Dear Nigerian Women,
Do you remember those school shoes that I used to have? The ones that my uncle from America got for me that one time? I remember. They were some cheap Skechers that – as it turns out – weren’t even made of real leather. Just a rubber shoe with a faux leather coating and rubber soles that splayed out like British teeth after less than a month of use.
I remember them well. I was wearing them the first time I told you that I loved you. I was wearing them when I asked you to prom. I was wearing them on the day I realized that I wasn’t good enough for you. Talk about a hard lesson to learn. Nothing sucks quite like unrequited love, especially at fifteen.
If I’m being honest, I suspected for a while that you felt this way. I just didn’t think it mattered that much, but I guess it did. I can’t say that I blame you though. You can only watch your boyfriend be called “Omo Baba Cook,” for so long before it really starts to eat at you (pun intended). Frankly, that’s the only reason I was even at the school to begin with. Scholarship baby of a man who was as kind as he was broke. All hard work and not a penny to show for it. I can’t blame you for ditching me back then. Had my lot been any different, I might have done the same thing.
After prom, I knew I never wanted to feel like that again. I decided that if I wanted anything, I was going to be good enough to have it. Unfortunately, University was a luxury I couldn’t afford. After graduation came and went, I started learning how to cook from my father. I figured, if nothing else, I’ll at least be able to make a living doing that.
Three years later, my father passed away. I always knew that day wasn’t far off. Poor people always die younger than everyone else. I figured there was no use setting my hopes on some nonexistent inheritance from a man like him. To my surprise, the man had one last trick up his sleeve. He had apparently been saving – enough to leave me with enough money to last me a few days and a copy of the book, “The Richest Man In Babylon.”
With my father gone, and no other family members close by, I decided it was time to leave town. I made my way down to the ports in Apapa, where I rented a small space by the roadside for a canteen. I worked out a deal with the man who rented me the space. I let him eat and drink as much as he liked and he let me live in his boys quarters for a discounted price. All the while, I kept practicing everything that was in the book my father had given me: save 10% of your income, use 20% on your expenses, the rest can be spent at your discretion. Since most of the things I really wanted were far outside my price range, I ended up saving far more than 10%, which later turned out to be a good thing.
Business was slow at first, but it soon picked up. If there’s one thing you can trust, it’s that sailors know how to eat and drink. About a year later, I found out that there was an opening as a cook for one of the ships. The crew sailed around the world moving stuff back and forth for rich people. I knew this was going to be my chance to see the world, so I sold my spot back to my landlord along with a few of his favorite recipes, so that I could have enough money to get my papers in order.
The first few trips were miserable. It takes most people around 3 days to get their sea legs, but I fumbled around during the first week of every trip for the first 6 months. Any time we landed in a new port, I would go and learn about food. During a trip to Japan, I met a guy name Ichiro, who was gracious enough to teach me about sushi. Any time we landed in Japan, I would go find him. I learned how to make Bulgogi during some trips to South Korea. New York was insane! There were so many different kinds of food that I didn’t even know where to begin. After five more years of sailing, I went back to New York to enroll in a culinary school, spent a few more years apprenticing around the world before finally coming back home to open up my first restaurant.
I didn’t think that I would ever see you again till you came to dinner in hopes of reviewing my restaurant. I had no idea that you were a writer, much less that the fate of what was then my second restaurant lay in your hands. In those days I often dressed as a waiter so that I could hear directly what people think. People are surprisingly honest when they think you’re nobody special.
I was delighted to see that you kept coming back. I thought we had a good enough rapport when I asked you out again only to feel the sudden twinge of an old wound when you said you don’t date waiters. I asked you to reconsider, but perhaps, if Bisi had never told you the truth about me, you might never have done so.
It’s funny. I’ve heard you tell your friends about how I changed over the years. The other day, I heard you tell Bisi that I had turned into this incredibly kind, loving, and ambitious guy. I’ve thought long and hard about it, but I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t the guy you described. I just wish you had seen it back when those shoes were all I had. It took me a long time to figure out that having money didn’t make me worthy of your love; it only made you notice that I could be.
Mr. Wasn’t Good Enough