Living in S. Korea

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.

 

Student Life In Seoul

We meet Emilly Achieng, A computer Engineering Student at Gamchon University, Seoul.

When did you begin your studies in Korea?

I came to Korea about two years ago. And because I had studied Korean Language in Kenya and did the Proficiency test, I straight away began my major.

What do you love most about Seoul?

Seoul is one of those places that offers a global environment to learn and grow. It has diverse people from all walks of life and meeting them or just being around them is a great chance to develop interesting perspectives in life. And of course there are many amazing places to tour. It is rich in culture and history. And I won’t forget the internet speed that is second to none.

What are some of the culture shocks you encountered upon landing in Korea?

I used to have that habit of trying any food I am presented with, untill one time we were on a table, a group of us enjoying a meal. And then afterwards, one just inquired if we knew what we had eaten? We were all like, ’no please!.’ We didn’t want to know anything beyond the delicacy that we had just eaten! Let me just say, the answer was not good.

How do you relate with other Kenyans in Korea? Are you close?

Yes, I have  quite a number of friends that we began the journey with in Nairobi and still now our friendship holds here. Also, I have met quite a number in Korea and we keep in touch always. I enjoy writing. I was an active contributor to the KCK Jambo Kenya Magazine column when the magazine was still up and running. So yes, I do relate in many ways with Kenyans in Korea.

What are some of the challenges that you’ve encountered studying in Korea?

All through daily encounters with something new and strange that requires time to adapt. Also, being asked honest questions that are not-so-pleasant at times.

What are some of the interesting aspects?

A baby is said to be one year old when born here. I find it interesting.

What advice do you have for those who want to study in Korea?

Everyone’s experience is different. Mine was never easy. I tried quite a number of schools before landing on one. That took a lot of time. Your experience could be different from mine. But once you make that grand decision, nothing should ever stop you. Never walk back.