Ifemelu answers an ad looking for a “female personal assistant” for a tennis coach. The blonde man invites her into his office, which is in the basement, and says that he’s looking for an assistant to “help him relax.” He’ll pay one hundred dollars a day. Ifemelu feels uneasy, and finally decides to leave. She keeps applying to jobs, but doesn’t find anything. Obinze even sends her some money. Ginika helps Ifemelu with her job search, and finds her an interview for a babysitting position that pays cash under the table.
Ifemelu’s “American dream” is definitely over by now, as she finds herself unable to find any but the most unappetizing job and is constantly panicking about money. It is cruelly ironic that Obinze must send Ifemelu money, as usually immigrants imagine going to America, getting rich, and sending money back home.
Ifemelu goes to the woman’s house, which is large and extravagant. Her name is Kimberly, and her sister Laura is there as well. Ifemelu introduces herself, and Kimberly says her name is beautiful, and that she loves “multicultural names” because they always have “rich” meanings. Later Ifemelu would learn that Kimberly uses “beautiful” in a certain way—whenever she mentions or describes a black woman, she calls them beautiful. When Ifemelu figured this out she said to Kimberly “you can just say ‘black.’ Not every black person in beautiful.” Kimberly smiled at this, and Ifemelu would consider that the moment they became real friends.
With Kimberly Adichie introduces a character that allows her to observe and criticize wealthy, liberal white Americans. Racism in America isn’t always obvious or intentional. It is present even in the way Kimberly calls every black person “beautiful”—seeing them as “other” and so being unintentionally patronizing. This moment is a rare example of real connection across races and nationalities—Kimberly accepts Ifemelu’s critique, and the two develop a real friendship because of it.
At the interview Laura and Kimberly ask Ifemelu questions about her transition to America. Kimberly comments on all the “wonderful organic food” Ifemelu must be used to. Laura boasts that she doesn’t have a babysitter for her children. Ifemelu wants to talk back to her, but restrains herself. Kimberly shows Ifemelu the house, where there are many pictures of her and her husband with poor people in exotic locales. Ifemelu would later learn that for Kimberly, “the poor were blameless,” especially the foreign poor.
Kimberly often says insensitive things, but she is well-intentioned, receptive to Ifemelu’s point of view, and sees Ifemelu as a whole person and friend. Laura shares many of Kimberly’s views, but lacks her better qualities. Adichie analyzes the subtle national and racial hierarchies of charity, as being charitable implies a kind of superiority and condescension, even if one’s motives are pure.
Kimberly’s husband Don arrives before Ifemelu leaves. He is charming and attractive, but clearly knows he is so. He and Kimberly talk about their charity work, and Kimberly looks very sad when she talks about how they hope to do work in Africa. Ifemelu suddenly feels sorry for having come from Africa, for being from a place that makes people like Kimberly force themselves to feel sad. The next day Kimberly calls Ifemelu and says that they hired someone else, but they’ll “keep her in mind.”
In many social situations Ifemelu finds herself as a representative of all of Africa, and so feels like she is personally requiring charitable work of people like Kimberly. Don and Kimberly’s relationship seems flawed and one-sided, as Kimberly adores Don and Don mostly adores himself.
Ifemelu is a week late for rent, and her roommate leaves her a note about it. She considers applying for a job as an “escort,” but Ginika warns her that it means prostitution. One day her roommate Elena’s dog eats Ifemelu’s bacon. Ifemelu tells Elena, who says that Ifemelu hates the dog, and tells her not to “kill my dog with voodoo.” She smirks, and Ifemelu suddenly feels a rush of rage. She raises her hand to strike Elena but then catches herself and runs upstairs. She hears Elena on the phone calling her a “bitch.”
Ifemelu is nearing a breaking point now, as all of America seems against her, and the microaggressions (small or subtle incidents/comments that reinforce larger prejudices like racism and xenophobia) like Elena’s add up, wearing her down to the point that she wants to lash out. The cultural misunderstandings aren’t humorous anymore.
Ifemelu realizes that she isn’t especially mad at Elena and her dog, but is “at war with the world,” and everyone seems against her. Her other roommate comes asking for the rent, and Ifemelu pays her, using up the last of her money. Then Ifemelu calls the tennis coach and says she wants the job. He tells her to come over right away.
Ifemelu is desperate for money now, and seems truly “subdued” by America. Her struggles for identity and success in America are all too common, and Adichie makes them personal and sympathetic through Ifemelu’s character.
Ifemelu arrives and the tennis coach brings her up to his bedroom. She tells him that she won’t have sex with him, and he says she doesn’t have to, his manner very confident. Ifemelu feels defeated. She lies down next to him as he asks, and he starts to touch her. She is horrified to find herself becoming aroused. Afterwards she feels unclean even after she washes her hands. The man gives her a hundred dollar bill and asks her to come back twice a week.
This is Ifemelu’s low point in her struggle to earn money in America. She has gone from her pure and empowering romantic love with Obinze to this quasi-prostitution with a white man who is confident in his total power over her. Ifemelu feels totally defeated by America.
Ifemelu goes back to her apartment and feels small and alone in the world. She keeps scrubbing at her hands. She finds herself unable to call Obinze. She calls Aunty Uju, who is pleased that she earned money and doesn’t even ask how she made it. Ifemelu then listens to her messages. One is from Obinze, telling her he loves her. She lies down and falls into a deep depression. She considers murdering the tennis coach. That night it snows for the first time.
Ifemelu now falls into a deep depression, and her self-hatred and lethargy lead her to stop talking to Obinze. They were already separated by thousands of miles, but now Ifemelu suddenly disconnects herself from the relationship with this sudden and total silence. Ifemelu hits bottom and feels totally broken.
After that the days pass in a haze. Ifemelu doesn’t answer Obinze’s calls, and she deletes his messages. She feels listless and hopeless all the time, and sometimes cries at random. She stops going to class and sometimes forgets to eat. One day her roommate bangs on her door, saying that she has a phone call. She gives Ifemelu her phone and it’s Ginika, saying she’s been worried and Obinze has been calling her frantically. Ifemelu can only say “I’ve been busy.”
Ifemelu and Obinze’s relationship falls apart along with Ifemelu’s mental health and sense of self. She has never experienced depression like this before, and so doesn’t know how to handle it. She abruptly ends all communication with Obinze, feeling overwhelmed by trying to explain it all.
Ginika says that Kimberly’s new babysitter just left, so she wants to hire Ifemelu. The next day Ginika comes to get Ifemelu. She says that she thinks Ifemelu is suffering from depression. Ifemelu thinks it can’t be true, as only Americans suffer from depression. Later Ifemelu would write a blog post about this—foreign immigrants coming to America and experiencing all the symptoms of depression or anxiety, but refusing to accept that anything is wrong because such ailments are “only for Americans.” Ifemelu wishes she had told Ginika about the tennis coach, but finds that she can’t talk about it now. She only says “thank you” and then starts to cry.
Part of Adichie’s cultural observations and criticisms involves the prevalence of mental health issues in America. Ifemelu had never experienced real depression until she was faced with the overwhelming stress and isolation of life as an immigrant in America. This works both ways, however, as many people from foreign countries then discount any mental health issues as “only for Americans,” and so further isolate those suffering.