Notes of a Nostalgic Nigerian An Immigrant’s Eyewitness Report from the Streets of Dating Apps
When I packed my one suitcase to come to America, I put everything I thought I needed inside and romance wasn’t in it.
This is Notes of a Nostalgic Nigerian , a column by Ucheoma Onwutuebe about emigrating to the United States.
One quiet Saturday night in my Las Vegas apartment, I was casually strolling the streets of Instagram when I arrived at the page of a couple I’d never seen before. I stopped to ogle at their unabashed display of affection and their poses that seemed stenciled from a perfect fantasy: Forehead kisses, kisses underwater, date nights, and tables splayed with food that I’d never eaten in my life. Then I found more kisses: underneath the sunset, on the neck while posing for mirror selfies, love bites.
I have everything I need in this life of sin , I thought to myself, looking around my tiny room filled with books and clothes—this altar of self-adoration and a testament to how I have chosen to spend my heyday— everything but what this couple has . In an instant, my admiration turned to jealousy turned to insecurity turned to a deep sense of scarcity. Will there be enough love to go around? Would it reach the latecomers at the end of the queue, or should we vacate Instagram for these coupled people? Where did they find love? Can someone point me in the right direction?
But you know what they say: Time waits for no one. Forget plastic surgeons and their bogus claim of selling youth—the tucking and lifting can only do so much. Better to chase the black goat while you have daylight, to make hay while you still have eggs. With these proverbs in mind and the distant echoes of my mother’s fervent prayers for the grandchildren I owed her, I downloaded four dating apps. All at once. If we were going to do this, we had better roll up our sleeves and cast our seeds upon many waters.
On a normal day, I’m a tough babe. Societal pressures do not faze me. I left a stable bank job in Nigeria to chase an elusive writing dream that led me to an MFA program in the States. I faced hell and high water, but I never looked back. Boyfriends have come and gone and rarely do I pine. I keep moving.
Back home in Nigeria, I had unbridled access to men, from the puritanical to the heretic. Straitjacketed choir boys and aspiring music-video producers, nine-to-fivers and the brave ones fording the tough waters of entrepreneurship. Old money and dream chasers, young and middle-aged—I knew them all. But America was new territory, and Instagram, my addiction and that bane of human existence, often reminded me of cuddles, of romance, of what it felt like to be wanted and desired. America, this new country, made my aloneness more pronounced. With all the cultural shocks I was experiencing daily, and the changes I faced each second, I desired someone to share details of my day with. It didn’t matter if the pictures couples posted were choreographed to elicit the insecurity of users like me. Their photos and videos made me question my choices, and my hard-babe facade began to yield. I thought of my closet teeming with beautiful clothes and my bathroom drawer filled with makeup and a vast array of ointments. Vanity upon vanity. For whom was I preening and decking myself?
Back home in Nigeria, I had unbridled access to men, from the puritanical to the heretic.
When I packed my one suitcase to come to America, I put everything I thought I needed inside, and romance wasn’t in it. I packed light. I didn’t want any love to wait for me at home other than my mother’s, my brother’s, and my two sisters’. The kind of love that did not need constant tending and the performance of nurturing. All my decisions were influenced by this need to leave home and pursue writing. My singleness was orchestrated by shrewdness. I know Nigerian culture too well to think I would have still followed my aspirations if I’d gotten married. In-laws were likely to ask how special were your dreams to unsettle the home front by relocating. So you think you are the only one that can dream? You think we don’t have dreams of our own? Even though there were people I knew who had it all, who came to an agreement with their partners about leaving, I didn’t want to roll the dice with my future.
Dating back home was easy. You and your dates spoke the same language, and even the nonverbal cues did not need interpretation. I understood the touch or wink that meant I like you . The ones that implied I want to fornicate with you or You are like a sister to me . Not to say that Nigerian men are different from other men in their cunning craftiness; I just knew them better. But the men in America, how would I know? Who would hand me a map and teach me the detours and dead ends? It didn’t help that America is a potpourri of cultures; one person could have Jamaican and Irish roots, his stems Italian and Moroccan, and his branches Korean and French, making him a medley of many cultures and places. Nor did it help that Las Vegas is a transitory place. Many do not pitch their tents here. The profiles on the dating apps reaffirmed my concerns. Just here for the weekend, looking to suck toes. I looked at my toes, wiggling them, and looked at this man’s lips—chapped and unmoisturized—and I wasn’t sure I could trust him with them.
I’ve never endorsed internet dating apps, being a firm advocate for the organic, the way love happens in old movies. The standard meet-cute: You, walking down the streets to nowhere on a sunny day, carrying a stack of books—it is always a stack of books—when some invisible force trips you and you splatter your books on the pavement and, just in the nick of time, the one who shall become your beloved rushes over to help you and you two reach for the same book at the same time and when you lift your head, behold, you are staring into his eyes, hypnotic as Kaa’s from The Jungle Book , inviting you to “Trust in him . . .” Since this scene wasn’t my reality yet, I needed to take my future into my own hands. I scrolled through my phone and searched for my best pictures, something to make me stand out. Aware that perverts and serial killers lurk in these apps, I thought it would make sense to test the waters with the Christian apps. Who knows—I may find what I’m looking for more easily with the men of faith.
I selected my profile picture like you would an outfit for church. The men looked prim and undangerous, and in their bios, they declared their unwavering faith in Jesus. They were looking for good women to fight the good fight of faith with them, God-fearing partners that would help their Christian journey. I swiped right for the few I found attractive. I avoided the shirtless men who looked like strays on their way to some other place less pious, someplace that promised debauchery. I managed to strike up a conversation with a certain brother. It was sparse, like the small talk you had outside the church when the service was over and you’re conscious that people are eavesdropping. He was a graduate student, hoping to get the position of graduate assistantship next semester. I didn’t bother to ask where he was from and he didn’t bother to ask me either. When the talk became too laborious, I exited and kept swiping. I found a good-looking brother who played the trombone in his profile picture, but the first question he asked me was, If you were a musical instrument, what would you be and why? and I unmatched him with Godspeed. The question felt too rehearsed, the same thing he obviously asked other women, auditioning them for the all-important role of life partner. The last thing close to an audition I attended was my visa interview, and I wasn’t ready to relive that experience.
When I ran out of patience, I tried Tinder, in search of people unafraid to show some personality. To layer up my identity and to stand out in this sea of people seeking companionship, I chose pictures that represented me: joyful, bookish, yet fashionable. My tagline was “Nigerian memoirist looking for new stories.”
It didn’t get nasty all at once. At first, I was welcomed by the men who only took hiking pictures. There were lots of them, and they wanted to go on hiking adventures with their love interests. I swiped left because I couldn’t promise that. Being Nigerian in itself is an emotional hike, and I’d come to America to find reprieve.
More personalities unraveled and, in no time, I lost myself in this noisy open marketplace of bare chests and tattoos, biceps and toned abs. The inner streets of Tinder were like walking into a sweaty locker room filled with leery men. I wasn’t particularly shocked; these were just men . . . menning .
The last thing close to an audition I attended was my visa interview, and I wasn’t ready to relive that experience.
Some bios were warnings: Better know your order before we get to Starbucks; Short girls stay away. Swipe left if you are looking for something serious ’cause I’m not. I swiped left. Left for the men passionate about politics. I could foretell that over dinner, the pendulum of conversation would never swing my way. Left for a thirty-six-year-old man, sticking out his tongue in front of a mirror; for the man sitting stark naked on his loo, holding a half-empty shot glass, promising to be more fun in person. How on earth would I bring you home to my mother? A man with a narcissistic pout asked point-blank in his tagline: Can you cook? I swiped left. I didn’t cross the Atlantic Ocean to encounter this question again. I banished the karaoke enthusiast to the left. Men half-naked in bed, men in tight briefs outlining their groins, men looking for peace of mind, men holstering guns, displaying their shooting skills. Left, left, left.
However, men with stethoscopes slung casually around their necks? I swiped right. These are the kind my mother would want for me, men she’d be convinced could take care of me. Shy, bespectacled tech bros, come to my right, baby—who knows if you are the next Zuckerberg? Are middle-aged men unashamed to proclaim their tiredness? Come to my right side, good and faithful one. I am tired too. Out of habit, I swiped right for men with Nigerian names—they will save me the time of explaining cultural nuances. Young men with subtle fashion sense? Right. Men in suits? Right. Men who wore minimal jewelry and perfectly manicured nails? Swipe right.
My first chat was with a man with a broad chest and long hair. Six foot two, according to him. Not quite my spec but he would do.
How are you?
I’m fine , I said.
So what are you looking for, or are you here to collect data for your stories?
That won’t be such a bad idea , I replied.
Give me your number. I want to call you on video. I don’t have time to waste.
No, I won’t give you my number just yet . After that, radio silence.
A good-looking Swiss man asked me if my other name was Enitan since I said I was looking for stories. Before then, I didn’t even know that Enitan, a popular Yoruba name, meant “person with a story.” He punctuated our chats with imperfect Yoruba, and I was impressed.
Where did you learn that? I asked. Who taught you Yoruba?
Married to a Nigerian for 15 years.
Are you still together?
Very much so and I’m not looking to change that. Haha.
Then what are you doing here? Does she know you are on Tinder?
Of course, she knows. This is my last night in Vegas. Wanna grab a drink?
Bad idea, I thought. These things don’t end well.
There were migrants looking to date only American citizens, men who discontinued the chat when I said I neither smoked nor liked to party, and men recruiting for threesomes. After forty-eight hours, my hand began to hurt from all the swiping without result. I deleted my profiles and uninstalled the apps.
My people say, “Many routes lead to the market,” but this online dating path? This would not lead me anywhere. I felt like I was worrying the hands of destiny, stopping them from ticking at their own pace. Many times, these things happen when you’re not looking, and I’d rather a meet-cute than the emotional chess dating apps require. Walking through them was like wearing two left shoes. Besides, I was grateful for this momentary stillness in my life, devoid of relationship drama. Why settle when none of the men were a good option to present to my mother? I couldn’t risk settling for just about anyone and her asking me: So this is the best you could do in America?