When you leave the country, you learn to lie.
When you were 17 and leaving the 254 borders for the first time, heading out on a plane to the land of milk and honey, nobody warned you that it was not ALL milk and honey. More like really bad mala and horribly made molasses syrup. At first glance, it looks manageable but the longer you stay out and involved in the crazy cycle of trying to better yourself, the more you realize that it’s not as you believed when you were in your teens.
When you first land, everything amazes you. The blinking man who lives in that spot beside or under the traffic light signal who beckons you to cross when it is safe and, also, turns into a blinking hand that commands you to stop when it is unsafe for you to cross the road. When you go to the supermarket for the first time and you find yourself face to face with rows upon rows of different cheeses or cereal brands, and you are flabbergasted because you normally, for breakfast, drink black tea with a piece of Elliot’s bread, and cheese has never been a major part of your breakfast adventures.
The land of milk and honey is, indeed, quite different from what they say. They being some unknown entity that makes you think that stepping out from beyond your borders is akin to stepping into a golden river that is overflowing with pearls, diamonds and that elusive perfectly roasted chicken for dinner or perfectly fitted evening dress. Newsflash: In the U.S, the dresses don’t fit perfectly every single time, and the chicken may be a tad dry or undercooked every so often. And, no, there is no golden river filled with gems.
I remember going to Jack-in-the-Box for the first time, on my first night in the United States, and I got a cheeseburger that I nibbled at, hesitatingly, as cheese and I were not bosom buddies. I promptly threw up ten minutes after completing it but they reassured me, ‘Do not worry, you shall get used to it.’ The first lie. I never did. Call it what you’d like really, white lies, different versions of the truth, creatively presenting an alternate universe, but at the end of the day, it’s still a lie. The kind of lies I am speaking of are not the ones that create havoc and send you straight to jail (well, truth be told, some of those lies could do just that…) but the ones that you spout to keep the peace. Men, you know those very well. From the tiny ones, ‘No, that dress does not make you look fat’ to the super heavy ones, ‘She is just a friend…or colleague…’
I got my first job working as a cashier at my university cafeteria. I did not understand the money, the currency, the nicknames for the coins I handled, but I swore that I did, because I needed the money. The second lie. At night, I would stand by the convenience machine three doors down from my dorm door and I would methodically put in my coins, a collection of each American coin I had amassed in the three weeks that I had been in the country, and the LED screen would show me what the coin was. I thank my roommate for educating me about the informal nicknames for each denomination; she was a bit unsure about why I wouldn’t just automatically know these things. It took me a while to figure out that a dime was not equal to a 10-piece. And it took her a while to realize that there are other countries and currencies besides the U.S.A and the dimes, quarters and bucks that run the country.
Many of my friends had travelled to this land of decadence as well, with the thoughts that our lives were just about to become better times thirty. One friend confided in me that her mother had no idea that she worked as a security guard at night, with her accent as her only weapon. She would laugh at the thought of would-be-robbers halting in their steps to wonder in awe about her beautiful accent, perhaps wondering where she’d gotten her hair braided, and refusing to rob her store because she was just too exotic of a creature to deal with the aftermath of their robbery attempt. Her mother believed that her daughter was in school, as she’d been sent to do years back. Truth is, going to a 4-year college in the United States or anywhere else in Europe, as an international student is ridiculously expensive. Please pick any U.S college website and look at the difference between what a domestic student would pay versus what an international student would pay, and tell me how that helps to encourage us to stay in school and try to independently pay our way. To make things a wee bit harder, the U.S government would like international students to only work for 20 hours or less each week. So, many of us got on the phone to our parents, who had worked so hard to get us where we were, and we lied. We asked them to stop sending that money for school fees because, for most of our parents who are not as well-to-do as others, the money came straight from their food budget.
So we lied. We said we could handle the fees on our own.
‘Do not worry, Dad…nilipata scholarship…’
‘No, Mom, I got a really good job…I can handle it…’
All the time, we have our fingers crossed behind our backs, hoping that they do not pick up on the false bravado in our tone. That they do not realize that we are gambling that we shall survive somehow. We learn how to get certain makaratasi to make working more hours more feasible…feeling extremely lucky that the powers that be are only looking for the Brown folks and not for us, the African folks.
This is not a letter of complaint. It is not a monologue on how difficult life is beyond your own borders, and it is not to demean the struggle within your own borders. What it is – an honest look based on life experiences from myself and from those I know so well who have lived in the U.S for a while. It is a life story that only touches the peripheral depth on how people learned to survive and keep the peace, how people learned to spin strategic lies so they could keep their mother’s blood pressure at an acceptable rate.
There are those who called themselves Sanitation and Hygiene Engineers (he washed the bathrooms at night, after the office closed, and his mother had sent him abroad to get his Engineering degree) over the phone to their parents. Others termed themselves as Security Specialists (working as a guard) and others preferred to refer to themselves as Medical Health Supervisors, when they watched over demented old women restrained by leather cuffs, tied to their beds, diapers in place and, because they sometimes thwack you with spit whilst in the midst of an episode, some had mouth guards in place.
Years ago, I took a cab in North Carolina to my hotel room, when my flight was cancelled due to weather, and my cab driver, excited to find out that I was African, confided in me that, at home, he was a medical doctor. An OB-GYN. He had left to pursue a better life in the U.S but all he could do now was drive a cab using his cousin’s identification card because, according to the powers that be in the U.S, he shouldn’t really exist, he shouldn’t really be present currently. Overstaying your visa is illegal, of course, but so many people do it partly because they may be hesitant to go back home with nothing more than they arrived with. A small percentage of some do make it and they do head home, more successful than when they landed. But for those who are not in that bracket, lies are what they use to soothe anxious voices over the phone. Voices of mothers who worry about whether the child is eating enough or not. The child, in this case, ranges from the age of 18 to 55…mothers always worry. And, as a result, we all learned how to lie in order to soothe them. To keep them thinking that everything is okay on this side of the ocean. To tell your mother that, yes, you did eat. But you do not mention that what you ate was a small piece of chewing gum to hold off the hunger pangs.
‘She does not need to know’ one friend said, ‘She will collapse if she knows that I am living in a house with 6 other people so that we can all save some money to send home, to survive, to make it…’
And what about school? That dream that brought you to the US?
‘Oh, who can afford it, really? Yes, I came to go to school but life got in the way…I have to do what I can here now and school is no longer a priority…I learn from the streets now’
Lies are what we line our lives with, the butter with which we coat our mothers’ expectations and the fuel that pushes us even further to succeed at all costs.
‘It’s not a lie, really…it’s for her peace of mind…’