When I landed in the USA in 2011, I was Loic Youth, this skinny, five-foot, seven-inch, 16-year-old Cameroonian, getting ready to take on college at tiny Manchester University in Indiana. Like most Africans, I came armed with my thick accent along with my default buzz cut.
Today, I am Loic Youth, still thin but no longer a boy, now American educated and acculturated, with dreadlocks that flow past my shoulders and with pierced ears, (both of which my mum hates). I have worked on that thick accent of mine, but six years later, I am getting ready to return home as my visa will run out.
I did not grow dreadlocks to look African-American. I decided to grow out my locks to create my own look.Having spent all my years under my mum’s roof and abided by her rules by keeping clean cut, my change of hairstyle meant a change of personality.This was me growing into my own person and making my own independent choices.
Those choices revealed that I belong to more than one place, more than one culture, as both student and teacher.
When I first got here and spoke, people automatically knew I was international. Where was I from? When I said Cameroon, most people had no idea where that was. It was an opportunity to teach a mini geography lesson.
How did I get to the States? How did I learn English? Did I live in huts before I got here? The most striking question was whether I witnessed the birth of the Lion King.
As crazy as that sounds, those were real questions. Many Americans I spoke with of various backgrounds generalize Africa as an uncivilized country, rather than a continent, and the popular culture's portrayal of Africa is all most had been exposed to.
So while it was never my intention to blend in, but create a new persona and make my life easier, I am now automatically taken for a black American, even among fellow Cameroonians, other Africans and Americans as well.
Most people assume I’m just a regular guy from Indiana, Maryland or, now D.C. The difference comes when I tell them I'm actually not from America. All of a sudden people get interested because I don’t speak like an African, and I certainly don’t act like an African. Occasionally, for those who have a hint of French, they get curious about my first name, pronounced Low-EEK.
In my college town of 6,000 residents, Manchester, Indiana, there were not many blacks around. So everywhere I went with other African-Americans, and certainly with internationals, we stood out.I remember my first weekend, going to the Dairy Queen to grab some food with a couple of friends: two from Palestine, one from Colombia, and one Bulgarian.
The moment we walked in, it got very quiet, and I could feel the eyes looking our way. That wasn't unusual, and I quickly got used to it. The one time I really felt my skin color stood out was the day before my graduation when my neighbors yelled at my friends and I to get our Negro president and leave the country. They certainly had a drink too many, and so had we. Things got a little heated, but that was the first time I felt any sort of racial tension.
Once I moved to more diverse cities, it was pretty regular. I would go out to clubs or bars, and when making eye contact with people black or white, we’d just nod and go about our business.
But when I get to talking to African-Americans and tell them I am fully African, their reactions are always hilarious. I get the "No way, that’s crazy!" reaction more often than not. They want to know what Africa is like, and how it differs from the USA. It’s actually funny because they are fascinated by Africa when I tell them about how civilized we are, and how we speak English and many more languages.
They usually laugh at themselves for only speaking English and never having left the country.
I don’t have to repeat myself as often, and I am able to blend in more easily than when I first arrived, which makes people feel more comfortable and curious about this Africa we speak of.It certainly quells stereotypes they have of my continent.
The best example I can offer is my friend Mo, who was friends first with my sister, Susie, who was two years ahead of me at Manchester. (Susie speaks English with a Cameroonian accent.) When he found out she was my sister, he was like, "You from Africa, bro?" I said yep. And out poured the questions.
He was baffled how Africans are healthy and not starving, and how we can speak proper English. I showed him pictures of back home with tall buildings, flashing lights and the beautiful women. He says he wants to come check it out.
Aside from that, I won’t say I have been treated very differently! I get the occasional lady quickly walking across the street at night when she sees me walking on the same street, but I guess safety first, right?
Stereotypes and assumptions are hard to put aside, no matter who you are, American, African, or any combination of them both.I am proud to have informed so many minds.