It was one of our first days of lectures; today’s course was ‘Introduction to Biostatistics’. I knew it would be challenging for me to adapt to the new method of teaching since I was studying in a new country. Plus I barely understood the British accent. I had my work cut out for me. I was ready to listen attentively in class, ask questions, and study harder than I usually did. I proudly thought about myself as a good student usually. However, what I had failed to realize was that it took more than just reading or attending classes to become an excellent student. In fact, it was only after different experiences of mine that I began to understand that phrase, one which my secondary school guardian always said to me – “Don’t just pass through the school, let the school pass through you too.”
The biostatistics class was the most boring class I had ever had in my life so far; it was amazing how one could turn a science course into a sleeping class. Believe me, I am not exaggerating, some big guy sitting behind me was snoring loudly. As I left the lecture room that day, I could only think about how much more studying I would have to do that night, to make up for my loss of attention during the lecture. My head was filled with plans; plans to eat immediately I got home, take a nap, start studying….until someone spoke to me
“Are you alright?” he said with a British accent. I looked at him, he was black, quite good-looking but with a piercing on his left ear; I quickly stereotyped him – playboy, British wannabe. Nonetheless, I smiled and answered him “Yes, I am”. I assumed that somehow he had sensed that I had a lot on my mind and so he was thoughtful enough to ask if I was doing fine. He smiled back and introduced himself as ‘M.G’.
“What does M.G stand for?” I had to ask.
“Madongo” he said “but it’s too long so people find it difficult to pronounce” he continued.
“Ok, where are you from?” my curiosity was growing.
“I’m from London but my parents are from Uganda”
It was at that point I decided not to be his friend. I just could not understand why anybody would say that; perhaps it was because where I came from. You are from the same place as your father or your husband, if you got married. I also thought to myself ‘What is so long about his name?’ Some people always try hard to find excuses to hide their true identity and he came across to me as one of those people– his accent, his earring, his ‘new’ name and nationality. As we parted ways, he asked if we could go out for coffee sometime; I told him that I did not drink coffee and then said my goodbye. He must have thought that I was joking because he laughed but I did not bother to continue the conversation.
Over the next few weeks, he would wait behind after lectures and walk up to me asking “Are you alright?” That first day he had asked me, I had assumed that he was being thoughtful but after then, it was beginning to sound insulting to me.
In Nigeria most of the time, when people ask you that, it was a way of saying that you had done something stupid or that you were not thinking correctly. For example, if you burned the food you were cooking at home, my mum would yell at you, asking “Are you alright?!” or if you spent your pocket money extravagantly, my dad would ask you sternly “Were you alright?!” And so I felt that this boy was just taking the piss by asking me the same question every day. I started to avoid him after a while, just to keep my distance from unnecessary provocation.
Two weeks passed by and everything seemed to working out fine; class work was more intense and lectures were getting even more boring- but I was on top of my game. I had not attended a single party since I arrived England and I had not made more friends since after the first week as I did not see the need to; it was hard enough keeping up with the few I had then. All I did was study. It was now a week before our mid-term assessments and everybody was rushing for the next lecture after Biostatistics; I saw M.G standing by the door looking like he was waiting for someone. I came out and quickly turned to a different corner so that he would not notice me as I really was not in a good mood that day.
I heard him call my name but I ignored him, hoping he would give up but he ran to me, blocking my way. “Hey K!” I hated when he called me that; my name is Kodilichukwu but he preferred to shorten it; probably to help me hide my own identity. I put on my fake British smile, the only thing I had learned in England besides my books; it was a very useful skill for hiding one’s true emotion. “Hi M.G, how are you today?” I asked. “I’m good although it seems like you’ve been avoiding me. Are you alright?” He had just said it again! “Why are you always asking me if I’m alright?” I asked him, my fake smile vanishing. “I don’t mean any harm, you just asked me if I was alright too” he answered with a perplexed look.
“No, I didn’t! I asked you how you were doing, not if you are alright”
“What’s the difference?” he asked.
“The difference is that I did not insult you in any way but you… you always come to ask me if I’m alright!” My voice was beginning to rise and people had started gathering around us, watching and listening. “Why?! Do I not look all-right to you?! Why is it only me, EVERYTIME!” And with that, I walked away. We did not speak to each other again after that; I was relieved – no more insults! This was one of the reasons I did not like to talk to boys, they always wanted to take a lady for granted when she seemed nice; I told myself.
It was at the end of the term that I decided to start exploring the city and country. We had finished exams and so, I had some time now to mix up with people and attend social gatherings. It was during this period that I realized that “Are you alright?” was a common greeting over there; just like “How are you?” It was also then that I understood that when people asked you to go out with them for coffee, they were most likely asking you out on a date and not necessarily to drink coffee. With such realizations dawning on me, I thought about M.G;
I wanted to apologize to him but felt that it was too late, so I only hoped that he would not remember.
It was not until our graduation that M.G and I bumped into each other in a way that we could not ignore each other. After an awkward minute of silence, he introduced to me to his mum who was standing next to him. I heard him tell her that I was ‘that course mate’ he had told her about before he turned to me and asked “Are you alright?” This time, I laughed hard and when I caught my breath, I answered confidently “Yes, I am alright and you?” before we proceeded to take some pictures of our memorable day.
Finally I had scaled successfully though my academic program but this time, a different kind of student; less quick to judge and more open to trying out new things that I would never have done ordinarily.
Photo Credit: Dreamstime | Birgit Reitz-hofmann