Thursday, February 19, 2009

My Baptism of and Conversion to American English (III)

This first appeared in my weekly column in the print edition of Weekly Trust on April 1, 2006.

By Farooq A. Kperogi

If you have already read enough of Americanisms, this is the last week you will be reading about them in this column. It is, of course, impossible to capture, within the limitation of a weekly column, the whole range of differences that I have observed— and experienced— in American English usage. However, a few more anecdotal accounts will suffice.

As is evident from my previous accounts, a lot of my exposure to the deviations of American English takes place in my interaction with students. Sometime in the early part of my stay here, about half of of my students got really low scores in my test. On the day I distributed their scripts to them (they have no clue what scripts mean; they either call them “tests” or “grades”) one female student stood up and asked if I would give them a “curve.”

I wondered silently what, in Heaven’s name, she meant by a “curve.” But, as I said earlier, I had determined that I had asked enough questions on America's eccentric English usage, and had decided to be more pragmatic in my learning process. I knew that the girl knew enough to know that only God could bring curves to her skinny, almost masculine, physique at that stage of her life. So she couldn’t possibly mean that she wanted me to do something about her lack of bodily endowments. Besides, there were also men in the class who should have no business with curves but who wanted “curves” from me. So I asked, “What curves”?

Seeing my confusion—and its obvious implication, because I must have been unconsciously examining the lady’s body to observe the absence of curves on her!—somebody volunteered to change the structure of the sentence to, “Will you curve our grades?” It was then I got the hint that they were probably asking if I would add extra marks—sorry, they call it “points”—across the board to move the class average up.

I couldn’t relate with it, first, because it was a strange concept for me. In Nigeria, my teachers never gave me grades that I did not work for. Second, I just couldn’t associate the word “curve” with the arbitrary increase in the grades of students to raise the class average—perhaps because of my weak quantitative reasoning abilities. I don’t draw graphs; I only draw word pictures.

However, it is not so much the queer divergences of American expressions that are perplexing as the inability of most Americans—at least from my experience—to relate with the simplest and most basic of British English expressions.

For instance, the first day that I wanted to send a letter to my wife from here, I encountered a needless communication breakdown in the bookstore because of my use of the word “post.” I went to the university bookstore to buy a type of padded envelope that Americans use to post pictures. I forgot the name of the envelope, however, because I had never used it before. The cashier wanted to help me, so she asked what I wanted to use the padded envelope for. And I said, “To post a letter.”

She couldn’t figure out what it meant to “post” a letter. So she said, “On a Web site?” I was lost. I later learned that Americans don’t post letters; they “mail” them. “Post” is used only in reference to uploading materials on the Internet. Of course, they have no postal addresses; only “mailing addresses.” However, they are yet to invent “mail offices”; thankfully, they still have post offices.

Other British English expressions that absolutely make no sense here are “full stop,” which Americans simply call “period” and “brackets,” which they prefer to call “parenthesis.” (What they call brackets here is what British people call square brackets like this: [ ]).

And when they say “momentarily,” they mean “soon” or “now,” not “suddenly.” I remember the first time I boarded an American airplane and the pilot announced that the plane would take off “momentarily.” I got panicky because I thought the plane had developed a mechanical problem and was taking off suddenly. When nobody joined me in my panic, it dawned on me that “momentarily” is the American equivalent of the equally crazy British word, “presently,” which also means “soon.”

Americans are also awful with prepositions. They, for instance, interchange the verb phrase “wait on,” which means to work for or be a servant to somebody, and “wait for,” which means to anticipate or physically stop for somebody or something.

Similarly, Americans “visit with” people; they don’t visit them. And they don’t say they are being interviewed for a job; they say they are “interviewing with” a prospective employer for a job.

Their use of verbs is no less awful. When they use the word “there,” it is almost always succeeded by either “is” or “was” even if the subject in the sentence is a plural noun. Examples are: “there is so many people out there,” “there is a lot of problems with that political party,” “there is 10 people in the class,” “there was not a lot of people at the party.” And such grammatically awkward expressions as “I could have went there” are also very common even among educated Americans—at least in the South.

But perhaps the most problematic aspect of American English for a person who has been exposed to a different variety of English is its conventions of pronunciation. The American accent is generally heavily nasal and tongue-twisting—at least to me.

They almost always roll their r’s, even occasionally allow an intrusive “r”, and dispense with their t’s, especially in the middle of sentences, when they speak. When the t’s are dispensed with, they sound like d’s. For instance, Rita is pronounced “Rida,” writer is pronounced “wraida.” Internet is pronounced “nRaned.”

The one I was least prepared for was the pronunciation of rhetoric. It is pronounced here as “wredric.” It took me almost six months to associate that pronunciation with the word. Computer is pronounced “compiuRar” and cheater (Americans don’t call a person who cheats a cheat; he is a cheater) is pronounced “cheedaR.” When “a” appears at the beginning of a word, it usually tends to be pronounced as an “o” sound, “o” as in organ. So a word like "article" will be pronounced as “ORdikul.”

As you'd expect, in my first few months here, I had great difficulty understanding some of their ways of pronouncing, just like they also had difficulty understanding my accent. It is the universal experience of all English-speaking Africans.

Thankfully, most Americans now understand me. But I have achieved this, like most other non-Americans, at the expense of great sacrifice. Each time I speak with Americans, in my effort to sound comprehensible to them, I sound to myself like some spooky voice from a disembodied spirit. After every class or extended discussion with friends, my vocal cavity, nasal veins, and tongues perpetually feel weak and exhausted. Some price to pay for wanting to speak like Americans!

When I first came here, I used to be disgusted by the way Nigerians living here strained very hard to affect American accents. But I have since understood why they do that. If they speak naturally, Americans will always interrupt them with “huh?”

A Nigerian who came here a couple of weeks ago for the first told me how frustrating it has been for him to communicate intelligibly with Americans. They always pretend not to understand any accent that radically deviates from theirs, especially if it is not a native English accent. Well, I advised him to learn to be a caricature like the rest of us have painfully made ourselves to be, if he wants to be successful in his communication.

All these deviations are came about because one American patriot called Noah Webster felt that it was not sufficient that America got political independence from Britain in 1776; he thought it should also get linguistic independence. This sentiment inspired him to spend his entire adult life standardizing American spellings and pronunciations, and compiling dictionaries that contain unique American words— and self-consciously distancing American English from British English.

It is a sad commentary of our state of development in Nigeria that people have made a career of ridiculing what it is now called “Nigerian English.” We have no reason to strain hard to replicate British English in our speech and writing.

If we cannot adopt one of our indigenous languages as a national language, we shouldn’t pooh-pooh our attempts at domesticating the English language.

It was Chinua Achebe who once said that any language that has the cheek to leave its primordial shores to other people’s territories should be prepared to face the reality of domestication. That’s what Americans have done to British English.

My Baptism of and Conversion to American English (II)

This first appeared on March 25, 2006 in the print edition of Weekly Trust

By Farooq A. Kperogi

Sometime in the mid-point of 2005, I had cause to teach my students lessons in intercultural communication. I remember that they were all shocked when I told them that in Nigeria when people say “you have lost weight,” there is always an undertone sympathy, sometimes even disdain, in their facial expression, whereas in America there is usually an overt tone of approval when the same expression is uttered.

Americans vilify excess flesh, but Nigerians celebrate it—if it is not superfluous, that is. I told them of cultures in southern Nigeria where prospective brides first go to fattening rooms for months to put “flesh in the right places” so that they will look desirable to their husbands after the wedding. My students couldn’t believe this. So one of them asked, “Mr. Kperogi, are you just being silly?”

I was transfixed, mortified. Silly? What have I said to deserve this gratuitous insult from a spoiled American brat? I wondered. However, I realized that nobody, not even the few American Blacks in the class, was shocked by the “insult” to me. They all looked at me eagerly, even leisurely, in expectation of a response.

That warned me to restrain my emotions. What was more, I thought the student had no reason to insult me because her grades in the course, which is a core course, depended solely on me. So I simply deflected the topic. I neither said I was being silly nor that I was not silly.

I immediately shared my experience with my colleagues when I got back to the office. It turned out that in American demotic speech, being silly means to be deliberately funny or playful in an affectionate way. So the student actually just wanted to know if I was merely kidding because she didn’t imagine that there are cultures anywhere in the world where fat people are not vilified. (America has an excess of obese people because, whereas other countries are contending with the problem of under- or mal-nutrition, Americans are contending with the problem of over-nutrition!).

Some days after this incident, I told one my professors that if I didn’t tutor my instincts and school my emotions, I would have descended on an innocent girl who asked if I was being silly in class. I told him that in British English, “silly” is an adjective of disesteem that usually denotes and connotes stupidity and subnormal mental capacity. He had a good laugh and asked, “So it was that experience that taught you the meaning of silly as we use it here?” When I answered in the affirmative, he said, “It’s such a shame.”

I felt humiliated again. And the man instantly noticed the change in my countenance. My suppressed rage and my wounded pride were so nakedly transparent that he could feel, even touch, them! So he asked why my enthusiasm had suddenly evaporated in our conversation. I told him there was nothing to be ashamed of in not being familiar with the queer deviations of American English from the "real" English, that he was being unfair to me because he could neither speak my own native language nor does he know half as much British English as I know American English, and should therefore have shown me more respect.

His subsequent query disarmed me. “When did I ever say or imply that you should be ashamed because you do not understand American English?” he asked. I then referred him to his statement that “it’s a shame” that I didn’t know what silly meant in American English.

Well, the end of the story is that in American English, the expression “It’s a shame” is just another way of saying “it’s unfortunate.” My professor was empathizing with me for having the misfortune of having my dander up by an innocuous query from a curious student.

After we resolved our differences, I said “Oh, I’m sorry. It’s such a shame that we are both victims of harmless miscues!” We both had a good laugh. Well, I have later found out that the expression, “It’s a shame” to mean it is unfortunate has now permeated even demotic British speech.

About a year after this incident, I had cause to interview a University of Ohio professor of political science who lived in Ghana for a one-year sabbatical leave at the University of Ghana. I interviewed her for a news magazine to which I occasionally contribute articles and stories here.

The professor told me her experiences in Ghana that were the direct opposite of mine. She narrated how a Ghanaian professor with whom she had been on very friendly terms literally threw a feet and almost ate her raw when she said to the man, “Don’t be silly.” She told me that it was the quick intervention of the staff of the school that saved her from the raw rage of the Ghanaian professor.

She said she learned the hard way that in British English the word “silly” is an insult. I secretly felt happy that I was not alone in the clash of languages. There is security in numbers, as they say.

But my baptism is not always this emotionally charged. At the end of my first semester here, I was told that there would be a “commencement exercise” to which we were all invited. I had not the remotest clue what the hell anybody would be commencing at the end of a semester.

I thought “commencement exercise” was the American equivalent of our matriculation, and wondered why students would be matriculated at the end of a semester. I later learned that “commencement” is actually the American equivalent of our convocation while “orientation” is their equivalent of our matriculation.

My friends told me that the logic of the word commencement to denote graduation is that when people graduate, it is really the time that they "commence" the journey to the real world.

And during “commencements,” they don’t award certificates; they award “diplomas.” Diploma here is the generic word for all manner of certificates—bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees; it does not mean a sub-degree qualification, as it does in British English.

Again, "certificate" is not a generic word for paper qualifications; when it is used in an educational context, it usually implies a document certifying the completion of a short, crash course. And “college” is the generic word for university. When somebody is described as “college-educated,” it means he has at least a bachelor’s degree.

Americans also have a whole range of expressions that are simply exclusive to them. One day, one of my friends asked me if I wanted to “work out.” I was tired of asking for the meaning of such strange expressions. So I simply said “Yeah, I will like to work out,” hoping that it meant no more than something I could do.

We later found ourselves in a fitness center where I saw people lifting weights, jumping, and generally doing what we call “physical exercises” in British English. That was how I learned that “work out” simply means to engage in a physical exercise. Now, when I want to exercise, and want my friends to go with me, I also ask them, “Do you want to work out today?” I am learning fast.

Sometime ago, one of my professors was concerned that I didn’t have the appropriate clothes for “working out,” because I had just arrived from Nigeria where I was used to dressing in traditional northern Nigerian attires, so he said he would give me some of his “pants.” I said, “No, thanks” with all the alacrity I could muster. But I discovered only a few days later that Americans use the word “pants” to mean trousers and use “underpants” to mean pants.

Next week, I will share more experiences, and also talk of the pronunciational difficulties I initially encountered here. Have a nice census weekend.

My baptism of and conversion to American English (I)

The following first appeared in my weekly Notes From Louisiana column in the March 18, 2006 edition of Weekly Trust.

By Farooq A. Kperogi

One of the first realities that anybody who is educated in British English confronts in America is George Bernard Shaw’s fittingly pithy but ironic observation that America and Britain (and all people associated with them linguistically) are two countries separated by a common language.

Being someone with a tremendous intellectual curiosity for languages, I had studied American English enthusiastically outside the confines of the curriculum while I was an undergraduate student at Bayero University, Kano, and had always been intrigued by the patterns of its deviation from British English (or what some people call English English), with which I like to think I am intimately familiar. Knowing that I would come to study in the United States some day had always been an added incentive for me to study American English.

However, upon arrival here, I have since realized that no amount of immersion in American English grammar textbooks could have prepared me for the “linguistic shock” that I have experienced and continue to experience in this country.

My baptism, which put to shame all my years of preparation in American English, started right from the airport in Washington, D.C. sometime in 2003. After several hours of hanging in the air and being fed with strange American gastronomic concoctions that made my delicate stomach churn violently, I arrived in Washington D.C. exceedingly hungry—and drained.

While I was waiting listlessly for my guide to take me to my hotel, I spotted a cafeteria at the airport and saw people eating food that I was familiar with in Nigeria. I heaved a deep sigh of relief. So I quickly rushed there to get some food into my stomach lest I should collapse before my guide arrived.

The waiter came to me to take my orders, and gave me a menu with a seemingly interminable list of food choices. I had not the foggiest knowledge of any of the food on offer. But since I saw people eating fried potatoes, which in my British English orientation is another name for chips, I shoved the menu aside and simply asked the guy to give me "chips."

My famished mouth was already watering in anticipation of the "chips" (which, by the way, my wife has a reputation for cooking better than anybody in the world!) when the waiter brought some hard, strange-looking, yellowish things along with raw tomato sauce.

I thought he mixed up the orders. So I said, “Sorry, I ordered chips.” Instead of feeling remorseful for bringing the “wrong” order to me, the guy looked at me with a quizzical eyebrow and said, “Yeah, you have chips.” I knew something was instantly wrong.

After forcing myself to eat the “chips” for a while and finding that they violated my taste buds mercilessly, it occurred to me that I could actually direct the waiter’s attention to the people eating what I knew to be “chips.”

So I called the waiter again and told him, “This is what I asked for,” pointing to what the people sitting next to me were eating. And he exclaimed, “Oh, you mean French fries?” (Well, after France opposed the war in Iraq, a U.S. senator said the food should no longer be called French fries, but “Freedom fries!” Most Americans now simply call it “fries.” But I digress).

It was a costly linguistic baptism for me because I had spent a lot of money for the first order. (Airport food is usually needlessly expensive, not least in a busy international airport like Dulles in Washington, D.C). I had to pay extra money to order the “French fires,” which I now knew better than to call “chips.”

It turned out that what Americans call chips is what the Brits call crisps. And what the Brits (and by extension Nigerians) call chips is what Americans call “French fries”—sorry Freedom fries.

When I narrated my experience to the good-natured officials of the U.S. State Department who invited me, along with 18 other journalists from across the world for a month-long international journalism training that took us to all the major newsrooms and journalism programs in the country, they had a hearty laugh.

My story gave them the inspiration to share with me the hilarious encounter between a British man and an American lady.

The Brit was an international visitor who came to America on an official duty, and was received by a respectable, married American lady who worked for the government. In order to make the guest feel at home, the lady offered to take him out, along with other people, for a dinner in some exclusive restaurant in Washington, D.C.

But since the guest was still weary from jet lag and needed to catch a few hours’ nap, the American lady told him to let her know when he woke up from his sleep and ready for the dinner.

After exchanging the conventional parting civilities, the man wanted to affirm that he would heed her request to let her know when he was ready for the dinner. So he said, “When I wake up by 8: 00 p.m. I will come and knock you up.”

The man did not anticipate what followed. The American lady gasped for breath, and her eyes popped out. She was said to be utterly outraged and embarrassed. The man was confused. And the man’s confusion confused the American lady even more.

In American colloquial English, to knock a lady up means to get her pregnant! But in British English, it simply means to knock on somebody’s door—literally. So the American lady thought she had had the misfortune of relating with a shamelessly lewd old reprobate, and the man probably thought the lady suddenly had some nuts in her brain loose. I was not told how this intriguing socio-linguistic conflict was resolved, but I know I would certainly have made the same mistake if I was not forewarned.

Three years after my American linguistic baptism and the anecdotal account I was told by officials of the U.S. State Department of the hapless Brit who inadvertently scared the pants off his obliging American host, I continue to be confronted with interesting experiences of the curious divergences of two ordinarily mutually intelligible national varieties of the same language.

In my first semester of teaching undergraduate students at the University of Louisiana where I am also pursuing graduate studies, I fell victim to this “clash of languages” several times.

One day I had occasion to give my students homework on a Monday and I wanted them to turn it in on the Friday of the same week. Being the British English speaker that I was (still am to a degree), I told them to submit the assignment “next Friday.”

However, on the Friday of that week, nobody turned in their assignment. When I asked for an explanation, they all chorused, “But you said NEXT Friday!” Then I said, “So what? Today is/was the NEXT Friday I spoke of on Monday!” And again, they all chorused that I should have said “this Friday” on Monday if I wanted the assignment that Friday.

They were right. In American English, when “next” is prefixed to any day of the week, it usually implies that the speaker is talking about the succeeding week. Saying “next Saturday” even on a Sunday does not convey the sense that the speaker is referring to the Saturday in the week. Well, my students got away with not submitting the assignment that Friday.

On another occasion, while giving them a midterm exam, I instructed them to not write on their "question papers." They all looked blankly at me, and I initially thought that they had problems with my accent. So I not only enunciated it more clearly and more slowly but wrote it on the board.

But they still said, “What’s that?” And when I pointed to their “question papers,” they exclaimed in unison, “Oh, you mean we should not write on the tests?” Write on the test? Test is an abstract noun. How can you write on an idea? Anyway, I have since stopped calling question papers by their name; they are “tests.”

Again, when I said to them that I would "mark" their scripts and return to them, and that I would reduce their "marks" as a penalty if they didn’t adhere to certain instructions that I gave in the exam, I was greeted with bewildered stares. I later learned that the correct American English equivalent for “mark scripts” is “grade tests,” and instead of saying I would “reduce their marks,” I should have said, “I will take off points.”

After more than one year of studying and teaching here, I have gone through an arduous but fascinating process of American linguistic conversion to the point that British English now looks and sounds very odd to me. I will share more anecdotal accounts of my experiences next week.

Labor Day in America

The following was first published in my weekly column in the print edition of Weekly Trust on September 9, 2006.

By Farooq A. Kperogi
Twitter: @farooqkperogi 

This week, I want to take the risk of writing on a topic that may not resonate with a lot of readers because of its “dryness” and seemingly highfalutin nature. It’s about the peculiar celebration of Labor Day in the United States and the consequence of this for traditional conceptions of social relations of production in capitalist societies.

Well, do I already sound like a crass bore? I am sorry. But I can’t help commenting on this issue because of my intellectual and ideological biases.

As some people probably know already, Americans celebrate their Labor Day on the first Monday of every September, unlike the rest of us who celebrate it on May 1st.

Until this year, I honestly had no earthly idea that Americans celebrate workers’ day on a different day from the rest of the world even though I was in this country last September. The day simply passed me by. Well, I am not ashamed of my ignorance. You live and learn, as they say.

I have just added to the long list of the things that define the so-called American exceptionalism, a term coined in 1831 by Alexis de Tocqueville, the French political thinker and historian, to capture what he perceived as the cultural, historical, economic, and social uniqueness of the United States among the advanced nations of the world.

The term is also used loosely—especially by political scientists—to, among other things, capture the failure of socialism to catch on with marginal groups in the United States in spite of the fertile social and economic conditions for the growth and flowering of this ideology.

It is this use of the term that, I think, converges with the core of this essay. Why don’t Americans celebrate worker’s day on May 1st like the rest of the world? And how do they celebrate their Labor Day? In fact, do they even celebrate it in the real sense? Does the celebration honor workers? Or is it just another excuse to take a day off and get a break from the madness that is the American work place?

Last Monday, instead of relaxing in the (dis)comfort of my new home in an Atlanta suburb, I took a ride round the city to have a feel of Labor Day celebration in this city whose past and present is defined by the immense sacrifices of workers. Atlanta, after all, started as a railway town.

My discovery of what Labor Day means here provoked a lot of thoughts in me about the form and content of contemporary capitalism, and challenged me to redefine my erstwhile conceptions of the social relations of production in a capitalist economy like America.

First, Labor Day is one of 11 federal holidays in the United States. Which means it is a holiday that is observed by every state in the country. This gives the impression that it must be very important—or that it demonstrates the respect the government has for its work force. Well, it’s not that straightforward.

Last Monday, when I went round to representative parts of the city I didn’t see any marches by workers. There were no worker political demonstrations. No solidarity songs were sung by a coalition of the oppressed.

There were no American equivalents of Adams Oshiomhole or John Odah or Issa Aremu speaking truth to power and waxing lyrical about social justice. It was just a regular holiday. I saw people having barbecues, picnics, water sports, and participating in public arts events. Others simply stayed indoors. And this was as true of Atlanta as it was of most major US cities, according news reports.

Labor Day, for many people that I have spoken with here, represents no more than the end of summer and the “rise of fall.” Nobody I spoke with associated Labor Day with all the high-minded rhetoric about workers’ rights and economic equality that you would expect in capitalist economies that survive on the exploitation of workers.

Well, I soon discovered that the choice of the first week of September to celebrate Labor Day in the United States was intended to achieve what I observed here. It was deliberately moved away from May 1st because of the fear that American workers would be “infected” with the virus of “proletarian internationalism” that has shaken the roots of many capitalist nations in times past.

There was a preexisting “Knights of Labor” in the United States, which basically consisted in parades that were designed to honor all “who worked for a living.” It was said to have been founded in 1869 by a group of humble tailors who had their first parade on September 5, 1882.

However, in 1886, the then United States president, Grover Cleveland, quickly conferred official status on the event and officially recognized it as the Labor Day because of the rise in the number of American workers with internationalist inclinations who might celebrate the International Worker’s day on May 1st, the commemoration of the epoch-making Haymarket Riots in Chicago to demand for an eight-hour work day—something that we take for granted today. It would turn out that the rest of the world would choose that as the International Workers’ Day.

Note that unlike the International Workers’ Day (May 1st), the American Labor Day has no specific, invariable date; it’s merely the first Monday of every September, which means the dates change every year. This "de-reifies" the day.

While I was thinking about the different attitude to Labor Day here, I stumbled on a survey conducted by Rasmussen Reports—an electronic publishing firm that collects, publishes, and distributes public opinion polling information—on the attitude of Americans toward Labor Day. The outcome of the survey is as interesting as it is intriguing.

According to the survey, only 38 percent of Americans said they took the Labor Day to celebrate the contributions of their country’s labor force, and 45 percent said they used the day to mark the unofficial end of summer. Sixteen percent aren't sure what they celebrate on Labor Day.

The racial demographics of the responses are also noteworthy. A majority of white Americans (48 percent) said they celebrate Labor Day as the unofficial end of summer, while 42 percent of non-white Americans said they celebrate the day to honor workers.

Just 22 percent said Labor Day is one of the most important holidays of the year; 16 percent said it's one of the least important; and 59 percent said it's somewhere in between. Just 19 percent of white Americans view the holiday as one of America’s most important. That view is shared by 26 percent of black Americans and 34 percent of other Americans.

The survey concluded: “Regardless of the reasons behind them, barbeques or cookouts are popular Labor Day activities. Forty-five percent (45%) say they plan to include some grilling with family and friends over the long weekend. That's a fitting way to give summer a send off since cookouts rated as the top Summer 2006 activity in another recent survey.”

The survey may appear trifling, but I think it does give an important indication of the shifting identity of the working class in societies like America. As a commentator pointed out recently, almost a third of the American work force spends the last quarter of their lives as “capitalists” rather than as “workers” due to pension plans rooted in the stock and bond markets. Those who fall outside this bracket are recipients of social cushioning incentives like monthly welfare packages or social security allowances.

In a sense, the system has been reconfigured in such a way that you have a relatively small underclass, composed mostly of Blacks and Hispanics, and a relatively large class of middle-class elements who are so content with the distribution of wealth in the society that they have as much a stake in maintaining the status quo as the real movers and shakers of the power structure.

So you have a situation where it is not a tiny capitalist elite that oppresses a majority (as is true of most capitalist and peripheral capitalist societies), but rather a multiplicity of minimally and maximally comfortable groups that oppress a weak minority.

This is complicated even further by the perpetually changing nature of American economy from manufacturing to “service” economy. Most manufacturing is now “outsourced” to China, Malaysia, India, and other Asian countries. The remnants of manufacturing jobs here are done by undocumented immigrants and green card lottery winners who feel so grateful to be in America that they will rather be slaves in capitalist hell than be persuaded that they would be kings and queens in some future socialist paradise.

Now, what implications does this have for traditional Marxian notions of an inherently oppositional social class relation between the oppressed and the oppressors in capitalist society? I think the answer to this question has significant consequences for methods of social change, as well as for critical methods and social theory.

Comparing Nigerian and American Manners (II)

This first appeared in my column in the print edition of Weekly Trust on September 30, 2006

By Farooq A. Kperogi

I concluded the first part of this article by observing that beneath our cold, coarse surface lays a warm, refined interior, which is unfortunately dissembled by our harsh realities. If this is true, is it also the case that the warm, pleasant American exterior covers a multitude of sins?

Do the contagious smiles, honorifics, and words of endearment with which Americans in the South address both themselves and others mean no more than empty, fossilized social rituals that rarely extend beyond the surface? Well, I have no definite answers to these questions. I keep looking for the answers myself in my daily interactions with the people.

However, I guess most Africans, me included, are struck by the warmth of American manners precisely because they have been culturally predisposed to expect hostility from “bature” or “oyinbo” people.

I remember being taught as a child that Oyibo people don’t invite people to eat, even if you meet them eating and they know you are hungry as hell, unless you give them prior notice of your visit. This is usually said to dramatize our flexibility and accommodation in contrast to white people.

I was also taught that the bature society is so atomistic that the people only know their nuclear family members; that they have no space, like we do, for 42nd cousins, grandparents and other extended family members whose relationships to us would ordinarily require an expert in genealogy to trace.

So the logic of our expectation of hostility or at best indifference from the bature seems to sprout from this reasoning: if they don’t recognize their kindred who are outside the narrow confines of their nuclear families, they are likely to have even less tolerance for “outsiders,” not least outsiders that have been socially constructed as the “Other,” such as black people.

My experience of living in the American South has shown me that these notions are mere stereotypes—which means they are only partly true and partly false. I have had occasions to “gatecrash” on many families during dinners. On no occasion have I been put in the uncomfortable situation of watching any family dine while I watch because I didn’t have the presence of mind to give prior notice of my visit. Of course, most people here will rather call a family in advance before they visit.

And it is of course not true that the extended family is dead here. When I say "here," I am talking of the American South. I have not lived long enough in the North to be in a position to comment on their family structure, but I heard it’s slightly different there.

In the South, the multigenerational family (i.e. dad, mom, grandparents, brothers, cousins, etc living in the same place) is still alive. It witnessed a decline in the 70s and 80s, but has been making a big comeback in the last five or so years, according to people I have talked to here. But that’s by the way.

So when you’re confronted with these reversals, these dislocations of the stereotypes that you had been led to nurse about a people, your appreciation of their ways can become exaggeratedly distorted in their favor. It’s akin to the feeling you get when you prepared your mind for hostility and you a get a lukewarm treatment. The lukewarm treatment tends to get magnified in your perception as the ultimate hospitality. In a sense, that perception cannot be said to be exactly authentic.

I am not immune to this fact. The omnipresent smiling faces in the South can deaden one’s sensitivity to a whole host of unpleasant things. For instance, with all the celebration of its unexampled warmth, “Southern hospitality,” chivalry, community, family values, and religious piety, the South is probably the most negrophobic place on earth.

I prefer to use negrophobia (irrational fear or hatred of black people) to racism because one of the defining characteristics of the average southern American is their desire to see black people perpetually on the ground to be used and trampled upon by the “white master race.” They went to war with the North to preserve this. And there are many of them who still nurse deep-seated grudges against the North for taking the sweet of slavery from their mouths.

A white southern friend of mine who said he had to self-consciously work to peel off layers of negrophobia that had been implanted in his mind from his formative years to adulthood told me that it is impossible for a white person born before the 80s in the South not to have deeply-rooted disdain, even outright hatred, for black people. Of course, this is too over-generalized. And, as with all overgeneralizations, it misses many nuances. But I found the information very instructive.

When you know this, you cease to be impressed by smiles and outward displays of warmth. You would prefer Nigerian manners where you’re sure—or almost sure—that people who smile with you and address you reverently are people who truly admire you, not out of cultural pressures but from personal decisions. You would prefer that people who hate your guts let you know this by frowning or looking away when they see you.

However, a Nigerian I met here a while ago told me he would rather have people smile at him even if they secretly detest him as long as they their sly detestation of his person does not hurt him directly.

Maybe he is right. It would indeed amount to the social equivalent of what American lawyers call “double jeopardy” (that is, the prosecution of a defendant for a criminal offense for which he has already been tried) if people who have condemned you even before you were born (as Malcolm X characterized racism) also let you know by their facial expressions that they can’t stand you.

Well, in spite of our less than admirable manners in comparison to American southerners, we still do have some manners that I will never exchange for anything. We are generally very accommodating and flexible. That’s why in spite of our poverty, homelessness is almost an unthinkable thing.

It’s not so in the United States. There are so many homeless people here. What is scary about this is that merely defaulting in the payment of your rent can send you to the streets. In Nigeria, we can at least beg our landlords and landladies to give us extensions of deadline for payment of rent. If that fails, we can take recourse to staying with one of our relatives.

Again, the condition of old people here is a huge disincentive to want to live long. Children simply push their aging parents to “old people’s homes” where they vegetate in social isolation until they die.

The South is of course better than the North in this regard, but they are both worse than Nigeria. A Nigerian I met here who works in an old people’s home told me that there are many cases where these sequestered old people shoot their children to death and thereafter commit suicide because they can’t bear to be marooned in a lonesome, loveless place by children they sired and made sacrifices to bring up.

This country celebrates, almost worships, youth and despises old age to a degree that can’t cease to amaze me. One of my female students here told me last week that she was depressed because she had just turned 20! She wished she could remain a teenager forever.

People here are afraid of getting old. And it seems to me that when they extend considerations to the elderly, it’s usually more out of pity than out of respect for the wisdom and experience of old age. I read a report sometime ago that the government is concerned that Americans are living too long. Hmm…

I had an experience a couple of weeks ago (not related to my preceding discussion) that made me wish I was in Nigeria. I boarded the wrong public transport bus to my house. I didn’t realize it was the wrong bus because I was engrossed in a book that I had to finish reading before the following day.

When I realized what was happening, I was in the middle of nowhere. I asked where I was, and the driver mentioned the name of some place I couldn’t relate to. So he advised me to get down from the bus and wait for another bus to take me back to where he picked me from.

Shortly after I alighted, a heavy downpour started. There were houses around me, but I couldn’t go there because it was past mid night, and I risked being charged with “criminal trespass” if I sought refuge in any home at that hour—more so that black males have been pathologized as criminals here.

Cars passed by me and ignored my pleas and entreaties for a lift. Then I saw a black woman come out of a house. I rushed there to ask if she would allow me to take cover in her veranda. She refused. A bus finally came at 1: 30 a.m. but I was already drenched to my marrow.

That would not have happened to me anywhere in Nigeria. After all is said and done, home is where the heart is.

Related Articles:
Comparing Nigerian and American Manners I
Why Americans Think Nigerians are Rude

Comparing Nigerian and American Manners (I)

This column was first published in the print edition of Weekly Trust on September 17, 2006.

By Farooq A. Kperogi

If last week’s article was “dry,” this week’s may well be characterized as “watery.” Not a bad contrast, huh? Well, this is a trivia about my observations of the differences in American and Nigerian manners.

This is sure to rile one of my friends, a big pretender to esoteric erudition (that is, the practice of “shamelessly” showing off knowledge exclusive to a small, arrogant cult of university people) who once wrote to me to complain that my column is “too personal.”

But, hey, this damned column is no more than the cheap personal diary (or a reporter’s notebook, if you will) of a Nigerian journalist trying to navigate the weird and wonderful contours of the new American terrain in which he finds himself. It does not pretend to be a platform to display an intellectual machismo that I don’t even pretend to possess in the first place. Well, so much for intellectual pretensions.

It is entirely conceivable that one may very well be aware of something but rarely conscious of it until one has had the benefit of a contrast of contexts. (Psychoanalysts define consciousness as the heightened state of awareness). This psychoanalytic probability defines my experience of straddling two national cultures in the past two years.

I am suddenly struck by the dramatic dissimilarities in Nigerian and American manners, dissimilarities that impressed themselves on me more boldly upon my last visit to Nigeria and my return to Atlanta.

It was one of my Black American acquaintances in Louisiana (she insists on being called African-American) who had occasion to visit Nigeria for the first time in her life that gave me the initial hint about these dissimilarities. She said even though she cherished the opportunity to visit our country where her ancestral roots are probably located, she couldn’t help registering what struck her as our loudness, rudeness, discourteousness, aggressiveness, and unfriendliness both to each other and to strangers.

As you can imagine, I was hurt. But my hurt was somehow subconsciously tempered by my knowledge that she couldn’t mean to insult Nigerians. My knowledge sprouts from many sources. First, she’s a racial minority, an associate professor of political science, and is historically prepared to have a reservoir of sensitivity to what Americans call political correctness— that is, avoidance of expressions or actions that can be perceived to exclude or marginalize or insult people who are socially disadvantaged or discriminated against.

Second, this is a lady who is so passionate about Africa and Africans that when an old woman in Enugu mistook her for a relative and insulted her in Igbo because the old woman thought she was avoiding her, she felt “accepted,” shed tears of joy, and felt an intensified longing to reconnect with her roots. (Many African Americans I have met have been socialized to think that Africans don’t recognize them as brothers and sisters because we allegedly think that they have been racially “diluted” by white and Red Indian blood; that they are so-called mongrels, not genuine Blacks).

Third, when famine hit Kenya early this year, and a New Zealand woman donated dog food as her contribution to alleviate the hunger in the country, it was this lady who, out of racial pride and love for Africa, led the efforts to encourage African Americans to contribute thousands of dollars for the starving people of Kenya.

So she couldn’t possibly be intent on ridiculing or denigrating Nigerians by her observation. She thought she was just having an honest, down-to-earth conversation with her brother (African Americans habitually call each other—and other Blacks— brothers and sisters, even if they are not remotely biologically related).

I, of course, assured her that she was mistaken. She apologized and further assuaged my feelings by observing that she was probably suffering from the same kind of cultural miscue that leads white Americans to construe black Americans are aggressive and uncouth.

However, her observation hit home only after I returned home. I realize that I had taken for granted the incredibly contagious civility, courtesy, amiability, and complaisance of the American South. Nothing in all the Nigerian cultures I am familiar with compares with what I am talking about.

And this is no idle idealization or idolization of Southern American manners. It’s merely a record of my observations, which may be crudely impressionistic and misleading, but they’re my observations nonetheless.

In one of my articles, I talked about how it’s a universal practice for people here to smile at everybody, including strangers, and to address each other with tender words of endearment and honorifics.

If you go to buy food in a restaurant, for instance, and you ask how much your bill is, you are likely to get a response like: “It’s five dollars, my sweetie,” or such other phrase. Here, they have desensitized many of us to verbal expressions of love.

If you come to the American South, you will do well not to nurse funny ideas in your head because a woman or a man calls you her or his “darling,” or “love,” or “honey,” or “sweetheart.” It’s mere expression of courtesy and personal warmth.

However, it’s not only in words that they demonstrate courtesy. Their courtesy also manifests in deeds. For instance, people here fall over each other to open doors for others, or to hold the door while other people pass, and to allow people to “shunt” on queues. In metro trains and public transport buses, people give up their seats for elders, nursing women, the disabled, and just about anybody whom they think deserves it—and with broad, reassuring smiles too.

The pedestrian is the king of the road here, too. All drivers give the pedestrian right of way even if the pedestrian is in the wrong. I have seen—and have myself been involved in— instances where pedestrians find themselves in the middle of busy streets while the traffic lights turn green, with cars coming from all directions.

And all the cars would usually stop, and the drivers would wave to the pedestrians reassuringly with toothy smiles and ask them to take their time and cross. This kind of scenario would certainly earn pedestrians in Nigeria heavy curses at best and death at worst.

And this is not exclusive to the American South. I witnessed it in all the cities I have visited here, including unbelievably busy New York City. A self-deprecating American friend of mine in New York, however, said the universal respect for the pedestrian on American roads is not the consequence of the innate benevolence of American drivers. He said it’s because the law is severe on people who hit a pedestrian. I wish we had a similar law in Nigeria.

Again, here, when you are lost and ask for directions, it’s almost always the case that people will leave whatever they are doing or wherever they are going to and lead you to the place you’re looking for. Downtown Atlanta is, of course, an exception for reasons I had cause to state here some weeks back.

But, even in downtown Atlanta, there are honorable exceptions to my broad strokes about the attitude of people to Black men asking for directions. Sometime ago, I wanted to trace my way to a place, and my abysmal map-reading skills ensured that the map I was holding was little more than an elegant piece of worthless paper. I needed a human being to show me the way. (That’s what becomes of anybody who didn’t pay close attention to his geography teacher in secondary school map-reading classes!)

I casually asked an apparently middle-class Black guy for the location of the place, expecting him to repulse or ignore me. He did not. He said he too didn’t know the place, but that I should wait for him. He came back with his car and drove me round until we found the place.

He then gave me his business card and drove back to where he picked me from. This is not unusual in the South among both whites and blacks.

Now, what did I become conscious of when I visited Nigeria the last time? Our bank tellers, receptionists, taxi drivers, etc all seemed, with the benefit of my American experience, like they were permanently in a state of anger. Their responses to the most innocent inquiries struck me as needlessly defensive and discourteous. We demand or expect gratification for the solicited and unsolicited favors that we bestow on people.

And asking for directions in Nigerian cities exposes the asker to scorn (for being a “JJC”) or, worse, to suspicion. In Lagos, if you are lucky to get a response, you might be directed to the exact opposite of the place you ask to be directed to!

We seem to think that any stranger who relates to us is a potential cheat. So we are always on the defensive and therefore appear aggressive even in the most harmless interpersonal encounters. Perhaps, this is not unreasonable, given the culture of fraud that seems to be devouring the core of our value systems. And our culture of aggressively haggling over prices—in fact, over just about anything—makes us come across as unfriendly.

But I think that beneath the cold exterior of the Nigerian lies a very warm, hospitable, and friendly interior. It is our recent history of deceit and the suspicion and distrust that it has bred that mask our innate goodness and kind manners.

Related Articles:
Comparing Nigerian and American Manners II
Why Americans Think Nigerians are Rude