Monday, November 14, 2016

Welcome to America

Book Review: Never Look an American in the Eye by Okey Ndibe

What happens when a person's perceptions of the United States are determined by watching vintage American Western movies?

The result is Never Look an American in the Eye, Okey Ndibe's multi-faceted tale of his immigration to the U.S. in 1988. Ranging from the humorous to the sharply serious, Ndibe uses a series of anecdotes to explain how and why he chose to leave his native Nigeria, and what happened on his arrival here.

American culture is disseminated to the world in often enigmatic ways. Often it is through media, particularly television and movies. Needless to say this can give viewers on the other side of the world a very different idea on what the "real" America is like. The result can be a shocking wake-up call to the newly arrived potential citizen.

Ndibe does an excellent job of conveying this inevitable culture shock, and the emotional effect it can have on the hopeful immigrant. Between his stories of feeling lost in the swirling tide of new sights and experiences, he also injects bits of humor: the similarity between the pronunciation of his first name, Okey, and the common English exclamation "okay" leads to some exchanges worthy of Abbott and Costello. Examples of American misconceptions about Africa and Africans also serve to lighten the mood while illustrating our cultural indifference.

Amd the mood can be exceedingly dark as well. His tale of being the victim of racial profiling by the police, hampered by his less than perfect grasp of the American justice system (he thought he was being questioned for looking the policeman in the eye) echoes an uncomfortable reality for many Americans, not just the most recent arrivals.

Throughout this portrayal, Ndibe reinforces the certainty that underneath the cosmetic differences, we are all people just trying to make our way. Towards the end of the book, where he relates the death of his father and his return to Nigeria for the funeral, we see a fellow human being, dealing with the pain and emotion that cuts across racial and ethnic lines.

Never Look an American in the Eye points out our preconceptions about immigrants and immigration without beating us up with them, but refuses to ignore them. The United States is an immigrant country, yet we sometimes turn a blind eye to that fact. Okey Ndibe reminds us that there are still people around the world who dream of a better life in the United States, just as our forefathers did, and that they have much they can contribute to our country and our culture.