Don’t get me wrong, I understand that if I start this story by telling you, the Serious Reader, about Chinuam’s first day on an American university campus – when suddenly in front of a restroom mirror he started laughing for no reason – you may come to be lost in no time. Then again, I understand how this opening would have made for a more pleasing turn of events.
According to Chinuam, he had already started laughing when he bent down to check that the stalls behind him were empty. They were all empty but for one where a pair of Adidas shoes grunted and tapped. He pinched himself and enjoyed the sweetness of that pinch, he struck a presidential pose and relished the way the yellow restroom lights caught his brown eyes and raggedy hair, his cracked lips, and made him feel righteous and blessed and misplaced in America. Like a typo in one of those perfectly imitated foreign books.
As he washed his hands, and licked his lips, he remembered the things Naan had said under the special intoxication of old age. One night in August, back in Nigeria, around a too-late meal of boiled yams in catfish pepper soup, Naan had sent missiles of wise counsel in Chinuam’s direction. She paused to chew at full volume and drink water and suck her teeth. Like Grandpa Nnammelugo, before he died of a mysterious pleurisy, Naan had reached that golden chapter in life when old age fetched a certain carelessness, a twisted grace – if you will. It made her abandon the things she had learned by way of simple modesty. The same things that made her starts fights with Grandpa, God rest his souls wherever it may reside. Her random farts, her sudden silences, her knee spasms and the scratching – all things that had become complete old woman habits.
— Don’t go to America and marry Oyinbo. The girls there don’t have common home training! Naan said, chasing a mosquito from her forehead.
Her oiled fingers pointed from Chinuam to the door – where America was supposed to be found. She was one of those inelegant few, who talked with arms and legs flaying about for dramatic emphasis. Like I said, old age brought with it a certain grace. For a woman without any teeth, Naan talked too much. There were, indeed, some extremely rare occasions when she did not talk. Like last month when she went on a three-day dry-fast so Papa could get that promotion with the National Civil Service Commission. She did not speak to anyone for three days so as not to be contaminated by what she referred to as our mmehie ebum pụta ụwa — our innate sinfulness. There was also that time when Chinuam left for America. She fell ill and stayed indoors all week, grumbling thick Igbo swear words and calling for attention from God and man – attention that she was not getting. Her Chinuam was not coming back again, she said.
For her troubles, and in Igbo, Papa used to say that ‘small people always had something to prove’. He said this to her hearing. Naturally, the raw accuracy of this spiteful wisdom, provoked from her mouth such an outburst of native vulgarities that stung even to passerby ears. On days like those, Naan would clasp her now flat breasts and remind Papa of how she single-handedly fed and schooled and washed his wide, ungrateful mouth. Sometimes, she threatened to place a curse on him, too.
But that night in August, the evening before Chinuam left us, without provocation, she chose to relish the sound of her prestigious chewing and occasional words of wisdom. We had, once again, become her victims.
— Ehn, and make sure you make plenty money, so that they would call you Dokinta when you come back to Nigeria.” She pulled her left ear and clucked her tongue. Chinuam was silent, playing with his food. He had been like that all day.
–You remember they don’t know God there, so don’t forget Chineke, don’t forget Jesos.” Her thick Igbo mixing badly with what little English she had learned in all of a lifetime. That evening, around the dining table, we laughed at Naan; Papa and Mama only smiled through faces awash with strange expressions. Their oily lips told of benign joys that bubbled to the surface and died instant deaths, but their eyes told only of an uncertainty that was remarkably contagious.
Because, for once, even by the leanest gamble, they could not predict the future. Chinuam, my little brother and bunkmate, was going to America. And he would be all by himself. Even though Papa and Mama knew special things. Things that Naan did not know, in all of her ninety-something years of unbroken oratory, they had reserved themselves to hoping, only, for the best.
For one, Naan had never been to America, she had never been anywhere really. In fact she had never truly been able to pronounce the name correctly; only from her lips did it come out as Amelica. Yet, she was armed to the teeth with powerful stories; and once in a while, to prove a point, she would invent lies that made us laugh and hold our stomachs and roll on the floor. Papa did not laugh, he smiled and held his head in his hands.
Months later, before that restroom mirror, while the pair of Adidas shoes were doing their thing in the toilet, Chinuam remembered the things Naan could never really know. Not even with her magic for cooking up stories and her ceaseless bombardment of wise counsel that leaked from her gap-toothed mouth. I laughed when Chinuam told me about this in the email he sent. It started with Dear Isi Ukwu, Dear Big Head. And ended with: Don’t worry sister Kairalu, when there is money, you too would come to America. Love Chi Boy.
I cried myself to sleep that night.
Like I said, there were many thing Naan did not know.
Naan did not watch CNN, like Papa and I and so she could never know to tell Chinuam that in America there was such a thing as Skin Colour and Racism and Oppression. And that his kernel-dark skin would put him in trouble. And that this blackness that was chosen for him, which was before America, nothing and anonymous in Nigeria, had the ability to be good for him on some days as it was bad on others. Now look at that young black boy that was shot in the head in Fergusin. And the man that was choked to death in New York. They killed them like common rats. When the riot started, Papa said Black people were already cursed. And they would always suffer unless they fought back. It was in the Bible. He said that white people will always kill the Black people in America because they were afraid of them. And that oppression always came to a close when violence was met with superior violence. Mama asked him to take it easy and drink water. Here in Nigeria, there was no color or reason to the dead and dying. People just died. Chinuam told me that he had landed in a giant airport of glass and lights in Frankfurt. It was here that he realized that for all his life he had been asleep like a fool and just eating and eating food, completely negligent to many things. Like Papa, he likes to speak big English, that boy. He wrote in his online blog:
“It is amazing what doors are flung open when a simple blue ink stamp meets the first page of your Nigerian passport. Indeed, the counter clerk’s words: “Welcome to America”, were in themselves a paradox and a brief joke.”
Chinuam said that one time, around that one street corner right on 9th & Tiger., an old white woman hugged her handbag and signed the cross, as he walked past her on Tuesday night. When he came near her, he signed the cross too, to show he was Catholic as well. He wanted to tell her that he was from a Christian home. And that Papa had a PhD and a job with the government and so they were not hungry. And that he had never stolen anything in his life. He wanted to tell her that he did not have the liver to snatch a purse from a complete stranger.
For all the graying hairs on Naan’s head — the one’s she would have Chinuam and myself pick out in the afternoons, trying to undo what was a glorious wilting — she could never predict that, sometimes, Chinuam’s skin made him a problem. In his blog, he said it made him “either an object of open amusement or one of hidden dread – it all depended on the stealth of his audience”. Naan could never know to tell him that, in America, when you rented a shared apartment, your roommate was almost always conveniently Black. In the evenings, Naan always asked me to read Chinuam’s latest blog to her about his Black roommates. By the time I was done, she was fast asleep and scratching. On Saturday, Naan could not understand why Chinuam’s face pixelated on Skype; and why she had to repeat herself over and over again to talk to him over the bad connection. It was simply too much of an aggravation for her aged senses.
— Olee ụdị nsogbu bụ nke a biko. She blurted out, smacking the iPad in her thighs with open fists. As expected, she had started her conversation with questions:
— Chinuam, nwam, you have lost weight o. Are you not eating? Get up let me see you.
— Are you now growing bear-bear? You this dirty boy!
— Have you gone to shake Mr. Obama’s hand? He’s your brother o! Don’t let them deceive you.”
It went on this way for a while, and the painful network reception was at the verge of upping her blood pressure. So yesterday Chinuam sent her an email instead. A brief summary of his irritations. Naan asked me to read to her. She insisted that it be printed out, so she could, with it, talk directly to Chineke about her grandson in prayers. I told Chinuam that nowadays, at night, with a bit of theatrics, she would fold that very piece of paper neatly and tuck it under her pillow before she sleeps; and then in the morning she would tell everyone of an elaborate dream she had had – with him as the star actor.
One time, in Naan’s dreams, Chinuam suddenly became a big man in America, he had sent for everybody in the family to come over, everyone but her; for she would not budge, she did not want to leave her beloved homeland. According to her dream, she had wanted Chinuam to come by himself to Nigeria in person to beg her — on his knees no less — to join the rest of the family, and give her a good enough reason why she had to leave the very same land where Grandpa Nnammelugo, the long-suffering love of her life had died and had been buried twice. That morning, as Naan explained her dream to us, she got into a fight with Papa, asking him ‘why, why, why’? –
— why would I leave Nigeria to go and be saying ‘yes sir, yes madam’ in Obodo Onyinbo? Ehn tell me why? Have I not suffered enough in this life? Papa ended her silliness with a firm reprimand at the expense of shouldering one of her usual curses.
— Mama it was only a dream for Christ’s sake! Papa told her. As usual, Naan grabbed her breasts and started chanting.
Yesterday, Chinuam sent her another email:
Dearest Naan, my Omalicha.
My Asan kpete one! The most beautiful woman in my life. The only granny I have left that looks younger every passing day.
Kedu? How’re you? What is the latest? I hope that your leg is not disturbing you! Naan, I miss that your Ofe Ora soup, and the way you roll your fistfuls of Eba into small round balls before dipping in my soup plate and swallowing. But I don’t miss those boring ancient-of-days songs you used to sing in Igbo during morning devotions. Thank God I no longer have to pick out your white hairs.
Naan America amaka! The place is so beautiful. And all the girls are running after me. Naan, America is so cold and clean too. Did you know that, these Americans are a goddamn proud people? Don’t squeeze your face, if you don’t understand these words, ask Papa to tell you what they mean, I’m an Americanah now, so bear with me.
Like I was saying, you were not far from the truth o! America is not heaven, but it’s not hell either. It’s something like Purgatory! Sometimes it’s good, other times it is bad. I have learned also, that it is okay to smile brightly, nod and shout an exaggerated Hello to a complete stranger. They would do it to you too. Some people talk too loudly, as though addressing an entire room filled with deaf people – as deaf as De Ikemba. Sometimes, they talk slowly to me, and I have to remind them that I can understand English just fine. Other times they talk very fast. There are others here too, JJC’s like me from other countries. But they keep to themselves. They walk in groups, especially the Asians and some others of unknowable origins. I’m always by myself here. I walk home alone at night. But I can run. Okwi ma? You know? If ever I find myself in trouble I would run till they don’t see my brake lights.
I heard you’re worried about the food here, I am too. There’s too much sugar in everything, and I can only eat chicken and pizza and burger and drink Coke — if you don’t understand Pizza, ask Papa to explain Inugo?
Sometimes, I wake up in the morning and forget I am in America. Until I come out of my room to spend the rest of my day speaking spri-spri English, through rehearsed smiles, to strange white faces. In my foolishness, I used to buy too many groceries from the malls, out of impulse, just in case, because you never can tell, tomorrow there may be a strike. Papa says it’s my innate scarcity-mentality at work, my Africanness. He said it would wear off with time. But I’m wiser now, I only buy the things I need. Naan, another thing about America is that the sales boys and sales girls are very clever. Obara Jesus! They look you right in the eye with genuine care and attention and concoct beautiful lies about the magical properties of X that come with amazing discounted offers. I have fallen mumu to their sweet-talk a couple of times. But yesterday, one of them tried to sell me a torn pair of jeans, I just hissed and walked away quickly, I almost called him an Onyi’oshi, — but the Jesus in me took control.
I walk around with too much coins in my pocket so that sometimes I start to jingle like an Obioma. I learned the hard way to never say to an Igbo-looking black man — N’wannem Kedu? I tried it one time, and the man immediately stepped back and plunged into a flurry of African American vernacular, sufficiently implanting the N-word where necessary. Ask Papa for this N-word too. Yesterday, I found myself, again, explaining, that Tanzania and Nigeria and Ghana, are not cities in Africa. And yes! In Africa we speak English and do not live on trees and we have smartphones too. Anumalu. Chai, some people can be so ignorant. I talked until my mouth started to pain me.
They have too much electricity here, they light up the places that don’t need light. I have started making friends. White friends. They call me Chinuam here, but I asked them to simply call me Chinua, seeing that it saves tongue-twisting time and saves me from getting drenched in ignorant saliva. The people here are patient and they mind their own business, so I’ve learned to do the same. The other day when I could not operate the soda machine I just stood there looking like a mumu! Until one nwa sisi came to do it, and I watched her. Now I’m an expert. I’m also an expert at pronouncing Chipotle and Rotisserie and Burrito without biting my tongue. Papa doesn’t know this part so don’t bother asking him. In this regard, you are both equally bushistic. I am just playing oh! I would send you another email when I meet Obama, for now gi kwa nwayo, take it easy oh! Ngwa bye bye!
Chinuam wrote in his blog called the JJC diary that “while he was laughing, the restroom door opened, a two white men walked in, avoiding with caution every septic inch of that restroom door. They smiled at Chinuam, and he smiled back. All half smiles. In the mirror, Chinuam caught the last moments of his own smile, and with this sighting came a sudden sense of belonging. Gradually, he had started to become like the others. Realizing now, how he had, without remorse, become comfortable with America, or was it the other way round? America had become comfortable with him. Just then, the pair of shoes came out of the stall. He was white too. He ran his hands under the running water and smiled at Chinuam.
— Hey buddy, you from around here? He asked.
— Nope, I’m Nigerian. Chinuam said.
— Nigerian. I am from Nigeria.
— Oh! Good for you.
*JJC – Johnny Just Come, a slang used to speak of a person who is a newcomer to a foreign place, aka Johnny-come-latelies.