MEXICO CITY — For more than a year, I’d been feeling the need to make a giant change in my life. My longtime girlfriend had moved to Mexico City. I’d lived in Minnesota for 20 years for college or work and while I loved it, it was time for a new adventure.
Moving to Mexico without a job didn’t seem crazy. I’m 25 with lots of working years ahead and at this point no one depending on me. I’m fluent in Spanish and it all felt a little romantic following my love to Mexico.
Then my mother told me to call my uncle and my older brother. “They need to know about the trip,” she said.
I didn’t want to call. I knew they would not get the romance.
My family’s roots sit deep in West African soil, where patriarchy remains a powerful, binding force. Patriarchs — often the eldest, wealthiest or most respected members of the family — are responsible for the well-being and prosperity of the family.
In 2001, when my grandfather passed away, my Uncle Claude — the only son and youngest child and wealthiest of four siblings — became the head of the family.
Growing up Cameroonian and American, respecting my African traditions while embracing my Americanness was always a challenge. I was suddenly reminded that every important life decision I make must first be approved by the Bissoy family patriarchs.
The discussion with my brother would probably be OK.
Uncle Claude would be another matter.
When I was in high school and college, I talked frequently with Uncle Claude. Growing up as an only child in a single-mother house, he was a vital presence in my life, but the relationship became strained over the years as our father-and-son-like conversations slowly turned into lectures. I hadn’t talked to him since a cousin’s wedding in Cameroon nearly a year ago.
So I called my older brother first.
We are both very social, curious, cultured and ambitious. When he was 18, he left Cameroon for France to earn a degree in finance. By the time I turned 18, I had seen him a total of five times since moving to Minnesota in 1999 at the age of 5.
He had heard about the move to Mexico from my mom and was quick to tell me on the call that he didn’t approve. The conversation took about 15 minutes. I explained to him my rationale for the move and the importance of moving to Mexico.
He wasn’t happy with the move, but in the end was supportive. “Look, I know you and I don’t always get along, but I know you’re smart and ambitious. If you think this is the right decision, you have my support,” he said before hanging up.
The Uncle Claude conversation would last much longer and go very differently.
His video call appeared on my phone as I sat in a coffee shop waiting for a friend. I let it ring for a moment to gather myself, before finally picking up.
“Bonjour, tonton,” I said to him in French. “Hey uncle, I just wanted to let you know that I’m moving to Mexico soon to move in with my girlfriend. I wanted you to hear this from me and not anyone else.”
I explained to him my need for change, the necessity for me to be with my significant other and that, feeling stuck at work, I’d quit my job in October.
He stared at me intensely through the video chat, shaking his head in dissatisfaction.
“So. You’re telling me that you are leaving your job to move in with a woman? In what world do you think this is OK?” he started.
“I understand that in today’s world the roles of a man and woman have changed a little bit, so there are things that are acceptable today, that weren’t when I was growing up. That said, I can’t simply accept that my child moves in with another woman while not having a job. A man should provide for his woman and family, he is not supposed to move in with his girlfriend.”
“It sounds to me like you’re giving up and I don’t get it … You have a good job for a top media company, you are just starting to figure things out, so, why leave all that behind for a girl? I understand that you get lonely being in a long-distance relationship, but that is part of life. You need to understand that currently you are nothing, once you lose your job, you’ll be a manless man.”
His lecture would ensue for an hour.
I am also an American
As a Cameroonian who moved to Cote D’Ivoire for work in his early twenties, my uncle’s message was symbolic of the cultural differences that he and I had.
A licensed maritime lawyer, he experienced the hardships of finding a job and providing for his family. For months, he survived off money that his older sisters sent him from Cameroon before finally finding work overseeing seaports on the coasts of Abidjan.
Today, he is the director of one of the largest Atlantic trade companies in West Africa.
Across Africa, corruption and sociopolitical issues make it hard to find respectable work, so, when you find decent work the expectation is to hold onto it for dear life.
Having witnessed several family members struggle with this, my uncle became an advocate of employment consistency. No matter how small or large your earnings were, as long as you were working, he was pleased.
Other members of the Bissoy family patriarchy also found financial success. With his growing wealth as a Parisian banker, my older brother Patrick, second eldest of the Bissoy cousins, has started to share in the family responsibilities. I always consulted them on life-changing decisions.
When I was deciding on what college to attend, I had to consult them. When I was job hunting after graduating, I had to talk with them about building a respectable career.
I always knew I was going to be a journalist or writer, but neither of them thought of journalism as a profitable career for a Bissoy man. Instead, with my language, social and written skills both of them pleaded with me to consider law or business.
One of my first jobs after graduating from college was working as a paralegal at an immigration and family care firm for nearly a year, but it wasn’t for me, so I quit.
When I told my uncle I left the law firm, he was furious, but I had to follow my passion. He didn’t see that I was different from my Cameroonian cousins. I am also American.
In the United States, we live in a society where young people will hold nearly twelve different jobs by the time they reach age 48. American culture cultivates individuality and rewards risk-taking.
Here, not taking chances can lead to complacency and a lack of fulfillment and happiness.
My American perspective, though, also came with a cost.
‘Wherever this journey leads’
Having spent most of my life an ocean away from my Cameroonian family, I’d forgotten the sacred role of African patriarchs.
When you stumble and lose your path, they remind you of who you are and where you come from.
When you achieve a huge accomplishment and honor the family name, they cheer you on and push you forward. They are the keepers of the family; responsible for the prosperity, well-being and excellence of the family name for generations to come.
In my rush to live my life my own way, I’d lost track of that.
The night before taking off for Mexico City, I was doing some last-minute packing when my phone rang.
It was my uncle. It had been a few weeks since our “manless” conversation, yet his words were still as sharp as steel. I refused to pick up. He called back five times.
Finally giving up, he left me a text message on WhatsApp.
“I know the last time we spoke I was very hard on you. I just want you to understand that it comes from a place of love. I just want you to be successful, happy, and to make the Bissoy family proud,” he wrote. “I’m still not happy with the move, but you have my blessing and I will be praying for you and your girlfriend. Call me as soon as you get to Mexico. Love, your uncle.”
I took a moment to take in what I read and promptly gave him a call back. It was well past midnight in Abidjan and he was just starting to get to bed, our conversation would be short.
When he finally picked up, he apologized for our prior conversation before doubling down on his message, “Wherever this journey leads you, don’t ever forget that you are a Bissoy man. You bear responsibility to the family name and must strive to make us and the world proud.”
Before I could squeeze in a word, he delivered a message that the Bissoy patriarchs and I could warmly embrace.
“I want you to remember that you’re my son and that I love you,” he said, adding, “Next time I call though, you better have good news.”