Back in the present, two new customers come into the hair salon. One asks about the many Nigerian DVDs in the salon. She says she is from South Africa, and so is biased against Nigerians because they are known for stealing credit cards. The salon workers are amazed that the woman has a perfect American accent and they flatter her about it. They talk more about how untrustworthy Nigerians can be. Aisha asks Ifemelu why she doesn’t have an American accent after living here for fifteen years. Ifemelu ignores the question, and wonders if she has made a bad decision in giving up her blog and moving back to Nigeria.
Ifemelu’s memory of first deciding to give up her American accent is then juxtaposed with this scene, more than ten years later, when she still has her Nigerian accent and is thought less of because of it. Ifemelu experiences this microcosm of female African immigrant life in America at the same time as she is questioning herself and about to leave everything behind.
A young white woman comes into the salon and asks to get her hair braided. She is “aggressively friendly,” and introduces herself as Kelsey. She asks Mariama about her business, and whether women are allowed to vote in her country. She tries to talk to Ifemelu about the book she’s reading. Ifemelu can tell that Kelsey is the kind of liberal American who likes to criticize America but doesn’t like foreigners to criticize it—they’re supposed to be grateful for being allowed to come here.
Kelsey offers an example of a liberal young white person who condescends to foreigners under the guise of open-mindedness. Ifemelu’s observations about her hypocrisy will be repeated later, and are part of Adichie’s cultural criticism of the racism that exists even in liberal America.
Kelsey keeps pursuing a conversation with Ifemelu, and says that she is visiting Africa soon. She says she recently read the book A Bend in the River, which helped her “truly understand how modern Africa works.” Ifemelu starts to get a headache, and she decides to tell Kelsey what she really thinks of that book—that it is about a longing for Europe and a contempt for Africa. Kelsey looks surprised, and then says that she can see why Ifemelu would read it that way. Ifemelu says the same thing to Kelsey.
Kelsey is being truly patronizing to claim that she “truly understands how modern Africa works,” when she has never been there and has only read one book about it. She is surprised to hear resistance and individuality from Ifemelu, as she is expecting the African women to be quietly grateful that they are now in America.
Ifemelu feels sick, and realizes that she doesn’t know what she’s doing with her life right now, or why she’s moving back to Nigeria. Mariama asks Kelsey if she wants hair attachments, and Kelsey is surprised, as she assumed that black women with braided hair just “had such full hair.” Mariama braids Kelsey’s hair quickly. Ifemelu watches Mariama, thinking of “her own new American selves.”
Hair is once again presented as a complicated symbol, as Kelsey shows how white American society appropriates parts of black culture for itself (like music, fashion, or in this case a hairstyle) while continuing to oppress black people themselves. Ifemelu thinks of the identities she and the other women have created to fit in better in America.
Ifemelu slips into a memory of Curt, her first serious boyfriend after Obinze. Curt is Kimberly’s cousin, and he visits from Maryland. He claims that he fell in love the first time he heard Ifemelu laugh. Ifemelu hadn’t realized this, however. She had recently had a crush on another white man, a fellow student named Abe. Abe liked her, but couldn’t seem to consider her truly female, and so was unable to have romantic feelings for her. She first noticed Curt when he retrieved a lost ball for Taylor, but gave it to her first instead of Taylor.
Ifemelu’s relationship with Curt allows Adichie to examine both romantic love and interracial, cross-cultural relations in depth. Abe shows another way that racism exhibits itself—through romantic attraction or the lack thereof. Curt, unlike Abe, is romantically attracted to Ifemelu, which means he sees her as both a person and as a beautiful woman.
Later that day Curt asks her out, and Ifemelu feels happy to be so wanted by this rich, very handsome white man. They go to dinner and he tells her about himself, his business, and his wealthy family. She is attracted to his good-natured enthusiasm and confidence. Afterward he kisses Ifemelu, and immediately says that they have to tell Kimberly that they’re dating. Ifemelu is surprised at his assumption that they’re dating after just one kiss, but she goes along with it.
Curt is not only white, he is also rich, handsome, and sociable. He is a good person and Ifemelu is smitten (and a little overwhelmed) by him, but their experiences are vastly different. Everything always seems to go Curt’s way, so he automatically assumes that Ifemelu will want to date him after a single kiss.
The next day Kimberly and her children all talk about Curt and Ifemelu’s new “relationship,” and Ifemelu feels overwhelmed. Don is surprised when he hears about it, as if he had never considered that they could be romantically linked. The first time they have sex Curt tells her he’s never slept with a black woman before. He seems totally smitten by Ifemelu, and she is pleased and amused by his compliments. She never mentions Obinze to him, as it would seem sacrilegious to refer to him as an “ex.” She still tries to write to Obinze sometimes, but never sends anything.
Don’s surprise will be echoed many times over by other people—people who otherwise might not be racist at all, but are still surprised to see someone like Curt dating someone like Ifemelu. Curt is Ifemelu’s first serious boyfriend after Obinze, but clearly he hasn’t replaced Obinze. Ifemelu can’t even talk about Obinze because their lost love seems so pure and almost holy to her.
As her relationship with Curt progresses, Ifemelu finds herself leading a lavish and carefree life—going to nice restaurants, going hiking, and kayaking. He is spontaneous and upbeat, and everything always seems to go his way. Sometimes Ifemelu has a perverse desire to crush his relentless optimism, but she is also happy with him, and partly admires his happiness and his unwavering belief that the future will always hold good things.
Ifemelu had struggled very hard to make it in America, but now that she is dating Curt everything suddenly comes easy for her, and she starts living extravagantly. Curt is a good person, but he is also the ultimate beneficiary of society’s privileges, and so everything always seems to go his way.