You Smell Like Fish This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine.

June 29, 2009
By
More by this author
Being normal is not all it's cracked up to be. At least, that's what I used to tell myself whenever I was reminded of how “abnormal” my family was.

The story begins about 27 years ago, when my dad emigrated from Nigeria to the U.S. to attend college. The four-year stay became permanent, at which point my mom joined him. Relocating wasn't necessarily a bad thing, but then my parents decided to have children, unaware of the cultural difficulties ahead for them.

My personal battle for normalcy began when I was six, the day my grandma arrived. I was so excited when my mom told me that I nearly flew out the bus window with all my bouncing. In my mind, I pictured a white-haired old lady who would bake cookies and read us bedtime stories – if only I had known.

The bus dropped me at the end of the street and I sprinted home. When I threw open our door, an odd smell hit me. It was damp and heavy, as if someone had dumped a hundred different spices unto a wet wooden floor. It stung my nose, but I ignored it as I searched for my grandma.

Disappointment is a weird feeling. First it seems like someone has kicked you in the stomach, then you feel exhausted, like some supreme being is sucking the life out of you. That's how I felt when I saw her. She barely reached five feet and had jet black hair and brown teeth. She wore two coats and a winter hat. Next to her was an open suitcase laced with duct tape and overflowing with bags of spices, which explained the smell. She couldn't speak a word of English except for “Hi.”

After my grandma came to live with us, I hated having friends over. Grandma wasn't used to white people, so whenever I brought a friend over to play, she would follow us around saying “Hi.” She wore a heavy coat and a bright red ski mask because she wasn't used to the cold. One time a friend even called her mother to come pick her up because she was scared of my grandma.

My mom's cooking was another reason I didn't have friends over very often. It always involved oil, heavy spices, and fish. Often she would go to a slaughterhouse and bring home huge hunks of beef to cut up on the kitchen table for traditional Nigerian dishes. I didn't know how to explain this to others. They'd see the meat and look like they were about to pass out. The worst was when a friend was looking through our fridge for a snack and spotted a tub of green glop.

“Eww!” she cried. “What is that?!”

I said “eww” too and pretended I didn't know, but actually I couldn't wait for her to leave so I could eat some. After that, I devised Operation House Painting. If anyone asked to come over, I told them we were having our walls painted; this worked for four years.

When we were in public, I always felt that my parents spoke too loudly in their thick accents. I worried that everyone was staring at us. At school I couldn't identify with anything my classmates did with their families, like tubing, going to a cabin, visiting grandparents, or trick or treating (it was against our beliefs), so I didn't fit in. All we did on weekends was go to Nigerian parties where the adults danced and the kids ran around unsupervised and destroyed everything. So, at school, I usually kept to myself. It was lonely.

When I started middle school, things went from bad to worse. There were more black kids, and they expected me to be someone I was not. It didn't take them long to figure out I was different. Soon the questions started: “Why do you talk like that?” “Why do you act white?” How was I supposed to answer? The whole situation made me feel defective. So I blamed my parents, scrutinizing and resenting all the ways they were different.

I was tired of pretending. I was tired of going to school smelling like fish. I wanted puppies and horses on my folders. I wanted long hair I could put up in a ponytail. I wanted to invite friends over and not be ashamed, and I wanted my mom to pack me a normal lunch with a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Was this too much to ask?

I changed my name in hopes of distancing myself from my culture. I stopped eating “their” food (which meant I was hungry a lot of the time), and I stopped speaking Igbo, our traditional language. At school I was failing miserably at being normal, and at home I couldn't escape what I was running from. I felt like I was being ripped in two.

My mom would ask, “Why are you acting like you're American?” and I'd stubbornly reply, “Because I am!” She'd laugh her annoying laugh and say, “No, you're not.” Finally I gave up.

Then I went to Nigeria, where I met my cousins, aunts, uncles, and other relatives for the first time. I got to see where I was from, the raw culture and what it really meant. I realized then that I was being a complete idiot trying to give it all up. My culture was so rich and interesting. There it didn't matter what clothes you wore, how loudly you talked, or how strong the aroma of the food was. The only thing that mattered was that you knew who you were and who your family was.

I came back with a newfound respect for my culture. I also started to realize that most kids think their parents are embarrassing, no matter where they're from. Now that I'm older, I can see the benefits of being Nigerian, and I don't really care what others say about it. I'm never going to be “normal,” and neither is my family, but what fun would it be if we were? I realize now that I can be both American and Nigerian as long as I don't forget where I come from.

This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.






Join the Discussion

This article has 7 comments. Post your own now!

Jazzyfay said...
Dec. 13, 2010 at 6:30 pm
Lo I feel you on this one. 
 
JamieStarr said...
Jun. 19, 2010 at 10:30 pm
this was rele good i feel that i am rele different too. because i dont live with my parents. because my dady passed away and my mom used to do drugs and i dont know if she has stopped yet. but i live with my aunt and her husband. and when the teachers say take this home to your parents it up set me for a while but i finaly said what if we dont live with our parents. they said well take it ti your guardians or aunts or uncle. and since i have such a small school they all started saying take this ... (more »)
 
Sandy said...
Apr. 14, 2010 at 9:43 am

Hi Kay,

Wow!  You are a gifted writer; I am so proud of you!  Your insight is touching and am going to pass this article on to other students as an inspiration. 

 
Mother said...
Feb. 5, 2010 at 9:06 am
K,
How fabulous. I've always enjoyed you as the little girl I met years ago in elementary school to the beautiful young woman you've grown into today. This piece let me know more about you than actually knowing you the past 12 years. What a gift. What a great family!
 
kojika replied...
Feb. 5, 2010 at 11:33 pm
Hello and thank you so much for the kind words! I was just wondering who this was?
 
Mother replied...
Feb. 6, 2010 at 1:03 am
Afton's mom, Heidi
:)
 
wanda c said...
Jan. 16, 2010 at 7:58 pm
Hi, Keziah, You did a great job of expressing what many teens feel. I was an American growing up in Cameroon that felt the same when I returned to the US. Teen years are difficult for us all. What you learned about accepting yourself & others will make you a more understanding person all your life. Keep up the good work, and your writing is great!
 
bRealTime banner ad on the left side
Site Feedback