Zooming In is a podcast that tells stories of 2020, but it’s not a COVID podcast. It’s about how life keeps going, even through a global pandemic.
Valerie Weyland believes that healing is dynamic – some days are sunshine, and some days are crashing waves.
This podcast collection was made possible with funding from Lotterywest.
Special thanks to our storyteller for this episode, Valerie Weyland, and to our production team: executive producer Kara Jensen-Mackinnon, audio engineer Mason Vellios, scripting and interviewing by Sisonke Msimang and Claudia Mancini.
Copyright © 2022 Valerie Weyland.
This story and corresponding images have been licensed to the Centre for Stories by the Storytellers. For reproduction and distribution of this story/image please contact the Centre for Stories.
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Sisonke: Welcome to Zooming In, a podcast about the lives and feelings of regular people who are like you and me. People seeking connection and love. People who are just muddling along, trying to be human. I’m your host for this episode, Sisonke Msimang.
Valerie: I’m Valerie Wayland, I’m Nigerian American. And I would describe myself as a storyteller, a healer, a mother, a lover of this scene and unseen
Sisonke: Like many immigrant children. Valerie grew up in two distinct worlds. There was the world inside her home, which was a tightly run ship with her Nigerian mother as captain. And there was the world outside her house in Inglewood, California, a predominantly African American community that had its share of problems in the late 1990s.
Valerie: I was born in Inglewood, California. So, I usually just tell people it’s in LA and usually they’ll repeat back one of the rap songs that say, “Inglewood!”
Sisonke: Yes. Is that near Compton?
Valerie: Maybe 20 minutes from Compton. But my story in Inglewood is a little different because I have Nigerian parents. So, I think a lot of first gen American kids can relate to the fact that your reality is sort of balancing this duality of African traditions and Western ideologies. So, my parents were very strict. I didn’t, even though the rap song paints a different picture, mine was a very sheltered and quiet life. One thing I have a vivid memory of is that there were very few trees, and lots of buildings and pain was always very present in the collective narrative. But so was joy. It was sort of the response to pain, was to lean into joy.
Sisonke: Valerie’s mum was a proud, African woman, and a typical African mum in many ways. She had high expectations for her children, especially her daughter, whose world was open to infinitely more opportunities than hers was, when she was a young woman growing up in Nigeria.
Valerie: My parents divorced before I was born. So, they were in an arranged marriage. They’re both Nigerian and they’re both Igbo. They come from the same tribe, but very different perspectives on life. My dad is a very, your proud Igbo man. I mean, when he would pick me up from school, he’d turn the African music up as loud as he could and drive up and everyone knew I was the kid with the Nigerian dad. My mum on the other hand, began kind of creating or co-creating her own reality that centered women’s empowerment, you know. She found her voice in America and that really conflicted with her reality back home in Nigeria. So, in my household, the narrative was to make straight A’s.
Sisonke: Valerie’s mum is strict – she expects straight A’s and good behaviour – but it’s not because she is traditional. It’s because she is strategic. She knows the challenges Valerie is going to have as a young, black woman in America, and she’s not going to take any chances on Valerie’s future. She wants her daughter to be a strong independent woman – like she’s had to be.
Valerie: For her, she wanted me to thrive in American culture. So that meant I needed to present myself in a way that was palatable as a black woman, so that I could enter into doors that were sometimes difficult to enter into. So even the way that I speak was shaped by my mum. She wanted, I had four options and I think this is like the one that we always joke about in African culture is like, finance or accountant, lawyer, doctor. Yeah. Yeah. Wait, hold on, take out finance, put in engineer.
Sisonke: Exactly. Yes. Especially Nigerians.
Valerie: So, and that’s, you know, and that’s the story that she had for me ‘cos she wanted, she didn’t want me to struggle like she did, you know. My mum has been recently sharing her stories of her childhood and she, I asked her what her greatest, you know, what her greatest aspiration was, and she said just to have food to eat. And I didn’t know that this whole time, you know, that, that was what drove my mum to push me to really like get a good job and, and, you know, make a lot of money and have my own stuff, so that I wouldn’t have to struggle the way that she did.
Sisonke: How amazing to have a mum for whom that’s her goal for you, and that she doesn’t burden you with that knowledge? I think sometimes we are like, why didn’t she tell me, why didn’t they? But I think there’s a lot to be said for a sort of generation of African mums that pushed us without make, without centring themselves. I think there’s a lot to be said for that.
Valerie: I didn’t think about that. I completely agree that if she would have passed on her burden to me, I might have resented her.
Sisonke: Yeah, there’s a heaviness that as a kid you don’t need and you can resent your parents for the same reason that everyone resents them, which is “They’re pushing me. They’re pushing.” That’s a different thing from knowing that I have to do this because she didn’t have food to eat.
Valerie: Yeah. That’s, you know, in talking to other African friends, it’s like having that kind of responsibility at a young age is too much. It’s a lot.
Sisonke: Yeah. It’s a lot. Good for her.
Sisonke: Valerie is athletic, and she’s tall. Naturally, this led her to basketball. Her mum recognised that her athletic ability could open up doors. With her support, Valerie walked through.
Valerie: I played on the basketball team and so I had American state colleges recruiting me. So, from 15, I was having colleges come and see my games and then invite me to stay on campus.
Sisonke: So, so you were good?
Valerie: Yeah, and I’m really tall. So yeah, like it helps to be really tall in America. So, I ended up getting a full scholarship to Loyola Marymount University. That was my plan after high school, was just to continue to fulfill the path that was painted for me by my mother.
Sisonke: Valerie went to college with the intention of fulfilling her mum’s academic goals. She had a basketball scholarship, so on top of getting good grades, she had to train for an intensely competitive league. It was hard.
Valerie: And you know, I would, my days would look like waking up at five in the morning, going to training and, you know, being pushed hard and then having to go to class. And I majored in finance and business management and focusing on trying to excel academically while being under the pressure of like, I could lose my scholarship because it’s not guaranteed every year. They can take it from you, if you’re not meeting their expectations. My first year I wanted to leave, and my mum was like the one, my rock, you know, but she meant to tell me, like, “You can overcome this, you can overcome it. You just have to be patient and just, you know, it’ll get better.”
Sisonke: Valerie was patient, and she did overcome it. As soon as she graduated from college, she put the basketball down indefinitely.
Valerie: I was done with basketball. I was done with people controlling my life ‘cos I didn’t have a life. You know, it was training, school, traveling to games, and then having to come back and make up for missed classes and I just wanted to have a normal life.
Sisonke: The global financial crisis hit just after Valerie graduated. It was the most serious financial crisis since the great depression. And it took her six months to find a job. Finally, she found a role and it was a big company.
Valerie: I ended up landing a job for Liberty Mutual, an insurance company.
Sisonke: Her mum was happy. All her hard work keeping Valerie on the straight and narrow had paid off. Valerie had successfully finished university and she was entering employment with a large Fortune 500 Company.
Valerie: The job was offered in, like right outside of San Francisco. So, I went to Chicago for training and I had the time of my life. I saw snow for the first time. I didn’t like sitting in a cubicle, but I enjoyed the movement and the travel and experiencing the new experiences. And then I ended up, yeah, moving to like San Francisco.
Sisonke: There is a long rivalry between San Francisco and LA. LA is known for Hollywood and for beautiful people. It’s a fast-paced city where people invest a lot in keeping up appearances. San Francisco is known for its .com booms, Facebook and Google, pride festival, and its embrace of hippydom. It’s full of what Valerie calls “free thinkers.” The San Francisco vibe started to have its effect on how Valerie thought about herself.
Valerie: Being in San Francisco changed my perspective on life because I was surrounded by all of these free thinkers, people who enjoyed going against the grain. I found that to be so exciting. And I began to wonder like, who could I be beyond this image that I felt like I needed to be, to be whole?
Sisonke: So, Valerie was in San Francisco working at this big company living the life her mum had always planned for her. But San Francisco was changing her. She was learning things about herself that weren’t exactly on her mother’s curriculum. Valerie was trying to live up to this ideal that wasn’t making her happy. She dressed a certain way. She presented to the world like this corporate employee. But a lot of it was just an act.
Valerie: Yeah. I definitely look quite different. I mean, how I moved, the energy that I was spreading across, it just was different. ‘Cos I didn’t know myself. I was still living in my mother’s dream. I was very corporate. I was always pushing, you know, the boundaries. I was always questioning things. So, I would ask my manager like, “Do we have to do this? Or is there another option?” So, I was always like, sort of teetering around like, “Could I do these, these things differently?” But I didn’t know who I really was ‘cos I never, I never asked myself that.
Sisonke: The emptiness was growing and growing, but her instinct to please her parents and her mom in particular was still really strong. She might have gone on this way, unhappy but dutiful. But then she met this guy called Jeff. He was her roommate in San Francisco and he just had this approach to life that made her question everything. I’ll let Valerie explain it.
Valerie: Oh yes. My roommate Jeff. He’s from Thailand, and he’s also, he’s not really first gen like me cause he was born in Thailand, but he was in America long enough to basically be a first gen kid. But when we became roommates, I used to look at Jeff and he was always, his head was in the air, you know, he was always dreaming. And I just didn’t know what that was like and just being around him inspired me. And I remember we were sitting down, I’m like, “I don’t like my job.” And he said, “Okay, but then what do you like?” And I said, “I don’t know. I actually don’t know what I like. I don’t know who I am.” It was very weird, like having that realisation and yeah, being around him definitely sparked what like, that journey of like trying out new things. He actually wanted to become a monk. I remember him saying that he wanted to go back to Thailand and shave his air off and become a monk.
Sisonke: Valerie wasn’t exactly gonna shave her head and become a monk, but she realised that she had to do something to shake off the constant feeling of obligation that she had. She started thinking about what else she might do for work that would excite her. She had loved basketball before it became like a job and she thought maybe she should try sports management. But she was still driven, if she was going to be happy then dammit, she was gonna do it in high gear.
Valerie: I took on two internships, so sports management and sports marketing, while having my full-time job. And the sports management job internship was really interesting because it was for semipro men’s basketball team in San Francisco. So, part of that role was to prepare on game days, so invite the umpires in. And that’s when things really be in a change because one of the umpires like came in, and I’m a very talkative person, so I was saying how I’ve been trying to find myself, trying to figure out what I love. And he, his interaction was quite different from others that he was leaning in. He looked very curious and was very inquisitive. And after the game, I asked if he could be my mentor.
Sisonke: Valerie had just asked a 70-year-old white guy who she had just met to be her mentor. And he said, yes. It’s important to remember here that Valerie didn’t have a lot of experience with random white people. She grew up in an all-black and Latino neighbourhood.
Valerie: He was elated. He was like, “Of course!” He was super happy to help, like support me.
Sisonke: For some reason though, she felt confident enough and safe enough to reach out to this guy. It was the first time she had ever done something like this, and her mentor really got her. He knew what she was looking for, even if she didn’t quite know herself.
Valerie: He suggested using my athleticism to see the world and then see who I could be through that. And I hadn’t touched a basketball in three years. So, I really doubted that this was a viable option for me, but I trusted him. And he got me into a private basket club that you can only get into in San Francisco by knowing someone. So, he had a lot of contacts and it was during one of the games that someone asked if I was like an international, like basketball player. And I said, no. And then that’s when I knew like, you know, this is, this is possible. My mentor helped create like a game film for me. And he sent it out to contacts he had here in WA. Some teams offered to, well all of the teams that except for one offered to pay me. But my proposal is that I wanted to be able to work because it wasn’t about playing basketball. For me, it was about like connecting. The only team that agreed was the one that wasn’t going to pay me. So, I turned down money for exploration. And yeah, I signed with the Southwest Slammers in the state basketball league here. So, semi-pro.
Sisonke: So, this plan starts to form, mainly because, as Valerie says, “That’s what feeling like your soul is dwindling in a cubicle will do to you.” So, she’s made this decision to move literally across the world to play for our basketball team in small town, Western Australia for no pay. She’s 24, and she’s heading to Bunbury to play for the Southwest Slammers. It’s exciting, of course, and kind of wild, but she also knows that this is not the career path that her mum had mapped out for her.
Valerie: I told my mum like the day before I was like packing up my stuff to drive back to LA so that she couldn’t stop me from going. And I think she was just like worried that I was venturing to a path that wasn’t very safe. But I don’t think my mum realised how much of a mirror I am of who she was when she moved to America, when no one else was encouraging her to do so. So, it was really just following in my mum’s footsteps.
Sisonke: Having just had one of the hardest conversations that she had ever had with her mother until that point, Valerie gets on a plane to start a new life. She feels like she’s walking away from everything she’s ever known, and it kind of feels amazing. She decides she’s going to embrace everything.
Valerie: So, the first few weeks looked like landing in Australia and like hearing these strong Australian accents and like, whoa, trying to pinch myself, like this feels so surreal. And driving from Perth to Bunbury for me, I was just like, look at the trees, you know, ‘cos I never saw so many trees, so close together like that. I thought the landscape in Bunbury and just WA in general is just stunning. So, I was always, you know, every day I would just wake up and just feel so excited about life.
Sisonke: Bunbury was so much slower than LA. There was no traffic, the vibe was completely laid back and nature dwarfed everyone. She felt alive. And, she was back playing basketball – a passion she had given up for year.
Valerie: So, we would train twice a week for two hours. I was happy with that, ‘cos I came from America where you were training every day and it was gruelling. It was crazy. I enjoyed it. I was like, “Yeah, this is fun.” And I realised that I hadn’t really forgotten the skills that I attained through college, you know, like the muscle memory. I just felt like I was back to where I was like, as soon as I got into training.
Sisonke: While Bunbury was amazing in lots of ways, there was also a super weird dating scene. Valerie had some bad experiences with online dating when she first got there. Remember, she was a six-foot one Black American woman living in regional WA. But three years after arriving in Australia, she found a match. On the surface, they were really different. He wasn’t into basketball like a lot of guys at home, and he wasn’t into footy either, the way a lot of Aussie guys she had met were. He was into surfing, that iconic Australian pastime.
Valerie: He’s a surfer. Like he loves, he loves the ocean. He loves nature. Yeah. We just gelled perfectly, even though our stories are very different, we just connected on a deep level.
Sisonke: This love story was the next chapter in the book that Valerie was writing for herself. They dated for a couple of years before they got married. Valerie’s mum and her stepfather came to the wedding.
Valerie: We got married Changu in 2019 and it was my parents’ first time going into Bali, which was hilarious.
Sisonke: So, they both came.
Valerie: Yeah, and I remember when they got to the Villa, my mum was like, “I don’t understand like, why you chose this place.” She said, “This is just like Nigeria, cause it’s so like busy.” She was like, “You could have got married in…”
Sisonke: Yeah, we could have done a big party for you in Lagos.
Valerie: Yeah, that was really funny. But yeah, they ended up really loving Changu and it was also their opportunity to see who I have become, ‘cos I was very different from what they remembered when I left.
Sisonke: By this time, Valerie had hung up the basketball jersey again and was working in community engagement. Valerie says this is her true passion. She felt fulfilled professionally, and although she had deviated so much from her mum’s plan, there was one part that still resonated with her. She wanted to have a baby. In fact, she always had. It was something she had always dreamed of.
Valerie: Because you know, my narrative was excel academically, get a good job and get married and then have kids. So I was, we weren’t gonna have kids without getting married first. Yeah. So that’s why I waited so long and that’s probably why I was pushing it so much.
Sisonke: It wasn’t long after the wedding that Valerie found out she was pregnant.
Valerie: I like recorded it. I remember like going out to my husband, “I’m pregnant!” And you know, just like, he started crying and it was such an emotional moment for us. We were like, “Okay, we’re gonna be parents together.”
Sisonke: Valerie was elated. She’d settled in a new country, found a job she loved, met the love of her life. Starting her own family felt like the next step. She had imagined passing on the wisdom of her mum onto her own child, an extension of herself. Although she was away from her own mum, she’d become really close with some of the women she was working with, who were mothers themselves. They were excited for her and showered her in love and support. It was exactly what she needed. A few months into the pregnancy, Valerie went for a check-up. It was a routine check-up – she thought everything was okay.
Valerie: I was having a hard time finding a doctor that I felt like was compassionate. I felt like they were really dismissive, and it was really hard for me because I was, you know, I’m in Australia, not by myself, but basically.
Sisonke: In terms of not having your mum.
Valerie: Yeah, exactly. So, I was really looking for someone who was going to be really patient and walk me through it. I was actually looking for new doctors. I’d gone and seen one doctor in particular, and it was doing that appointment that she was asking me how my pregnancy is going. And I said, “It’s great, I don’t have morning sickness anymore.” And as I continued to explain things, that’s when she told me I was having a miscarriage.”
Sisonke: If this feels sudden, it’s because it was. Just like that, Valerie’s dream was shattered. She was devastated, and she wanted her mum. But this was 2020, and you can probably guess what happens next.
Valerie: It was a horrible experience. Like when it happened, it was just, I felt like I was dying. When I had my miscarriage, my mum was trying to book a flight for me to fly home and then, you know, lockdown happened. So, like that just made it like, it just made it harder for me.
Sisonke: It wasn’t just the loss of her baby that Valerie was grieving. The experience made her feel as though she’d lost her sense of self. All of her hard work the past few years, finding herself in Australia, being away from her family and her life back in America, it felt like it had all come undone.
Valerie: I think going through the worst experience of my life literally broke any sense of self that I had, any beliefs that I had. And I always, I talk, I tend to talk about like this space between that, that space, the unknown, and sitting in that that’s when I began to realise that this brokenness was needed for me to really experience something deeper. Even just being pregnant, I felt myself changing. I was experiencing this level of love that I never knew before.
Sisonke: Love for yourself, love for this baby?
Valerie: Love for this baby, love for my baby. And then losing that, it carved, like this, like it just carved into my soul. And then I began to discover love for myself.
Sisonke: It’s still hard for Valerie to talk about the miscarriage. It may always be. But she feels like it’s important not to stay quiet. She’s leaning into the pain.
Valerie: I think that all of the experiences of pain, all throughout my life, starting from when I was a little kid and my parents, you know, they weren’t together, and that was my first heart break. And it was just a culmination of these experiences that reminded me of my deep trauma. And really, I would consider myself to be a deep thinker. So I tend to ponder about life and purpose a lot and I think doing that gave space for me to really look at this soul crushing pain with a different lens.
Sisonke: So, you didn’t, you didn’t look away from it.
Valerie: I wanted to initially. I think that’s the first response. Right? Look away. It’s too hard. And wanna just give up or run from it. But doing that only made it harder. So, I knew that I had to actually just sit with it without trying to create a solution or trying to put a band aid over it. I remember when I did have the miscarriage and I was telling my mum that I was just in so much pain and she was trying to stop me from being with it. And I had to tell them that I needed a break from them. Because I needed to give myself space to cry and that’s something that I never saw growing up. I never saw, I think saw my mum cry once.
Sisonke: She didn’t always know it, but Valerie is realising that she’s as strong as her mum has always been. But unlike her mum, Valerie can cry. Her mum had to be stoic. This was her way of surviving. But Valerie shows her strength in a different way. She’s able to fall apart, knowing that she’ll be able to put herself back together. She embraces all of it.
Valerie: I believe that healing is dynamic, and that some days are full of sunshine and rainbows and some days are full of crashing waves. But I believe that it’s important to embrace both. They both hold purpose and meaning in our lives. Cause I know a lot of people ask me, “Is there an end to the healing?” And I can say at this point that I think we’re always healing and becoming, and if we just let go of trying to control that journey, we can actually experience true freedom.
Sisonke: This podcast was produced by the Centre for Stories with funding from Lotterywest. Centre for Stories is an organisation based on Whadjuk Noongar land in Western Australia that believes in storytelling as a way to build more inclusive communities. Head to centreforstories.com to listen to more stories, or to make a tax-deductible donation. Special thanks to our storyteller for this episode, Valerie, and to our production team, executive producer Kara Jensen McKinnon, audio engineer Mason Vellios, scripting interviewing and production by Sisonke Msimang and Claudia Mancini.