Addie is a paragon of elegance. She's confident, chic, and intelligent. She's been the subject of a Korean documentary series, a participant in Seoul Fashion Week, and an international scholar par excellence. Yet among her all of dominant traits she remains grounded and engaging. She can fluently move along a spectrum of couture to street, something she documents well on her fashion blog. Her ability to not only adapt but to excel has served her well in her travels.
Sean: So Addie, I know you said that you always thought you would study abroad. You thought it would be somewhere in the UK or maybe America, how did Korea come to be?
Addie: Korea was not planned at all; it just sort of happened and I kind of think that was my miracle.
My mom knew some Korean couple that lived in Nairobi and the wife is an alumnus of Ewha University. And she kept on pushing me to study [there] because she knew I was interested in Economic Development and she thought that Korea would be a good place for me to study. But I wasn’t into it. So long story short, I gave her my transcripts. A few months later, I got an email telling me that I’ve been accepted into Ewha. I didn’t even know that she was going to apply. She kept on telling me about Korea. It just happened; I got an email, I was accepted into Ewha and with a full scholarship.
That was it. That’s how I came to Korea.
S: Very serendipitous!
A: A lot of people now ask me many questions about Ewha like, “What’s the application process?” And when I say, “I don’t know,” I think some people think I’m lying. Like, “Oh, she doesn’t want us to come,” or something, but I really don’t know. I don’t even know how much the application fee is; I don’t know anything.
S: I know you said, your mom said that, “If you go and you don’t like it, you can come back.”
S: But then what happened?
A: I hated it of course, to be honest. I didn’t really hate it, but it was such a shock for me. I didn’t see how I could live here because I didn’t know Itaewon, I didn’t know anything and I was just thrown into a completely Korean community. I was in school with these 20,000 Korean women and it was really hard. For four months, I didn’t see another black person.
Some of my classmates were foreigners obviously, but it was different because outside of class I never saw another foreigner and I was like, “I can’t live here.” And people would be taking pictures; I really felt like a monkey in the zoo. And so I wrote my mom and I said, “I hate it here. I want to come back home.” My mom said, “What? No! You have to stay there.” I think she even used up my college funds for something because I was like, “Why can’t I come?” And she said, “No, you have to be strong, you have to study. This is such a good opportunity. It doesn’t happen to everyone and you can’t just give it up.” She’s like, “You just be strong and you’re going to make it.”
I made a conscious decision to leave Korea as soon as possible. I used to do crazy things, like I was taking maximum amount of credits, like taking 21 credits every semester. I was studying in the summer and I didn’t take any vacation. And it worked. I graduated after three years and I went back home.
S: That’s amazing!
S: So what helped you adjust eventually?
A: I think lots of things first; I would say the language helped because now I understand Korean. Even on the subway when people are talking about me; 99% of the time, it’s positive. But back then, I didn’t know. It was just a bunch of people pointing at me and talking about me and I didn’t know what they were saying and I just wanted to go and hide. But because now I speak the language, I'm like, “These people are just cool.”
Also, I made friends and then I discovered a new community here. Those things really helped.
S: Then you say a lot of times, they’re saying positive things. What are some things that you picked up?
A: I don’t know about other people but mostly for me, it’s my eyes. Koreans think my eyes are huge. Koreans are really into big eyes.
S: Absolutely. Now I know you said that before you left Kenya, you never thought about race. Then once you came to Korea, how did your consciousness shift in terms of race?
A: Intellectually, I knew racism existed. It exists, I knew intellectually but I never had to experience it or anything or deal with it. And I thought, “That’s something that happens on TV.” But when I came here I realized first and foremost, I am Black. That’s the first thing anyone sees. That was different for me because growing up, that wasn’t the first thing people noticed about me and that wasn’t the first thing I noticed about people. It was just, “There’s that guy and something else would come [to mind] or there’s that economist and then something else would come [to mind], but now I became my race first. Everywhere I go, whatever I do, it’s first.
Recently someone asked me if it was different being an African or my experience as an African. In university, I really really felt like I was an African.
We'd talk about issues, global issues and I would hear all my classmates who are Korean saying all of these derogatory things – and they are really really smart girls. Most of them have a very global mindset; they’ve lived in the US. All my classes were in English, so these girls have traveled. The things they’d say about Africa were really really upsetting to me. I realized this is not who I am. I have to prove them wrong. It was hard because I felt so stressed out. Sometimes, they’d even say it out loud in class. Or reasons for underdevelopment in Africa and they’d be like, “Africans are lazy and they are stupid.” And they would just say this and this is how they talked in class. It was really really hard for me and I thought, “I have to prove them wrong.”
That’s another thing I was studying like crazy because I was like, “I will prove to all these girls that I’m not stupid or lazy. I can do what they cannot do.” I left all of them in school because I graduated when I was a junior and I’m like, “See? We’re not stupid.” I had this, like, burden of a whole continent and it was so different for me because I was just a person in Kenya. A nobody. And I realized many of these people will never meet another African person. They’ll never interact with another African person. And if it’s going to be me, then let me leave them with a good image of Africa.
S: Excellent! Now, I’m just curious about Kenya. Race is a big issue in the states. In Kenya, is it more…or in your experience, is it more like everyone’s just Kenyan, is it more class, is it more ethnic tribal groups or we’re from Nairobi, they’re from the country.
A: It’s not about race really; it’s mostly about other things like class, tribes, ethnicity. That’s a big one. I think Kenyans realized, “Oh my God, we have no issues. Let’s create an issue. Now, let’s talk about our tribes.” Because it’s never really been an issue. Everyone speaks Swahili and English, and then when you go home maybe you speak your tribal language but nobody really cares. And most of the things we say about each others' tribes are funny stuff. Like the tribe where Obama’s dad is from, it’s called ‘Luo.’ Luos are very – actually this is true, people said that they were very eloquent speakers. They know how to speak, they know how to dress. So it’s just funny things like that, but it’s never really an issue.
Of course sometimes, politicians try to use it to divide us but it’s not really an issue. Growing up, I never had to experience any of that.
S: Now, I just want to shift to your blog. On your blog, you talked about fashion and getting things on the cheap. How do you like the fashion in Korea?
A: I love it! I will always be interested in fashion but it’s never been hardcore. But I remember my first day at Ewha – oh my God, Ewha is crazy; it’s not like a normal university. Because in Kenya everyone goes to university with just jeans and sneakers. So my first day at Ewha, I think it was in the Student Union building and I was waiting to go to the bank or something, and this swarm of girls walked in and they were all amazing. They have Gucci boots and fur coats. The whole time I was thinking, “Where are the students?” [laughs] You know? You know— all the Chanel bags. And my friend is like, “These are the students.” I was like, “Oh my God, so fierce!”
Since then, I really became aware of it. Inline with my being African, I also chose deliberately to never look bad on any day because if I look bad, I’ll just be reinforcing the stereotype like, “Yeah, she’s African.” So since that time, I really got interested in [fashion] and I’ve really been actively seeking out stuff. And for me, it was different because I’m not making millions so I had to look good on the cheap. I started seeking out cheap spots where I can buy stuff and it just grew into a hobby and then the blog.
S: Okay. I know you said that in school, you wanted to prove all of your classmates wrong. And I guess in the workplace too, I know you mentioned before that people are kind of surprised that you come to work very well dressed.
A: Yeah. And also in the workplace because I don’t want someone to think there is anything I cannot do because I’m African. I work with Koreans and sad to say, Koreans can be very superficial. It’s all about what they see. If I go into the office looking like ( ), in their minds, that means something lesser to them. I don’t ever want someone to think that. I’m like, if I have to dress a certain way to get the corner office, then I will do it. I don’t want anyone to think there’s anything I cannot do because I’m African. So of course also in the workplace, it’s a big deal.
S: Okay, cool! Last question. What is your travel philosophy?
A: It’s cliché, but I would say, “Traveling is like reading a book and those people who don’t read have only read one page” or something like that. But people should travel. I think it’s really important not because of any other reason, but because you really get to realize the world is so much bigger than us, than you, and there’s so much different cultures and stuff. So it’s important to just, you really see, “I’m just… really put things into perspective. Like the whole world stops revolving around you, which is a small part in a grand scheme of things.