Summary: Chapter 9

There is a heat wave when Ifemelu reaches America. The heat, along with the poverty of Aunty Uju’s Brooklyn neighborhood, shocks her; it is nothing like the America Ifemelu imagined from television.

Aunty Uju asks Ifemelu to move in and spend the summer babysitting Dike and then find a job when she goes to Philadelphia for university. Because Ifemelu needs tuition money—and her student visa does not allow her to work—Aunty Uju asks her friend Ngozi to lend Ifemelu her social security card. Ifemelu will have to pretend to be Ngozi.

Aunty Uju has grown tired and prickly over time. She uses a different accent when speaking to white Americans, allows them to mispronounce her name, and acts apologetic toward them. She will not allow Ifemelu to speak Igbo to Dike, warning that it will confuse him.

Working three jobs while caring for Dike has caused Aunty Uju to fail her medical licensing exam. Ifemelu thought Aunty Uju’s American life was better than this because she never mentioned these issues in her phone calls.

Summary: Chapter 10

Ifemelu spends her summer in Brooklyn believing that she will discover the “real America” at university. She bonds with a neighboring Grenadian couple, Jane and Marlon, whose children play with Dike. Jane says they want to move to the suburbs because they are worried their children will start acting like Black Americans. Ifemelu doesn’t understand what this means.

Television commercials fascinate Ifemelu because they depict the shiny and clean America she longs to know. The news frightens her because of all the crime being reported. Aunty Uju reassures Ifemelu that America only appears more dangerous because Nigerian television does not report crime.

Summary: Chapter 11

Aunty Uju starts dating a Nigerian immigrant named Bartholomew. Bartholomew affects American pronunciations and barely pays attention to Dike. Aunty Uju smiles demurely at him and cooks him Nigerian food. Watching television, he claims that women in Nigeria would never wear skirts as short as the women in America. Ifemelu corrects him, and he gives her a dismissive look.

Bartholomew writes comments frequently on the Nigerian Village website complaining about how Nigerian women go wild in America, and accuse women who disagree with him of being brainwashed by the West. Ifemelu tells Aunty Uju that Bartholomew uses bleaching creams, and in Nigeria a man like him wouldn’t dare speak to her. Aunty Uju counters that they are no longer in Nigeria and she wants Dike to have a sibling.

Aunty Uju finally passes her medical licensing exam. She plans to relax her hair because braids are considered unprofessional in America. Ifemelu feels that Aunty Uju has lost part of herself. Obinze, in his letters, suggests that Aunty Uju’s self-effacement may be the “gratitude” of immigrant insecurity.

When Ifemelu leaves for Philadelphia, she stares at Ngozi’s driver’s license and social security card. She looks nothing like her, but Aunty Uju insists that to white Americans, all Black people look alike.

Summary: Chapter 12

Ginika greets Ifemelu at the bus terminal. Ginika offers advice about being American and invites Ifemelu to a party with her friends. At the party, Ifemelu wonders how all the girls know what to laugh at and understand all the cultural cues.

Ifemelu panics about spending money and even refuses to buy a winter coat. While helping Ginika shop for a dress, Ifemelu wonders if living in America will change her tastes as much as it’s changed Ginika’s. The cashier asks Ginika which salesgirl helped her, but Ginika cannot remember her name. Although the salesgirls should be easy to distinguish between because one is Black and one is white, the cashier asks about hair color, which does not help because both women have dark hair. Ginika explains that in America, people pretend not to notice race.

Ifemelu moves into an apartment with other students. One of them, Elena, has a dog. Elena asks why Ifemelu won’t pet her dog, and Ifemelu explains that she doesn’t like dogs. Elena wants to know if it’s cultural, and is surprised to learn that it’s just a personal preference. Ifemelu finds it odd that her roommates do not ask if someone has the money to go out before going out for food. Although she tries to socialize with her housemates, Ifemelu reels from the culture shock.

Analysis: Chapters 9–12

The way Ifemelu trusts the images of America on commercials and television highlights the power of media to create myths from incomplete stories. Ifemelu has associated America with wealth and success, and the media she consumed from America—along with Obinze’s “expert” opinion—all supported this illusion. The uncomfortable heat wave and striking poverty that she confronts the minute she leaves the airport reveal the aspects of America that challenge her media-fueled misconceptions. Similarly, Ifemelu believed Aunty Uju was succeeding in America because of the information Aunty Uju hid in her phone calls. Aunty Uju was able to conceal the shame and stress caused by her struggle to succeed in America, thereby perpetuating the myth of America as a country of opportunity. Aunty Uju’s observation about Nigerian news also comments on the power of images to shape one’s understanding of the world. The omission of crime reports in Nigerian news creates a false sense of safety. Ifemelu is beginning to realize that incomplete stories have molded her perception of reality.

Another aspect of life in America that surprises Ifemelu is the assumed connection between Black Americans and Black non-Americans. Ifemelu finds Jane’s insistence on keeping her children away from Black American children confusing because she does not understand the stereotypes associated with Black Americans. Furthermore, Ifemelu does not see why Black American children in particular would influence Jane’s children. Aunty Uju’s behavior is more apologetic and demure in front of white Americans because she understands the implications of being a Black woman under the white gaze in America. Ifemelu, however, finds this behavior mysterious and puzzling because to her, Aunty Uju is Nigerian, not a Black American. In light of this confusing conflation, Aunty Uju’s insistence that all Black people look alike to white Americans takes on an additional meaning. Not only do white Americans conflate individual people with dark skin, they do not see the difference between Black Americans and Black non-Americans, even though to the people of both groups, there is a huge difference between them.

These chapters also demonstrate the conditions that immigrants face that make success in America difficult or even impossible. Despite already being a certified doctor in Nigeria, Aunty Uju must prove her medical credentials while also working menial jobs because her advanced degree will not transfer. These menial jobs keep her from studying and getting adequate sleep, which in turn prevent her from getting her medical license. Only through Ifemelu’s immigration to America, which allows Aunty Uju to cut costs on babysitting, is she able to devote enough time to pass. The reality that Aunty Uju needs support from a family member emphasizes that she could not succeed without help. Ifemelu’s scholarship will not cover her full college tuition, and yet as an immigrant on a student visa, she cannot legally earn a salary to cover the rest, plus food and rent; she can only earn enough money by illegally using someone else’s identity. The bureaucracy surrounding immigration means achieving the American Dream involves luck and rule-bending, not just hard work.

Aunty Uju’s interest in Bartholomew, despite his obvious shortcomings, reads as a kind of homesickness for old places and old patterns. His visits give her an opportunity to cook Nigerian food and talk about Nigeria. Furthermore, Bartholomew allows her to recreate a little of what she built with The General. She falls into an old habit of acting demure to impress him, and dreams of having a child with him so Dike can have a sibling. However, Bartholomew lacks both the wealth and power of The General and recent knowledge of Nigeria. His judgmental comment about skirt length emphasizes that he has romanticized Nigerian life to his taste, intentionally ignoring Ifemelu, whose knowledge is current. His bleaching creams and affected accent also reveal his insecurities. Ifemelu worries at seeing Aunty Uju fall into her old pattern because Bartholomew cannot even provide the temporary security that The General did. As Ifemelu points out, Aunty Uju has seriously lowered her standards by dating a man like Bartholomew, and the compromises she makes for the small comforts he provides expose an intense longing for her old life.