened suddenly. But thankfully, it happened. It must have been a test I took in 5th grade. Yes, that’s when everything changed. I was tired of showing up to school with a plum colored face and hiding marks across my body. I was tired of not getting the chance to figure out who I was meant to be in the world. I knew I was not meant to despise everyone and everything. The word hate was making its way to the back of my throat, with a plan to stay there, and I would not have it. And at 10 years old, I was afraid of being that person. And then I took a state test. The teacher announced my score, made me stand up and talked to me after school. I missed 2 questions out of 100, and in his opinion, that meant I should do something with what was in my brain. It took 3 more years for me to find myself in the school library, where I started planning.
You see, we are all invested in who we become. But we cannot become those people when we are constantly afraid of being silenced or bullied for doing so. The plan was precise. I would study my way out of the chaos that was my home. I had very little room for error. Did I feel lots of pressure? Absolutely! Was I afraid I would not pull it off? Absolutely! Was I wondering if it would all fall apart? Absolutely! But I had my mother’s wisdom and my father’s rage in my pocket.
Rage is nothing to be afraid of unless you turn it on yourself. I kept it in my pocket, ran my hand across its pebbled ridges and knew that it was simply his own insecurity talking. I took my mother’s dreams, opened them up and looked at myself. It was this mirror that let me know how much I was capable of. Parents, the thing is, we have the right and duty to become all of who we are meant to be. And when you hold us back and we nearly miss that opportunity, you may not realize that you are playing god. And guess what? No one should have the right to do that. And I mean, no one. I have never been religious, but I know many of you are.
Call god the universe, a divine spirit or whatever you’d like. The point is, you are taking something into your own hands that is not yours to take. Your children were given to you, but they are not only yours. They belong to the greater world that will help shape them alongside you. And when you play god, the lives of your children are uncertain and things happen that you thought you could control. They set their cell phones to special ringers when you call. The kind that say, don’t pick up. They lie to you about the men they are dating because maybe their lovers are actually women. And even when they snuggle up to men at night, your girls still pretend because dating was never supposed to happen before marriage and if you happen to be a parent who allows it, his last name better sound as familiar to you as the dishes you put on the table to remember your homeland every night.
The thing is, you sometimes miss their whole lives. And I don’t think that’s what any of you ever intended to do. But that’s what’s happening. Luckily for me, I found college. Just writing that makes me laugh because I think about how many of you talk about how your life changed when you found god, or some form of a higher spiritual calling. And so while my parents found god, I found college. In truth, college was my bible but what i really found was possibility. The right to know what was possible for my life and the ability to act on that knowledge. And this, in truth, changed my life.
I cannot tell any parent how to parent, but I can tell you that children who are constantly living in fear do not become all they are capable of. Because when that fear is removed, they are unsure of why they making certain choices. Before they did things based on if you would hit them or not. And when that fear is gone, they have no barometer to help them understand what they really believe about how to be in the world. And so, dear African immigrant parent, I will write to you again.
I hope this will be my first of many letters and I hope to hear from you. I know you are scared. The world is big and uncertain. But taking your anger out on your kids does not bring the certainty you are looking for. And when you do this, you miss out on the awesome opportunity to raise the next generation of leaders, artists and thinkers. Instead, you raise a generation of brilliant minds who are afraid to act on that brilliance for fear of disappointing you. And if I have learned anything all these years, it’s that choices based on the fear of someone else’s reaction usually keep you running from who you really are and all that you can become.
With warm regards,
daughter of Nigerian parents