Ifemelu is a young woman from Nigeria who, at the beginning of the story, lives in Princeton, New Jersey while on a fellowship at Princeton University. As the story starts, she describes Princeton, focusing on how it “had no smell” (3), especially compared to other American cities she has lived in: Philadelphia, New Haven, Baltimore, and Brooklyn. Ifemelu narrates that she liked the “affluent ease” (3) of the university town, but “she did not like that she had to go to Trenton,” a less affluent city nearby, “to braid her hair” (3). While Ifemelu waits for the train to take her to Trenton, she sees an white, adult American man, likely a professor, eating an ice cream cone and thinks about how she could strike up a conversation with him to create material for her anonymous blog “Raceteenth or Various Observations About American Blacks (Those Formerly Known as Negroes) by a Non-American Black.” She muses about other strangers she has told this to, either for the shock value or because she thinks they will understand, and about some surprises this has created: a white man with dreadlocks who suggested that nowadays race is “overhyped” (4) and that society should really focus more on socioeconomics, while an older white man spoke to her about the strange treatment he and his wife received after adopting a black child. Ifemelu narrates that she should actually think of these posts as being on her “ex-blog” (5) since she recently wrote a final post announcing that she is making a life change and will no longer be keeping the blog.
Ruminating again on the way places in America just minutes from each other by train can be so different in their racial makeup, Ifemelu thinks back to her first time in New York when she witnessed mostly skinny, white people get off the subway at stops in Manhattan and mostly fat, black people get off as the subway went further into Brooklyn. She pauses on the term “fat” (6) as another thing she had to learn about upon coming to the United States. She also gives more background about the life change she is making, feeling drawn to leave Princeton and even her relationship with a man named Blaine to return to Nigeria. She reflects on breaking up with Blaine, and how he asked her “Why?” (8) in a way that searched for a singular cause in a way unlike his usual method of nuanced inquiry as a professor.
Ifemelu gets off the train and waits for a taxi, hoping the driver is not from Nigeria. The driver drops her at the hair salon where three women are braiding hair to the sound of a Nigerian film playing loudly on a small TV in the corner. Ifemelu haggles to get the price of her braids down to $160 and then waits for her turn with Aisha, a small braider with some kind of skin condition. Ifemelu sits down to wait, discussing the nationalities of the braiders (Mali and Senegal) and listening to the manager yell over the phone in English and French.
Once Aisha is ready, they argue over the best color for her attachments, the fact that Ifemelu doesn’t use relaxer in her hair, and the tightness of one of the braids. While Aisha talks about Nigerian films, even asking if Ifemelu knows one of the actors, Ifemelu thinks about the responses she has gotten to her announcement that she is moving back. Her Aunt Uju believed it foolish while her friend Rayinudo, who she had kept in touch with and who told her about her ex-boyfriend Obinze’s current life with a wife and a child, welcomed her back. When Aisha finds out that Ifemelu is Igbo, she tells her that she has two Igbo boyfriends who have been telling her that Igbo people can only marry one another. Aisha asks Ifemelu how long she has been in the United States, which Ifemelu first tries to ignore by thinking again of her cousin Dike but finally answers, lying, that she has been there for fifteen years. Aisha, like Ifemelu’s aunt, seems shocked that Ifemelu would choose to return home, but Ifemelu lies to her like she has to her parents, saying that she is going back to get married. Questions answered, Aisha moves back to the subject of her Igbo boyfriends, trying to get Ifemelu to talk one of them into marrying her.
Obinze gets Ifemelu’s email while being driven in his car in Lagos, Nigeria. The email is short and brusque, letting him know she’s coming back to Nigeria soon but giving few details; however, Obinze focuses on the fact that she calls him “Ceiling” (23). He thinks briefly of the previous set of emails they exchanged in which she told him she was dating a black American (leading Obinze to Google him spitefully); in response, he replied that he had never been happier in his life. Now, he thinks back to the origin of the nickname she called him: when they were young and beginning to experiment sexually, she once told him that while he touched her her “eyes were open but [she] did not see the ceiling.” Soon, this became both her secret word for fooling around and for him; once, when his friends asked why she called him that, she lied purposefully to taunt them all. Breaking his reverie, Obinze’s wife calls, asking as always “Kedu ebe I no?... Where are you?” (25). Obinze soon arrives home to his wife, who is made-up and ready to leave for an event, and his sweet daughter. He changes into the outfit laid out for him by his wife and they head out of the house to Chief’s party.
Throughout the party, Obinze goes back and forth between being present in the superficial conversations of the present and reflecting on the actions that got him to this place, making himself into something of a devotee to Chief and eventually getting his shot at a business selling large properties. As his cousin Nneoma instructed him, “Lagos is about hustling” (28). Almost startlingly quickly, Obinze was making big deals and courting Kosi, a woman who was not very smart but very beautiful and respectful. At the party, he and Kosi talk to people about which of the various schools in Nigeria they will send their daughter to; Kosi respectfully fields suggestions about the French and British schools while Obinze brings up education through the Nigerian system, causing disagreement that Kosi must hedge between to keep up the tone of the conversation. Obinze talks with a young man named Yemi briefly about literature but finds he lacks true insight; returning to Kosi’s side, Obinze turns his mind back to Ifemelu’s email and what she may know about his life based on his encounters with Ranyinudo.
On the way home, Kosi finds out that Obinze didn’t eat much at the party. Obinze thinks about Marie, the “housegirl” (41) who will cook something for him at home. Kosi went through her bags when she first arrived and yelled at her for bringing condoms, causing Marie to reveal that her last employer often raped her. Obinze noticed that Kosi did not sympathize with this, as once married she had become insecure and jealous of any single woman he came in contact with. In his office, Marie brings him food as he writes his response email to Ifemelu, carefully leaving out any mention of his wife.
It should be noted that Adichie uses the terms “America” and “United States” interchangeably in a way that is widespread in the United States and elsewhere but not truly correct. Her choice to do this likely stems not from the way people in the United States use this term, but from the way the people in Nigeria use it, leading to terms like "Americanah." There is a certain irony, however, in the contrast between her globally-minded perspective on American culture and this example of US centrism in her language.
Names become very important to the novel as Ifemelu, Obinze, and others work and study abroad in places where their names make them clear outsiders and are sometimes even dangerous (in the case of taking on other names for work purposes). However, in the nostalgic sections of Part 1, wherein Ifemelu focuses on her teenage friend group and romance with Obinze, the focus is not on given names but nicknames. Obinze is called one nickname by most of their friends, The Zed, but when he and Ifemelu become romantically intimate she begins to call him the suggestive name "Ceiling." The use of a special nickname shows others that they have a relationship others cannot be a part of and keeps a playful sensuality in even their public lives. Throughout the novel, even after the couple has broken up, Ifemelu will continue to use this nickname for Obinze at certain times in a way that shows she has not fully gotten over their relationship.
Obinze's wife Kosi and their life together is used as a foil for Ifemelu's life and the kind of woman she has become. Obinze seems both comfortable and out of place in his own marriage to a wife who seems like the ideal Nigerian status symbol - pretty, dumb, and respectful - but nothing like the girl he loved and lost. At this point in the story, we do not know what drove Ifemelu and Obinze apart or even much about their relationship, and this story structure causes suspense as to what this major event could have been.
In general, the novel's structure creates a very interesting reading experience. The story is framed by themes of racial inequality and immigrant assimilation, but in the beginning of the story, the reader is taken back to a time before Ifemelu was aware of these things. Adichie tantalizes the readers with brief snapshots of different points in Ifemelu's life, especially alluding to her relationship with Blaine, allowing for the beginnings of comparisons before stepping slowly through chronologically to show Ifemelu's growth.
Though she does not overstate her message, one of Adichie's greatest successes in Part 1 is demonstrating the wide variety of Africans living in the United States and the range of Nigerians who live in Nigeria, targeting American perspectives on Africa that lump all the countries and peoples together. From the beginning, Ifemelu is contrasted with the women working in the hair salon, and during her memories of her childhood and of Obinze's present life we are shown a complex and colorful variety of characters.