Post Quarantine, NC State College Student Copes With Separation From Her Nigerian Culture – WUNC | Directory Mayhem

For most people, quarantine has not been a good experience, but for me, quarantine has been the best time of my life. During the early pandemic I was surrounded by my family and was able to do things like celebrate my sister’s birthday with my family and people who I knew understood my identity.

That’s why going back to school personally was such a big change for me. At NC State University, I constantly feel like an outcast and disconnected from my culture. The only time I feel connected is when I’m on Facetime with my mom.

Jeanine Ikekhua and her mother pose in the town square of Lagos, Nigeria, in 2003.

Back home, usually around 9am on a Saturday, I’m awakened by the aromatic scent of thyme and well-seasoned tomatoes roasting in a pot. Just from that smell I know what’s going on. My mom started her Saturday routine by making it in the kitchen. I spend most of the year at school so when I miss those smells I Facetime with my mom and she guides me through the cooking process. At every step I am reminded how to prepare one of my favorite dishes.

Today’s dish is Jollof Rice. My mom watches me as I dice my tomatoes, combine my spices and wash my rice. Sometimes I get confused about how many cups of rice to use, so I always ask her.

Growing up, I always ate Jollof Rice. It’s a staple of Nigerian culture and — without a doubt — a dish I always enjoy eating. Sometimes she speaks too fast, so I always ask if the recipe is written. Every time I ask she says no. She never writes down recipes, so I have to learn to keep up with her. She’s always Facetime asking what I do, so I show her every step, from chopping the tomatoes to mixing the sauce.

Jollof Rice is actually the first Nigerian meal I’ve shared with one of my non-Nigerian friends, Brier Evans. Brier and I are part of this group called The Immigrants. We’re about seven. We all met in high school and bonded by going to a school far away from our home countries. So when the quarantine ended, they understood how I felt being in a space where people didn’t really understand my identity.

When I spoke to Brier about her experience, she explained the stress of going back to school after the pandemic.

“I begged my parents not to bring me back,” she said. “I cried to my dad and said, ‘I don’t want to go back. I don’t want to go back at all.’”

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Jeanine Ikekhua

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Jeanine Ikekhua and her group of friends, The Immigrants, sign “I love you” as they graduate from the 2021 class of high school. Friends listed from left to right: Zende Magloire, Jeanine Ikekhua, Aprille Rolle, Diyanni Baron, Jessie Gentles, Brier Evans.

She is currently attending Xavier University of Louisiana. Her school is approximately 2,210 miles from her family in the Commonwealth of Dominica. Brier is Afro-Caribbean and like me she felt like an outcast going back to school.

“I felt like I had no place of belonging. I feel like I’ve been noticed. Anything I wore or how I spoke or my interests were just different,” Brier explained. “I couldn’t find anyone close by who understood enough to help me with that. I just found a friend.”

Much like Brier, I felt out of place when I went back to school. My first week of college was a depressing time for me. I missed the comfort and safety of my family. At home I didn’t have to explain certain elements of my culture and identity because they were already understood. The reality of being in a new space where I was separated from everyone around me was harsh. Being in public spaces made Brier and I panic.

Brier described the fear she felt as she walked through the cafeteria.

“People just look at you. They sit there and look at you. They don’t just look at you, they look at what you’re wearing,” she said. “What they think of you is written all over their face – walking feet from the open space to the cafeteria is the most stressful and scary thing ever.”

Brier’s anxiety wasn’t just confined to the cafeteria. She also felt anxious no matter where she was on campus.

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Jeanine Ikekhua

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Jeanine, Brier, and Kaymah receive their senior rings at Salem Academy’s annual ring banquet.

Left to right (top): Jessie, Kaymah, Jeanine, Brier, Zende
Left to right (bottom): Diyanni and Aprille

“At the time, I felt like I was against them. I felt like I was in survival mode; temple run. I had such bad social anxiety,” she said. “I felt like I was too different. And that really had an impact on my mental health.”

With every waking moment, Brier and I wondered who we were and why we had these feelings.

Our friend Aprille Rolle, who struggled in her freshman year at Temple University, faced the same questions.

When I spoke to Aprille, she tried to express how she felt.

“I’m just trying to question myself. I’m trying to figure out why I feel this way? How did I get to this point where I wake up every day and I don’t want to go to class,” Aprille said. “I don’t want to do basic things like showering and going out to eat.”

After being locked in my room and questioning myself, my mental health began to deteriorate.

I hated leaving my dorm because I knew I had to put on a facade the moment I walked out.

While in my room, I began to keep a journal. That’s when I started to accept that the people who surround me all the time will never understand me. It’s still a work in progress, but for now I’m directing my energies to staying connected to my roots rather than trying to fit in. My friend Imade Borha reminded me that there are so many ways to connect with your culture.

“I still find my way like trying to learn Pidgin on YouTube. I also watch Nollywood films. I saw Merry Men the other night,” said Imade.

Imade is Nigerian like me, but she grew up in Greensboro, North Carolina, so her journey of connecting with the culture is a little different than mine. But it’s still tough. She feels closer to Black American culture, but that doesn’t mean she can escape the sense of separation from her Nigerian culture.

“It’s like I’m grieving at the same time. And I know that grief is probably something that so many of us deal with. It’s that sense of loss and that feeling of ‘I can’t get this back’ even though I’m experiencing something similar,” Imade said. “I think it’s important for all of us to allow ourselves to grieve and allow ourselves to feel anger. Because sometimes anger and sadness are best friends.”

By Facetime with my mom and friends at least three times a week, I realized that it’s okay to be sad and to mourn the loss of my physical community, but it’s also important to recognize that I always still have a fellowship even if they are far away.

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