Some of the most central ideas in Adichie’s Americanah revolve around people moving to foreign countries to pursue what they believe to be a better life. We see this repeated with Aunty Uju, Ifemelu, and Obinze, and while they each have a different experience, there are underlying similarities. They all encounter degradation and hardship upon arriving in their new country.
Both America and England are often built up as perfect places where anyone can do anything. All three of our characters fall for those false conceptions. Ifemelu is surprised when she sees matte billboards in New York; she thought that everything in America, even the most mundane things, would be glossy and sparkly. As we watch her cycle through self-prostitution, oppression, and mental illness, the reader learns that America isn’t all Ifemelu thought it to be. Aunty Uju has a similar experience. After the General dies, leaving her stranded and penniless with a new baby, she decides to move to America to pursue a better life. However, once she gets there, she loses her cheery demeanor and the dignity she held back home in Nigeria. Her braids are messy, she has ingrown hairs, and her pants don’t fit her correctly. She also pursues a relationship with Bartholomew based solely on financial need, and disregards her own son in doing so. Obinze encounters difficulty in London. As a man with a college education, he ends up cleaning bathrooms under someone else’s name. His move also puts a tremendous amount of strain on his relationship with his mother, and they become estranged. We also see a bitter side to Obinze that hasn’t been brought out before; without knowing Ifemelu’s situation or history in America, he disregards her apology email without a second thought.
These characters also each encounter a crisis of identity. It manifests in different ways. For Aunty Uju, it’s shown in how she lets go of her physical appearance. Her looks used to be a source of pride, and her hair especially was an extension of her identity; failing to keep to those self-set standards shows how her perception of herself changes after coming to America. Ifemelu is similarly represented. I’ve written a lot about her hair, as it’s a big part of who she is, and her decision to relax it shows her losing a bit of herself. She also has to find work under someone else’s name, and therefore must force herself into being someone new. Obinze also works under someone else’s name in England. Overall, these characters may have been much better off had they stayed in Nigeria. Staying true to oneself while trying to conform to a new society and simultaneously working with someone else’s name results in a twisted self-image that fundamentally changes these three characters.