It was the weekend of Thanksgiving. As an international student with little ties to the U.S, I had nowhere to go for the holiday, so I went home with my roommate, Osafa, who lived in Jackson Township, New Jersey. On the Friday of Thanksgiving, she invited me to visit her friend, Joana and her family. Apart from the fact that I wasn’t busy, I agreed to go because Osafa had told me that Joana’s parents were of Caribbean descent and I wanted to see how non Africans celebrated Thanksgiving.
When we got to Joana’s house, we were met with Joana and the family dog, Roger at the door. Combined with the fact that Roger was blind in one eye and the fact that I was bad with animals and a little afraid of dogs, he made me uneasy. Once inside, we were greeted by Joana’s parents. They asked me the usual questions: What was my name? What was my major? Where was I from? Once I told them I was from Nigeria, they were quick to tell me that their church had an outreach program for the needy with a church in Kaduna (a city in Northern Nigeria). I remember wanting to tell them that while this was all well and good, I did not know much about Northern Nigeria and I knew even less about Kaduna and I had only been there once. I also wanted to tell them that I did not feel comfortable with their association of Africa and Nigeria with poverty. But I didn’t. I ignored my instincts and the warning bells going off in my head. I reminded myself that this was polite company, where my opinion mattered little, especially over such a trivial matter.
Joana’s mother offered us food. They had macaroni and cheese, leftover turkey, pound cake and yams that reminded me more of sweet potatoes than the yams that I was used to. Still, it was a good meal. While we ate, Joana’s mother tried to start a conversation. Joana and Osafa were mostly preoccupied with their own conversation, so I was left to carry the conversation with Joana’s mother. Joana’s mother and I talked about many things. I tried to talk about things back home and relate that with the conversation. I wanted her to see that we weren’t that different and so far, I thought I was succeeding that. That is, until Joana’s mother asked me:
“So how often do you talk to your parents since they’re back in Nigeria?”
This was a question that I didn’t quite understand.
“Um…I talk to them every week, really. Sometimes we use Skype”, I replied.
“Oh. Isn’t that difficult though?”
“Not really. It’s just Skype”
“Well, where do they find a computer and internet to use? Isn’t that difficult?”
Honestly, the first word that came to my mind was wow. I was dumbstruck. This was someone that I thought I shared common ground with. This was someone who had just told me about her values and ideas, her childhood and even her experience as a student at a Historically Black College. This was someone who I thought really understood where I was coming from and here she was asking me if we had computers where I came from. The first thing I wanted to do was painstakingly explain to her that if my parents could afford to send me to a college here without financial aid, it would cost twice the amount a regular student pays multiplied by whatever the exchange rate was, they probably had Wi-Fi, a laptop and phones. I really wanted to set her straight in the rudest way possible, but I didn’t. This was partly because I was still in shock from what happened and partly because I couldn’t be rude in polite company. Joana’s mother was the mother of a friend of a friend, so I had to regard her as the mother of a friend and I couldn’t really go off on my friend’s mother. Also, while I was still internally dealing with the shock, my brain had kicked into auto-pilot and I had continued the conversation like nothing happened. I remember explaining to her that Nigeria was more advanced than she thought and that was it. The rest of the night became a blur.
The first people I told were my parents. They laughed so hard and then my dad said: “I hope you set her straight”. For the next few days, the incident stayed on my mind and I found myself pondering on so many things. Why did Joana’s mother ask such a thing? Was she being deliberately condescending or did she make the comment out of ignorance? Did I respond appropriately to the situation? Was I overreacting about the whole thing in general?
After a few days of mulling the near-disaster that was that Friday night, I very lamely, asked Osafa: “Did you hear what Joana’s mom said on Friday about the computer thing?”
“Yeah, Joana’s mom can be really stupid sometimes. Just forget about it. I was going to say something but you handled it pretty well.”
And there I sat, completely justified and satisfied by the fact that Joana’s mother had a tendency to be stupid about many things in general and that her comment had probably been harmless.