Finding Space For My Multiple Identities As An Immigrant

How I continue to find and create space in a world that wants me boxed in

Home I grew up in Cameroon

My first day at an American school was in May 2007. It was two weeks before my brothers and I had immigrated to the United States from Cameroon. That morning began with my mother making breakfast — fried sweet plantains and eggs with some juice and tea. I was so nervous about my first day, I couldn’t even taste the food. I ended up packing some of it for my lunch that day. It was also my first time catching the bus to school. We needed to hurry to be on time. I proudly put on my dashiki shirt, brown pants and sandals. I packed the new books and supplies we bought the day before and headed to the bus.

I hadn’t thought about how I would look or sound to others, but I could tell I was different immediately when I got on the school bus. The other students would look behind at the little corner by the window I had squeezed myself in and began to laugh. I still didn’t think much of it. Honestly, I was too nervous about my new surroundings to even comprehend being made fun of.

When we arrived at school, other students went to their respective homerooms while I was led to the registration office. Without any questions, I was put in the English as a second language (ESOL) classes because that is typically where new immigrants who could not speak English were assigned. I actually spoke English very well. The counselors, not thinking about my own qualities or skills, found it easier to pair me with a group of “others.”

The one month I spent in middle school was brutal. There was a group of students who would wait outside my classroom to follow me to the next. Their goal was simply to make fun of my African outfits and sometimes make references to “Roots” — a reference I wouldn’t get until years later. Yes, they nicknamed me Kunta Kinte.

Back at home, I was repeatedly reminded by family members who had already been living in the U.S. for a while to stay away from the “Akatas”. That’s a nickname Africans call Black Americans. They perpetuated the stereotypes that Black Americans are lazy, do drugs, are in violent gangs and have different values than newly immigrated Africans. I would internalize some of those stereotypes and, as I transitioned to high school, it began to shape my relationships.

We live in a world that constantly puts us in boxes. Sometimes the boxes are in alignment with our personalities/sense of self and sometimes — like my case — they do not align. I am learning that I do not need to switch identities depending on the space.

I found myself caught in a culture battle. I became multi facetted — bringing on different personalities depending on the environment or who I was with. It was similar to Jame McAvoy’s 24 personalities in the 2016 thriller “Split”. After being mistreated in middle school, I understood my game plan for high school had to be different. I learned how to change my personality depending on the space.

In high school, I got lucky with puberty. I got bigger and stronger. I became the captain of the football team, the lacrosse team and would eventually become a star wrestler. At the same time, I learned my love for theatre and storytelling. I became the male lead of my high school musical and show choir, adding more complexity to the different personalities I brought into each space. I enjoyed not being simple. I was the African immigrant who loved playing sports, singing, writing poems and acting. And still, I found myself in an environment that was not flexible or graceful enough to create space for such a complex person. My high school coach and my theatre director were always in conflict. I would split time between the two. By the end of high school, I greatly disliked both activities because neither allowed the space to be myself. I learned that I would have to choose one, not both, for college — so I declined all of my football scholarships and opted for community college.

The community college I chose had a history of being a sort of limbo for African immigrants trying to get a college education. (Some attended and later advanced to a 4 year university, while others never left.) Due to the high rate of African immigrants enrolling in the college, the admissions office usually enrolled all students as though they had never spoken English or knew how to read the language. Immigrants from countries where English is not the first language would have to take an extra semester or two before being able to enroll in regular college courses. It was surprising for me, however, that I was enrolled in English Reading 101 as I came from an American high school. All of my courses were centered around English language learning too. I once again found myself in a space where I was stereotyped. At this point, I was extremely frustrated.

I marched to the head of the English department’s office and explained why I thought the college had made a mistake. They decided to give me a test to prove my knowledge of the English language. With no surprise, I passed. I was now able to enroll in regular college classes. I eventually escaped the limbo of community college and moved to Ohio State where I obtained my bachelors.

Game day at Ohio State

After Ohio State, I entered Corporate America where I eventually learned how to adapt to the spaces I occupied and use the multiple facets of my personality to my advantage. I learned that my accent made white people feel safe. (My British sounding accent was more palatable than a Black Americans.) I also learned there is some privilege in being an African immigrant in this country. I received better grades in some of my college courses because I told a good immigrant story with a great accent. I have been able to enter rooms because I was African sounding and appeared less threatening in comparison to some Black Americans. I put on my accent heavily when out in clubs, bars or navigating a new city because it makes people treat me differently — in a good way. It sometimes comes with cons. I was told to take an American accent course by my corporate job because some folks said they could not understand me. I have been indirectly dismissed by a xenophobic colleague at work because they thought my accent was too thick.

The United States has changed since my immigration to this country in 2007. Marvel’s “Black Panther” created a cultural shift for most Black folks to accept their African brethren. I was shocked to see everyone in dashikis when the movie came out — it is the same outfit I was shamed for in middle school. The experience of watching Black bodies brutalized by the police over the years has given most Africans the curiosity to abandon their harmful rhetoric and reexamine their views on Black America.

Occupying space continues to be an evolution for me. I am African. I am an immigrant. I am a naturalized American. I am Black. I love storytelling, self development and care. I love community, learning new ideas and people. I love me. We live in a world that constantly puts us in boxes. Sometimes the boxes are in alignment with our personalities/sense of self and sometimes — like my case — they do not align. I am learning that I do not need to switch identities depending on the space. I just need to be. All of these identities can exist as one.

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Churchill Ndonwie

Churchill Ndonwie

Young Professional living in NYC. Making connections and creating communities through storytelling. Host of City Living with Churchill Podcast