I’ve often been told, “You look Black American, but I figured you weren’t. You don’t sound like them.”
This statement, along with comments referring to my accent, my ability to speak English well and much more are what my life has been since I moved to the United States.
I am stuck between both worlds — not fully African and not fully Black American either. I was born and raised in the megacity called Lagos State, Nigeria. I was a child from a loving background whose parents struggled to ensure that their children had the best of everything.
Growing up, I had a support system, and my parents and relatives were instrumental in many ways. My uncle was there to pick me up from school, and my aunty babysat me when my parents left for work. My culture was centered on discipline and respect. I was trained to be polite, to say “sir” or “ma’am” when addressing older people. I could not shake an older person’s hand without curtsying. And if I saw an older person carrying heavy items, I was expected to rush over and carry their items.
But growing up as a Nigerian girl came with limitations. Everyone thought I was fragile. I faced the constant and crushing expectation to be married at a certain age, to be domesticated — know how to cook, clean, etc., or else it meant I wasn’t raised right.
But from a young age, I was the complete opposite of that image. I was a tomboy who played soccer with my cousins and brothers instead of being with my mother, who cooked in the kitchen. I remember coming home with injuries and my mum going frantic at the woman I was becoming. I didn’t know how to take no for an answer, and I was defiant. The whole idea that a guy could do something but I couldn’t because of my gender was ridiculous to me.
I grew up to become a “force to be reckoned with.” In college, I won awards, started a conference with limited resources from my school, gained internships at top establishments and won my school marathon and soccer competition.
I feel like everything I did in my life led me to this point: gaining admission into UC Berkeley, or “UCLA Berkeley,” as my parents kept calling it. On a fateful August day, with all the excitement and anxiety, I took one of the longest flights I had ever taken to get to Berkeley. It wasn’t what I expected. I wondered where the sunny beaches and tanned bodies were. I barely packed any jacket or sweaters, thinking only of tank tops and flip-flops. I was in for a rude awakening, as the cold met me unprepared. I use Celsius to measure temperature (America, please catch up with the rest of the world) — 12 degrees Celsius was not for me.
After a month, I began to acclimatize, and the blisters on my feet from walking the hills of Berkeley began to heal. But when my parents left for Nigeria, I began to feel alone. I made the decision to come to a place where I had no relatives, as most of my family members were on the East Coast. Luckily, I am an extrovert naturally, so it wasn’t long till I made friends, but I couldn’t help but feel so out of place.
I went from being in a place where everyone looked and talked like me to being the only one who looked like me in classrooms, on the bus and in malls, which I found mind-blowing. I felt like I didn’t belong at UC Berkeley. I felt uncomfortable in my Black skin. I felt unattractive, unwanted. I still find it uncomfortable calling my professors by their first names or shaking someone’s hand without curtsying. I am afraid to help a stranger carry their stuff out of fear that they may think I am about to rob them. To make it worse, the comments and questions people would ignorantly ask about my country or my ability to speak good English were frustrating.
I will be honest that being Black in Berkeley has not always been easy. The awareness of my color has crept up on me in so many ways that I could never have imagined. I stick out without even trying, not to mention the pressure I feel from within to represent my country and my race.
I am tired of repeating that I am not Black American. I wish I was sometimes so I could be more accepted, but I am not. I also wish people would take the time to ask where I was from and not put all Black people in one big box. I am seen as a Black American, but once I speak or act, it’s immediately dispelled, and I face stereotypical comments that come from being African.
And I am sick of people touching my hair. You don’t see me touching your blond hair/extensions, so why do you insist on touching my Afro/braids? It was shocking to get used to the touching because no one did that back home. I guess it’s because I had the same hair as everyone else in Nigeria, and people here find my hair fascinating here because it’s different from theirs.
Yes, my name is Pearle, before you ask if that’s my real name. I know it is not a typical African name, but I am glad my mother gave me that name. I see myself living up to that name — unique, special, one of a kind.
Coming to Berkeley has been an experience of a lifetime. I may be a girl on the outside looking in, but I am sure as hell going to bring my seat to the table because I earned it.
Pearle Nwaezeigwe is a first year in the Masters of Law program at UC Berkeley.