By Beatrice Okech
I came here in the month of August 2010 for graduate school at the Academy of Korean Studies. This was eight months after graduating from the University of Nairobi. My plan was to go back to Kenya after two years of graduate school but Korea got me. I now live in Seoul and work at the Kenyan Embassy.
Experience with food, culture, people, technology and general life.
I love Korean food. In my early years every meal was an adventure. Mention the endless days of sugared meats, raw meat, live octopus, spicy cucumber and cabbage and sticky rice. There was so much to try!
Into daily life, I was struck by culture shock. First thing was bowing to seniors and sitting on floors. My knees got a beating. Second, was the endless use of swiping cards and the ‘smart life.’ There is little to no carrying of cash here. It drove me crazy at first but I got the hang of it. Suffice to say, automation, efficiency and convenience is the order of the day.
But life has been fun. Korean people are generous and courteous, with many willing to reach out. Although there are stark differences in our approach to life all is possible because we’ve tried to understand each other.
Highlights & Challenges
Korean winter is biting cold and one needs to prepare mentally. That, and buying winter clothes. The culture is very interesting. Having interacted a lot with locals, I have learnt much from Koreans that I will live to apply in life. We have a lot in common such as respect for strangers and elders. I am now a stickler for order and punctuality thanks to them. There is also a serious level of courtesy and hospitality, and the will to work hard in all things. Koreans like to develop themselves and the government supports and facilitates this through various forms of infrastructure and public facilities.
However, Koreans are very competitive. I am moderately competitive and leaning towards being a collaborator. This became a challenge in certain areas but I got used to it. Once you internalize their culture and environment, you understand their ways and how to work around them.
Working at the Embassy.
I love my job. Working for Kenya and Kenyans is richly satisfying. I speak Korean language and get to interact with Koreans daily, where I tell them all about Kenya. When I attend a cultural exhibition or tourism festival, it fills me with great joy to introduce Koreans to my wonderful country. It is indeed my pleasure since this is part of what brought me here; to try be Korea’s eye to Kenya and Kenya’s eye to Korea. Koreans look for ways to connect with Kenyans for diverse reasons and I am always happy to be part. From time to time, the Embassy hosts cultural events where we hold cultural programs for students. I have come across people who do not know anything or have misconstrued perceptions about Kenya and taken it as an opportunity to shine a light.
The Kenya Community in Korea(KCK) has kept me grounded over the years. As much as Korea is an exciting place to be, sometimes there are long and challenging days. Only people like you can relate and KCK has been that for me. We occasionally get together for some serious Kenyan-style hangouts; where we share Kenyan food, listen to Kenyan music, talk politics and share experiences.
Word of advice to those intending to come live/study in Korea.
Know how long you are going to stay. Be conscious about this over your entire stay. Learn the language. Life will be much more convenient and you will not miss out on opportunities. Be moderate to highly social. It is a pathway to money, family, careers and good mental health. Then, develop an open mind. An open mind is a good shock absorber and a good remedy for home sickness. It also makes you grow. You will find things you have never come across but have to live with.
Bring items that help you connect with the motherland; curio, music, maize flour, Royco, and Kenyan-wear. Being abroad has unique opportunities, but your connection to homeland keeps you grounded. Subscribe to health insurance as soon as you get here. Finally, let someone that matters know you are here. Register with the Kenya Embassy and the Kenyan Community in Korea.