Six months. What’s changed? Everything. I remember who I was when I got here, yet, I made a video and still couldn’t cover all the aspects of my upended life.
I always wondered what America was. Back in Cameroon, leaving the country was a symbol of higher social status. It didn’t matter how hard you worked to earn a scholarship, or that the terms of your travel included your forceful return after completion of studies — anyone who leaves the country suddenly becomes ‘better’.
“They did it. They left this hell”.
It is true that the current political and economic condition of my birth country isn’t favorable for people my age, and even older. It is true that we’ve had the same president for 36 years. It is also true that if you don’t know someone somewhere, and if you are not willing to play by the rules of corruption and bribery, you might as well never wake up for your slumber: your dreams will never see the light of day.
My father knew this too well because he was fired for choosing his family over more money. My mother climbed the ranks very, very slowly and they both struggled to give four kids a modest and affordable living. We never lacked. But we never had too much.
The country didn’t let us dream too much either.
Which is why when I got here, the few friends who haven’t deserted me had a lot of questions about what America was.
And whenever anyone asked me: How is America? I refined my response.
Seriously though. You’ll need to be more specific.
I can’t work until probably next year. I can’t get a driver’s license either. From one point to another almost always requires a car drive.
There’s internet and electricity 24/7. There are homeless people by the roads begging for money. There are all kinds of races nearly everywhere. You can buy a book online for $25. You can find that same book somewhere for $1.
There’s a lot. And there’s more.
I think I could survive anywhere. I like how I can’t test my assumptions and how my wife makes me see angles I may never have considered.
I understand how people feel when they come back home. I understand why someone would want to take a picture of a cockroach or feed a stray dog.
America is a different world. You don’t have to watch the news to feel it. Every shop, every ride, every conversation shatters your thoughts about wealth, technology and freedom.
You see homeless people holding signs for money. Then you hear that sometimes, these people aren’t lazy — they can’t have a job, ever. They might have committed a ‘small’ crime which now makes sure that no one wants to have them work for them.
They could be a child of addicts, poorly-fed because his or her parents were always high. This child had to take food from wherever they could: food evolved into toys, then clothes. then more. Then one day, this kid finds a group of people who make him feel like he belongs. A feeling he’s never known in his life. Now he’s a teenager, impressionable. Now to stay in the group he has to do what the group does. To him, it’s being grateful for food and shelter and love, things no one has ever given him since birth.
How can this group be called a ‘gang’ when it’s his ‘family’?
I came to America with my Cameroonian perspective. As much as I had read a lot about America, I wasn’t ready for many things.
I wasn’t ready to meet Jesus in a small church that made me feel a powerful sense of belonging and community. I wasn’t ready to have a lesbian friend who is more similar to me than I could imagine in my sweetest dreams. I wasn’t ready to have roommates from all shades of Race who would cook, play video games and share my taste in music.
The American experience is changing me more than any books I’d ever read. Even when we had a semblance of racial profiling at a shop, we had to stop and wonder if there wasn’t the possibility that this employee was simply doing his job to check receipts.
I’m lucky that my wife has a different solution to the race problem. She’s all for integration and diversity. She believes that the more people come together and collaborate and know more about themselves, the more we’d understand that there’s just one race.
I didn’t agree with her. I don’t know if I was tainted by lots of divisional stances or if my thoughts about generational wealth and slavery were murking my judgment, but I had strongly believed that it was ‘okay’ for more black-centric organizations and movements to lead the way.
Now, I agree with her. Not just because she’s my wife, but because there’s logic in inclusion. I’ve watched it happen to me. I’ve eaten fajitas made by a Black American woman I love, who looks whiter than your typical Caucasian.
Even on my first day at the airport in JFK, the first — and only — person who came up to me to start a conversation was this kind white man. He saw my awkward pose and felt the need to connect. I later found out he was leading a group for a relief effort somewhere I can’t remember.
I’m not oblivious to the question of race and I may not have had a life-shattering experience with a racist.
But I’m more aware that: racism needs integration, America is complex, prejudice steals the American experience from people who are not willing to let go and be, there are homeless, racist, loving, caring, nice, sad, lazy, hardworking people everywhere, and nothing is ever what we see on TV or hear from anywhere else.
The American Dream is what you wake up to think, believe and do.
I still can’t work. I still can’t drive( I got my learner’s permit though0. We still live on my wife’s student loans and we’re still waiting to be called by USCIS for my papers. If anything, the last 6 months have allowed me to embrace uncertainty and change in a way that I could never have expected.
I have also had the chance to develop a deeper understanding of how similar both countries are although at the surface, what everyone sees are the differences.
In America, there is a race conversation. One that has been on for years and seeps through everything. Back in Cameroon, there is an Anglophone minority that has suffered and continues to suffer, at the hands of the political system in place in more ways than can be accurately defined without gruesome images.
As I write this, there is war, thousands of people dying, businesses lost, families displaced — running for their lives — in the North West and Southwest Regions. But if you arrive at the other parts of the country, you would never believe there’s anything wrong.
Unless of course, you go to the Far North where Boko Haram continues to wreak havoc and there is little news coverage by the National Media because — well, that’s how it’s always been: if we don’t say it, then it’s not true.
There’s no war in Cameroon.
But if we add the 230+ tribes whose stereotypes are so ingrained in the nation, you almost already know how a job interview would go because of your name and the relationship it has with where the boss comes from.
There’s no nepotism in Cameroon. If we don’t say it, it’s not true.
Where I am now uncomfortable because of the color of my skin, I have to come to terms with what my role is, and how different my struggle will be.
Where I was a francophone — my name and fluent French — and an anglophone — educational background and fluent English — I am now black.
The myriad of cultural influences, the well of experience I wield, the sum of conversations, books, people in my life and personal story, summed all in the color of my skin.
It’s impossible to immigrate to any country — especially America — and not face identity redefinition. The way I think changed; my speech and my assumptions. I can project a future conversation in Cameroon and I’d know the reaction I’d get from my own siblings the next time I’d speak.
If anything, moving to America, absorbing this world and learning what I need to survive, there’s only one word that comes to my mind to describe my destination:
I will never have a geographical home. Once I left Cameroon, unbeknownst to me, I embraced a path to a version of me that would never fit in America or Cameroon.
My wife felt this when she visited in 2017. She was very explicit.
If it wasn’t for you, I’d never come back here.
It’s not that immigrants suddenly hate their homes, it’s the inevitable absorption of worlds that creates this new being — this monster: never American enough when in America, and too American when back in the motherland.
Talk about identity dissonance.
I cannot look at a homeless man the same way. I cannot tell someone it’s easy to make it in America. I find it hard to judge anyone without knowing their story because no one really knows anything — especially because being Black from Africa is a whole different ball-game than being Black from America.
I know there’s so much more to learn as I live here. The conversations I’ve had with other immigrants point to how much humanity there really is everywhere in the world — if you’re open to receiving and giving it.
But if a state like Colorado can flip its weather on you, how can you trust complex human nature? We all are, in essence quite unpredictable.
End of part two.