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Ifemelu, a young Nigerian woman living in America, awaits the train from Princeton to Trenton, New Jersey, to get her hair braided. Because Princeton is a primarily white city, there are no hair braiding salons. A man on the platform comments on the lateness of the train, and Ifemelu considers that there was a time where she would have told him about her blog on race in America or attempted to interview him. She recently closed her blog because she is moving back to Nigeria. She thinks about how all the commenters on her blog made her less sure of what she thought she knew, and the effort to find new post ideas makes her feel “naked and false.”
When she leaves the train at Trenton, she notes that the passengers here are fatter than those at Princeton. She only recently started thinking of people as fat again because her friend told her that “fat” is an insult in America. However, after a man at a grocery insulted her, she realized that not only had she gained weight, but also felt weighed down in her life, and she decided to return to Nigeria. She also cannot stop thinking about Obinze, her first love, and the only person she has ever felt she could be her whole self with. He lives in Lagos, and now has a wife and a daughter. Ifemelu had a difficult time breaking up with her boyfriend Blaine and telling him she is returning to Nigeria. She does not have a good explanation and cannot tell him that she has always felt unsettled in their relationship.
Ifemelu goes to the salon, run by African immigrants, and a Senegalese woman named Aisha braids her hair. Aisha complains that Ifemelu does not relax her hair. Aisha is surprised to learn that Ifemelu is Igbo. Aisha is dating two Igbo men and would like to marry one of them. She asks whether Igbo people only marry other Igbo. Ifemelu disputes this. Ifemelu hastily sends Obinze an email while trying to ignore Aisha.
The women in the shop are impressed when they hear Ifemelu lives in Princeton and shocked to hear that she plans to return to Nigeria, asking whether she will be able to cope after being in America for so long. They ask if she has a man waiting for her. Ifemelu lies and says yes. Aisha insists that she will call her Igbo men so that Ifemelu can tell them Igbo do not have to marry other Igbo. Ifemelu thinks that if she still ran her blog, this would make a great blog post on how immigrant pressure makes people crazy.
Obinze stares at the email from Ifemelu. She has called him Ceiling, her old nickname for him. He wonders jealously about Ifemelu’s Black American boyfriend. Obinze’s wife, Kosi, calls to ask where he is, and Obinze thinks about how she always tells him where she is during these calls even though he never asks her location.
He returns home. His house is full of expensive things, like imported Italian furniture and air conditioning. They have a housegirl from Benin because Kosi felt Nigerian housegirls were not suitable. Beautiful Kosi, who often gets mistaken for someone of mixed-race descent, greets him, along with their two-year-old daughter Buchi. Obinze lies to Kosi about the status of the block of flats he is selling. He often tells her useless lies to see if she will challenge them, but she cares more about the consistency of their domestic life.
Obinze gets ready to go to Chief’s party, dressing in the clothing Kosi has laid out for him. When Obinze returned to Nigeria from England, his cousin Nneoma introduced him to Chief, an extremely wealthy businessman. Chief had a crush on Nneoma, who constantly flattered him but refused to sleep with him. Thanks to Nneoma’s ingratiation, Chief offered Obinze a job as a real estate evaluation consultant, which led to Obinze making a fortune.
At Chief’s party, two guests debate the merits of Kosi sending Buchi to the French or British-style schools, and Obinze, annoyed, observes that they all grew up with a Nigerian curriculum. The other guests are shocked that Obinze would suggest Nigerian schooling, but Kosi smooths over the conversation.
On the way home, Obinze thinks about how marriage changed Kosi into a jealous woman. The church she attends includes a prayer for keeping one’s husband, and she fears single women. Before bed, he listens to Fela, a musical artist he and Ifemelu used to listen to when they slept together, and composes another email to her.
As the novel begins, Ifemelu and Obinze’s lives are mired in dishonesty, and these falsehoods have led to their dissatisfaction in life. While Ifemelu enjoys her blogging, she mentions that constantly searching for new subjects for her posts makes her question her own judgment and the validity of her work. The effort it takes for her to create her posts leaves Ifemelu feeling like a fraud. In its current form, Ifemelu’s blog is an explicitly American endeavor because it analyzes race in America. We can read some of her dissatisfaction with her American life, therefore, as a result of the effort she must make to live it, straining until she verges on lying. Obinze spends the entirety of Chapter 2 lamenting the falsehoods in his life, especially in regard to his wife, Kosi. Kosi makes a point never to reveal her true feelings on a subject, praising both sides of an argument in order to please everyone. Kosi’s social ease causes Obinze’s guilt about his true feelings and constant desire to disrupt order, such as when he challenges the idea that proper schooling in Nigeria is rooted in foreign curricula. Both Ifemelu and Obinze strain under the pressure to be people they’re not.
These beginning chapters also establish that Ifemelu and Obinze see each other as sincere and authentic, which means that in their longing for each other, they also long for honesty. When Ifemelu thinks of Obinze, she describes him as the only person with whom she can be herself without explanation. This comfort contrasts with her interactions with other characters. For example, Aisha wants to know why Ifemelu does not relax her hair, condemning Ifemelu for allowing her hair to grow out naturally, and Ifemulu feels frustrated by Aisha’s pressure. While Obinze’s longing for Ifemelu appears rooted in his sexual attraction, he also emphasizes loving her honesty. He even tries to bait Kosi into acting more like Ifemelu by telling her obvious lies, but Kosi’s desire to keep things peaceful leads her to ignore them. Ifemelu and Obinze have an attraction and connection rooted in embracing reality and truth.
These chapters also introduce the idea that Nigerians and other Africans associate leaving Nigeria (and Africa) with wealth and success. The hair braiders are shocked that Ifemelu, who lives in a wealthy American city like Princeton, would wish to return to Nigeria, highlighting that they do not expect someone who has found success in America to return to her homeland. They imagine return as a step backward from progress, even suggesting that Ifemelu will no longer be able to cope with the realities of living in Nigeria again. Obinze’s chapter echoes this devaluation of Nigeria. The imported Italian furniture and wife who looks biracial are part of what marks Obinze’s life as successful to other Nigerians. Even sending Buchi to a school that does not promise a foreign curriculum is unthinkable for their social class, because they believe Nigerian education to be inferior. To the Nigerian characters in Americanah , success means distancing oneself from being Nigerian.
Despite Obinze’s dismissal of Kosi’s jealousy as a sign of her shallow conformity, Obinze’s own actions suggest that Kosi has reason to worry about their marriage. From the moment Obinze hears that Ifemelu plans to return to Nigeria, he remembers their sexual encounters, not with nostalgia, but with longing, even playing the music they made love to. He demonstrates that his feelings for Ifemelu remain alive by thinking with jealousy about her current boyfriend, despite being married himself. Obinze also demonstrates a lack of concern for Kosi by never checking on where she is, even though she always asks where he is. Kosi always volunteers this information, implying that she would perhaps like Obinze to take equal interest in her life.
Ace your assignments with our guide to Americanah!