This American Life By Rudolf Ogoo Okonkwo

You come to America, young and dashing, on full scholarship, finish school, get a great job, marry a glamorous spouse, have cute children, and retire at a young age with a great pension, portfolio and posture.

…And live happily ever after.  Yes champ; rub it in.

For the rest of you, life abroad is a crest of trajectories.

You come into America, by air, by sea, or via a midnight sneak-in across the Mexican border; fooling the Minute Men and Lou Dobbs all at once. You come to school, to join your spouse, to work after winning the Green Card Lottery, or to raise your hand at the airport and claim persecution in your own country because you are a Mormon as well as a leader in MEND.

You behold America the beautiful. The triple-decker burgers and the giant cup of coke and cars that are wider than your village road and you wonder what took you so long to get here. You get on with schooling. For now any cheap school will do. You study the things people who came before you say brings money – the things Americans do not want to study- to prepare you for the job Americans do not want to do. You hear nursing, bloody, nursing. You say, bring it on. You get on with marriage – the convenience marriage- discovering that you married three persons at once; the person you thought you married, the person your spouse really is and the person your spouse becomes because you got married in this America. For work, you do anything for a dollar; fast food restaurant, drive a cab, guard the parking lot of company executives younger than you, even care for the disabled, breaking your back to pay the bills.

Then reality hits. The dollar is not adding up.  There’s more going out than coming in. Time is running. Letters, emails and phone calls are enveloping you from home. School  is done;  where is the job? Your accent is a problem. Racism is real. You’re finally squeezed in. Corporate job at last. Work place politics really sucks. Meanwhile, the American spouse is gone but your residency is established. Now where do you find someone to marry for real? A Blind date? E-harmony.com? Town conventions? What of picking up someone from your village? But these are all packages which content you cannot ascertain. Somehow, you settle with one. Honeymoon over, now what is the state of the marriage? First mission accomplished, now what next?

You start a house in your village. A big house. You sink in any money you can get. Some of it goes to the house but most of it goes to your family member who is supervising the construction. It costs more than it will to buy a comparable house in America. You afraid to calculate how many days you will sleep in this house in your life time. You say, Tufiakwa. It will not be your portion. You need to do it not just because everyone is doing it – your daddy is demanding it. He’s asking you to wipe away the shame on the family’s face.

Your daddy dies. Your dentist extracts a tooth.

Then America begins to reveal itself quietly. Oh tribalism again; discrimination at the work place. Your head touches the virtual ceiling for immigrants. You now understand affirmative action. Kids come but housemaids are tagged slavery, who will care for them?  Now you have day care, mortgage, after school sport activities, mid-life career crisis, more phone calls from home, and marital problems. If only some of these can wait. You can call marital problems by its real name- money problems entangled with control problems, decision making disagreements, tasks and privileges, status problems and in-law problems. Maybe you will stay home with the kids. Maybe your mother will come and help … and incense your spouse.

With caning banished, you raise teens with your hands tied to your back. Marital problems persist because as your fortune falls that of your spouse rises. You have done your calculation. Something has to give. You try selling real estate. You prepare taxes. You sell insurance. You run out of contacts. You buy cars from the auction and ship them home. You get duped by friends and family. Nothing is adding up. Fast insurance fraud deals? You try other businesses on the side, but total dedication is needed. You quit your job entirely and start a business.  Cleaning business.  Staffing business.  Medical equipment. Home Health business. Escort service. Oh, these taxes, running costs, government paper works and lack of patronage by your own people.

Marital problems persist. You wish you had married the lover you left in Nigeria to come to America. You take the divorce option. Half of your wealth is wiped out. Now rages the battle for visitation rights, alimony and child support. You’re estranged from the kids because of the stories your spouse made up against you to win custody. But you keep paying up. You have no option. You start afresh.  A new apartment. Maybe a new spouse?  No, that can wait. Your classmate at home becomes the CEO of a multinational company. A chieftaincy title follows and you wonder what happened to you.

You consider a fast 419 advance fee fraud deal. You remember those acquaintances still doing time in US prisons. You hold off. You dream of a contract from the government at home. You write a proposal. You get in touch with an old classmate who has done well.

Home looks attractive. The people you left behind are doing better. You conveniently forget the majority who are not making ends meet. You are overwhelmed. High blood pressure is diagnosed. High cholesterol. Heart problems. Another tooth is extracted. You join the gym. You stay away from garri and farina. You join a church. You can be a pastor too, but you don’t like that lifestyle of pretending to be what you’re not. Life is no more fun. You go home, dabble in business, in politics, in entertainment.

You are burnt. You return. You start afresh.

No, you won’t take the divorce option. You will manage. You will live like roommates, until the kids are grown and are out of the house. You will wait for retirement. You need just ten more years. At 56, with social security plus pension pay and 401K, you can go to the village, if kidnappers permit, and enjoy your old age. And start afresh. Maybe marry anew. Maybe teach in a college in Nigeria. Yeah! You register for a PhD with an online college.

Your Mummy dies. Your dentist extracts another tooth. Your doctor suggests knee and hip replacement. Your shrink prescribes Prozac.

In spite of your wahala, the children grow. The girls do well in school. The boys go from four-year colleges to two- year colleges, in between gang membership and police troubles. The boys marry White girls. The girls marry African-Americans. You’re glad the girls did not get pregnant out of wedlock. You thank God the boys did not throw a coming out party to announce that they are gay. One lives in Arizona and another in Hawaii. Your house is empty, calls come on holidays only.

It is now time to really go home. But what about managing the diabetes? Do you trust the doctors at home to handle your dialysis? Your medication cocktail will be hard to find at home. Daddy and Mummy are dead.  You have to make new friends again. The ones you used to have are now strangers to you.  Your spouse refuses to go with you. Spouse cannot deal with the sound of electric generators, untreated well water, Afor Igwe meat without an FDA inspection tag.

You retire. You sell the big house and move into a small condo. When you cannot wipe your behind,  you go from the condo to a nursing home. Your children are too busy to have you share their homes. They visit every presidential  election year. Once again, you think of going home but no, it is rather too late for that. The twelfth tooth is gone. You now take more pills than the teeth in your mouth.

So you stay until your autopsy is ready. Your townsfolk contribute money to ship you home. As your coffin lands in Lagos, your relations who have gathered to receive you for the last time mutter in between breaths, Tufiakwa. Yes, the same tufiakwa that you said the time you read the article called ‘This American Life’.

Oh, about your kids, well, some of them went home with your body. Those few times you cleaned your bank account to take them home paid off. They watch as sand lands on your coffin. One even remembered how to say, ‘Kedu’. They leave soon after. They will come back one more time – when they accompany your ex on the final journey home.

By Rudolf Ogoo Okonkwo | Published in Sahara Reporters on June 6, 2013

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