Sharing Nigerian culture

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I love telling non-Nigerians about (my experience) of Nigerian culture, especially things that some might find shocking, like how my mom (and many others) bathe newborns back home. I really enjoyed seeing the amazement (and maybe fear?) in my friends’ eyes, one a mother of a one year old, the other almost eight months pregnant at the time, as I explained that highlights of this bath include holding the baby upside down briefly, applying a hot water compress rapidly to the baby’s body, encouraging flexibility in the wee body by bending the arms and legs in various ways, and my favourite, the fake-toss of baby in the air, all of this during the bath (“fake” because the baby barely leaves the tosser’s hands though they appear to)! This last part is the most gasp-inducing part of the newborn bath story and I have the cutest video of my sister watching my mom bathe her newborn for the first time—the video is cute because my sister screams then giggles nervously when my mom “tosses” him in the air—those protective mother instincts are strong, even in new mommies! Not to brag but my mom has been invited to come and bathe many Yoruba newborns since we’ve been in Canada so she knows what she’s doing—I certainly wouldn’t attempt it on my own.

Parties are a another fun way to introduce non-Nigerians to the culture. Non-Nigerian family friends are always dazzled by how dressed up everyone looks in their brightly coloured lace and ankara, and of course the women’s geles steal the show (slightly less impressive is this African Time business, but it’s an ingrained aspect of the culture so I guess it’s only right that guests see it too!).

With parties come food, and in my opinion food is the easiest part of a culture to share. To a degree, food is a great reflection of a culture—it’s hard to eat a spicy or flavourful dish and see the culture as boring. It’s dismaying then that the only foods I’ve shared with my friends are akara, which my mom has been gracious enough to make for my Christmas parties, and chin chin. When my mom turned 50, I invited two friends to her party so they got to sample a wider range of Nigerian food than akara; at this year’s party for my mom I invited two friends—Ves and her husband—and she was a natural with the iyan and egusi stew (see above!). Ves had absorbed what I’d shared over the years about how we eat our main dishes, immediately unwrapped the iyan, and started eating it like a pro.

I have no problem talking about my culture but there are two reasons that I haven’t really shared my culture (especially the food) more widely with my friends. Both reasons are deplorable.

I can’t cook a full meal

I don’t (yet) have the skill to whip up a complete Nigerian meal aside from jollof rice, and this travesty is because I failed to listen to my mom. Do not be so foolish: when your mom who is an excellent cook is cooking, hang on to her apron strings and beg her to teach you everything.

Bonus confession: without a recipe I never salt or pepper my food adequately: it’s always too peppery and not salty enough and I can’t subject a guest to that, even if they are a friend!

I don’t want to be vulnerable

What’s the connection between sharing your culture and being vulnerable? Well, you’re letting people get a closer look at who you are and there’s always a chance that they might not like what they see, or think something you eat smells funny, looks weird, or tastes bad, and since food a part of the culture, it could feel like your culture is being rejected if someone hates the food. Mind you, I’m the pickiest eater alive and I won’t eat anything that smells funny—oh the irony!

As I improve my cooking, I’ll share more of it with friends and if they don’t like it, that’s ok: at least they were braver than I would have been and they tried it!

22 thoughts on “Sharing Nigerian culture

  1. Oh your friends are funny…and brave! The last time shared Nigerian food was when we had a potluck at school. My friend made some delicious puff puffs and they devoured them while complaining about their waistline at the same time. Lol

    On smells and funky tastes. My folks are at my mercy. I love Asian cuisine so, at first, my mom always “accidentally” adds some Korean ingredient into her cooking. Now she asks “Who put this here?! Is it edible or not? Okay, teach me how to make it.”

    And of course it never tastes like the original because mom Nigerianizes the recipes. Haha

    • Korea should pay you a loyalty for being such a good ambassador of the culture!

      Your comment made me think of what aspects of the food we choose to share. Even in the category of food there are some foods that are easier to share than others, desserts or foods that don’t have a strong or potentially offensive odour!

  2. Other than the very basics (meat and veggie stirfries, roast chicken with ginger and soya sauce, fried rice, noodles, etc…), I don’t know how to cook Cantonese food at all. I’m not really all that ashamed of it. I’m a Jook Sing (it’s technically a slur for western-born Chinese people, but I embrace it as an identity) after all. If I want Chinese food and don’t feel like going to a restaurant, I can just log into a delivery service and order (or use the phone). My mom never really learned how to cook, either, so I wasn’t able to learn from her. I have, however, introduced “real Chinese food” through restaurants and take-out to friends and, of course, my husband. No longer to my friends think Chinese food is egg rolls (egg rolls as non-Chinese people know it are unknown in the Chinese community. An egg roll to them is more like unstuffed canoli and is a snack/dessert) and sweet and sour chicken balls. For me, it’s more of an issue of introducing/talking about the types of food I like and my lifestyle to my 30-something cousins. I swear that some of them find it really weird that I like Middle Eastern food (gotta love falafels and hummus) and find it strange that I have gym membership and take ballet barre. When I asked about drop-in barre classes in Hong Kong (because I will be going for two weeks in December), they said that it was mostly expats and professionals that went and that “real locals” tend to prefer swimming, golf, racquet sports or walking. They also didn’t know of good non-Chinese vegetarian restaurants (Chinese vegetarian restaurants tend to be Buddhist places and, yes, can be really greasy). I’m not vegetarian-vegetarian, but I don’t eat “land meat” before dinner. As for other things within Chinese culture, I can’t wait to have a child and invite people over to the baby’s one month (or three month, as some families are opting for now) “coming out”/”red egg” party!

    Full Moon/One Month/Red Egg “coming out” party: http://www.waiyeehong.com/chinese-baby-customs-a-full-moon-party

    • It makes sense that you’re not particularly familiar with cooking Cantonese food since your mom doesn’t really cook. I, on the other hand, grew up eating delicious home-cooked dishes and didn’t take advantage of having an excellent cook teach me all her secrets while I lived at home—now it’s a bit trickier to rearrange our schedules to get my mom to teach me her secrets :).

      That’s neat that you’ll be incorporating Chinese culture into your lives in other ways—this Full Moon celebration sounds interesting!

      • Our celebration won’t be that traditional. Most of my family had were “presented” or “presented” their kids at Chinese restaurants, usually with at least five or six tables, dining on a multicourse dinner. We’ll likely have it at home, probably an appetizers/desserts kind of thing. I don’t care if it “upsets” some family members because it isn’t a “full dinner” – there’ll be more than enough food to be equivalent to a meal! :P I go to enough cocktail events that I know how much food to order.

  3. ^^ Just wanted to add: Shaving a child’s hair is not really done much anymore – at least not within the Chinese community in Canada (that I know of).

  4. I think it is sick but oh so fun to share the parts of one’s culture that might horrify others. I get a kick out of it. Some of my best shares include:
    -explaining the housegirl/houseboy culture without coming across like a slaveowner
    -telling my vegetarian room mate in med school how i grew up seeing chickens and other animals beheaded, and the smell of boiled chicken flesh as you soak it in hot water before plucking out the feathers (anyone else?)
    -The first day at work that I chewed by chicken bone till it became dust and the stares i got
    -boarding house stories :)

    • Oh, I love the way your mind works, mpb, and you came up with many other practices that I can relate to!

      I know the smell of boiled chicken flesh that you’re talking about and I have a funny story about how we kill and cook our own meal to share. A few years ago I posted a picture of a goat on Facebook and mentioned how cute it was. My sister left a reply about how delicious it was too and my friends were horrified—hahaha!

      Lol yes, chewing chicken bones—I do that, at home—I feel like it’s seen as the equivalent of not using cutlery here so I have to refrain from doing it publicly. In fact it doesn’t even have to go that far: when I go out to eat chicken wings with friends I am baffled by how much meat they leave on the bones—no Nigerian would leave that much on a bone unless they were full!

      Oh, boarding school…now that is an area that I am completely clueless.

  5. Sharing culture and vulnerability- I hadn’t really thought about it. Recently someone asked me if I would take eba and soup to work (I live in The Netherlands), and I said no way- the smell of the soup and I couldn’t use my hands to eat the dish at work. She accused me of being ashamed of my culture, and informed me that since some Chinese and Indian coworkers bring their traditional dishes to work, she would too. I still did not buy her argument.

    When I invite non-Africans to my home for a meal, I typically prepare jollof rice and dodo. It is always a hit.

    Nigerian slangs slip into my conversation from time to time, and my European friends are curious about them- wanting to know the meaning and attempting to pronounce, jare, wahala, and even my name properly.

    Sharing culture has been a positive experience for me as the people I know, just like me, want to learn about other cultures.

    Recently, I collaborated with other bloggers on a post about Nigerian culture called, The Love Languages of Nigerians, on my blog. It may interest you :)

    • Welcome, livelytwist!

      Your comment and Maggie’s above really have me thinking about deeper meanings and implications of the topic. Like you, I would hesitate to bring stew and eba to work, and if I did for some reason, I may not eat it with my hands, but for me that’s more about doing what’s appropriate for the situation rather than being ashamed (though this could be argued). If a non-Nigerian were in Nigeria, they’d use their hands I think out of respect, and anyway we have Nigerians both in and out of Nigeria who never use their hands to eat food like eba, amala, iyan, etc.

      You’re really right about jollof rice and dodo being a hit—I’ve never met a non-Nigerian who didn’t enjoy them.

      Speaking of enjoying, I enjoyed your Love Languages of Nigerians collaborative post, linked here so others can find it! You introduced me to some Nigerian bloggers that I didn’t know—thank you!

  6. Sharing my culture was a big part of life during college, as I co-founded the African Club. We put on shows with music, dance, acting, fashion, food, everything!

    And then moving to Atlanta, wearing our ankara and other native outfits to church, bringing food (ESPECIALLY fried plantain) was our biggest way of showing off. Our pastor always makes sure we’re available during the annual church picnic :p

  7. Nigeria culture! I love some, I loathe some!

    My first year of arrival, I used every opportunity I had to showcase my heritage, but the excitement later worn off because, when I tell them am from Nigeria, the smile either freezes or fades off. I realized, if I wanted to acclimatize in this new country, I have to blend with the crowd. Yes, my accent gives me away as an African, but I don’t divulge which country.#survival instinct#

    My AA neighbour was married to a Nigerian. Immediately she heard my accent, she became close to me because she loves everything Nigeria.

    I am not a good cook, hence,I don’t know much of Nigerian dishes apart from the common soups, talkless of intercontinental cuisines! #like quick simple meals# Thank GOD for internet! I have introduced my children to FLO: http://blog.allnigerianrecipes.com/ Told them, they should not copy my cooking skills o! All they need to know about cooking is just a click away! Shikenah! ahahaha.

    Once more, belated birthday greetings to your dear mum :)

    • Aww, I’m really sorry that this was your experience, New Dawn! I think in time you’ll find people who will love to learn more about Nigerian culture from you (like your neighbour). I don’t know which state you live in in the US but I’ve always felt that Canadians, generally speaking are more open and accepting of cultures that are different from their own. Move here! :)

      LOL you’re so right about these amazing cooking websites making it easy for people who don’t have their mothers or other relative who is a good cook close-by, or even people whose family members aren’t good cooks to begin with! My sister could cook a bit but when she lived in Nigeria for six months after getting married last year, she relied on these websites and phone calls to our mom to help her cook better meals. Haha…your kids will be just fine!

      Thanks again for the kind wishes for my mom…I appreciate it.

      • We as Canadians may be MORE acceptable of other cultures, but there is also a certain (and significant) population who seem to criticize immigrant/first generation for NOT keeping everything in their old culture/ancestral culture or tweaking it (because they either came here at a very young age or were born here). They tend to be of a certain age (55+) and are as diverse in ethnicity as Canada itself. There’s also a segment who tend to keep to their own or are ignorant of other cultures, even if they grew up/live around people of other cultures. I find that more with newer Canadians than with multigen (unless they’re older, again over 55). In fact, I worked with a girl (South Asian descent) when I was in my late 20s – one who was just a couple of years older than me – who was shocked to hear that my parents did not have an arranged marriage (the last person in my family to have one was my great-grandmother. I have a great aunt who was “matched” but I don’t think it was an arranged marriage in the traditional Chinese sense). This girl was born/raised in Toronto and grew up in Scarborough, a very diverse part of the city. She would have gone to school with lots of Chinese kids back in the 80s and 90s.

    • New dawn, I always envisioned you as an expert cook :). Once again your honesty is refreshing. I myself have been a beneficiary of flo’s videos from time to time.

      • Me too! It’s funny how we fill in the blanks about people when we know only some details about them, isn’t it?

        • Really? Ahahaha. Thanks to both of you. I simply try to be myself :)

          p.s I don’t get comments in my box, I have to refresh your page to read replies. I only get post update, a day after you have published. This presser and blogger ish need to be rectified o! :)

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