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Ifemelu’s friend Ranyinudo greets her at the airport in Lagos. At first, Lagos overwhelms Ifemelu, and she cannot figure out whether the country has changed or she has. Ranyinudo calls her “Americanah,” a teasing term for Nigerians who come back from America with American affectations.
In Ranyinudo’s flat, NTA plays a patriotic fluff story, which Ranyinudo mocks. Ranyinudo never watches NTA, and, in fact, rarely watches any Nigerian stations at all. Ranyinudo’s salary from her advertising job does not cover her rent, and she is dating a wealthy married man. She complains that her lover was supposed to get her a new car. The electricity has been off for a week, and Ranyinudo must run her loud generator until she goes to bed.
Ifemelu has a job lined up as a features editor at Zoe , a women’s magazine. The owner of the magazine, Aunty Onenu, loves the idea of having an editor who lived in America, and insists that Ifemelu visit her at home. Ifemelu finds this request unprofessional, but reminds herself that in Nigeria boundaries are blurred. She dreams of transforming Zoe into a great magazine, and shares her ideas with Aunty Onenu. Aunty Onenu is more interested in proving that Zoe is better than its competitor, Glass . Ranyinudo warns Ifemelu that if she hadn’t just come from America, Aunty Onenu would have fired her for coming in with constructive criticism.
In searching for a flat of her own, Ifemelu discovers being an Americanah opens doors. A landlord who only rents to expats is willing to make an exception for a returnee from America, even though she is Igbo. She pays two years of rent in advance, and then realizes that people take bribes because most people cannot afford to pay this much at once. When Ifemelu yells at tile workers for doing a subpar job and threatens not to pay them, Ranyinudo tells her she’s finally acting like a Nigerian.
Ranyinudo asks why Ifemelu did not call Obinze to ask him for help on getting a nice flat. Ifemelu realizes that for Ranyinudo, men function as objects to manipulate. She has not yet told Obinze that she’s back in Nigeria, although she replies to his emails.
Ifemelu visits her parents on the weekends. She lies to her parents and friends that she and Blaine are still together. Her friends talk about marriage often, and Blaine protects her from her married friends’ pity and from being expected to join in single friends’ jealousy.
Her friend Priye is now a wedding planner. A recent client had seven governors attend her wedding. Ifemelu asks why governors are the sign of a successful wedding. Her friends explain that they show the couple is well connected. Priye and Rayinudo declare that the rule of Lagos is to marry the man who can best maintain you.
Aunty Onenu brags that most of Zoe ’s staff are graduates of foreign universities. There are only three editors on staff, and aside from Ifemelu, only Doris graduated from an American university. Doris tries to ally herself with Ifemelu over their shared Americanah-ness. Ifemelu resents Doris’s assumption that they see the world the same way, so when Zemaye comments on Doris leaving the air conditioning too high, Ifemelu takes Zemaye’s side. However, Doris and Ifemelu later bond over finding quirks of Nigerian dialect jarring. Doris invites Ifemelu to a meeting of the Nigerpolitan Club, a club for Nigerians returning from abroad.
Ranyinudo’s affair echoes Aunty Uju’s relationship with The General, showcasing that reliance on wealthy men is a survival mechanism for Nigerian women who lack opportunities. Ranyinudo has a respectable job, and yet still cannot afford her rent, signifying a discrepancy between the cost of living and wages in Lagos. Ranyinudo and Priye’s declaration that marriage is about finding a man to “maintain them” implies that women cope with being underpaid by relying on wealthy men to make their lives easier. This calls back to how Aunty Uju could not find a job without The General creating one for her, which allowed him to further control her life. Because of Aunty Uju’s fall from grace, the comparison between them makes clear that Ranyinudo’s life is fragile and dependent on her boyfriend’s continued success and favor. The inability to get by on an honest wage also echoes Ifemelu’s early American experiences, in which she couldn’t pay rent or education without working illegally. These similarities highlight that without money and opportunity, women turn to demeaning and dangerous activities and relationships just to get by.
Despite returning to America in order to embrace her true Nigerian self, Ifemelu finds that many aspects of her new life in Lagos value superficiality over truth. Ranyinudo refuses to watch Nigerian television stations because they largely show propaganda, highlighting that the government’s official policy is to hide difficult truths from the public. Just as Ifemelu’s outspokenness got her into trouble as a child, her frank suggestions to Aunty Onenu nearly jeopardize her position because Aunty Onenu expects unconditional respect as the head of the magazine. In addition, Aunty Onenu focuses on the prestige her foreign-educated editors bring her instead of putting any value on content or taking Ifemelu’s suggestions into consideration. Priye’s job as a wedding planner seems to be less about celebrating the couples’ love and more about making couples appear prestigious. Priye’s services allow couples to pay for their reputation, reducing their wedding to a display of influence. Ifemelu has become more authentic in her time away, but Lagos has remained committed to its preference for pretenses.
Ranyinudo frequently calls Ifemelu an Americanah, but others value Ifemelu’s returnee status more than she does. Aunty Onenu forgives Ifemelu’s outspokenness because she associates it with an American attitude, even though Ifemelu has always been this blunt. This aspect of Ifemelu hasn’t changed, but her returnee status changes how Nigerians perceive her personality. Ifemelu’s landlord rents to Ifemelu because he believes her return from America makes her reliable. The value Nigerians place on her returnee status, therefore, is another way Nigerians put a greater value on foreignness. In addition, Doris’s assumption that she and Ifemelu see the world in the same way because they both attended university in America suggests that she expects Ifemelu to join her in reveling in this newfound Americanah status. Doris pointedly runs the air conditioning high as if to highlight that she lived in a colder climate for a while, and expects Ifemelu to do the same. She is surprised when Ifemelu rejects her camaraderie because it means Ifemelu doesn’t embrace being an Americanah. The label of Americanah is something others project onto Ifemelu, not something she cultivates.
Ace your assignments with our guide to Americanah!