American Tests

In her quest to become truly American, Jakki Kerubo discovers what it means to belong in a place.

Jakki Kerubo | Longreads | May 2020 | 13 minutes (3,314 words)

I was afraid I’d be deported. Did the interviewer know about my parking tickets from those days when I hadn’t quite figured out New York City’s alternate side rules? Or that once, after a bottomless brunch, I’d sung loudly on the subway, not caring that someone shouted the suggestion I “stick to shower singing”? My appointment was for noon, and now it was 6 p.m. I hadn’t eaten all day, but my hunger had receded, replaced with anxiety and a thudding headache. All afternoon I’d rocked myself for comfort as people streamed in and out of the interview rooms.

It was 2012 and immigration didn’t feel as fraught as it presently does, but it was nerve-wracking nonetheless. Getting a new appointment would take four to six months.

Finally, I was moved to a small cubicle with overstuffed binders covering every square inch, including the extra seats. Each one held the dense, intricate details of human migrant history — bloody wars, financial catastrophes, the incurable optimism of new beginnings. Behind the desk sat an overburdened federal worker. She was petite like me, but her caramel skin color contrasted my darker one, a hue my mother once described as the green-black color of boiled cowpea leaves.

“I’m sorry for the wait,” the woman told me. “We misplaced your file.”

I was about to take my citizenship exam.

***

In my native Gusii language, there isn’t a single phrase for a sense of belonging. The term seitho refers to an ancestral home, which for my Abagusii tribemates is the lush, red-clayed highland that covers the Kisii region of Kenya. The more layered oboamate defines how one gains belonging through neighborly acts of goodness, like cooking for the sick, and by supporting shared values to reinforce a sense of togetherness. Telling on naughty kids to their unsuspecting parents, for example. All of this was possible because we knew and respected each other’s differences. Oboamate was explained to me by my parents, who raised my brothers and me in a town where we were of a minority tribe. They emphasized that it was possible to grow up or live where one came from (seitho) and still feel alienated.

It was 2012 and immigration didn’t feel as fraught as it presently does, but it was nerve-wracking nonetheless.

Armed with the wisdom of oboamate and the Certificate of Good Conduct from the Kenya Police (required before a passport was issued, and mine given only after the police chief addressed my acne and why I didn’t treat it with avocado), I felt equipped to become a good neighbor.

But after 10 years in the States, I felt as if I was still living on the fringes of this greatest of nations; a 35-year-old still searching for belonging.

Belonging, oboamate suggests, is an art that’s actively earned through a reciprocal series of initiations and assessments, like a parent receiving criticism of their child with gratitude. I hoped the immigration officer would deem me worthy of becoming an American. I was certain that acing this naturalization test was my quantum leap to belonging.

***

My nervousness during the exam was rooted in precedent. In 1982, at age 6, I was eager to attend my Kenyan primary school. After I passed the written and oral exams, I was informed there would be a physical section. There was a high number of applicants and not enough schools in our town, so this tryout was for further elimination.

“Reach your right hand over your head and touch your left ear,” instructed the man overseeing the exams. My admission was down to my ability to stretch.

It was December, a sweltering month in the port town of Kisumu where my family lived. Beads of sweat covered my neck. Small for my age, and now feeling even smaller in my bones, I willed my body to perform. My flared dress lifted thigh high as my fingertips barely touched my tiny upper ear.

“Her hands are still too short,” the invigilator told my father so everyone could hear. “She’s disqualified.”

By the blue wooden windows stood the kids who’d passed all three tests: all boys.

I couldn’t believe that my ears, of all things, had caused me such shame and injustice. I couldn’t articulate it then, but understood later that the series of tests, arbitrary as they were, made me feel I wasn’t good enough. That maybe I never would be. I was too young to understand that belonging wasn’t something I, or anyone, possessed innately; rather, it was an acquired and practiced skill. I cried. My parents promised that a better school would accept me. I was filled with a great longing for a place that didn’t yet exist in my experience, where I’d be fully embraced. I wouldn’t be soothed. My mother nicknamed me marera, a person with broken tear ducts.

***

I was 10 when ABC’s Moonlighting debuted on our local television. Cybill Shepherd starred as the wealthy Maddie, a former model who discovered that her accountant had embezzled all her money — and she wasn’t taking it on the chin! Maddie was a strong and independent woman with a pristine home that had the longest staircase I’d ever seen. I fantasized about crossing oceans to achieve Cybill’s success, with a handsome man like Bruce Willis as my workmate. As more of the US culture arrived via our tiny black-and-white television — peanut butter, Michael Jackson, Levi’s jeans, prosperity preachers — I became besotted with America’s most beautiful.


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Sometimes I was Madonna dreaming of San Pedro; on other days I was Whitney Houston wanting to dance with somebody. I was Kiki Shepard co-hosting “It’s Showtime at the Apollo Theatre,” or the girl destined to marry Tevin Campbell. I saw in all of these characters the kind of freedom that had seemed inaccessible to me in my dusty childhood town. American celebrities were free to be themselves. Free of limitations. They were different but equal representatives of the richest place in the world.

***

There was a myth in Kisumu that on rainy nights, spirits of the dead passed through the land. They descended from nearby hills, with fury and longing, and moved toward Lake Victoria, the home of all spirits. The living disappeared into their homes and, to keep the dead at bay, banged pots and pans. The Abagusii tribe didn’t adhere to this myth; nor did we believe that the dead had unfinished business on earth. But because my family lived in this majority Luo tribe city, my mother explained, oboamate demanded empathy and respect for the beliefs of the land. I used to be terrified of those ghosts. But once I started hungering for far away places, I felt a kinship with these restless souls. I lay in bed in my parents’ government-issued house and imagined these souls were simply migrating to the place of their belonging.

***

To truly be part of the USA I had to love a good hamburger. At least that’s what friends said when I arrived in Minneapolis in 2002. This test seemed easy enough.

“Do we sell cheese ‘baggers’?” A young black cashier parroted back to her McDonald’s coworkers. I was being mocked.

Belonging, ‘oboamate; suggests, is an art that’s actively earned through a reciprocal series of initiations and assessments, like a parent receiving criticism of their child with gratitude.

With my accent, though subtle by my estimation, I couldn’t enunciate the hard “r” the way Americans did. I was 23, and had just recently quit my newspaper job in Nairobi and sold my furniture for a ticket to Minnesota, where my brother lived. Arriving to sub-zero temperatures, I naively assumed the weather would be my biggest obstacle to assimilation. Cultural exports that arrived via media and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) offered only a tiny glimpse of what living in the US was actually like. For instance, like most foreigners, I’d mistakenly referred to all Americans as Yankees. There was so much more I didn’t know, and there was no manual on how to integrate. But to my shock, citizens I encountered every day administered micro tests whereby people are judged to be one of a crowd or the other. Though informal, and of no consequence to my student visa, I was unnerved by these tests. Where did you watch the Superbowl? I was too embarrassed to say I had absolutely no interest in the game and had binge-watched crime drama instead. They felt more understandable coming from white people, but they were more confusing and hurtful coming from a person of color. I wanted to blend in.

Stung by the mockery, I consulted the “How to pronounce” feature of Webster’s online dictionary.

“Bur . ger.  Bur . gundy,” I practiced, frustrated by the stubbornness of my inflection. The closest I got to success was “burr . ger.” I was phonetically glued to the rhythms of my dialect.

My desperation to fit in made me feel inauthentic, a poser, un-American. I thought my individuality would be valued in a country where liberty and the pursuit of happiness were inalienable rights. I couldn’t help but be myself, and in doing so had failed the burger test. Although this was an empowering choice, it still made me feel not good enough. Those two words, cheese burger, came to symbolize so much more than a traditional American food, even long after a lactose and wheat sensitivity made sure I’d rarely have to order one.

Overtime, I was advised to “love American football,” “lean in at meetings,” “shop till I dropped,” “eat turkey at Thanksgiving.” I did it all. It wasn’t enough. I took to other acts of initiation, like wearing No. 6 clogs, drinking coffee from Starbucks, and recycling my denims at Madewell, but my American membership would still be conditional, and always a moving target.

In 2004, I moved to New York after visiting Manhattan and weeping from the sheer energy I found on the streets. I felt free and happy on the city’s pavement, wasn’t put off by its fast pace or the putrid smells in some corners, and I could dance to an electric violin at the 34th Street Herald Square Station without judgment. But slowly, like a tire leak, this joy flattened out. Loneliness and the accompanying pining for the home and community I left behind set in. I missed all the things I once took for granted in Kisumu: The quiet that followed sunset. The clink of soapstone goods and the crinkle of nylon bags as vendors announced new sales. The rush of water filling a metal basin for a child’s bath. Even the buzzing mosquitoes and the gossipy neighbor, who knew all of my parents’ rules, and told on my siblings and me when we climbed the roof and threw pebbles on passersby.

When I told my parents I wanted to return home, my mother said, “Just come back, my daughter.” My father was more pragmatic. “There’s nothing here. Only sunshine.” Instead, he gave me a list of oboamate wisdom that he thought might be helpful for an immigrant: listen more, talk less; don’t praise yourself; be generous; let your opinion be last; run for office like Ilhan Omar, once a refugee and now a powerful politician; lie low to learn more about your new home; socialize and go out when invited.

I accepted a date with a Brooklyn born-and-raised hunk, believing that falling in love with him would cure the estrangement I felt. But that, too, had its tests. On a date with him at a speakeasy, I refused to utter the name of the drink I wanted (a Mongolian Motherf**ker), pointing to it instead. I’d never, ever said the f-word — I had no history with it. But there, in the neon lights of the since-closed bar, my date and other patrons said the f-word was quintessentially American. I would never become one unless I pronounced it. Loudly. “Say it,” they cajoled. Maybe it was the alcohol; perhaps I liked the Brooklyn hunk too much. What I knew for sure was that I just wanted to finally belong. And so I rolled the uncouth word out of my mouth. “Motherfucker.”

***

Once, a Syrian woman on a Brooklyn-bound Q train greeted me when she noticed I was reading a collection of prose by the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, which she’d read in its original Arabic. She was a war refugee; I was a wanderer seeking greater freedom. These two roles — refugee and wanderer — were hardly equal, and I knew that and felt terribly guilty. Yet the feelings that both states generate — the anxieties of “exile” — can be similar, a subject deeply explored by Darwish. The woman told me that sometimes, after going days without speaking to anyone, she was startled by the sound of her own voice. She missed her troubled home and the family left behind. She whispered that she was afraid to divulge this to Americans, lest she come across as an ingrate.

I related to her anguish as the Q crossed the Brooklyn Bridge. I knew what it felt like to have guaranteed hot showers, a savings account, stability, things my native home couldn’t offer me, yet still ache for my broken land. As Darwish wrote, “longing is a scar inside the heart, and a country’s fingerprint on the body … a country you did not love when you were in it as you love it now that it is in you.” But there was no going back. Longing, as Darwish further wrote, was born from beautiful incidents, and not from a wound. The injuries that caused me to leave home may be healed by space, but the home I left behind had likely evolved without me.

***

“Have you ever been a member of or in any way associated, either directly or indirectly, with the Communist Party?” the interviewer wanted to know, now that she had my file.

“No,” I said nervously, afraid to err.

My mother worked for a hospital in Kenya that was once funded by Russia. My mind raced wildly. Would this be considered an association? And if it were, surely, it would be part of an inherited history — Kenya’s relationship with donor Western nations — that I had no choice in. Taking the oath to absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure my homeland was more terrifying.

For a decade, I’d toiled to build a life and community. I had a decent job in publishing, and had just started graduate school. I was still hopeful that I’d find the center of a satisfying life once I was an American on paper. I prayed this woman would see my humanity.

My red silk shirt was stained maroon with my nervous sweat, like a poor tie-dye.

“You’ve passed,” the immigration official said matter-of-factly. 

I’d waited 10 years for this moment and all I could do was freeze. I didn’t want to say anything that might ruin it. Thanking her effusively for staying late to process my file, I exited Federal Plaza. I had done it, no ear touching or burger test involved. I was ecstatic. I tried not to think about whether I finally felt like I belonged, wondering instead what identity I’d choose on the census form.

***

My mother said that oboamate required sacrifice. Sometimes that meant giving up the attachment to our ancestral land or even the self, in order to attach to one’s new community. It was like the literal melting of metal in a furnace to create a polished end product. My mother had to make many concessions to thrive in a community where her tribe was a minority. She learned the local language, but spoke hers at home; she practiced how to be separate, but part of a whole. Secretly, she missed the farm she grew up on; the slog of picking juicy pyrethrum and black tea for export at 3 a.m., before rushing to school at 7. It was impossible for her to escape the craving for her original place. Yet what she lost blossomed in her. Living well among strangers didn’t preclude that eternal seeking of roots. But she only told me this recently, making me wonder if I’d have chosen differently, had I known.

***

I have difficulty accepting the African American label. In Kenya, black people make up over 90 percent of the population. I had the luxury of never thinking about race. Now I was literally an African American woman. I felt squeezed into a category, all based on the color of my skin. Sitting on a bench in Foley Square after my interview, I realized that I was unprepared for the Red, White, and Blue’s ultimate test: the race lens. This persuasion where everything — relationships, arugula consumption, hoodies — was analyzed through racial demographics seemed silly. I had not understood structural racism, and like many of my fellow immigrants, I’d say it took years more before I could recognize it or begin to understand it.

Citizens I encountered every day administered micro tests whereby people are judged to be one of a crowd or the other…I was unnerved by these tests.

I had thought myself a free person, highly evolved, one who lived beyond the limitations of borders, race, tribe, and other differences; exempt from the fraught tension of identity. All along I naively thought Cybill Shepherd, Tevin Campbell, and I could simply be labelled “Americans.” Turns out I had passed the citizenship test but flunked the racial one.

It should have been one of my happiest days, but I felt overwhelmed by a tremendous sadness. I felt like a nobody, erased. It was the end of my honeymoon stage with the US. I was now in a commitment where I was learning more about the country’s racial history, the more insidious side that was not (could not) be covered in the citizenship test. It seemed daunting that I’d migrated 7,360 miles only to lose myself just when I should have been feeling more connected. I wanted nothing more than to go back to be with my family in dusty, scorching Kisumu.

Perhaps because I’d been bitten by New Yorkers’ enduring hopefulness, I didn’t stay dejected for too long. I learned that in a foreign land, per Darwish, “the sunset grants what is distant the attributes of paradise; and purges it of any defect.” How many times could I leave one place for another before I realized that each one would grow more beautiful with distance? It was not what the US gave to me, but rather what I offered in sacrifice. My father recently told me that oboamate was challenging in the U.S. because of race problems, but not impossible if one set up life in a smaller, more intimate community. (He’s visited many times and experienced the discomfort of being followed around a store as a potential shoplifter; he did curiously love New York so much anyway that he said, “I want to live and die in Brooklyn.”)

Now, 17 years since I emigrated, I’ve never been more grateful to America. Just like my mother had when she left Kisii for Kisumu City, in losing myself in my new home in Brooklyn, I found me. The grief of not belonging forced me to grow. There are things about me that I would never have discovered had I not relocated — my strength, my capacity for kindness, what moves my heart. . And so I thank America. For her goodness; for humbling me; for her subtly brutal embrace; for the water from the Catskills Mountains, which now runs in my body; for forcing me to look back and inward, so that I could finally know myself and look forward; for teaching me the wonders of dogs and letting me fall in love with one; for showing me that the way to belong in a place is by weaving together everyday experiences in my Brooklyn community that tomorrow become a shared history.

Today, the red silk blouse I wore — sweat stains and all — still hangs in my closet. It has survived every spring cleaning, an emblem of the hope I still have for my adopted country.

* * *

Jakki Kerubo is a Brooklyn-based writer and beautypreneur. She holds an MFA from NYU. Her writing has been featured in the Wall Street Journal, Quartz, Stir Journal, Golden Handcuff Review, and other publications.

Editor: Sari Botton