“We just know where we are from.”
Janey had us at her proclamation and declaration of being "Unapologetically Nigerian" at the start of this podcast interview. Her perspective on her identity and her gifts to the world unfolded in the rest of our conversation like a beautifully scripted song. We learned about a special gift that sits in her office and reminds her where she's from, her thoughts on how understanding your roots helps when faced with racism, and how experiences growing up led her to reject certain parts of her culture. We ended with a special question from our conversation tool web app that perfectly reflected Janey's love and pride for her Nigerian identity. It's no wonder that she's been able to harness that awareness and experience as the founder of Immiducation, a social enterprise solving the problem of underemployment amongst the underrepresented professional immigrant community.
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Hey, my name is Anika Chabra and you're listening to Root & Seed, a podcast about tradition seekers, who are sparked to explore, define, and celebrate their family and cultural identity. We are constantly inspired by our community and the ways in which they intentionally observe and notice how they're honouring their culture and family heritage. That introspection is admirable, no matter the ways or extent to which they do it. It's that consciousness and awareness that we appreciated in our last week's guest, Jon who helped us realize the difference between the nuances of your family and the culture of an entire people that's easily searchable on the internet. Jon called it “tourism of one's culture”, where we curate a popularized understanding of our background as a way to get in touch with it. Instead, we feel inspired to understand the smaller details of our family's interpretation of our backgrounds and authentically honour those as we choose what to take forward
It's for that very reason that we're super excited for you to meet Janey. It's Janey’s self-awareness of the role of all of her experiences in her life that has led her to launch a platform called Immiducation, a social enterprise that addresses under-employment amongst underrepresented professional immigrant communities. Part education, part community, they seek to bridge the gap between organizations and underrepresented immigrant talent. Janey exudes so much confidence and pride in her story and we benefit so much from her share. We learn how understanding one's subtleties of one's experience is important in defining who we are. On the other hand and in contrast, how knowing where you come from in broad strokes and in context is so important in embracing one's self-esteem. We know the future is bright with young women like Janie in the world. I first asked Janie what influences her identity. Here she is.
So first of all, I'm unapologetically Nigerian. Even though there are folks who argue about what it really means to be Nigerian when there's like a ton of tribes… 300 and something plus, but that's what I relate to. Because we were colonized by the British, my first language is English. My parents are from two different cultures in Nigeria. We barely spoke local languages in the house. So cultural influences would be heavily Nigerian. And then also probably African, I identify with anything really that comes out from that continent. I also identify with black culture because when you think about people like Beyonce, Oprah Winfrey. I see women who have the same skin tone as me who are achieving things in a world (where on the largest scale in the world) where women are not doing that. So I identify with that culture. But also because culture by its definition is a way of life of a group of people I also identify very strongly with Christian culture and that reference has always been very big in my life. I grew up going to church. I grew up having in my teenage years my own personal relationship with my faith. And that has helped me through a lot of tough times, including navigating the world of being an immigrant.
And because I said that word I also identify with immigrant culture, which a lot of times has a negative connotation in popular opinion. But I see it from a perspective of stealth where people don't see you coming. And I love when people underestimate me because it just gives me an opportunity to impress.
Growing up it was cool and just frankly looked upon as elite if you spoke only English. I remember in school growing up you're taught English all the way from kindergarten to pretty much all your education is administered in English. Our local languages can be taken as optional courses. Kids who actually spoke local languages at home and would speak in school were actually punished. They got in trouble for speaking local languages. So at first, my local culture was where my parents were from, even though we grew up in cities, but obviously now that I'm older and with the Black Lives Matter movement. I'd say the monotony or people think Black is literally one thing. And I really love to talk about how in my country alone, which is one of 50 something plus countries in Africa, they're over 500 languages and 300 plus something tribes. And there's so much richer diversity where we're from. And I appreciate that. I embrace that. I always start with, I am Janey and I am Nigerian. As I've grown older, especially moving to Canada and experiencing racism firsthand, I have identified with my culture, as opposed to just, you know, it just being one dimensional, just being Black. Living in the cities, my parents also made it important when we're growing up for us to always go home, go back to our villages, to see where our grandparents and their parents grew up. So I can honestly beat my chest to say, I know where I'm from. Usually when people say things to immigrants, “go back home”. The good thing is, Hey, I have a home and I need you to see it. It has a lot of space, more than most of the Canadian houses. So there's that brag, but also a pride. It's less of a brag, but more a pride in knowing where I'm truly from. And even though it was tough and rough identifying with it growing up, I fully embrace it now as I'm older. And I can't wait to show my kids and the next generation how rich our culture can be, even though all how we grew up is dying but we do our parts to make sure it stays alive.
There's this sense of completeness that I don't understand. I can't put a finger to it when you actually know where you're from. You could say, “this is where my people are from”. When I moved to Canada, I was called Black and I looked like the people I thought were Black, which were folks of darker skin who grew up in North America. I thought we didn't have a lot in common. And, also when I see the way racism affects folks who grew up and were born here, it's a little different because a lot of Africans will tell you until now that they don't understand racism. Like something I didn’t know, or wasn’t aware a lot of times, when microaggressions were happening to me. It was a friend of mine who is Canadian, born of Sri Lankan background, who told me, “Janey it's not cool for random people to touch your head.” I was like, “whatever, I'm here”. And that came from this confidence in knowing who I am because of where I'm from. It's also similar to Christian culture….if you know your identity it's hard for anyone to put something else on you that you wouldn’t agree with. I don't need you to tell me where I’m from, I know where I'm from.
So there's a sense of pride and confidence that comes from owning your identity and knowing where you're from.
Gosh, Janey is super aware and it's amazing that she can so eloquently point out so many influences and be so proud of all of them. By bringing all those influences to the surface and reflecting on them it's no wonder that she feels compelled to empower young immigrants with her platform. With that in mind, we asked her if she agreed with the idea that embracing one's culture is directly related to one's self-esteem.
I completely agree that embracing culture is linked directly to your self-esteem. When we talked about your identity, knowing where you're from being a mold for who you can be. A good proof of this theory is in relation to how Black people of Africa deal with racism versus Black people from North America. And I saw this firsthand in the uprising that happened with George Floyd's murder. A lot of Africans still don't understand the power racism has over folks who do not have a sense of where they're really from or an acceptance really from anywhere. I read this book by Maya Angelou. It’s called “All God's children wear traveling shoes” or something like that. I don't remember the title. There was more of a growth opportunity for Blacks in America. She (Angelou) had started her career in theater and entertainment, and she wanted to travel... “All God's children need traveling shoes”. That's the book by Maya Angelo. And she traveled back to Ghana and she was so excited to go see where her people were from. And then she got back to Ghana and people would call her “Americana” and people would say, “Oh, you know, you're not from here.” And she wasn't never treated like the people from the motherland. And I know if a person like Uncles or Aunts, or even family who grew up in North America, when they come back with your accent and their Target and Walmart clothes, they were faced with the idea of “You never understand the struggle”. You're never going to get on a motorcycle with us. You're always going to drink bottled water. You will never fit in. And on the flip side, they are here in America where they're around white Americans saying “You are never going to speak our language. You're always going to have an accent. You're never going to go to Ivy League schools. You're never going to work or be on the same Boards as us. So you will never fit in.” I always say this to my friends when push comes to shove and if we were asked to get out of this land, (we all are immigrants all actually), and say the people who landed here first are like, “oh, you all want to leave?” I know I’ve got a home to go to. I have a mom and dad, we have property. We have an establishment that I can still somewhat be part of. Even though limited because of the systems we have. I think about it as for folks like the Black Americans, many people who have been misplaced, what can you call yours?
And so that self-esteem is firstly a tough thing to tackle because people will just say, oh, we'll give access to resources, which is great. I think. But as a whole complete mind shift and an understanding of where you're from your identity, that can never really be replaced if you don't have that sense. And so for African blood banks, this is a very different experience.
And for native people who have been displaced a very different experience, and that's one thing you would see if you meet a Nigerian, oh my gosh, the pride, sometimes you have to ask them like, where do you get all this pride? Nothing. We just know where we're from.
I can say we have a land full of love, richness and like family.
Pride being inextricably linked to knowing where you're from makes complete sense and is super inspiring. Next Janey shares the meaning behind a very special gift her mother gave her before she embarked on leaving her nest for the first time as an international student. She also joked about how she's becoming more like her. Is it just me or does the adoption of certain parental personal traits become inevitable as we grow older :)?
It's funny, because my mom and I, we're very similar. We fought a lot because of course we're very similar, but now that I'm older I think there's this thing too, like being a first daughter and then getting older and empathizing a lot more with your mom and you just like, oh, this poor child. I'm so sorry for all the hassle I gave you. So when I was leaving in 2015, my brother was here at the time and my brother and I are really close. So he left a long time prior, like five, six years before I did. And so if you know anything about Nigerians - education, the only thing that Nigerians love more than education is more education. So when I've left, it was like, obviously I was going to stay with my brother. It was also my mom was like, well, go be with your brother. You guys are close, and support him because of course, he can't figure out his left from his right:) Even though he's been here all of these years. But it was a whole emotional thing, a woman, I’m sentimental like that. And she was helping me pack and threw this surprise party, and she had a sculpture...a black woman who had had a baby on her back and a Calabash on her head and it says Mama Africa. The one thing that's very synonymous with African culture is the way we carry our kids, like having a baby on your back. If I ever see a woman carrying a kid, that way I know there's some African roots in her, but also the ability to balance things on your head. So that's how hawkers who sell stuff, carry things and growing up, like I would just try to learn the skill of balancing things. That's what it looks like physically. It’s an African woman who is balancing taking care of a kid, but also working or selling. But also what I take from that meaning is just a remembrance of who my mom is. My mom is a career woman, similar to me. As we speak, she's applying to a PhD, she has four degrees. She works a full-time job and she has two or three side hustles at any given time. It also reminds me of my north star. Like just looking at that person, looking at the African woman reminds me of the resiliency, the strength, and the ability to do more than people think you can. It just reminds me of my mom. And so that also just ties me closely to my culture when I just sit in my office and this is where a lot of my work gets done. And so just having that symbol reminds me of where I'm from and who I am.
Ah, the power of the physical to ground us and remind us where we're from. Beautiful. And the symbolism and meaning that Janey has assigned to the special gift and how she uses it to be her beacon. Next, Janey answers the question if she could recall a time when she had a culture fail, when she tried to get in touch with their culture, but it didn't go quite as planned. Her answer is super endearing.
Oh yeah. A lot of time. And my dad would always make fun of us. We spoke English most of the time explicitly. So I never really got to learn our local languages aside from what was taught in school, which was the three main major local languages. And my mom would always try to speak to us, speak the local languages with us, but again, we thought it wasn't cool.
So we're really putting in effort. And my dad on the other hand was in the military. So not home most of the time, most of my life. And so he'll come home once in a while, he was around for two weeks and he'll try to cram like years until two weekends. And it was just always an epic fail.
And so when we go back home and my dad was showing us off to his uncles and aunts and he's like, remember what I taught you? Okay. Say it right now. Oh, no culture fail! And they're like. It's okay. They'll learn. It was like every time. And so to this day, right now when we call home, I can speak with my mom's language because we stayed longer at home together. We have a closer relationship. And so when I call my dad and I say something like, Hey dad, (“mom’s Nigerian dialect”) which is my mom's language. Well, how are you? He would try to correct me. He be like (“father’s Nigerian dialect). We just know that it's not going to happen like that. He kept striving. And so every day is a culture fail when it comes to thinking speaking my father’s language. And sometimes it isn't like the cultures identify like I'm a separate person that would say listen to Bollywood music. Oh, sorry. So as you get comfortable with it, I just love to learn about people's cultures and mess up mine. And I hope people give me grace if I'm learning and messing theirs up too.
Janey and I had a lot of fun affectionately reflecting on the fact that we go into full impersonation mode, accents and all when reciting our parents' precious words. Janey mentioned that she even has memes of her parents running through her head at any given moment, ready to unleash them if needed. I know children of immigrants can definitely relate. The more and more conversations we have, the more we become super aware that it's possible to love your culture while still rejecting parts of it. Janey expresses her honest feelings about what doesn't resonate with her next.
And so something I reject a lot about Nigerian culture is the misogyny of women that still exists, thinking women are a second-class citizen. Um, it just doesn't hold in my family, we have three girls and a brother and my mom and my dad would say do whatever you want to do. So I was sheltered from that for most of my life. So I had space to play, grow my identity. And I was just thinking to myself earlier today, which is so funny that you ask this question because when I was younger, I was relentless. I would say my opinion. And I'm like, I would debate and literally drop a pen, with so much sass. And now I feel to myself, I'm like, I don't want to hurt people. I don't want people to say, oh my God, this woman again. And so that might also have come from growing up and then being exposed to a society that thinks of women as second-class citizens.
When I went to University in Western Nigeria, I was one of the youngest in class…. besides a woman, also the disregard of young people. And that shows up in our government, but shows up in the way we work in organizations. So back to the story...when I went to school in university, I was one of the youngest in my class, actually the youngest, but I had to hold that secret to myself for a long time. If I knew that I had already experienced some type of bullying in high school, for that reason, even though it wasn't, that was a bigger kid. So I realized, okay, I'm not going to make the mistakes I made in high school. I'm gonna tell the people about my age only when I need to, which was not anything I really held in secret, but just for the sake of the environment. And then also I was in an information technology (IT) program, meaning that there were way more men than there were women in the class. So in our class of say, I don't remember the number right now, it's 60, there was under 10 women. And then I got nominated to be the course representative, meaning I was to handle relations with professors. I was handling attendance and things like that. And I kid you not, there were times when our professors would come to class, ask who the course rep was and I'll raise my hand, and the second they saw it was me. They'll walk out and they'll say I'm not having, I don't want to talk to a woman. I don't want to have to deal with women. So until a guy can raise their hand and be a course rep I'm not teaching. That was the society I grew up in. So I would have to go beg this professor to please come give us a lecture that we pay for. So that is one part of the culture I did and I do absolutely reject. And hush, hush there’s a lot of women who are going through abuse in their marriages and keeping silent. A lot of women are actually the breadwinners of the family, but no one knows. And so people are also giving them crap about it. And it's just a society where you can be the….it's not…..I don't have anything against men, but I just realized that when I talk to my friends, a lot of our dads don't want to go to Canada. In Canadian society, it requires that they actually put in their own 50, but back home, they were like Kings. And so from that perspective, those are the aspects that I completely reject. And I know that we have to change for our generation and just our world in general, to do better.
Such a great illustration of the dichotomy that exists and how our upbringing and societal influences at that time influenced her perception of this part of her culture. Next Janey and I did a happy dance, when she heard about the launch of our conversation tool web app. And so naturally we picked a more lighthearted and fun question to match our moods. I asked her, what are the sounds of your culture? And this is what she said.
Ooh. Uh, so on a Nigerian level and oh actually I go all the way to the top… African culture is usually African sounds and is Afro-beats. So it's a lot of drums. It's a lot of wood-type sounds with wind instruments. It's not jazzy, it's more funky. And it requires a lot of movement, especially with the lower part of your body, if you know what I mean. And so bringing it down to like the Nigerian level, there are a lot of drums, a lot of string instruments, but it almost sounds like cultural in a sense, like Spanish culture, but also with a local sense to it and the voices oh my Lord, the voices! Literally, if you listen to anything from the motherland, you know how good voices are, but yeah, the Afrobeat sounds, the sounds of a drum and things like that. Those are beautiful.
What an incredible conversation from unapologetically Nigerian to Mamma Africa, to her endearing story of her dad lovingly criticizing her accent when speaking their native tongue all the way to the sounds of Afro-beats! What we find most remarkable about these stories is a power that each of them have if remembered, retold, and harnessed in honouring one's background and future. Through Janey’s stories, we heard the power of a Nigerian woman, the power of a Black woman, the power of a young immigrant, the power of a daughter, and now the power of an entrepreneur and founder. Janey has said, “I think culture starts with people. There's always people at the center of culture” and we couldn't agree more. We will be sure to add a link to Janey’s platform Immiducation, in the show notes.
Next week, we talked to Nadia, a true force when it comes to cultural reclamation. The way she honours her Italian and Afghani cultures is through her award-winning writing. Leave it to an author to give us all the feels!
Root & Seed is hosted by me Anika Chabra, Executive Produced by Jenn Siripong Mandel and edited by Camille Blais.
Hosted by: Anika Chabra
Brought to you by: Root & Seed
Executive Producer: Jennifer Siripong Mandel
Edited by: Camille Blais
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