22 Cultural Studies

Between Worlds: Assimilation and the Voices of Alienation

Sophia Zahorka

Navigating through cultural intersections, “The Thing Around Your Neck” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie takes readers through a powerful exploration of personal identity as a young Nigerian woman named Akunna migrates to America and experiences the stark contrast of culture compared to her home. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie immigrated from Nsukka, Nigeria in 1977 to pursue her academic career. After moving to America, Adichie expressed feeling irritated with Americans she encountered who viewed Africa as a monolithic community (Raz). Adichie strived to “peel apart the layers of ‘losses and gains’ that immigrants face” (Raz). As a young Nigerian immigrant woman herself, Adichie skillfully narrates the complexities of self-introspection within the framework of cultural dynamics, offering readers a glimpse into the injustices faced by many immigrants in America. Through the lens of cultural studies criticism, “The Thing Around Your Neck” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie intricately explores the intersection of personal identity and cultural context, revealing the profound challenges and transformations faced by immigrants in America. Through vivid illustrations of the lack of diversity, the depiction of stereotypes and micro-aggressions, and the prevalence of a cultural disconnect, Adichie underscores the alienation experienced by nonwhite immigrants navigating predominantly white communities.

Adichie vividly illustrates the lack of diversity and accessibility for the lives of immigrants in America. Beginning with her arrival in the United States, Akunna instantly reflects on the stark contrast of white America in comparison to her home in Lagos, Nigeria. Noting that her uncle had a job in a white town, Akunna contends, “his wife had to drive an hour to find a hair salon that did black hair” (Adichie 198). Despite the United States being known as a culturally diverse nation, Adichie exposes the challenges faced by immigrants in accessing the most basic services that cater to their needs. Additionally, Adichie unveils the broader issue of the lack of diversity when emphasizing the cultural disconnect of Akunna’s white community. “They asked where you learned to speak English and if you had real houses back in Africa and if you’d seen a car before you came to America. They gawped at your hair. Does it stand up or fall down when you take out the braids?” (Adichie 199). Akunna is faced with a culture that does not understand her and is not shy in making her feel different and an outcast. These micro-aggressions faced by Akunna represent the prevalence of stereotypes and cultural disconnect that contribute to the alienation experienced by immigrants in predominantly white communities.

Expanding on the prevalence of micro-aggressions perpetuated by her community, Adichie articulates many instances of stereotypes and assumptions forced onto immigrants. For example, Akunna’s uncle had told her how his neighbors told him that the squirrels had started to disappear once he moved in. They had told him that they had heard that it was because Africans ate all different types of wild animals (Adichie 199). This disturbing encounter highlights the profound ignorant nature of cultural stereotypes used to dehumanize immigrants. Another example of this is when Adichie writes, “Many people at the restaurant asked when you had come from Jamaica, because they thought that every black person with a foreign accent was Jamaican. Or some who guessed that you were African told you that they loved elephants and wanted to go on a safari” (Adichie 205). The mere concept that strangers assumed she was from Jamaica because she was a black person with an accent is a great example of the covert racism forced upon the protagonist from her nondiverse community.

The covert racism experienced by Akunna becomes even more evident as “The Thing Around Your Neck” delves into the intricacies of Akunna’s interracial relationship. Adichie expresses the all too obvious “abnormal” nature of their relationship. The staring, the glares, the muttering behind their ears, and the unnatural expression of praise from self-serving white men and women all portray the overarching theme of alienation faced by the protagonist by her white counterparts (Adichie 215). Moreover, Akunna’s relationship with her white American boyfriend stands as a poignant symbol of the ultimate cultural disconnect between her and her new community. The boyfriend’s well-intentioned yet misguided attempts to understand Akunna and her background highlight the vast cultural chasm that separates them. For example, after expressing her discomfort at the fact that the waiter at the restaurant prior had made a comment that insinuated Akunna could not possibly be his girlfriend, her boyfriend had said nothing to defend her. Akunna recalls, “Before he apologized, he gazed at you blankly and you knew that he did not understand” (Adichie 212). The boyfriend’s inability to comprehend the gravity of the situation emphasizes the racial dynamics that Akunna is forced to grapple with while he is not. The boyfriend has not been on the receiving end of discrimination for the color of his skin so he fails to understand how this could hurt Akunna. The lack of response to the waiter by Akunna’s boyfriend highlights the privilege he holds and the cultural blind spots within their relationship.

This point of contention between Akunna and her boyfriend is also portrayed by Adichie regarding their differentiating experiences with wealth and privilege. For example, when explaining how he had not graduated from college because he took a few years off to find himself and travel, Akunna expresses “You did not know that people could simply choose not to go to school, that people could dictate to life” (Adichie 208). Akunna is angered by the boyfriend’s disdain and unawareness for his privilege and his family’s wealth. “You realized that in his life, he could buy presents that were just presents and nothing else, nothing useful” (Adichie 213). Emily, a programming coordinator at the Dauphin County Library evaluates how “Akunna’s boyfriend is seemingly unaffected by his access to these privileges that Akunna has thus far only hear stories about” (Emily). Adichie utilizes the boyfriend’s oblivious disregard for the simple luxuries that Akunna does not have the privilege of experiencing to highlight the evident cultural disconnect experienced by some immigrants in America. This cultural dichotomy between Akunna and her boyfriend only expands the depths of Akunna’s struggle to assimilate into her new country.

Throughout the short story, Adichie painfully continues to express the struggles that Akunna faces to assimilate into her new home. In a journal entry about Adichie’s literary impact, Amusan Ifeoluwa Mary writes that Akunna, “like her uncle’s family, is unable to completely detach from the memories of the home culture, and simply creates, through a transcultural identity, a new space where both cultures serve the need for survival” (Ifeoluwa Mary 43). Although Akunna is understanding of the sentiment that “America was give-and-take,” Akunna struggles with fully giving away her cultural and personal identity to fully assimilate into American culture. When Akunna first arrives in America, Adichie writes, “You laughed with your uncle and you felt at home in his house […] They spoke Igbo and ate garri for lunch and it was like home” (Adichie 199). Akunna is troubled with her sense of security and home. Her loss of home and security is also expressed by her sense of loneliness, “Nobody knew where you were, because you told no one. Sometimes you felt invisible and tried to walk through your room wall into the hallway” (Adichie 204). Although lonely, Akunna refused to write to her family back home because she felt insufficient with herself and her success in a promising country. She could not provide her family with the gifts of perfumes, clothes, handbags, and shoes that her family expected of her. Whereas her family congratulated her for winning the visa lottery, Akunna felt far from lucky. This sense of internal struggle with identity between the two countries is an apparent narrative that many immigrants face when adjusting to America. As gone through this process herself, Adichie’s short story underscores the internal battle of personal identity within a culture that is not her own.

In “The Thing Around Your Neck,” Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie artfully navigates the hardships of personal identity and cultural assimilation faced by immigrants through the lens of a young Nigerian immigrant woman, Akunna. Akunna’s experiences vividly illustrate the challenges faced by many immigrants. Adichie does a clear and magnificent job at unraveling the intersections of personal identity and cultural context through the display of racism and injustice that Akunna is forced to cross paths with. The vivid illustrations of the lack of diversity, depiction of stereotypes and micro-aggressions, and the prevalence of a cultural disconnect underscores the very clear and poignant alienation that is experienced by nonwhite immigrants navigating predominantly white communities. While “The Thing Around Your Neck” serves as a transformative piece of literature that transcends the cultural understanding of immigrants, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s work continues to stand as a powerful testament to the resilience of immigrants.

Works Cited

Adichie, Chimamanda Ngozi. “The Thing Around Your Neck.” UK and US: Fourth Place and Alfred A. Knopf, 2009.

Emily. 2020. Short spot spotlight on: The thing around your neck. Dauphin County Library System. https://www.dcls.org/ShortSport12182020. Accessed 24 Nov 2023.

Ifeoluwa Mary, Amusan. “Adapting to Life in America: Cultural Loss in the Thing Around Your Neck by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.” Confetti, Volume 8, 2022. Accessed 12 Nov 2023.

Raz, G. 2009, June 21. Irritation and space: A nigerian writer in America. NPR. https://www.npr.org/2009/06/21/105588688/irritation-and-space-a-nigerian-writer-in-america. Accessed 24 Nov 2023.

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Beginnings and Endings: A Critical Edition Copyright © 2021 by Liza Long is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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