Things you shouldn’t say, do or ask an African immigrant

Lately, I’ve been thinking about when I first moved to Canada—the early years that exposed me to Canadian culture, lifestyle, and people—from all walks of life.

I finally figured out why Halifax and those early years have been stuck in my head. See, I’m going to visit my family on the east coast in a few months—and also, I think my High School Reunion is this year.

Growing up in Canada as a first-generation African immigrant had its pros and cons. But for the most part, there was never a dull moment when it came to the crazy, insane, most ignorant things people would say, do or ask me. See, I have a very dry, sarcastic sense of humour. So I would always string them along to believe that ‘yes, Tarzan is my cousin. We play together all the time’. I’m not proud of those moments but I can’t help but still chuckle when I think about them.

People didn’t always say, do or ask stereotypical questions to be ignorant. A few were just really clueless. Regardless, it irritated and sometimes amused me all the same.

Here are some of the things I experienced when I first moved to Canada. These are things you shouldn’t say to, do to or ask any immigrant. PERIOD.

  • Brutalizing my name. OK, so my name is a little different. But it’s written and spelt in English and for the most part it’s also easy to sound out: Osas. So when people call me ‘Oysas, Oases, Oasis, Osase, or Sassy, that is NOT OK.  English is my third language and if I can manage to say your name correctly (or ask you how to pronounce it), the least you can do is show the same respect.
  • Being asked about Tarzan—while making the Tarzan or George of the Jungle sound. For a good period of time, one of my schoolmates in Junior High School believed I actually knew Tarzan. It was during the time when George of the Jungle came out in theatres and I was still fresh off the boat at the time. One day, my schoolmate started asking me 24 questions about Tarzan. Honestly, I had just recently learned about Tarzan myself at the time. This classmate was one of those mean kids,  the kind you’d let have it…so I did. I told a wild, overly exaggerated story that Tarzan was my cousin and we see each other all the time. That Tarzan ‘let’s me play with his animals and give them nicknames’.
  • Being asked about monkeys, apes, and other wild animals. I’m not sure if it was some weird adolescent/teenage trend at the time, but if I had a dollar for every time I was asked if I had a wild animal for a pet, I never would’ve had student loan. Like the Tarzan situations, I fibbed and elaborated that I had such pets, making up stories.
  • Assuming people in Africa are poor. Life is tough in Africa, yes, we know. But not everyone who lives there is poor. Africans back home own skyscrapers, booming businesses, mansions, Lamborghinis and Rolls Royces. In our country, we are CEOs, CFOs, politicians, artists, authors and professors.
  • Wanting to touch my hair. This STILL happens. I don’t understand the infatuation/curiosity about black hair. Whether it’s braids, afro or twists, there’s someone out there who’s curious to touch. Back in the day, I had (still have) short hair. A classmate asked me one day how my hair got so long over the weekend. This was because I came to school with braids/extensions. I know she was only just curious. But I couldn’t help but say something like ‘if you want your hair to be long and in braids like this, you have to wash your short hair really nice and clean. Then when you’re done, you put a special kind of African lotion all over it. And then wrap it up over night. The next day, it’d look just like this’.
  • Assume I like my Canadian life more than the life I had back home. If you’re an immigrant, you know the heartache that goes with transitioning from your home to another country. Whether that country ends up being a home for you is another story. Not every immigrant had a horrible life in their home country. Not every immigrant who moves to the Western world is seeking refugee status or running away from poverty. I had an awesome life back home. There are pros and cons about both sides.
  • Being the person everyone turned in class about all things Africa. All through Junior High + High School, I felt like I was the ambassador to all the African consulates in the Western world. Whether we were studying Things Fall Apart in African Literature class or watching Amistad during Black History Month, at least a few heads would turn to me once we started to discuss what we’ve read or watched. I was suppose to be the expert on all things African.
  • Being complimented (really an insult) about how good my English is. When you have a dry sense of humour like me, replying to people when they insult you(thinking that it’s a compliment) can be fun. One of the most basic ‘insulting compliments’ is ‘your English is very good’.  When someone says this, automatically I want to reply with ‘thanks, yours too’. Another one is being told ‘you can’t tell at all. You don’t have ‘an accent’ as if having an accent is a bad thing. EVERYONE, no matter where you’re from, has an accent.
  • Being corrected about my pronunciation. I actually don’t mind being corrected, it’s all part of learning and I love to learn. What irritates me is when someone is condescending when they do so. Now that’s just rude. When I first moved to Canada, I didn’t use to pronounce ‘H’ in words that start with the letter (and I still don’t sometimes). I had a good laugh one day when a friend decided to be my English teacher for the length of our conversation. She’d say ‘House’. I’d reply ‘ouse’. ‘Hatch’ from my tongue was ‘atch’. ‘T’H’ was also a problem. THe House for me was ‘de ouse’. Eventually I learned. But sometimes I still mess up.
  • Being surprised I don’t get Western cultural references (I still don’t). I’m one of those people if I don’t know what you are talking about, I’ll say so off the bat. And when I say I don’t know who that is or what that means, then they say something like ‘how do you not know who _______ is?’ Like Mary Poppins or characters from Saturday Night Live. I had no clue who Mary Poppins was until a few years ago and I barely watch SNL. And I learned about Ontario’s beaver tail treats from a Canadian friend when I lived in South Korea in 2007-2009. So no, I don’t have a reference book for cultural references.
  • Believing Africa is a country. Believe it or not, I’ve met some adults who thought Africa was a country. I don’t know where their geography teacher in Elementary School went wrong but this still happens.
  • Assuming I’m from other parts of Africa. I did Track & Field for about 5 years. I wasn’t always #1 but I could hold my own. When people would find out I’m from Africa, they say ‘you must be from __________’(insert bogus name of African country that wins the most medals in running during Olympics). Seriously, what would you say to that?

~ by omonaij on March 3, 2013.

2 Responses to “Things you shouldn’t say, do or ask an African immigrant”

  1. Loooooolllll. I feel your pain jare. Didn’t they ask you if you live on trees?

    My name is Lola, and I am from African Naturalistas. I sent you a twitter msg, but haven’t gotten your reply. Please, can you send your email address to I want to send you a private message,

    Thanks so much

  2. Hi Ilola, your blog is great. there’re a lot of resources out there to help us naturalistas and i’m so happy for that bc we all know going au naturale is quite the journey. thanks for your comment. And check your inbox, I’ve replied to your message on Twitter.

    Tag, you’re it.

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