Growing up as an immigrant kid in rural Michigan isn’t easy. Actually, allow me to rephrase: growing up as an uncool bookworm kid in “whereamIarethoseAmishpeople” Michigan is downright rough. While I was never made to feel excluded, there was a certain discomfort that came with the obvious disconnect between my family and the families of the majority of my peers. Different hobbies, different conceptions of family, but most obvious were differences in food. To be quite honest, Ghanaian food was not super accessible to people around me. Most people can get down with Chinese or Mexican food, but being the kid to show up with palm nut soup and cubed goat never gained me much cafeteria popularity.
Infamy, maybe. Popularity, no.
As I got older and my classmates began to get more vocal with their opinions on my lunch fare, I began resenting the contents of my thermos. I fidgeted impatiently whenever my mother shopped for food at the African store, knowing it would go into an anxiety-inducing, albeit delicious, meal. I longed for my classmates’ Lunchables, Capri Sun, and chips—none of which I was not allowed to eat at home. Lunch, it seemed, was the key to breaking the imaginary barrier I lived with every day.
I spent the summer before fifth grade in Accra with my grandmother, taking malaria pills, trying to get used to the rampant gecko population, and imagining my classmates galavanting around in America, going to the lake and such. In an especially jealous moment, I decided that I was done going to school with a thermos full of spinach and rice, and upon returning home decided to tell my well-meaning mother what was what. I demanded a peanut butter sandwich every day for lunch, and she indulged me and obliged.
This was living.
Being able to actually trade something during the grand afternoon lunch swap? Pure bliss. Being able to reel in a big ticket item that I wasn’t allowed to eat at home? To this day, Doritos Cool Ranch still tastes like victory.
I continued on this trajectory of trying to be an incognito Ghanaian for quite some time. In boarding school, the necessity of cafeteria food was a welcome food equalizer and I stopped feeling branded by my “otherness.” Eventually, my concerns faded away, though after one of my friends recoiled at the idea of boiled okra and fish, I decided to keep my food preferences on the low. High school has, and now college, and my identity isn’t so much wrapped up in food. Or so I thought, until a recent trip to the African food store.
My family now lives in Georgia; home for the summer and an unemployed postgrad with no driver’s license, I leap at any chance to get dressed in real clothing and leave my little corner of suburbia. This particular instance meant going with my mother to run her various errands. This included a trip to an African grocery store, which is something I always enjoy because there’s always something…fascinating to observe.
Upon entering the store, I was hit with the overwhelming smell that instantly transported me back to the dusty Makola Market in Accra. A cart was selected and my mother and I started slowly down the narrow aisles under the incredibly suspicious gaze of the shopkeeper. Moments later, I found this gem:
Among many interesting and sometimes unidentifiable animals and products was this porridge mix that my mother was thinking of buying until she was confronted with the possibility of varied species in her balanced breakfast.
Around this time, the shopkeeper stared down my mom and said sharply “Are you Nigerian?” My mother responded with a “No, I’m actually from Ghana,” which apparently was the correct answer because she started talking in excited Ga. While she and my mother carried on like bosom buddies, I wandered around and found this:
This store was a veritable treasure trove. You can’t make this stuff up.
We paid and I listened to the shopkeeper’s vaguely homophobic rant about the current state of sin in America. I was tempted to step in and use my fancy liberal arts education to school her in acceptance but a glare from my mother made it clear that you don’t bite the hand that feeds you meat pie. Instead, I just sat in a corner, absentmindedly checking my phone and taking in the sights and smells that used to make me anxious but now just make me nostalgic.
After years away from home cooking, I’m almost shocked at how much I missed Ghanaian food and all of the memories and feelings I associate with it. Not memories of sitting nervously in the corner of the cafeteria, trying to eat unnoticed, but of what I consider to be the highlights of my second-gen childhood. More than anything, this trip made me feel like a kid again. It made me feel like an eight year old shopping with my grandmother amidst the commotion of downtown Accra. Or like a 12-year-old impatiently eating plantain chips while my mother sifts through piles of dried fish.
With all this adulthood business going down, it’s nice to know that some things don’t change and that some things change for the better. Now that I could not possibly care less about what people think of my dietary choices, I can proudly get uncomfortably full of delicious food all in the name of national pride. Wins all around.
Quite a bit for one trip to an African grocery. Plus, as a nice bonus, I got some great ideas for soliciting a roommate come fall: