A Nigerian-American Reflects on Thanksgiving
JOHN YDSTIE, host:
The American Automobile Association says 38 million people will travel this Thanksgiving as families and friends reunite for the holiday. But sometimes the miles relatives have to cross aren't the only things keeping them apart.
Thankfully, commentator Chinyere Osuji has seen some divisions within her Nigerian American family shrink over the years.
CHINYERE OSUJI: At Thanksgiving in my family the women stayed in the kitchen. They prepare the dinner of jollof rice, farina, meat and vegetable stews and of course, turkey. The men were in the living room, drinking Guinness and Manischewitz wine. They talked African politics or about how America was corrupting their children.
I was always more interested in what the men had to say. Even when I was eight years old, I interjected my own observations into their talk. That was two big no-nos in Nigerian culture. I was a child trying to be a part of an adult conversation, and a girl who had no right to be in the same space as the men.
So they would switch languages, moving from English to Igbo, since they knew I wouldn't understand. If that didn't work, my dad would say - go to the kitchen and help your mother. It was confusing. As a first-born daughter of Nigerian immigrants, I was supposed to meet high expectations at the school, go to college and become a doctor or lawyer. At home I was supposed to be a good housekeeper and cook, to prepare to be a good wife.
By my high school and college Thanksgivings, I refuse to even to go into the kitchen. I started reading my dad's magazines from the local African market. When the men talked, I added information I learned in the class from the sociology of Africa. I was a poster child for corrupt children in America. I wasn't a pregnant teenager and I didn't have a drug habit, my crime was talking out of place.
But after almost 30 years of living in the U.S., I think my family has changed, whether they want to admit it or not. When I come home for holidays now, my father doesn't banish me like he used to. My uncles no longer talk about my horrible upbringing.
Now there are more women in the living room than in the kitchen. My family still speaks Igbo and they berate me for not understanding it, but it's not a way to keep me out of the discussion.
I have changed too. Now I willingly wander into the kitchen to see what makes my mom's jollof rice tastes so good. I laugh with my aunt. If my mom's legs are tired, I take over at the stove, adding saffron or stirring the stew for her. The men still stay out of the kitchen. But last Thanksgiving, I had a conversation with my uncle. For the first time I could recall, he listened to me intently like what I said actually mattered.
YDSTIE: Commentator Chinyere Osuji is a doctoral candidate in sociology at the University of California, Los Angeles.
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