In July 1999, I arrived the JFK airport in New York, anxious and full of expectations. My friends and guardians, Leslye and Mary were there and ready to receive me at the airport. As soon as the immigrations let me cross the line to meet waiting parties, I ran into their arms. They had driven all the way from Cleveland, Ohio. My first observation as we pulled away from the airport on our drive to Cleveland was that everywhere was clean. The grasses were lush green: greener and fuller than any green I had ever seen. The houses were well lined out; they were well planned. This was quite unlike the part of Lagos where I lived with its streets littered with all sorts from floating plastic bags, overflowing gutters and human excreta to poignant stench from bursting trash boxes, deep pot holes and rugged scrammed up houses.
When we got to their street at Cleveland, the grasses were even greener, but there was an unsettling kind of quietness that blanketed the whole neighborhood. I asked them where everybody was. They said that people were either at home or at work. It was a Monday morning. For some reason, I was expecting to see people walking down the streets or chit-chatting as they walked along the roads. The roads were not only wide and vacant, they were stripped of life.
Stepping out of the car as soon as we arrived at their home made me realize that the weather was rather cold. I started shivering and a worry frown settled on their faces. “If you’re shivering under a 73 degrees summer weather, what would you do during winter?” Leslye said. I had no answer, but the chill was very uncomfortable. A few days later, she consulted a doctor about my constant shiver, and the doctor recommended iron tablets. It helped immensely.
My next discomfort came from the fact that I didn’t like American food. It was either too sweet or too greasy. I resorted to eating a lot of boiled rice with canned tuna fish with fried tomatoes and onions. Also, the quietness in the four-bedroom home and street where we lived was unsettling. I started missing home, but I could not afford to call. The only thing to do was to watch TV. The quietness, idleness and not speaking to anybody nearly drove me insane. All of a sudden, I started missing the Lagos noise, the chatter of friends, the poignant smell and everything I was so eager to escape in Nigeria. When my guardians left for work, my constant companions were two cats. But one of the cats was pitch black. In my part of Nigeria, black cats represented a whole lot more than the possibility of owning them as a pet. They are sacrificial objects that are considered the bearers of bad omens. I avoided the black cat as anyone would avoid a poisonous snake. When the cats realized that I didn’t like them, they kept out of my way. So my companions became the rustling leaves of swanky summer trees and chirruping birds.
In due time, school started. I was eager to meet people and make new friends. Yet, making friends did not come as quickly as I expected. Some of my classmates who seemed interested in knowing more about me and where I come from, had mostly questions about Africa. This was when they were not busy asking me to repeat what I had said. They could not understand my accent. So, I spent a lot of time struggling to pick my words to help them understand my statements. It was exhausting. Needless to say that helping them pronounce my name in the correct manner was futile. They always ended up telling me how musical it is.
My attempts at trying to make friends ended abruptly one Fall season in school. A bunch of my class mates were interested in taking me out for lunch or so I thought, and getting to know me better. When we sat down, the waitress gave us the menu, and my class mates asked me to try out the chicken wings since I found the rest of the items strange. In fact, they suggested I try out the two types of chicken wings—the honey barbecued ones and the hot spicy ones. I looked around the restaurant. Some people were already seated with massive amount of food and chicken. I had never seen so much chicken in my life. I was barely able to control my gasps of incredulity. My mouth watered as they nudged me to place my order. I ordered for both types of chicken. I didn’t like the sweet tasting chicken. Sugar had no business with food, I thought to myself. But the spicy hot one, I really liked. So, I ate to my heart’s satisfaction, and also asked for a large cup of coke. It began to feel like America after all—lots of food, big cups of coke, buckets of chicken, chatty friends, etc. I was still brushing off the last bit of my chicken wings when my class mates announced that they were ready to leave. Surprised, I asked them about paying for my lunch. They told me that I had to pay for myself. I was distraught. I asked them to lend me some money to pay. But they said they had exhausted their cash. So, I asked them to wait for me while I ran across the street to get some money from a friend. They refused to wait. They suggested that if I had a quarter I could call the friend on the pay phone close to the chair where I sat. I struggled to pull out all the coins in my pocket, and tossed them on the table. I had no idea which one of them was a quarter. They picked out a quarter for me, and I made the frantic call to my friend. She came to my rescue, but warned me not to go out for lunch with anybody if I didn’t have enough money. I tried to explain to her that in Nigeria when people ask you out for lunch that they usually paid for the meal. She reminded me that this is America and not Nigeria. I did learn, especially with those set of American friends.
As winter came, I was fortunate that one of my guardians, Mary, dropped me off either at the train station or at school. After some weeks though, her job schedule changed. She showed me where and how to ride the train to downtown Cleveland from where I picked a bus to my school. The catching a train part was easy. It was climbing an escalator at downtown Cleveland that scared me. I kept telling Leslye that I wanted the escalator to stop before I could step in. She tugged at me to put one leg in the escalator and stand on the first step as it moved. I continuously refused, and opted to take the fifty-some flight of stairs instead of the escalator. She then suggested that I should hold onto her while she stepped on the escalator. That worked, but not without stirring the wrath of waiting pedestrians. Some of them cursed under their breath. Others watched us as if we were circus entertainers. Leslye smiled through it all.
Yet another aspect of my frightening experiences was during winter storms and blizzards. I had to walk for about six miles, plowing through twelve to twenty inches of snow to get to the train station. I found the overwhelming spread of white snow intimidating. If felt like a sea of white water luring me in to swallow me. I had often times run back home to avoid facing the white plains of snow. Leslye made me confront my fear of snow by “plunging” me into it. By the time I scrambled up from the pile of snow, my distress for it seemed to have disappeared. I had to face my fear. I had to choose between daring the snow to get to school or losing my scholarship for not attending classes.
The tedious walk to the train station was not the only problem. I observed that I started falling on particular sides of the sidewalk. Such falls would often leave me sore, aching and irritable. Even when I avoided spots where I had fallen, it felt like more spots awaited me somewhere else. I continued falling but couldn’t tell why, until my guardians revealed to me that I had to learn how to walk on black ice. They schooled me on how to put all my weight on specific parts of my shoes to avoid falling. It worked so also did my problems with typing.
As a graduate student in English, part of my assignments then were to give presentations two times a week. The presentations were not as tasking as the typing of the papers since I had neither computer while in Nigeria nor a typing background. My guardians got me a desktop to practice with at home. At school, I finger picked all the letters on my key board. It took me days to finish typing these papers. A number of times,I lost typed essays because I had pressed the wrong button. I would begin all over again. I retyped as many times as I lose the essays; these were essays produced through nights of hard study and painstakingly finger typing. Unlike Nigeria where street typists would type papers for anybody at cheap rates, typing was nobody’s job in America. I had to learn how to type and use the computer. It took me days of sleeping on my school office floor, days of risking encountering lurking shadows on isolated roads at midnight on my way home, more days of bracing snow storms and blizzards with frozen limbs, and even more days of long studies to maintain my “B” and above grades so as to maintain my scholarship and immigration status.
I have indeed learned how to walk the American black ice. It was traumatizing at the beginning because it was nothing close to what I had dreamt to see in America. It was challenging enough, nonetheless, to expand my cuisine habits, my intellectual horizon and my understanding of the world and life. On the tracks of moving and migrating, there are always slippery ice to face.
Unoma Azuah is a poet, novelist and an LGBT rights activist. She is a professor of English at Wiregrass Georgia Technical College, Valdosta, USA.