I was very honored when Cath asked me to write a guest post for her blog because, even though it shouldn’t be, blogging can be a lonely affair sometimes. So it’s nice to know that there are people out there that appreciate your writing so much that they invite you onto their own sacred space. And I don’t use that term “sacred space” with any intention of disrespect; to the contrary, I’ve learned from years of writing that your blog really does become your own precious space amidst the millions of other blogs on the Internet.
Because of this, I wondered what the right approach for this post should be. How could I justify my presence on another person’s space? What could I write that could provide value to Cath’s readers? Should I talk about things I usually talk about or be a bit more adventurous? Or should I just endlessly ask myself rhetorical questions like these and see what happens?
After some internal debate, I settled for the following. Hope you enjoy it!
Photo by Mohammad Alizade on Unsplash https://unsplash.com/photos/IKNzcgrWfg8
I was born 25 years ago in the city of Leiden, the Netherlands as the second son of Nigerian immigrants. I was the last child in a family of seven, with my older brother and three older sisters preceding me. Growing up in a (very white) Western European country and in a pretty traditional Nigerian family were two worlds/identities that I initially found difficult to reconcile. For example, I generally did not allow my family life to mingle with my social life and most of my friends never met my parents (though most of them were well acquainted with my brother, while my sisters were out of the house and already attending university by the time I was a teenager). Although I like to say that I grew up Dutch but was raised as a Nigerian, in reality I was probably neither. I was too Dutch/European to really be Nigerian and I was too Nigerian/African to be a true Dutchman. Eventually though, I learned how to overcome and even thrive in my cultural identity crisis.
I realized that I wasn’t held back by an allegiance to any particular country or culture because I could pick and choose aspects of both worlds as I saw fit. National identities were and, honestly still are, completely meaningless to me. You’re German; so what? You’re Portuguese; who cares? You’re Italian; mamma mia! Because of that, it was the most normal thing in the world for me to socialize with people from any and every country. Such freedom! Funny enough, I found that I generally gravitated towards the internationals (non-Dutch people) because they had more colorful stories to tell. Now that I think about it, I was always drawn to people that “didn’t belong” to their respective social groups; the “others” that weren’t homogenous to the rest of the group. More on this later.
Because I grew up in a very white society*, I was almost always the only black guy in social circles. In my football (soccer) team, school, social circles; almost everywhere really. To be honest though, I never really cared about this because unlike in the U.S., race wasn’t such an issue over there. Sure, everybody knew about racism and understood everything related to it, but it had nowhere near the social and historical undertones as it does in America. Hence, I never really gave the topic of race much attention, didn’t worry about being the only black person around, and generally just got on with my life. Because of that, I was quite uninformed on the matter when I first moved to the States and needed years to understand just how pervasive the issue of race was in American society. But anyway, back to the Netherlands: there was one thing that I always wondered but never dared to ponder beyond mere speculation. I wondered whether because there were relatively few black men in Dutch society, most Dutch girls were either completely uninterested in them or, if interested, would have obsessive fetishes about them. My somewhat uneducated justification for this was that, from an evolutionary standpoint, we human beings are generally attracted to what we’re familiar with and more cautious with what we’re unfamiliar with. In this case, this obviously doesn’t make us racist, because it just means that we all have different preferences that are generally determined by what we’ve been exposed to during our lifetimes.
*Just for the record, I have no issues with this at all. My childhood was great and I am extremely grateful to the country of the Netherlands for giving me a genuinely wonderful life and upbringing. They were good to me, and I owe them for that.
I honestly believe that, in my personal experience, because I was almost only exposed to white women until I was in my late teens, I found myself only attracted to these women during that same time of my life. Only recently have my romantic interests in women “evolved” beyond that and have I now found myself, somewhat paradoxically, much more interested in and attracted to women of different/mixed races (in fact, my first kiss was with a Saudi Arabian girl). But because most Dutch girls only seemed to be interested in the stereotypical Dutch guy – the tall, blond, blue-eyed, and somewhat lanky bloke – my love life was completely nonexistent until my early twenties. I don’t say this to ask for your pity; no, I say this to make a point, which is that being so inept with women forced me to create and develop a personality. It forced me to develop my listening skills, my hobbies and interests, my mind, my conversational skills, and various other related skills. If I couldn’t rely on my looks, then my personality and the power of my mind were the only things that I could rely on. And hey, thank God that this happened because I am proud of the depth and breadth of skills I’ve learned but most likely wouldn’t have bothered with had I been a traditional “ladies’ man.” I remember listening to a podcast once and hearing about the term “pretty boy syndrome.” That is, very attractive (wo)men often have dull personalities because they had little incentive to develop them when they were younger. Think about it: if the only thing you have to do to, ehm, “get some” is to just show up, why waste time and energy on developing your personality? I obviously recognize that this is a gross oversimplification and that this is absolutely not a Golden Rule, but I do admit that I see some method to this madness.
One of the strangest aspects of my life, however, is again related to the country of my roots, Nigeria. Given that I went to an international high school, I was surrounded by people from many different countries and, unsurprisingly, found that all of them spoke the language of their home country. However, I was the exception because I didn’t speak the language of my country. Although Nigeria’s official language is English (we were a British colony), it has a plethora of dialects. My parents speak a few of them fluently while my older siblings have a solid grasp of them as well, but I never learned any of them. I spoke English at home and learned Dutch at school/socially, but that was it. This filled me with an unbearable amount of guilt and shame during the formative years of my life because I felt horrible for being the only one I knew, that didn’t speak the language of his country.
However, this turned out to be the most useful guilt and shame that I’ve ever experienced in my life. Why? Because it made me feel so bad that I felt compelled to compensate by learning another language: Spanish. Opting for Spanish was quite arbitrary because when I started high school (+/- age 12), we had to choose a third language course besides the mandatory language courses of English and Dutch. My options were French and Spanish and word on the street was that the French teacher was an extremely unpleasant person, so I opted for Spanish. (Little did I know how very useful both languages were/are globally). But I didn’t just take Spanish and mindlessly coast through it. No, due to my aforementioned feelings of guilt and shame, I gave it absolutely everything I had, to the point where I became that mildly obnoxious overachiever in class that chased perfection. And don’t forget that I had a lot of mental bandwidth to spare as well because I had a nonexistent love life. Anyway, after studying Spanish for six years and taking it so seriously, I mastered it and still speak it fluently today (although it can always use improvement). It’s funny what guilt and shame can make a person do.
(Sidenote: In the Netherlands, primary school runs from ages 4 through 12, after which you start high school. I point this out because I know that in America, for instance, they separate it into middle school and high school such that you only start high school around age 14. However, the concept of middle school doesn’t exist in the Netherlands so the age groups for the schools might seem unusual compared to what you’re used to.)
Those negative feelings blossomed even further into feelings of love and fascination for cultures and languages in general. Because you see, when you learn a new language you don’t just learn the language; you learn about the culture that surrounds it,the country and its quirky customs, the people, the lifestyle, the stylistic differences in the way it’s spoken compared to your language, and everything else that is wrapped around it. Learning about all these things created a tremendous sense of appreciation and fascination for different, exotic cultures all around the world.
This brings me to my next point, a point that I alluded to earlier regarding my interest in people from different countries. Learning about different cultures and countries in the world made me aware of just how many options I had for experiencing different lifestyles in different countries. I didn’t have to spend my entire life in one place if I didn’t want to; I could, amongst other things, move to Spain, Central America, South America, or stay in Europe. I was blessed and privileged enough to have so many options and, probably due to my aforementioned lack of a national identity, was lucky enough to have a personality that made me quite unattached to any one specific country (e.g. although I now live in the U.S., I don’t see myself staying here permanently). However, this realization meant that I was obliged to do some deep introspection as I had to ask myself very honest questions about the city and country that I would want to live in for the next few decades of my life:
What are the values that I want to see in society (politically, socially, financially, health/fitness-wise etc.)? What type of culture is important to me? What type of economic system is most important to me, one that leans more towards capitalism or one that leans more towards a welfare state? What about small things like the size of the city and the transportation system (Cycling? Public transportation? Walking? Driving?) Since sport is so important to me, what about the sporting culture of the country? What types of people do I like to interact with? It’s clear that I have lots of homework to do.
In closing, I want to tell you the reason that I write. At the core of it, it is because I am, as has been the case for my entire life, desperately chasing some kind of feeling. I’ve always chased and chased some kind of ethereal feeling – a feeling of escaping in order to experience other worlds, a feeling I don’t even know how to define – because I was incapable of experiencing this sensation in my real life. I simply always want more. More from myself, more from life, more from relationships, and more feeling from this world I live in. It’s why I love football (soccer) so much because it allows me to let go of the things of my daily life and be part of something greater than myself. It’s why I so deeply love shows like Avatar: The Last Airbender
and books like Northern Lights because they allow me to immerse myself in beautiful, fantastical worlds that finally allow me to feel and see the things that I so desperately want to feel and see in my real life. It’s why my favorite videogame series is Kingdom Hearts
because the main character travels to a wide range of beautifully colorful worlds to fight for light, against darkness.And, most importantly, it’s why I write. Because I hope that by writing and sharing my thoughts, I can come closer to feeling whatever that elusive feeling is that I so desperately yearn for.
At the end of the day, I think that’s all that we human beings really want.
You can find me on my own blog
at cowboyfunk.org where you can read more about things like my experience in high school or why I think perfectionism is actually awesome. I’m also writing a book that I plan to publish in November (find out more here).
Finally, if you don’t care about any of that, I would love it if you could support the nonprofit that I work for – the North End Community Improvement Collaborative – through Amazon Smile. Instructions on how to set that up can be found here.
Links (in order of appearance):
“Avatar: The Last Airbender”: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0417299/
“Northern Lights”: http://www.philip-pullman.com/hdm
“Kingdom Hearts”: http://kingdomhearts.com/
“Cowboy Funk”: https://www.cowboyfunk.org/best/
“My experience in high school”: https://www.cowboyfunk.org/blog-posts/highschool