There is a saying, your story begins with those who came before you
Photo credit: Hyena House Ent (https://www.youtube.com/watchv=qmAOkpFzty0&ab_channel=HyenaHouseEnt.)
Our parents left home maybe 30 odd years ago for the promise of security and opportunity that Nigeria failed to offer them, many leaving friends, family and lovers behind in doing so. Regardless of the route taken or the destination country, there is a commonality among this group of immigrants: the conditions of the country they came to find. Not for all, but for many, the promise of security and financial opportunity in the new world manifested into a life of looking over their shoulders for immigration officers, being wary of police harassment on the basis of being very visibly Black and ‘Other’ in a country that was very visibly not, all while working hard, low paid jobs which many citizens of the new world viewed as beneath them.
They entered survival mode. They formed small communities to support each other and treated each other as family – I can’t count how many of my cousins are only my cousins because our parents cared for and supported each other, and not because we are blood related in any way.
Being immigrants, they often either didn’t qualify for government assistance or they didn’t understand English well enough to seek the assistance that was available, and didn’t know anyone who did. They saved the little they were making and used it to support themselves, the communities they built here and the loved ones they left back at home. They pushed and persevered because low income here and low income back home are not on the same level.
They were hated for it. And still are.
Upon having children here, many of our parents faced the choice between giving their children cultural awareness and an ‘authentic’ Nigerian experience – by sending them home to be raised by family members – or, keeping them in the ‘new world’ to better their financial and employment opportunities, doing the extra work required to pass down the cultural heritage they brought with them to the new world.
Home, coupled with their experience in the new world showed them the value of qualifications and certificates – they offer financial opportunity, security and upward mobility. Just being here in the new world allowed them to achieve so much in supporting and providing for their loved ones at home. They financed businesses, sponsored younger ones through education, provided homes and healthcare for elderly family members – all on low wages. Imagine how much more could be done with more money?
It is this view that shapes how Nigerian immigrant parents demonstrate love for their children. At the base of it, they do not want their children to have to bear the same financial constraints they had to survive through. This is the root of their desperate insistence on our academic success – this is a land of opportunity and as such, there is no justification for failure. This is such a core belief for them, that they are notoriously combative when faced with academic underachievement among their children. They take it deeply personal because in a land with so much opportunity, if you’re not top of your class, it must be because you don’t want to succeed. Afterall how else can one explain a child getting only a B in Mathematics? While there are others getting A’s and A*’s??
While other immigrant communities began arriving in the UK in the 50s and 60s, our parents began arriving here in the 90s and found there were already established groups of immigrants here. They saw the success of these communities – particularly Asians and sought to replicate that success in their own communities and homes immediately, often not really taking the 40 year head start these communities had compared to themselves into consideration. It caused them to at times mistakenly draw false equivalences between their children and other children of immigrants because of the perception that being in the foreign land alone is an opportunity, therefore you have the same opportunity as *name any Indian kid in your class* and they got an A* yet “didn’t have two heads” at the time they got it. It used to be very tough on me emotionally to deal with this when I was younger, and it took a lot of emotional dialogue to actually get my parents to understand that I wasn’t just “playing my life away“, I actually just needed a Maths tutor for a bit.
Growing up and talking more to my parents about themselves showed me the context that I lacked when I was in high school dealing with teenage mess and the pressure and expectations my parents placed on me; being the firstborn daughter to immigrant parents is a WHOLE SERIES of posts by itself. But, I’ve learned that even though it might have felt awful at times (and sometimes still does), my parents’ belief in better was the driving force behind all of my successes.
We often don’t take our parents’ context into consideration when thinking how they interact with us or how we interact with them. It’s what leads to generational divides. It’s easier to just say ‘my Nigerian parent is too this, or too that’ or to say “Nigerian parents are so toxic”. In getting to know my parents and their generation through conversation, I’ve come to understand that this view is an oversimplification of important context that brought us (as their children) to this very moment here right now. The view is both a gross disservice ourselves and unfair to those who came before us. Their story forms part of our own.
It’s not to say our immigrant parents are perfect and without fault, but rather to encourage us to see them as PEOPLE. People who have often come from hardship and chose to persevere because there wasn’t a choice. It’s to encourage us to recognise their spirit of resilience, and strive to inherit that resilience, even as we pray that we never need it.