There Is No American Dream for a Black Man

Growing up in Cameroon, I believed America was the only dream. But the reality is much more complicated.

Photo: NoSystem images/Getty Images

As a kid, I always knew I’d leave Cameroon to pursue my education. My older cousins had left, and talks about higher education in the country were hopeless. I was the firstborn son, so it only made sense that my parents would go into debt, borrow from “ndjangui houses (community credit unions), and find a way for me to join my cousins in Germany or the U.S.

The image of my impending escape was so clear that when I turned 17 and finished secondary school, but didn’t leave Cameroon, I had no idea what to do with my life anymore. It crushed me so hard that I almost never took the leap of faith to move to the U.S. again. At 17, I lost all hopes of building a future in my own country — partly because I let my parents’ insistence on college overshadow my own ambitions, but also because I didn’t have a backup plan if my dream of leaving the country failed.

When I moved on to college, the usual adventures followed. I lost my virginity, found friendships, drank myself into a stupor. I broke hearts, and I got my heart broken. Over the next few years, I became who I thought was, on my own terms. I had an identity and some image of what I thought my life meant. Discussions about the meaning of life, our roles as humans, and our place in society aren’t conversational staples in Cameroonian culture. Yet, fed by the largely American content I consumed, I gravitated to introspection — something that molded my perspective then, and even more now as an immigrant.

My worldview was influenced by the books I read, videos, and podcasts. I found mentors in people who showed me a world I couldn’t see around me — a world where learning only required that I made the time to learn. A world where it was okay to be misunderstood. Part of me was aware of how different my world was from these authors and speakers, but I desperately believed in them. I started thinking and walking like them (in my mind, at least), and quoting them every chance I got. There is truth in the power of belief and hustle. But there is also truth in the reality of being born into privilege and not having to deal with the color of your skin (among other things) on a daily basis. Or being creative in a country that didn’t give a bird’s poop about it.

I will be the first to admit, now that I have been in the U.S. for almost a year, that the reality of living abroad hits you in waves most people aren’t equipped to understand or process.

But the people who never took it upon themselves to paint an accurate reality of this world I believed in? The people who didn’t take the time to warn kids like me, and others who had lost any hope of a future in Cameroon? They are the ones who left before us. Those we’ve always called “bushfallers,” because they went to bush — greener pastures compared to ours.

Now that I have been in the U.S. for almost a year, I will be the first to admit that the reality of living abroad hits you in waves most people aren’t equipped to understand or process. If I tell someone outside of the States that I got lost using the RDT bus service in Colorado, I would need to provide details of how this service works: map routes, the general feeling of unease, and weather factors. If I tell someone about looking for the best prices in Walmart or King Soopers, they might not understand the difference between organic and “regular” products. Supermarkets, for example, are few and far between in Cameroon. We have markets that are barely organized; you need to rely on your memory to move through or find anything.

The simplest example of these differences and the difficulties to communicate is snow. At some point, most kids have seen snow in a foreign movie. But they’ve never touched it. They’ve never watched it fall on their skin. How do I expect them to understand how it feels to be in a snowstorm or drive in the snow?

The parts of living abroad that cannot be explained are, unfortunately, the parts that many of the bushfallers spend time on. There is racism in America, you pay a lot of taxes, you work all day, the food is different, the roads are huge. Though helpful, these things steal from the range of truths that an immigrant needs before leaving their home country. Whether intentional or not, by omission or ignorance, the bushfallers never paint an adequate image of what it means to leave behind everything you’ve ever known to build an identity — and home — in a new land.

I wish they’d told me about health insurance and how it worked so that I’d consider optimizing my nutrition, sleep, and exercise to minimize the risk of winding up in the hospital, especially before I get any form of insurance.

I wish they’d hammered on the necessity of learning how to drive before I left Cameroon because it would be arduous to take the bus, and expensive to use Uber. That walking in the winter (or any other time for that matter) was highly inefficient unless it was part of a bus route. That jaywalking is a crime. I wish they’d said more about the timeliness (or lack thereof at key times) of each bus and how vigilant one would need to be when taking said buses to any location.

I wish they’d not focused so much on the lack of food from Cameroon, but rather given examples of other foods to explore, which could lead to new relationships with new cultures and people. I wish they’d talked of the stress of having the internet 24/7 and how without preparation, one could easily succumb to mental exhaustion and need to take a break from it all.

I wish they’d told me more about the time difference — not just because of jet lag, but how it would influence all communication with home and even within the country.

I wish they’d told me about the importance of politics in the nation as compared to Cameroon, so I’d be more open to learning and participating in the dialogue on subjects that would redefine how I view leadership. I wish they’d told me to learn about money and think more about investing instead of hourly work.

I wish they’d made it clear that many people don’t even understand how racism affected others because they’d never had to experience it.

I wish they’d told me that being Black in America meant something different for every Black person in America because, like me, some people just moved here. They’d never had to face their color as a cultural construct and lifetime hurdle.

In Cameroon, we have over 230 different tribes. However, the largest type of division is one based on the previous forms of the country — one part colonized by the French, the other by the British. Of all the other differences and types of tribal prejudice that occur, this language prejudice (and the cultural traits associated with each) is the most potent form of separation in Cameroon. Therefore, to express an understanding of racism to one who needs some fake, untrue, cultural reason to hate another, is quite a challenge.

Finally, I wish they’d told me to take time to say goodbye to friends and family because once I left Cameroon, things would never be the same again. Some relationships would crumble, some would strengthen, and others would disappear into the ether.

I am lucky. I’ve had my wife, my in-laws, and my extended family. Without my wife, I would have failed miserably at moving to the U.S. No amount of reading, videos, or podcasts would have prepared me for what I have experienced and what I am yet to experience. I feel even more grateful for her because, after 12 years here, she now has to adapt to me — someone who has a life and career choice in a field unrelated to hers as a medical doctor.

It’s been hard for me to adjust. It’s been hard for me to try to dispel some of the idealistic images many of my peers have about America or other countries in general when I talk with those back in Cameroon. It’s harder because I can see, through them, where I used to be. I can see how hard it must have been for people who had left to talk about taxes, education, health care, racism, relationships, and spirituality.

Even as I say that they lied, I can understand how dealing with your issues can take over trying to help others understand what it means to live in another country. A realization that gets more and more concrete for me is no matter where I go, I might never have a real home anymore. There will never be a country I entirely belong to. I was born in Cameroon. I live in America. I will never be enough to be a full member of either.

That’s a duality many people learn to live with. It may even cloud the differences. I was part of both cultures in Cameroon by birth and education: Francophone and Anglophone, which made me, and many others, aliens in their own rights. Now I get to live in a country I had always dreamed of; I carry stories from where I was born and adapt to where I am reborn.

But when I squint a little and peer into the future, I can almost see myself lying about it all, too.

Cameroonian writer and video creator. Featured in LEVEL and P.S. I Love You. I write about building relationships and personal transformation.

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