Going to America: A Primer (2007)

This article was written for, and published in the America issue of the now (sadly) defunct Farafina Magazine (guest-edited by Chimamanda Adichie) in 2007. I should point out that – four years later – I still haven’t visited America yet…

(I have done some minor editing to the piece)

Going to America: A Primer

Tolu Ogunlesi

I have never been to America.

The New Yorker is the closest I’ve ever got.

But I have always wanted to go. And I know the day approaches, when I shall set foot there and high-five the Statue of Liberty’s upraised, torch-bearing arm.

Perhaps I should quickly add this: My never having been to God’s Own Country doesn’t mean I’ve never been anywhere else that matters.

I’ve been to London, at least, and spent one night in Paris. And one night in Amsterdam, and another in Antwerp.

But not Washington DC. Not New York. Not Silicon Valley. Alas, not Las Vegas.

This makes me wonder, if the America of the New Yorker, and of CNN, and of Time Magazine, will be the America that I will see. If the London I saw was anything to go by – the drunk I saw peeing on a side walk, the stark and very disappointing ordinariness of London Bridge, the traffic, the “thinly-disguised Lagos-ness” of it all, then I assume that some form of disappointment awaits me in New York, or Washington.

Disappointments aside, “Coming to America” will finally be an opportunity for me to do laboratory work / fieldwork / practicals for America 101 (An Uncle Sam Primer) – a course in which all I have done so far (my twenty-five years alive) has been classroom work. Theory. A distance-learning degree.

It is my desire that, on the day that I shall set foot upon the John F. Kennedy International Airport – as one of the 50,000 or so terrorist-weary, terrorist-wary travelers that will pass through that day, (that’s assuming I go by way of New York) – it will be quietly, without a press conference. (The Beatles held their first American press conference at JFK International Airport in 1964).

But if by then my (still-unwritten) novel has managed to earn for itself one of those colored/coloured stickers that scream “New York Times Bestseller” or, better still “An Oprah Book Club selection”, or, even, better, better still (being more “literary”) – “Booker Prize-winning Author”, then I shall not be able to avoid a press conference.

Why do I want to avoid a press conference?

Because something tells me that a press conference is not the best way to experience America as a first-timer. For a writer, an airport press conference automatically implies the following (and more):

– Gazing-out-of-limo tours around the US (limo-hopping).

– Sightseeing restricted to bookstores, hotel lobbies, and University halls.

– In short, an inability to see the real America.

My desire will be to enter quietly, unaccompanied by anyone, awaited at the airport by no one (which is how I entered London and Paris).

Wall Street will be my first destination, after my tête-à-tête with the Statue of Liberty.

Wikipedia tells me (though I already knew) that “…Wall Street” is commonly used interchangeably with the phrase “Corporate America” – but my concern will not be with metaphors or connotations, but rather with the idea of Wall Street as a brick-and-mortar place.

I expect that I will stand there and, through the soles of my feet, absorb American history and heritage. And tap into that American spirit that raises astounding wealth out of nothing. This will be my act of initiation into America.

After Wall Street shall come Silicon Valley. The idea of America as the “Land of the Free and Home of the Brave” will guide my every step. Which is why I, instead of winging my way from city to city I will go happily “thumb” my way – hitch-hike the approximately 2,500 miles from New York to San Francisco (which is more than twice the distance between Lagos to Maiduguri – the farthest distance across Nigeria), with Jack Kerouac as my patron saint.

I expect that I shall pass through hundreds of those “storybook” small towns immortalised in American short stories, movies and novels, towns once sustained by farming, and then by automobile plants and manufacturing industries (which they are now losing to the outsourcing epidemic). Towns whose grand names belie their size –

Silver City, Bethel, Traverse City, New Castle, Napoleon, Defiance, etc.

I expect that I will spend the night in a number of trailer parks, out in open fields in the middle of nowhere. The kind of trailer parks that Mark Poirier brought alive to me in Naked Pueblo, his collection of short fiction set in and around Tucson, Arizona.

I expect that I shall zoom in brightly-colored convertibles along those sandpaper smooth highways whose images dot many American movies, the modest hair on my head surrendering to the wind, a modest attempt at solidarity with the fascinating spirit and idea of all-American freedom.

I expect that I shall meet loads of people from every corner of the planet, and racial hybrids of every possible combination, in a way that I guess only America makes possible. Born in Mexico to a Mexican-Peruvian father and a Chinese mother, moved to America at fourteen, married to and divorced from an Ethiopian, carrying an American accent and passport.

I expect that I shall chance upon at least one nude or gay parade. That I shall stop by at at least one high school whose walls are ridden with bullets, and at least one house mourning one of the 3,700-plus American soldiers who have died in Iraq as at August 22, 2007.

I expect to lie on at least one “couch”, and endure an expensive explanation of how the spanking I got from my father as a boy has turned out to be responsible for my not liking cats as an adult.

Phase one of my tour will end in Silicon Valley, where I will meet the geeks and nerds who made the internet possible. I will ask to meet Jim Clark (the tech visionary who founded Silicon Graphics and Netscape, and whose yacht’s crew includes computer programmers who man the giant computers that run it) upon whom the book, The New New Thing by Michael Lewis is based.

I will always count that book as one of the most inspiring I have ever read. (Mr. Clark, without a high school diploma, went on to earn a Bachelor’s, a Master’s and a PhD, and a ticket to the Billionaires’ Club).

The New New Thing boils down to the American dream in a way that everything in America boils down to the dream. Behind every idea or vision of America is a tale of small-town boy – or down-and-out immigrant – hitting it big. On Wall Street. In Silicon Valley. On Capitol Hill. In Hollywood (which will have to come in Phase 2 of my tour.)

Our politicians here in Nigeria regularly travel en masse (with wives and children) to Europe and America with the intention of “learning how democracy works.” I care for no such narrow-mindedness.

When I go to America, it will be to bring back to Nigeria a first-hand view of how “America” itself works – after years of learning from a distance.

For example, in my return luggage will be a sizeable portion of that “spirit” that inspires Americans to boast about remembering where they were – and what they were doing – when JFK was shot. And when Neil Armstrong landed on the moon. And when Bill Clinton made his famous “I did not have sexual intercourse with that woman” line on television.

Till then, however, I shall content myself with re-watching “Coming to America”. I shall remain in the “classroom”, learning America by satellite. Or DVD. Or broadband. Long-distance, whichever way.

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