By Bemsi Wallang
Ever since I was a little girl, I have been told that my family is not from here. My dad used to tell me that his father, his father’s father, and all the fathers before him were all from a place called Cameroon, far away from America. He said I could only ever get there by plane and that “one day” we would all go together.
From a young age, before I really understood what all that meant, I just knew that it was true. I took delight in knowing that my real identity laid beyond the borders of where I lived. It sparked a pure interest and inkling for my culture and my roots, a feeling that still grows within me. I loved that I could have a culture to set me apart.
I could confidently proclaim that I was something else; and no matter how obscure it seemed to people, it was still valid and real. I’ve always had a deep appreciation and reverence for the choice my parents made to instill my culture within me as a child because they surely didn’t have to. They just knew that was the way they wanted to raise me.
I take so much pride in my culture. I know I was chosen to possess it for reasons beyond my understanding. I represent the first generation of my mother and father’s families to be born and raised in the United States, yet I am fully Cameroonian by origin, upbringing, and ancestry.
When my parents immigrated here in the 1980s, they had a story common to that of many immigrants to the United States: they wanted a “better life.” They wanted to embrace opportunities that only life in the United States could offer. My parents essentially had to give up their old lives for the mere hope of encountering simpler ones in America. The transition was rough for them to experience, in addition to the forced assimilation they had to partake in, in order to achieve respect here.
My mother always told me to be “twice as good just to get half” which I completely understand because when she came here, she had to do the same. My parents have told me stories about their journey from Cameroon to America that most American people would surely find them impossible to accept, solely because my parents had to sacrifice everything they had for their dreams.
Through the years, my awareness of my parents’ plight and struggle just to live at “peace” in this country have inspired me to work as hard as I could with everything. I’ve always felt like I owed it to them to succeed because they came here for me. They came here so my siblings and I could live well, and if that’s not love, I’m not sure what is.
I’m thankful for the mindset I’ve gained from living in an African household. It has helped me understood the very meaning of sacrifice and that life is only what you make it to be.
In addition to being African by origin, I am American by nationality. I have never been to Cameroon, but Cameroon lives in me. Although I have been exposed to my Cameroonian culture all my life, simultaneously I have been leading a contrary American lifestyle. My two realities manifest themselves in different ways, both assisting me and my perception of life along the way.
I can contribute the African aspects of myself to my American life, offering a perspective to my American friends that they’d otherwise never experience in the same way that I can offer the American attributes of myself to my African family. But sometimes maintaining my double life can be problematic because I have to know when to initiate, eliminate, or integrate my separate lives.
Often times, my Black American friends wouldn’t be able to understand me for it. They saw that I looked Black but they couldn’t comprehend that missing element that made me different. I spoke in a different way. I didn’t eat the foods they ate. I didn’t know all the songs they knew.
There was a time when I felt alienated and unaware of what it truly meant to be Black, all the while unaware that I was Black enough myself!
I endured a great deal of bullying and confusion as a result of it, even malcontent with my own being because I couldn’t understand who I really was.
Being a first generation American is far from easy, but knowing that I’m not alone makes it all worthwhile. Julia Idaewor, a Nigerian-American friend of mine, could empathize with my story given that she had similar experiences. Julia says she felt “left out” at school because of her “two completely different ancestries and customs [that] seemed insignificant but played a big part”.
Growing up, she faced the common “do you speak African?” question as well as other ignorant generalizations on contemporary African culture. Today, Julia “embraces both sides of [her] heritage,” and “introduces [herself] as Nigerian” when meeting new people.
It’s been a lifelong process for me to fully appreciate all the parts that make me who I am, including my two cultures, but I am fortunate to now be at a point where I am fond of my cultures, the distinction they provide for me, and the voice they’ve given me. The Cameroon within me represents generations behind me of people who fought for their freedom, a nation of strength and plight. I am proud to represent such a nation as well as the one I live in. Proudly, I am who I am.