Thumbnail illustration by Tiffany Zhong
Thumbnail illustration by Tiffany Zhong
October 30th 2016, standing in front of the departure entrance of Heathrow airport, people bustling around saying goodbye to their loved ones, noises surrounding me but I could only hear the exciting squeals of my voice in my head as I turned to my big brother and bid him farewell. I didn’t feel sad, nor did I care what he thought of my decision because for once I was finally doing something for me. A few months prior to my departure, I had just graduated from university and was celebrating with my family. We aren’t a tight knit family, in fact the only time we were ever together was during a gathering party that my mum would host at home or if we were all going to church together, aside from that if we weren’t at work or school, we were in our own rooms.
Life was tough for me, having three male siblings and being the only daughter in a Nigerian house was literally the epitome of being a caged bird. As an African your actions were monitored and your parents’ words were golden, growing up I was taught that my place was always in the kitchen or cleaning the house in preparation for marriage, I was torn because although I enjoyed cooking, I disliked the fact that it was a task required of me as an African woman, whereas my brothers had never once cooked a full meal. My brothers were treated like kings, especially my second older brother because he was the smart one. I wasn’t particularly close to my older brothers and in some ways, I was afraid of them, they declared their authority over me and although I had to respect my elders, to me it felt like they abused their power of being older than me. We lacked the emotional connection that siblings have for each other.
The continuous sexism and favoritism in my household made me feel unwanted. It was a constant reminder in the back of my head that I had to take charge of my own life. That was when I had the idea to spend some time away from my family, to find who I was as a person. I thought maybe we would be able to grow closer, if I was further away.
I didn’t know how my family would react to me leaving for a year, as it would be my first time leaving my cage. I was scared of how they would receive this news, especially as women were not supposed to leave the family house until marriage. I didn’t even get to experience the university life of going to a far institute because I commuted from home to school, but here I was about to give them the biggest shock.
However, this was something that I needed to do as I had lived my life so far for the purpose of my family. I needed to understand myself as a human being. Before I told my parents, as I was contemplating where to go, I met a new friend during the final month of school.
Serah was a breath of fresh air to my stuffy cage. She was also Nigerian and told me that she was raised in Germany but moved to the UK when she was nineteen. I was surprised that she was ahead of me in terms of independence, and I knew I had a lot to learn from her in terms of taking control of my life. I told her of my plans and that I was unsure of where to go. I was torn between Japan and South Korea as I loved both countries for different reasons and feared that my parents would prevent me from leaving the nest. Serah told me to pick one that I wished to explore further and just do it (like Nike). I weighed up my options, and with some research figured that it would be easier to find a job in South Korea as there were many private schools recruiting English teachers.
The next step was to tell my parents, and I figured the best time would be after graduation when parents are typically proud that their kids have done one good deed they asked for. One sunny day in June after my graduation, we came home and sat at the dinner table together for once eating in silence. Me, my parents and younger brother. Once their mouths were filled with deliciousness, I blurted it out to them and waited with bated breath as I looked at my mother’s face, half expecting her to reach over and snatch my wig off of my head. Her eyes searched mine expecting it to be a joke, but once she knew I was serious she turned to my dad and waited for him to say something.
My dad and I weren’t close and we never had a father-daughter relationship. We hardly spoke, or rather he spoke but never listened, so I wasn’t surprised when he shook his head in disbelief and told me to stop talking nonsense. I was always sick and tired of being treated like a kid, fuming, I stood up and told them it was happening whether they liked it or not and headed to my room. Shaking in anger, I told my older brothers expecting them to have my back for once, but was greeted with the same mocking attitude. I told my closest friends and was met with the same critiques. Every one of them not understanding the concept of growth. I realized these were people who didn’t have a vision for leaving their nests, I was exasperated by their ignorance. The only person who understood was Serah, and I came to the conclusion that only those who are on an adventure or seek one will understand the feeling of wanting to leave the comfortable nest. A few days later, my mum came into my room with a look that showed her conclusion to the matter and told me to go for a year. With those few words she turned her back and left. Elated that I at least had my mother’s support, I began preparations without much help from my loved ones.
Seeking recruiters, researching and doing countless interviews with schools, finally I got a job in Daegu. It wasn’t my ideal city as I wanted a place in Seoul, but figured I could always visit Seoul during weekends. The process to attain the visa was tiring as I had to wait a really long time. This was when it took a turn for the worst. I was agitated because I felt alone. I started second guessing everything and thinking if it really was the best choice. I felt depressed and anxious and before I knew it…I entered the dark space.
I tend to enter a space of darkness whereby all my thoughts enter the negatives. I started rethinking if this was the best thing to do or if it would be better for me to just stay in my comfortable cage. Leaving to go to the other side of the world was scary enough but doing it alone without support was worse and it hurt. I noticed my change had begun from this point, taking into account who my friends and foes were. During the waiting period, I rarely spoke to anyone in the house. Consumed by negativity, I stayed in my room most of the time unless called upon to cook or clean. I was seeing a guy at that time and although we had not known each other for long, he seemed aware of my dark space. He told me to breathe sunshine and that was all the reassurance I needed, that was the support I sought. The darkness had abated.
A few months went by and it was the last week of October. It was time. The wait was over, I finally got the visa stamped in my passport and was raring to begin my adventure. A surge of emotions rushed through my veins. The night before my departure, my entire family and I went to a restaurant to have dinner and for once I felt like we were a family. The next day I stood at the entrance of my house, bidding farewell to my parents. Their only daughter was off to a foreign land but they all seemed indifferent, they had prior engagements to focus on. My second eldest brother who was at work sent me a text that said take care. My mum had a church meeting to go to and my dad was occupied with watching the news about Nigeria on the computer. This was my family. With a firm nod of belief that I was doing the right thing, I entered my eldest brother’s car and we drove in near silence to the airport. I couldn’t contain my excitement, I was finally leaving and embarking on what I thought was an adventure of a lifetime.
After an eleven-hour flight I landed at Incheon international airport on the 31st, feeling tired but with a gleam of excitement I proceeded to transfer to my connecting flight to Daegu. My first day of teaching was a nerve shattering one. I was greeted by a swarm of kids who barely spoke English and even though I could speak Korean at a conversational level, I was forbidden to speak to them in any language other than English. The kids stared at me in fascination. I could hear the subtle whispers in Korean as they talked to each other about the color of my skin and the texture of my hair. Throughout the first week the main focus was always my hair. I felt self-conscious. I wasn’t so sure if being able to understand their language was the best for my self-esteem. I had a brown, thick curly wig that I wore religiously, but to the eyes of my students it was like a new invention. They were fascinated that hair could look different from the typical straight and silky. I wasn’t accustomed to being asked by people if they could possibly touch it, although I acknowledged the fact that my students asked first.
What shocked me more was the nonchalant behavior of strangers on public transportation. Every ride I took was an anxiety filled battle, as I would be greeted with gawking eyes and every so often a hand would slide to the back of my hair and take a handful of the ringlets, much to my dismay. I hated it. I felt like a mannequin displayed for all to see and touch. It was cold, unwelcoming and unhygienic. Some said, “Well if you don’t like it why don’t you straighten your hair?” or “Try dressing more Korean to fit in.” The dark space was looming close. I began contemplating their suggestions, the confidence in me slowly dissolving.
I always wondered how they would have treated me if my skin was different? I noticed how some treated my fairer skinned friends in comparison to me, and when I spoke to said ‘friends’ about the issue I got similar responses. “Oh, I haven’t had issues with people touching my hair.” “People are always friendly towards me.” “I get so many compliments, guys always think I’m pretty.” Of course, I knew not everyone in Korea acted in such a rude way of touching without permission, but to me it was unbearable.
I started fighting with my inhibitions to please others like with my family. I was thinking of changing my appearance so that I could fit in. Accepting that I didn’t want to be someone else and that I never would be, my eyes began to open. I even noticed some Koreans wearing braids, twists and locks. It made no sense for me to straighten my hair to fit in. The dark space had disappeared.
Four years later, armed with an improved knowledge of the language and a thesaurus of Korean curse words, I now live in the heart of Seoul. With my new found independence, I am aware that families are never going to always get along. I didn’t choose to be born into this family, but I try to get along with them for the sake of blood being thicker than water. Although my mother and I are now closer than ever, it seems the distance between us has made her aware of how much she needed me. I am able to voice my views to her and she also requests my opinion on certain matters. She treats me like an adult. It’s as if she finally senses my maturity. As for my father and elder brothers, we are still in the same place as we were four years ago. They check in on me once in a blue moon and I check in on them on special occasions like birthdays or Christmas. I am content with the little interactions between us and don’t seek acceptance from them at all.
My skin thicker, my confidence increased and mindset bolder and more driven, I realized that if I wouldn’t tolerate ignorance from people in my home country why should it be any different elsewhere. I shouldn’t shy away from who I am, what I wear or what color or style I choose to put my hair in. In the end, this is my skin and I will not alter my appearance to fit any society’s beauty standards, whereby fairer skin is seen as better. I shine brighter with the melanin in me. I respect and adore South Korea, but disrespect my skin and someone is getting bitten in English, Korean and if I’m feeling a tad irritated, Igbo. I have attained an incredible amount of love for myself and no amount of negativity or discrimination I will face along this journey can change that.