threads of our fabric

Reflections on navigating between two cultures and understanding the self-awareness process

Welcome to America – Themes in the life of an African Immigrant August 11, 2011

The American Psychological Association recently held its 119th Annual Convention in Washington D.C. As an African immigrant woman, I am also very excited because one of APA’s new directives this year includes an Immigration Taskforce charged to examine the intersect of psychology and immigration on a number of levels ranging from individual mental wellness to policy implications. I was privileged to attend one of the APA Convention sessions: “Humanizing the Dehumanized: Psychological Implications of the Immigration Experience”. Yes, I was thrilled to be in the midst of others who were passionate about this subject. Dr. Suarez-Orozco (Immigration Taskforce team  lead) opened up the plenary session with a quote that reminded me of the paradox of our times when it comes to the contention around immigration in America:

“Give me your tired, your poor
Your huddled masses, yearning to breathe free.
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest – lost to me.
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.” (Statue of Liberty – USA)

What are your thoughts about this statement? How does this compare to your initial or present experience in America?… Sounds quite like an open invitation with a promise of freedom and refuge doesn’t it?…

To most, however, the warmth of such an invitation is rarely a reality. The immigrant experience in the United States is filled with isolation, language barriers/communication issues, loneliness, culture shock, limited access to resources, and loss of identity. The experience is often ripe with psychological distress and sociocultural barriers which can last for years. 

Relocating to and navigating a new environment/new world is never easy. My personal story is uniquely mine but it has universal themes that reflect the common immigrant’s experience. Immigrants are one of the fastest growing populations in America. In 1990, 8 million children had 1 immigrant parent compared to 16.6 million in 2006. Further, 1 in 4 school-aged children are predominantly second generation, english as a primary language learners, and have foreign-born parent(s). With this shift in the demographic fabric of America, there are increasing myths, stigma, and misperceptions about immigrants. My goal is to write from a personal perspective as I discuss various topics related to the immigrant girl and woman’s experience. I invite you to also comment or share your experiences. My posts will pull from interviews and surveys that I have conducted over the past year as well as personal anecdotes.

I have identified some themes that I will touch upon in a number of upcoming posts (just for starters):

  1. Impact on Family
  2. Education/Academia
  3. Employment
  4. Mental Wellness/Resilience
  5. Culture/Ethnic Identity Categorization

Do you have any other suggestions of topics that I should tackle? Please comment and I will be sure to discuss them. Thanks!

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Value of words July 25, 2011

I just got off a phone call that has me thinking how easily words are used, written, and exchanged without any concrete value or meaning or intent. Especially conversations with service providers that often feel scripted especially when I have an issue with a product.

Imagine the frustration and headache for new immigrants who must navigate the countless multi-tiered systems in America. There is no such thing as “simple”. For example, if you are a victim of fraud. Someone steals your bank card and goes on a shopping spree. Naturally, one would expect a phone call to the bank which would lead to a freeze on the account and begin an investigation. In a couple of weeks you would have your restored funds because they are FDIC insured and a new bank card… WRONG!!! After getting through navigating the 1-800 automated system, you may be fortunate to reach a life rep who will make promises only to appease you and get you off the phone. Followed by an email with forms and further instructions…and the headache continues…words…

Photo courtesy of AEGEE Alicante

Promise “make a declaration assuring that something will or will not be done” (Dictionary.com)…Words that create expectations.

My Grandparents often told me stories that demonstrated the power and value of one’s word. Land was bought and sold by verbal agreements. Even today traditional marriages reflect this custom, two families agree that two people are married.  One can imagine how coming from this way of thinking and acting, it is natural to believe and trust the words that are spoken.

My time here in America has taught me quite a number of things. I believe that one of the most important lessons has been to use my words wisely, speak up, ask questions. Silence is not golden, in America it is deadly. Sometimes you may encounter unfair situations that would make you want to …

Janet Jackson and Michael Jackson

And sometimes you have to be assertive and aggressive to get what you want…it may not be my nature, but I had to adapt to survive.

Have you encountered similar situations where you had to adapt to new ways because your beliefs and cultural expectations were a handicap for you? Please share your thoughts 🙂

 

Me?!?!…Proud to be African?!?!…Abeg!! June 22, 2011

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Pride – Dictionary definition: “A feeling or deep pleasure or satisfaction derived from one’s own achievements, the achievements of those with whom one is closely associated, or from qualities or possessions that are widely admired”

I always wonder where this deep affinity and sense of connectedness with anything African developed. Quite a puzzle… I cannot pinpoint the date, time, month, season, or event that was the catalyst for my African Pride. 

During my early immigrant years, I tried extremely hard to be not-African. The wardrobe change was the first effort to assimilate and become identified as an American. Matching was a big faux-pas. This was followed by working on rolling my R’s by watching all-American TV shows to absorb the culture, thought processes, and lifestyle. Over the course of high school, parts of me slowly faded into shadows, hidden from my peers not out of shame, but because it was much easier than having to explain me. Transitioning from a society and culture where I did not have to explain who I was or how we as a people do what we do, was very hard. The norms were drastically different. I found myself constantly answering many trivial questions such as “No, we do not live on trees” or “Africa is a continent and not a country” or “Yes, I learned english in Africa”…It was easier to develop a whole new persona and live a “Don’t ask, Don’t tell” policy when interacting with the outside world. Ajong was kept for the home and family.

But once I arrived the university, I found myself living with a mini-UN. Women with varied ethnic and racial heritages – Albanian, Native American, Lebanese, Trinidad, Italian, Cameroonian – all in two-neigboring rooms. That was an amazing college experience and we are all still good friends today, celebrating marriages and births. Maybe it takes encountering others who are different to appreciate and value one’s cultural inheritance. It certainly did for me.

I continuously find myself in the mix of diverse cultures. Perhaps the pull and appeal to connect stems from the mutual understanding and similarities of our immigrant’s experience. Learning to create a home in a new world by integrating African origins with present surroundings. I entered the United States through D.C., as a scared, homesick, quiet little girl and have now cycled back to D.C. as a purposeful, driven, and confident woman. Just thinking about my social connection to many different parts of the world always brings a smile to my heart. Life truly is evolution and change. I feel very international with a strong tie to a global community, which is why I am thrilled to be part of the DC Mayor’s 2nd Annual African Festival…”One City: Many Voices” on July 16th (Takoma Recreation Center, 300 Van Buren Street, NW, Washington, DC)…if you are around…stop by, I would love to connect!

There’s a blogger’s village too for fellow insightful thought-provoking word junkies comme moi! So to close, I love my African heritage. Cameroon gave me values, family, and a foundation upon which to grow as a person. America dared me to explore and soar.

 

Enjoy one of my favorite clips about Africa

 

I am an alien… June 7, 2011

Last night while walking briskly to my Pilates class, I pondered about the day’s tasks yet to be accomplished…whether I would have the energy to do laundry even though it entails just dumping the clothes in a washing machine. Then my thoughts quickly switched over to my newly acquired ingredients for a recommended acne therapy (if successful I will share the recipe in a later post)…All these thoughts buzzing through my head, bouncing from one random thought unto another. All of a sudden I hear…”Excuse me ma’am, would you like to sign a petition to stop illegal aliens from getting tuition at University of Maryland?”. All the thoughts in my mind abruptly stopped and all I could think was “Are you serious?!?!…” I stared unbelievably at the sign on the ground and looked at a serious face extending a tablet that already had some signatures on it. Oh, I would have loved to have some choice words with him but everyone has the right to free expression even if it conflicts with other’s ideals…So I pleasantly smiled, casually and slyly replied “I am an alien…” turned and coolly walked away, but not before noticing the blank, stunned expression on his face.

 

As I walked away to my Pilates class, I was saddened by the thought that the man carrying out this petition will never experience the beauty of interacting with others from different cultural backgrounds. I felt sorry that he was not aware of the circumstances surrounding the difficult choice of migrating to new countries. Or that most students on visas have to pay full tuition as well as living expenses without the authorization to work in America. I would have stayed in Cameroon, it was home as a little girl. Alas, leaving was not my choice. I am nonetheless grateful for the opportunities and new life afforded me in the United States. As I continue working on the Threads of Our Fabric (TOF) Project, I have met amazing, inspiring individuals who have exposed me to new African cultures: Congo, Mali, Uganda, Namibia, Kenya, just to name a few… My life has been made so much richer and fuller with friends across the continent who are wonderful individuals.

 

Just another random affirmation why the TOF Project is needed to raise awareness, educate, and connect others to the immigrant’s experience.

 

QUESTION: Have you had any similar experiences or encounters that made you pause and think?

 

Life in ANIMATION May 19, 2011

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HELLO!!! I took a long hiatus and now I am back… It certainly was not a loss of words or ideas to freely write about…life has just been happening in high-def animation too quickly to pause and process. I apologize for the brief pause because that is a diservice to you and many other transient readers. Let us try to re-cap some hot-happenings in my world and continue full force ahead! 

As usual, since Africa is always on my heart and all its causes integrated into my fibers, I have been heavily advocating and supporting African-led, African-sponsored, and Africa-focused events throughout the Metro DC area. One of them that has my fingers tweeting like crazy ( @threadsofrfabrc) is Secretary Clinton’s Global Diaspora Forum that is going on in Washington D.C. from May 17-19th, 2011. (Follow them on twitter @DiasporaAtState) It is all very exciting and I kept hearing the echo of Horace Walpole’s statement “Africa is, indeed, coming into fashion” in the shadows of my mind. There were a number of great initiatives launched but my top three were:

  1. IDEA – International Diaspora Engagement Alliance
  2. BOOM – by m-Via. (global mobile banking services launched in Haiti and Mexico) 
  3. African Diaspora Marketplace – USAID and Western Union (Our African atm service system, lol)

All of which should radically spark a faster globalization movement built on connecting immigrant linkages with their native country roots. It is incredible how all of this is based on using extended relationships to leverage opportunities. As Africans, we have a huge extended family network who often depend on us for financial support. Over the years we have sent significant sums of money for school fees, household support, funerals, investments, housing etc… In fact, in 2009, $20,742 million USD was received in the form of remittances by countries in Sub-Sahara Africa, constituting about 2.2% of that area’s GDP (Gross Domestic Product).

It’s great that the Diaspora is being recognized in powerful ways, politically for diplomacy and peacebuilding, economically for innovative development and businesses ventures, and socially…well we know how to party and have a good time! But more importantly, in Africa, the way we do business is through relationships, people to people without intermediaries… Our sense of connectedness has always been our strength and now our opportunity!

It’s feels great to be an immigrant!

Stay tuned for information on Africa’s representation/image in the media – I will be twitting from tonights African Diaspora for Change event “Media Check: Africa”…follow me  @threadsofrfabrc

 

Status update: It’s complicated… March 28, 2011

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Race and Ethnicity in America – By educating others about who we are and our cultural heritage, we are able to dismantle some commonly held stereotypes about us…The blending of racial and ethnic identities continues to challenge existing race classification systems used by the federal government of America: Asian, American Indian, Black, and White.

I have Cameroonian, Nigerian, and American cultural influences and ancestries. Now I really do wish that my parents had taken advantage of the opportunity to give birth to me in Scotland. Now that would have made for some great discussions! Regardless, I embrace all of me and how my heritage allows me more cultural sensitivity towards others. Enjoy a clip from Voices of America – Tackling this topic!!!

 

EXTRA! EXTRA! Camer Spotlight… March 17, 2011

This sums up why I created the Threads of Our Fabric project…Enjoy!! (Click here).

Note: Stay tuned for very exciting news! The Threads of Our Fabric Project is going international 🙂