Back in the present, Mariama returns to the hair salon with the Chinese food. Halima’s customer, who is very young, talks about her children. When she leaves, the women all comment on how sexually active young people are in America, saying it wasn’t like that in Africa. Ifemelu doesn’t join in agreeing with them, and she knows that they will talk about her too when she leaves: the Nigerian girl who thinks she’s so important because she lives in Princeton.
Adichie portrays this disparagement of American sinfulness as a common part of immigrant identity. Mariama and her employees want to be American citizens and have American accents, but they also like to idealize their homeland as somehow less corrupt. In the same way they will gossip about Ifemelu, even though they are jealous of her.
Back in her recollections, Ifemelu arrives in America and is surprised at how hot it is, as she had always assumed America would be cold. Aunty Uju picks her up from the airport in New York. Uju seems tense and unhappy, different from how Ifemelu remembers her. In the car Uju answers the phone and pronounces her own name differently. She tells Ifemelu that that’s what people call her here. They arrive at her small apartment in Brooklyn and Dike greets Ifemelu excitedly.
Ifemelu is now thrown into an entirely foreign world, separated from Obinze and her parents. This begins Ifemelu’s great realization that America is not like “The Cosby Show” or the place Obinze had so idealized. Aunty Uju now pronounces even her own name differently—showing how America has affected her identity.
Dike has a Hispanic babysitter. At the time Ifemelu assumed she was white, but later she would write a blog post about this called “Understanding America for the Non-American Black: What Hispanic Means.” In the blog post Ifemelu says that Hispanic is an American racial category spanning all of South and Central America, people of many different colors and nationalities. If you speak Spanish and aren’t from Spain, then when you come to America you are suddenly a race called “Hispanic.”
On her first night in America Ifemelu is immediately introduced to the country’s complicated racial politics and hierarchies, though she doesn’t realize it yet. As soon as Ifemelu moves to America, Adichie starts sprinkling the chapters with posts from Ifemelu’s later blog about race, showing just how all-encompassing an issue it is.
Back in her memory, Ifemelu is entranced by Dike, who is now a precocious first-grader. Ifemelu has to sleep on the floor, as Aunty Uju and Dike share the single bed. Ifemelu expected everything to be more glamorous than it is, and she can’t fall asleep, overcome by the newness of it all. She looks out the window and notices how different the street looks from the one on The Cosby Show.
Ifemelu’s first introduction to America is anticlimactic, as might be expected. She has learned about the country from Obinze’s praises and idealized television shows, and so is disappointed by the reality of America. Aunty Uju clearly still hasn’t found success yet in “the land of opportunity.”
The next morning Aunty Uju wakes Ifemelu up with brisk instructions, telling her that she should take care of Dike for the summer and then find a job in Philadelphia. Uju has a friend who will let Ifemelu use her Social Security Card, as her student visa won’t let her find work. Aunty Uju seems scornful of Ifemelu’s naiveté, and Ifemelu feels hurt by this new “prickliness” about her. Uju goes off to work and Ifemelu tries to adjust to cooking things like hot dogs, which she tries to fry like a sausage. That evening Ifemelu tells Uju about the hot dog, but Uju isn’t amused. She seems distracted and harried.
Aunty Uju has been changed by the difficulty and foreignness of her new life, and she no longer shares her old natural connection and intimacy with Ifemelu. Ifemelu is immediately introduced to the harsh realities of life for an immigrant—she has a partial scholarship, but her student visa won’t allow her to work, so she must illegally borrow a citizen’s identity card in order to make any money.
At the grocery story Aunty Uju only buys what’s on sale. Ifemelu notices that she takes on an American accent when she speaks to white Americans. At the store Dike makes a scene about buying a more expensive cereal, and afterwards Uju twists his ear and complains about how all the children in America misbehave.
Aunty Uju acts like the women at the hair salon—complaining about how America corrupts people—even as Uju herself changes her very voice to try and fit in with white Americans. She has been working multiple jobs and saving for years, but Uju is still very poor.
That night Ifemelu talks to Dike in Igbo, and Aunty Uju rebukes her, saying that things are different in America, and learning two languages will confuse him. Ifemelu asks what is wrong, and Aunty Uju finally admits that she recently failed her medical exams. She says they weren’t testing knowledge, but only test-taking ability. She had thought things would be better for her and Dike after all this time in America, but she is still studying and working several jobs. Ifemelu feels bad, and notices that Aunty Uju looks so much less put-together than she did in Nigeria. She thinks, “America had subdued her.”
Everything since her arrival seems disappointing and even unfriendly to Ifemelu, and Aunty Uju provides an example of how the pressures of immigrant life can “subdue” and change someone. Adichie delivers some extra cultural criticism through Uju, noting how standardized tests are biased towards native English speakers and those used to taking such tests.