Ifemelu’s Idealization and Disillusion of America

Ifemelu, when applying for colleges, doesn’t care that she’s applying to mostly colleges in Philadelphia because to her, “America is America.” All of America is a magical, idealized version where anyone can get a job and no one lives in poverty. Ifemelu and her friends’ perception of America makes sense if you think about where anything they’ve heard about America has come from. Especially for Ifemelu and others living in lower classes, they have little to no access to phones or the internet, and TV programming has little variety. Students probably learn about America in their schooling and see pictures in textbooks and descriptions of a free speech-centered democracy. Ifemelu tells Dike how she’s watched Tom and Jerry and The Cosby Show over and over again until she can tell him how any episode will end. The American TV shows that they are watching in Nigeria show a stereotypical, middle to upper class America and that is how Nigerians come to perceive all of America.

America’s consumerism promotes the American brand and dream of how any immigrant could move to America and find a better life, similar to early colonial times when European immigrants and later within America during the Gold Rush. In all of the situations, once they got to America, it wasn’t what they expected. Pioneers moving west found very little gold and a lot of infertile land and lack of infrastructure and Africans traveling to America found poverty and a lack of opportunities. The dirty, crowded streets where Ifemelu finds Aunty Uju are nothing like the classy suburbs she’d seen on the Cosby Show. Ifemelu finds that America has changed her beloved Aunty Uju almost as drastically. She’s working three jobs and trying to pass her medical exams, and becomes easily irritated with Ifemelu for not knowing how things are done in America. Ifemelu takes solace in her young cousin Dike, teaching him division and babysitting him frequently. Ifemelu feels as though she is waiting still to find the real America, and that this hot, dusty version is just a stepping stone on her way. I predict that as this summer ends and she starts at Princeton, Ifemelu will start to appreciate more what America has to offer her. Her main motive for the move was the extensive university strikes at her college and all she really wants is a quality education. I worry that as Ifemelu’s American experience improves, she will stop babysitting for Uju and grow even more distant from her.

As Ifemelu goes off to college, she struggles to find a job and cannot pay her rent. She lives in a moldy apartment with roommates she doesn’t like and sinks so low as to provide a man with sexual favors in exchange for $100. She begins to sink into depression and loses contact with her relatives, friends, and Obinze. Ifemelu is, in many ways, worse off in America than she was in Nigeria. She enters into a depressive cycle after she can’t bring herself to tell Obinze about the incident with the tennis coach, and the longer she waits to tell him, the more difficult it becomes. By pushing Obinze away and deleting his emails, Ifemelu loses an important link to who she was in Nigeria and to her happiness.

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