What am I? Understanding Your Identity Abroad

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I Understood I Would be a Minority

I am an African, even more specific I am Nigerian. I have always known this, and I have always been proud of it. I grew up in Nigeria, and at 16 I went to boarding school in Ghana which wasn’t really much of a change. After boarding school, I ended up at Rollins College in WinterPark, Florida. The move to college wasn’t  in college. The extent of my home sickness was me playing Nigerian music for my roommate to be “diversified.” So when I decided to go to China, I understood that I would be a minority, and the situations I would encounter would be different than what I had faced before, but I never expected what I experienced.

Reality Meets Expectations

My first 48 hours in Shanghai were fine; we had orientation, I met new people, we bonded over our excitement about being abroad and whatnot, and it was great. You see, the thing about The Alliance program in Shanghai is that it’s in the middle of two universities, Fudan and Shanghai University of Finance and Economics, and everyone in that general area of the city has seen so many diverse people that really no one bothers to look at you twice. The issue really began on our third day. A group of us decided to go see the world famous Bund (the view on the river in Shanghai that makes the skyline). We were enthusiastic about navigating a foreign transportation system and not getting lost. On the walk from the train station to the Bund, we stopped by a little souvenir shop and looked around. Once we were all set, we began to walkout, however, as I walked out of the shop, I felt my head being pulled back. Confused and in shock, I turn around to see the shop clerk observing my hair like it had come from another planet. In irritation, I grabbed my braid from her and stared her down, but when I looked at her face, I saw the look of genuine curiosity. It was at that point that I realized this might be a long four months. By the time we walked up to the Bund I had put the anger and confusion past me. When we started taking the touristy pictures everyone else was taking, we realized that we (my friend Prince who is of Surinamese descent and I) had in fact become the attraction instead of the view. I honestly cannot tell you how many family pictures we were in by the end of the day.

Cultural Differences are Give and Take

These types of incidents continued throughout my four months in China. I quickly started an album on my WeChat account of people who took pictures of me without my consent, and it became a running joke among my friends and I. After being confused for a good three weeks, I finally understood that it wasn’t that these people were intending on making me feel like I was an outsider, but rather they were intrigued and didn’t know what to do with me. My favorite of these incidents was the day we were buying some (xiaolongbao) at the mall and the security guard left his post to ask me questions. I initially ignored him since I was in a hangry state, but then I realized that I was being rude and decided to speak to him. The shock on his face when he realized that I spoke Mandarin will never be erased from my memory. He couldn’t believe it that this Fei Zhou ren (African) could speak Chinese. In the end, I connected with many people based on my African and Nigerian identity, and I came to understand that it’s something that is relatively new to China. In many ways I was happy I was able to “diversify” some people’s lives, and speak to them about who I am, where I come from, and how that informs my perspective on life. One day one of my friends had asked me how I was able to be calm as these people were violating my personal space and privacy? I realized it was because I would never dare to be rude to someone older than me at home since respecting your elders was an important aspect of my upbringing, so why would I start when I was in another country. These people honestly did me no actual harm, and their curiosity was genuine and evident. China was a whirlwind for me, I experienced so many new things: I saw and climbed my first mountain, I planned my first trip, I met some beautiful people, I learned what independence meant, I learned when to ask for help. China made me persevere, The Alliance program gave me space to be myself, full immersion in Chinese culture with a safety net. But my biggest take away from my China experience was patience, patience to not blow up when someone was violating your personal space, patience to repeat yourself multiple times when someone asks your name, patience to repeat Wu dong Lu sixty times before the taxi driver gets it and patience to stop and smell the slightly polluted air. China made me understand who I was and where came from. The easier answer to the question 你是哪国人? Ni shi na guo ren? Where are you from? Is always 我是美国人. Wo shi mei guo ren. I am American, but the true answer to the question is 我是尼日利亚人,可是我在美国留. Wo shi niriliya ren, keshi wo zai mei guo liu xue. I am a Nigerian, but I study abroad in the U.S. As the trip went on, I found myself, regardless of the situation asserting my identity, being ready to answer any follow-up question including, can I take a picture with you? (The answer was often yes).

Itunnuoluwa Awogbade was an International Affairs major at Rollins College and studied abroad with IFSA at Rollins in Shanghai in the fall of 2017. 

Article by Itunnuoluwa Awogbade