Sometime in the middle of this summer, I came up with the title "Confessions of a Part-Time Sexy Dyke" for my web series. I imagined the series remixing the traditional American queer coming-of-age narrative with my experience as a 21-year-old African immigrant. I came up with a theme song and even filmed an intro to the first episode. Then, I got stuck. I realized I couldn't go forward with the production before I really explored my relationship with the English language and my pervasive desire to be consumed by American audiences since I arrived in the states 11 years ago.
Early in 2001, my parents sat me down in our home in Yaoundé, Cameroun, and told me that we were moving to the States. Soon, they said, I'd be speaking English as fluidly as the "American journalists on CNN."
I was nine years old.
I didn't know much English apart from a few colloquial phrases, but I was aware of the social, economic and academic capital associated with English, even just within my own context in Yaoundé. Still, I had never aspired to master the language.
A few weeks later, I walked out of Dulles International Airport with Maman, Dad and my two siblings. We were headed to some relative's basement in southern Virginia.
My parents enrolled me in a nearby public school. When I walked into the fourth grade classroom, the teacher introduced me to my new classmates. Predictably, the students began quizzing me. I had spent hours memorizing a few sentences, preparing to entertain American curiosity, but when I opened my mouth, my voice literally ran away from me.
"Hello, my name is Sharon," I repeated, over and over again. The movie Shrek had just come out and kids who could (or would) not pronounce my last name refused to call me by "Sharon." They simply called me "Ogre."
At home, Dad returned to Cameroun to tie up some loose ends and Maman got her first job. Eventually, I harnessed the rhetorical fluidity to share memories of home with my classmates. I gave the American listeners in that fourth grade class everything they wanted. I recounted the joys of having the banana and guava trees in my front yard; the stimulating fear and anxiety I felt when a snake my uncle was hacking with a machete spit venom in his eye; the disgusting, almost provincial coolness of the pigs Dad raised in the back of our house; how I'd been bitten by a dog we thought had been infected with rabies. I told the American students that Maman planted spinach and explained how she sometimes painfully prepared, precisely packaged and sold caramel covered peanuts on the side of the road to make extra money.
From my point of view, though I didn't have the language to express it, I was a queer girl immigrating under a global framework that conceived and presented Africa, and me, as primitive, underdeveloped, and unable to provide its youth with promising educational opportunities. Of course, those perceptions did not match up with my experiences at home, but I didn't really question why we were viewed this way. I just accepted that immigrating to the United States meant escaping some dark land of oppression and entering an idealistic realm of mythical freedom.
I accepted that I had left home for my own good.
I couldn't accept everything, though. I was furious when people made faces at Maman for trying to express herself in public. I hated standing at her side and watching people doubt her intelligence when they asked her to repeat herself. I promised myself I'd lose my accent as best I could after those experiences. I encouraged the decision to stop speaking French in our home. It was hard to keep this promise during conversations about the foods we missed, the family members who were trying unsuccessfully to immigrate to the States, and the emotional struggles triggered by my desperation to assimilate.
I learned to compartmentalize the ways in which I accessed and communicated my experience. Colonial French, for example, was reserved for emotional release and my most intimate thoughts. English became the language I used to communicate what some might call practical reasoning. My ability to speak the language was stronger than ever, but so was my hate for anything that marked me and my family as African.
I started to rebel. I stopped wearing our traditional dress. I didn't want to explain anymore why my hair had string in it. The tresses au fils Maman would fashion my hair into looked too damn weird to these white folks, so it started to look too damn weird to me, as well. I demanded a relaxer so I could look like the other black girl in my fourth grade class and Maman obliged.
Dad came back to the States, bought our family's first car, and we moved into our first apartment. I started watching and quickly fell in love with American sitcoms. The sitcoms marked the first time I heard American actors' real voices: the pace, sentence structure, vocabulary and intonation sounded nothing like the French voiceovers I was used to in Cameroun.
I cared far more about the African American characters on the sitcoms I watched than I did about my own development, and the way my own African body was strangely morphing from puberty and American foods. At school, I'd been placed in the gifted and talented program. What should have been a prideful achievement actually doubled my isolation. Of course, I still wanted to be even more proficient in English. But really, I wanted to be proud, unabashed and outspoken like Maxine Shaw from Living Single.
The testing I was subjected to in my new school felt more religious than educational. The continued rhetorical and intellectual scrutiny ironically increased my desire to assimilate, but my emotional assimilation was a different story. I started imagining a displaced, super self-expressive alter ego for myself within a gendered remake called The Fresh Princess of Bel-Air—really, though, I didn't yet have the words for that character either.
The summer before sixth grade, Maman was pregnant with my little brother and we moved into a townhome near a suburban neighborhood. It felt like we were moving on up, sort of like The Jeffersons. The catch was that while both Maman and Dad were formally educated in Cameroun, their degrees were not recognized in the States. No one in my family wanted to admit that the emphasis placed on a Eurocentric American education was tapping into an understanding of meritocracy that seemed to serve as white people's affirmative action. But we were learning.
It wasn't until I had a few aunties and uncles encounter systematic road blocks in their search for documentation and very little support from anyone outside of the immigrant community that I also started learning about the corrupt brain drain policies that were giving preferential treatment to upper-class or educated immigrants like my parents seeking entry into the United States. Excellence at school and work necessitated a mastery of English that my family now had, but we remained individually and collectively fragmented all throughout high school.
I was nudged to recollect myself and re-imagine my dreams in college. I started following a few web series, a replacement for my childhood preoccupation with sitcoms. The shows kept me alive, creatively and emotionally. They countered the silencing I experienced as a post-9/11 immigrant, confused by the Birther conspiracy theories circulating about President Obama. To me, language always seemed as crucial as citizenship in this debate. If hordes of Americans could actually doubt the integrity and legitimacy of someone who used language far better than they could ever imagine, what might they do to my family and me?
One of the side effects of having my intellectual capacity policed by both the school system and my family's expectations was an inactive approach to my body's own sexual narrative. I am no longer interested in having my experiences dismissed as a phase of my youth or a product of American liberalism. Additionally, the contemporary American rhetoric surrounding African immigrants and the corresponding absent discourse around queerness communicated a national and collective anxiety that initially made me fear and silence my emotional self. It felt like I was dragging around a bag of one too many alienating identities that no one wanted to talk or laugh through. Though learning to openly identify as queer was a journey I began in college, I know that it was a part of my identity even before we immigrated.
As a junior, I grew enamored with Issa Rae's multidimensional approach to what would become the Awkward Black Girl web-series: from rapping with the Doublemint Twins, to her dedication to ABG merchandise and her other projects. I appreciated the ways that vlogger, Franshesca Ramsey, explored the intersections of gender, class and race through the satirical Shit White Girls Say to Black Girls. The experiences and perspectives presented were personal, political, irreverent and relevant not only to the person I wanted to become, but also to the memories I had as a young queer immigrant. The internet showed me that I didn't need to imagine myself as a traditionally consumable entity if I wanted an audience.
My web series, Confessions of a Part-Time Sexy Dyke, will explore the twisted humor imbedded in my distorted conception of sexual pride. If done right, it might actually encourage other immigrants to explore the ranges of their experience, too, in spite of familial, educational and social policing.
Though I remain conflicted about the radical potential of including my queer coming-of-age narrative, I now know that conflicted is okay. I wish stories relating to the struggles I faced had been around when I was younger. The irony, of course, is that they were. I, like a lot of other queer immigrants, was living the stories I needed to see and hear. No one showed me that it was okay to wrap words and pictures around those narratives. Imagining myself into American sitcoms was one creative way to engage with my imagination. Sadly, I used that imaginative practice to undermine my own experience as a daughter, sister, awkward, queer, immigrant woman of color.
I no longer want to be scripted or consumed in any medium dictated by an audience incapable of imagining and respecting our queer immigrant experiences. I am Sharon Onga, the eventual creator, writer, director and star of Confessions of a Part Time Sexy Dyke, or PTSD for short.
I hope you enjoy the show.
Sharon Onga is a college senior, writer and artist from Yaoundé, Cameroun.
Photo: dno1967b / flickr.