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MIT student blogger Vincent A. '17

Reverse Culture Shock by Vincent A. '17

Catching up and counting down

The week after my semester at MIT ended, I was accompanied by this looming sense of vertigo—like something inside me was always cycling, pushing forward, and in the absence of motion, it was simply falling. This didn’t manifest any more than just a weird feeling swooshing around, and in any case, I was far too busy to contemplate what it meant.

I met up with my dad in New York. He had traveled to the US for a program called Book Expo America (BEA) and we were both attendants. My dad’s steadfast love of books translates into an extensive collection of them that I grew up with, even in the absence of much else, and I’m sure being surrounded by this deluge of words and stories had something to do with my wanting to create words and stories.

So I imagine that for the both of us, BEA was fun and immersive. To me, it was also somewhat intimidating. There were scores and scores of people, moving from booth to booth, clutching all sorts of books, taking pictures of and getting autographs from famous writers. In fact, I remember prancing all dreamy-eyed past one of the booths when I saw someone. My jaw dropped and my eyes popped open. I heard myself pull in air. It was Jane Lynch, the actress who plays Sue Sylvester—the hilarious, no-nonsense coach on Glee. She was mere feet away from me, smiling and holding up a book she had written. While this was fun and memorable, it wasn’t the source of my intimidation. I think I just remembered, in some sense, what it means to want to write—not just simply typing up words whenever an idea for a story comes to mind, but actually having to invest yourself in this battlefield of emotions.  There’s the personal battle—dealing with word choices and certain storylines, wondering if this or that even makes sense, and who in their right minds would want to read this. And then there’s the bigger scope—trying to get the attention of readers, having to accept strong criticism, having to reconcile with how hard, how crazily hard it is, to break into the global publishing market. I saw all sorts of writers—debut authors promoting their books being published by small, independent presses to renowned authors backed by the powerhouses like Penguin and Scholastic. Let’s just say that I had a lot to contemplate about the newer stories I want to write, and an increased sense of affection for what is mechanically no more than moving my fingers across a keyboard for a long, long time.

After the book launch, my dad and I stayed in New York for a few days, and I got to watch every cultural stereotype of the city come to life. Yes, the city never sleeps. Yes, it throbs with life. Yes, a good number of New Yorkers are…well, probably deserving of an occasional punch or two in the face. With a steel chair. Then there was the long, long flight back to Nigeria.

After we finally landed, I stepped out into the airport and joined a long line trying to clear customs. The air seemed unusually warm. To the left of me, a small bickering dialogue between a scowling officer and a family burst into full screaming. As I observed this, the power in the airport went out as if to say, “Hey buddy, welcome home.”

I grinned, because it definitely felt like home.
We all know about inertia, about the little resistance our bodies give when a fast-moving car suddenly comes to a halt. It’s like we’ve just settled into an unchanging state of mind, all like, “Okay, this is what’s happening, p-sets and complaining and hunting down unhealthy free food. I can deal with it.” And then Life steps on the brakes, and the car screeches and you just have to lurch, because you don’t wanna stop. You wanna keep moving.

When I came to the US in September to begin my studies at MIT, my world restructured itself on a fast, personal and somewhat upsetting level. I had to go from eating mostly Nigerian meals to eating mostly non-Nigerian meals. I had to deal with the cold, crappy weather and dressing up like an astronaut all the time. I also had to squeal in delight at things I’d never been used to—the constant power supply, the unbelievably fast internet speed, the culture of diversity that brimmed in MIT, people who were so like-minded in their capacity for diverse forms of ingenuity. It was a thrilling world, and a strange one, and the inertial being in me, while getting used to this, still clamored for the safe familiarity of home—of my friends and my food and my family. Thankfully, MIT was a good place to be overwhelmed by culture shock, and with time, I found myself adjusting.

Now that I’m back to Nigeria, there’s a lesser but marked degree of reverse culture shock. When talking about MIT to friends and family, I unconsciously find myself speaking in usual MIT lingo. I’m back to my usual regimen of Nigerian dishes—I still have pleasant dreams about some spicy goat pepper-soup I had days ago—but it still feels delightfully strange to be eating eba and egusi after so long instead of pasta and pizza. Of course, the power keeps flickering in and out, and I’ve had to remind myself that seeing things like a line of men peeing into a gutter or beggars lining busy commercial roads or conductors hanging from buses and screaming names of places are all commonplace here. There’s a strong sense of displacement I can’t quite explain—like whatever was cycling around me in MIT has suddenly decided it wants to run instead of cycle. I don’t think it’s because I forgot what home was like—that’s far from possible, barring some nasty treat like Alzheimer’s—but it’s like after returning home, my mind is constantly juxtaposing every sight I take in with its American analog, from the movies to the roads to the food to even the sprawling skyline. In any case, I haven’t been to Nigeria in nearly ten months, and it feels great to be back.
I’ve caught up with old high school classmates. I’ve kept on working on the new book I’ve been thinking of, and I think the characters being mind-painted are heading down what looks like a dark, solemn road. But I think the most important event I’m looking forward to right now is the Whirlwind of Metamorphosis book launch.

It’s common in Nigeria for novels to be officially shown to the public in a launch ceremony, in which the book is presented to an audience and sales begin. Even while I was in the US, the book publishers had been busy. There’s a planning committee—it handles everything from invitations to marketing to program of events for that day. A hall has been booked, and we’re expecting over three hundred guests. Support has been pouring in from distant relatives and family friends and even people I don’t know, in terms of checks and hugs and verbal encouragement. There’s also been merchandise–from branded caps to branded T-shirts to branded bags. This Thursday promises to be quite a day, and I’m looking forward to it.

There’s something surreal about the whole process—this whole deal started with my parents discussing the news. A kidnapping had taken place. A family was in shreds. For whatever reason, that stuck with me, and I begin to see another family crawling inside my head, undergoing the same thing. For a long time, these people existed in my head. I began to type, and they began to live on dark letters assembling on a screen. I only realized well into the process that this was a book I would actually like to see published, and I think I’m just realizing that the concept, the dream itself, existed in an inert place in my mind. It was very real to me, but while I imagined that it could someday leave the confines of my imagination and become a real thing to others as well, the whole thought was subdued by some cynical other self remarking, “Yes, yes, dream on. Imagine. That’s pretty healthy, right? But that’s all it’s gonna be. And that’s absolutely fine.”

But thankfully, very thankfully, that wasn’t all it was.

So while I count down with my family and friends to June 19, I’m realizing again that after a long period spent indoors, dreams sometimes get big enough to climb out of our minds. There’s a whole lot of local support for the book, for which I’m grateful. I think our minds are like cemeteries, and ideas just lay buried in their own graves. Dig hard enough, and one of them will just spring right out.

And if there’s one thing you should take away from this post, it’s simply this: do not dig open a grave in real life. That’s just plain nasty and probably illegal. But it’s a thing to be said about imagination that in the province of the mind, this becomes a mere analogy. Then, those dirt-hitting shovels will strike something that becomes bigger than the mind that gave birth to it.

Wish me luck on June 19th.