Fr Wilfred E. Emeh

Coming to America: Lessons from an African Friend

 By Fr. Wilfred Emeh*
I grew up at time in Africa when many kids believed that places like Nazareth, Jerusalem, and Bethlehem were in heaven. Among the world’s nations, they perceived the U.S.A. as the closest to heaven, a paradise on Earth. Indeed, the United States is still viewed as the promised land, flowing with milk and honey. Little wonder families undertook, as they still undertake, enormous sacrifices to ensure that their sons or daughters can travel to America.


Today, African immigrants in the U.S. see that, although living in an advanced democracy has its advantages, living abroad is neither a goldmine nor a paradise. But African immigrants in the U.S. and Europe often get a chilling response from relatives and friends when they attempt to express the harsh realities of life in our new homeland. They ask questions like, “If it is like you say, what are you doing there?” Or they contradict us with, “See how you have grown fat!”, as if being “fat” were a sign of wealth. Not believing us, first-time visitors, friends, and relatives often come to the U.S. with a warped mindset that confuses facts with fiction and myths with reality.

Precisely because of such unrealistic expectations, visitors may not understand or appreciate the enormous sacrifices their friends and relatives make in order to host them abroad; sometimes hosting a visitor entails sacrificing some hours or days of work, to offer the best to the visitor, yet some visitors are hardly ever satisfied. Some return home and vow never to come back! Others may anxiously establish relationships with American people, leading to strained relationships whenever their friends or relatives  try to caution them against spurious relationships. Some reject the advice pugnaciously, accusing their immigrant friends of being jealous of their relational skills, and wanting to “block” their supposed connections with their newfound friends. But, we ask, how is it possible to hastily establish relationships with Westerners without knowledge of their values, mores, and ways of life?

Consider the story of a Nigerian priest-friend of mine, Thom, and his friend, Paddy (not their real names). Paddy was visiting from Nigeria, and Thom, who honestly dedicated time and resources to make his guest comfortable. Thom had taken time to give Paddy an orientation on the people and their culture. He cautioned him against requesting material things from people and presenting himself as a desperate person from an African jungle. From time to time, Thom would call him to order whenever he struck the wrong chord. Thom was later deeply embarrassed to discover that his friend begrudged him all this advice. When he got back home, Paddy complained that Thom was overly intrusive in his affairs, even going so far as to say that Thom left him alone in the house without garri. As Thom narrated his ordeal to me, I could see the pain in his eyes–yes, ingratitude cuts the heart like a dagger.

It is rightly said that what goes around comes around. Paddy thought his trip was extremely successful because he had found new friends whom he could get along with, Thom aside. He was determined to keep in touch with these people on a regular basis. He was confident that America would become his second home, as long as his American friends invited him back. But it didn’t take long before people started talking about Paddy, and it came to Thom’s knowledge that Paddy had not followed the advice he was given.

One thing Paddy failed to understand was that Americans like speaking about their encounters with people from other cultures, especially visitors from Africa. They try to understand other cultures through the behavior of their visitors. If you call them regularly and ask for any form of assistance, they wonder whether that’s “a cultural thing”. It is within this context that the same people started to question their new African friend’s behavior. As is typical with Americans, they related details of their encounter with Paddy among a close circle of friends. Within a few weeks, Thom discovered how extensive Paddy’s outreach had been. Now, Thom was obliged to answer some hard questions—his friends found Paddy’s requests, which would have been normal in Africa, to be inappropriate and overly dependent. They wondered if all Africans were so desperate.Perhaps readers of “Cameroon Panorama” may offhandedly dismiss Thom’s story as just an awala problem. No, it is not. It is our problem.

Many lessons can be drawn from the true story of my friend. First, visitors should keep in mind and appreciate the enormous sacrifices that their immigrant relatives and friends make to care for them. It is absolutely necessary, not only to understand, but to equally respect people and their cultures, and to avoid imposing one’s cultural traits on others. For example, when Americans say, “Please come again,” it is not necessarily an open invitation, nor a desire to have you back soon. This is just a polite and affirmative expression. Newcomers may mistakenly consider it to be an actual invitation to come again soon. In no way does this diminish the spirit of hospitality and kindness of Americans, but visitors may need a lesson or two in cultural differences in order to understand this.

Another cultural difference: casual greetings like ‘Hello’ and ‘Hi’ are very much ingrained in the American culture. They are a courteous people; on the elevator, on the train, wherever your paths cross, people extend kindly greetings and can even initiate amicable conversations sometimes. It is true that salutation is not love. This is all the more evident in shops and malls, where first-time visitors from Africa may completely misconstrue the warmth of customer service. I was fortunate to have learned about this from a good friend of mine, who lost sleep one night because he thought a salesgirl had fallen in love with him!

Eric had just arrived in America and went shopping for the first time. The girl attended to him at the shop with broad smiles. “Honey,” she said, “how are you? Have you been having a good day so far?” “Did you find everything ok?” And so on. Because of my friend’s foreign accent, the lady was even more courteous. My ebullient friend was completely carried away. He even shopped more than he had planned to. According to my friend, the lady had fallen in love with him. I could not have thought differently had I not learned this lesson from my friend before I ever went shopping for the first time. Yes, even with my collar on, I am addressed as “Honey” or “Sweetheart”!

Independence and privacy are highly valued in American culture.As an African priest, I have observed how this way of life impacts the diocesan clergy. Parishioners can see priests mostly on appointments; rectories are not easily accessible to visitors. Many priests don’t employ cooks, while others have only part-time cooks, like the parish in which I work. Therefore, priests prepare their meals themselves. People cherish their privacy and independence; no one wants to be a burden on another, and everything is scheduled. In no way does this casts doubts on the friendliness of the clergy, it is all a matter of the complex structure of the society and the way of life of the people.

In a way, visitors are like tourists who plan for their trips accordingly. They make great sacrifices; they cherish their exposure and experience rather than any material benefits. Unlike in Africa, where visitors can pop in any time, and sometimes even expect their uncle or father to pay their transport fare back home, this would be absolutely insane in another culture.

Because of all these cultural differences, as a first-time visitor, it is necessary to listen to the counsel of your immigrant relatives and friends without prejudice. It is rightly said that you should listen to your elders’ advice, not because they are always right, but because they have had more experience of being wrong. It is folly to resist advice or read too much into calls to be cautious. What do your relatives and friends have to gain from “blocking” you or standing in your way, as you imagine? They simply don’t want you to repeat their mistakes, and it is all for your good. Like in the case of my Nigerian friend, first time visitors have run into serious trouble by tarnishing their reputations and even the reputations of their entire countries. Rotten apples in a barrel can spoil the good ones. After all, your behavior speaks volumes about your background. When you visit abroad, always go slow, like the proverbial newly arrived chicken that stands on one leg in her new home, otherwise you would fall prey to our lingua franca proverb: “hurry-hurry broke trouser”.

Of course, visiting abroad for the first time ignites much excitement. But, no matter how excited you may be, also be considerate and discreet. Your host cannot always offer you the same kind of reception you got at your very first visit because of the social and economic constraints of life in the Western world. Just as your enthusiasm wanes after your first or second visit, so too with your host. It is not because they don’t value your visit, but it is presumed that you are getting familiar with the way of life and you can manage your own affairs.

In conclusion, hospitality, kindness, and generosity are cultural traits across the U.S. It is here that I have been blessed firsthand to meet some of the nicest people in my life and ministry. I am equally honored by evergreen memories of visits of relatives and friends from home. Nevertheless, stories like those of Thom and Paddy compel me to deeper reflection on life abroad, with all its facets, in a bid to spare people from repeating the same mistakes and as a road map to prospective visitors. In order to make one’s visit profitable, one must understand the cultural dynamics of the people and steer clear from unrealistic expectations.

*Fr  Wilfred E. Emeh is a Roman Catholic priest ,Communications Professional and author of  the book  New Media and the Christian Family: Experiences from the USA and Africa





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