At the top of the year, Merriam Webster declared that “culture” was the 2014 Word of the Year. What is it about culture that prompted more interest in the word? Could it be the increased coverage of immigration matters and life in the diaspora for migrants? Or could it simply be that in an ever-changing world, people want to have a better understanding of the people, places, and things around them? Either way, one thing is clear, we are living in a time when tradition, heritage, and culture are not only things to be proud of but they are also things to hold on to. And, it’s beautiful when individuals are able to do so and find humor in it at the same time.
Meet Yvonne Orji (pictured). She is the multi-talented comedian, actress, and creator of “First Gen,” a sitcom about the modern day immigrant family. As a first-generation American born to Nigerian parents, Orji has her pulse on everything that comes with growing up under the influence of two cultures.
It’s no secret that immigrants raising children in the United States have a way of doing things that may not always mesh well with local culture. Therefore, one can only imagine what life is like for offspring who try to please their parents, find their identity, and make something out of their life.
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In a recent interview, Orji vividly illustrates some of her experiences through the “First Gen” show as well giving us a lens in to her life and her future.
Face2Face Africa: Who is Yvonne Orij?
Yvonne Orji: A regular girl trying to figure out this thing called “life”… a first-generation Nigerian American and youngest of four with three older brothers. I’m somebody who thought I wanted to do one thing with my life, but my purpose was revealed later on in life. I’m complex, but not really.
F2FA: What was life like for you growing up in your household?
YO: My family is normal in a sense. My father brought us over to America in 1989, when I was 6 years old. My mother was already here working as a nurse. My dad had his own company, so he traveled back and forth to Nigeria.
Every six months we would see him. For me, I thought it was cool that my family was living on two continents. It seemed like we had the best of both worlds. And then you grow up and you realize that your parents definitely made the ultimate sacrifice for the betterment of their kids and that is never an easy decision.
When I came to America, I had this super- thick accent and that did not go over well with the American kids, especially with the African-American kids. In my super-thick Nigerian accent I would ask them, “Hey, you guys want to play with me?” and they were like, “Absolutely not!” That led to years of being picked on. I was called “African booty scratcher.” But I never scratched my booty in public (in the bathroom stall, sure, but in public? Never!).
I would come home and I would tell my parents, but you know African parents are not really in America for you to make friends. They would say, “We did not come here for you to have a social life. We came here for you to go to school and to go to Harvard. What is this? So you don’t have friends? Great, go and study.” Meanwhile, your first thought is that you just really want people to sit next to you in the cafeteria.
F2FA: How did you break the news to your family that you didn’t want to go down the career path of a lawyer, doctor, or engineer? How did they take it?
YO: My parents took it the way you expect any immigrant parents to take it. Whenever you have someone who leaves the comforts of their own home for a strange land for the sole purpose of giving their children a better life, that inherently has a return investment built in. When that investment is not coming in the way they think it’s going to come, there is definitely some resistance.
I absolutely do not blame my parents for their reaction. I think if I were in their shoes, as an African woman, if my child came to me and was like, “Yeah, Mom I’m leaving school to become a dancer.”
My natural response would be, “If I slap you today!” [Laughs] I think what has helped me in my career is my parents’ resistance. Because if it was too easy, I don’t think I would grind this hard. I have been in California for three years and knowing I got Africa on my back — THE ENTIRE CONTINENT — it definitely makes my being here not lackadaisical.
Obviously [my parents] are Nigerian and they had a special way of responding. Most people would be like, “No, that’s not cool. We’re not here for that,” but with my parents, the word “abomination” might have been used once…or 5 times. [Laughs]
And me with all my American privilege…I’m sitting there thinking (because I can ONLY think it, not ACTUALLY utter such words), “Guys, relax. It’s not an abomination. I just changed my mind.” It’s definitely foreign, this concept of comedy. Africans are all about long-term goals.
F2FA: When did you first realize that you were funny and how did you get your start in comedy?
YO: I entered a pageant in 2006, and I needed a talent. I didn’t know I needed a talent until about two weeks before the competition. They were like, “So what’s your talent?”
I had just opened a Macy’s account for [my] dress. I paid a lot of money for it, so in my mind I was going to win, but not without a talent. I did the only thing I knew to do: I prayed. And the Holy Spirit said, “Do comedy,” clear as day, and of course, me being the devout Christian that I am, I said, No, no, that’s not going to work, sir.
The Holy Spirit then asked me “what else you got?” When you get stumped by Jesus, you just say, Alright, sir.
I came up with the basic formula, the comedian would say something, then they would say something else and then people laugh. I had to make sure I did that. So literally, because it was the Miss Nigeria In America Pageant, I sat down and asked myself, “What is funny about being Nigerian in America?”
F2FA: How did the idea for “First Gen” come about?
YO: When I moved to Los Angeles, I had a writing internship and that was the first time I had ever been in a writers’ room. So I told them my story: I was supposed to be the doctor in my family, but now I tell jokes. And my family’s African. They were like wait, what? That’s a story!
“First Gen” is loosely based off my life. I was doing comedy at this point and learning how to write from my mentors Bentley Kyle Evans and Stacey Evans Morgan. They encouraged me to write my story down. This was in 2011.
Honestly, I didn’t know that much about writing so my first draft was all jokes with very little structure. But with re-write after re-write… I eventually got it together. And that’s how “First Gen” came about – from the very first draft in 2011 to late 2014, when I finally finished the script.
F2FA: Why do you believe the world needs a show like “First Gen”? Why now?
YO: The hashtag we have been using is #weareallfirstgen. America is a great melting pot. Even the very first Americans were immigrants. In America, you can find Little Italy or Little Tokyo, but there is no Little Lagos.
The first rule of writing is to write what you know and I know me. I know my story. I know being African. I know being American. I know having the weight of disappointment on a family, and I know having my faith and I know believing in my dreams.
That’s what I know, so that’s what I write about. And it’s such an amazing blessing because since I wrote about something familiar to me, it translates and transcends beyond me because other people are like, “Hey! That’s my story too!”
I remember when I started doing comedy, at the end of a show, an Indian guy and an Asian guy came up to me and said, “Yo, you were really funny. That’s my mom up there just with a different accent.” And I will never forget that. My family is just like your family…we just have this other thing we can hold on to. The thought never crossed my mind that “First Gen” could not be on mainstream TV.
F2FA: What are your goals for “First Gen”?
YO: It’s so funny. I’m always like season 10, season 10, season 10. Why not? There is no shortage of stories to tell as an immigrant person. It’s like where do you want to start? Marriage? School? Goals and dreams?
But my goal is for the show to be housed on a media platform that can afford us the opportunity to tell the most authentic story that we can. We don’t want it to be watered down or have all the critical nuances taken out.
It is “First Gen” story that most people can relate to, but we are dealing with a Nigerian-American family and there are certain things that are very Nigerian-specific.
I want it to be commercially acceptable, but not at the expense of telling a honest story. So for me, my goals are to have the best team and the best partnership that would allow us to tell a very true and honest story.
F2FA: What are your thoughts about how Africans are portrayed in the media?
YO: As an actress in California, I have friends call me up like, “YO, I need you to help me with this audition for this African dude.” And without skipping a beat, I say, What are you, a cab driver, rebel leader, genocide survivor, or someone who doesn’t speak English?
How can we be “uneducated,” even though we’ve had two Africans get into all 8 Ivy league schools — a Ghanaian and a Nigerian. Just saying. Talk to every African woman; she is probably a nurse or a doctor. So where are all of these cab drivers coming from?
Now, I’m not saying there aren’t any African cab drivers, but if you want a surgeon – you can find a Nigerian one. If you see a professor at a university with a PHD – they are probably Nigerian too. We are in every sector, so why is it that every time you see an African, it’s all these contrived, stereotypical roles? Let’s be real.
F2FA: When was the last time you visited Nigeria?
YO: I went back home in February 2014. My father makes sure we go home every year. Like I shared earlier, my father lived in Nigeria and he would travel back and forth between Nigeria and America for work. He was like, “If anything happens in America, where would you go? Uh huh then that’s your home, Nigeria.”
F2FA: What advice would you give to young Nigerian Americans who are trying to navigate fitting in with their peers and staying true to themselves?
YO: Who doesn’t want to fit in? I mean life is about community and about being with people that you can do life with. Nobody wants to do life with somebody they don’t mesh with. If you don’t fit a certain group or you don’t fit a mold, where do you belong?
But I will say, rather than just solely trying to fit in, know who you are first. Your identity should dictate where you fit in. Knowing who and whose you are makes everything easier.
F2FA: What’s one thing you would tell a Nigerian who wants to come to America?
YO: It’s not easy. I think a lot of people have that misconception. For somebody who frequently travels between Nigeria and America, there are so many different and great things about being in Nigeria. The way we work here is not conducive to a fulfilled life. In Nigeria, nothing is open past 7. Businesses shut down.
Another difference…in Nigeria you can be at home and at 8 p.m. you suddenly have house guests. How many times have we tried to set up meetings in America? People usually have no time, let alone 20-30 mins to meet with you in person.
It is a different way of life.
The American system is a rat race that constantly has you feeling like you have bills to pay. My Advice? I love being in America, but I love being in America as a Nigerian because I understand this is not all there is.
F2FA: Is there anything else that you would like to share?
YO: I want to thank everybody that has watched and shared the traile, and believed in the possibility of what could come from “First Gen.” Everybody that donated, thank you. Your giving has completely helped us to continue the work that we are trying to create.
From the top to the bottom the middle and the deepest part of my heart, I thank you all. Hopefully after “First Gen,” you will see more Africans portrayed on TV as love interests or, even presidents. Obama is president guys! President. Lest we forget he is part Kenyan. You will see us represented in a way where we can turn on the TV and show the next generation, the second generation, the 3rd generation, “hey look at what you can do and be on TV because a long time ago a little show came about and changed the landscape.” That would be dope!
Watch the official trailer of “First Gen” here: