After quarantine, an N.C. State student copes with disconnection from her Nigerian culture
For most people, quarantine was far from a good experience, but for me, quarantine was the best time of my life. During the early pandemic, I was surrounded by family and able to do things like celebrate my sister's birthday with my family and people who I knew understood my identity.
This is why going back to school in-person has been such a big change for me. At N.C. State University, I constantly feel like an outcast and disconnected from my culture. The only time I feel connected is when I am on Facetime with my mum.
Back at home, usually on Saturdays around 9 a.m., I am awakened by the aromatic smell of thyme and well-seasoned tomatoes frying in a saucepan. From that smell alone, I know what's going on. My mum has started her Saturday routine of cooking it up in the kitchen. I spend the majority of the year at school, so when I am missing those smells, I Facetime my mum and she guides me through the cooking process. Through each step, I am reminded of how to make one of my favorite dishes.
Today's dish is Jollof Rice. My mum watches me while I dice my tomatoes, gather my seasonings and wash my rice. Sometimes, I get confused about how many cups of rice to use so I always ask her.
Growing up, I always ate Jollof Rice. It is a staple of Nigerian culture and — without a doubt — is a dish that I am always eager to eat. Sometimes, she talks too fast, so I always ask if the recipe is written. Every single time I ask, she says no. She never writes recipes down, so I have to learn to keep up with her. On Facetime, she always asks to see what I am doing, so I show her every step, from the chopping of the tomatoes to the blending of the sauce.
Jollof Rice is actually the first Nigerian meal I shared with one of my non-Nigerian friends, Brier Evans. Brier and I are a part of this group called "The Immigrants." There are about seven of us. We all met in high school and bonded over being at a school that is far away from our home countries. So, when quarantine ended, they understood how I felt, being in a space where people didn't really understand my identity.
When I talked to Brier about her experience, she explained the stress of going back to school after the pandemic.
"I begged my parents not to bring me back," she said. "I was crying to my dad and I was like, 'I don't want to go back. I don't want to go back at all.'”
Right now, she attends Xavier University of Louisiana. Her school is about 2,210 miles from her family in The Commonwealth of Dominica. Brier is Afro-Caribbean and like myself, she felt like an outcast going back to school.
“I felt like I had no place of belonging. I feel like I stood out. Anything I wore or how I spoke or my interests was just different,” Brier explained. “I didn't really find anybody close to me who understood enough to help me through that. I only made one friend.”
Similar to Brier, when I went back to school I felt out of place. My first week of college was a depressing time for me. I missed the comfort and safety of my family. At home, I didn't have to explain certain elements of my culture and identity, because they were already understood. The reality of being in a new space where I was disconnected from everyone around me was a harsh one. Being in public spaces caused Brier and I to panic.
Brier described the anxiety she felt walking through the cafeteria.
"People just look at you. They sit there and look at you. It's not just they look at you; they look at what you're wearing,” she said. “What they think of you is all on their faces. That 10-feet walk to the cafeteria from the open space is the most stressful, most anxiety-causing thing ever.”
Brier’s anxiety was not only confined to the cafeteria. She also felt anxious no matter where she was on campus.
“Back then, I felt like it was me against them. I felt like I was in survival mode; Temple Run. I got such bad social anxiety." she said. "I felt like I was too different. And that really had an impact on my mental health.”
Every waking moment, Brier and I questioned who we were and why we had these feelings.
Our friend Aprille Rolle, who struggled during her first year at Temple University, was also confronting the same questions.
When I spoke to Aprille, she tried to unpack how she felt.
“Just trying to question myself. I'm trying to figure out why do I feel like this? How did I get to this point where I'm waking up every day, (and) I do not want to go to class," Aprille said. "I do not want to do basic things like showering and going out to eat."
After being locked up in my room and questioning myself, my mental health started getting worse.
I hated leaving my dorm room because I knew the moment I stepped out I had to put on a façade.
While in my room, I started journaling. That's when I started to come to terms with the fact that I will never be understood by the people I am constantly surrounded by. It's a work in progress, but right now, instead of trying to fit-in, I am redirecting my energy towards staying connected to my roots. My friend, Imade Borha, reminded me that there are so many ways to connect to your culture.
“I am still finding my way, like I am on YouTube trying to learn pidgin. I am also watching Nollywood movies. I watched Merry Men the other night,” Imade said.
Like me, Imade is Nigerian, but she grew up in Greensboro, North Carolina, so her journey to connect to the culture is a little different than mine. But it's still tough. She feels closer to Black American culture, but that doesn't mean she's able to escape the feeling of disconnection to her Nigerian culture.
“It's like I'm grieving at the same time. And I know that grief is probably something that so many of us deal with. It's that sense of loss, and that sense of like, ‘I can't get this back,’ even though I'm experiencing something similar,” Imade said. “ I think it's important for all of us that we allow ourselves to grieve, and that we allow ourselves to feel anger. Because sometimes, anger and grief are best friends.”
Through talking with my mum and my friends over Facetime at least three times a week, I realized that it's okay to be sad and mourn the loss of my physical community, but it's also important to recognize that I still have a community even if they are far away.