Super excited to bring you all another installment of “On The Move,” – a series on identity, discovery, and achieving success!! It’s a chance for you to hear the perspectives of someone other than myself!
Today, we’re speaking with Nigerian-American, writer, teacher and world traveler: Nkem Chukwumerije. Yes another Nkem!! I didn’t grow up around many other Nigerians so when I first met Nkem, I was DELIGHTED to not only meet another Nigerian-American, but one who shared part of my name!! We met at an event in New York City, when she was writing for a media outlet, and we’ve stayed on each other’s radars since – including me inviting her as press for a client’s event.
Nkem has since moved to Korea to teach English and is now currently in Dubai, also teaching! So when I was starting my new round of On The Move, I knew she just had to be on the list of people I interviewed. I’ve always been curious to know more about her story and even more excited to dig deep in my anthropologist fashion! And I was not disappointed. Nkem’s reflections on her identity and her aspirations are as captivating as they are inspiring!
Also, African parents seem to really know when they are naming people because reading her story, I constantly thought – oh my gosh, that so me!! And I have a cousin whose middle name is also Nkem, and we are both very similar people! So, just something about these Nkems.
But enough from me, let me let her tell you herself!
1. Could you tell us a bit about your background
I consider myself a Nigerian-American as I was born and raised in the states (New Jersey to be exact, and partially Southern California), but my parents are Nigerian immigrants.
2. What were some of your experiences growing up as a Nigerian-American? Growing up, did you have friends with a similar background?
Growing up as a Nigerian-American was so fun for me, as I remember it, because I was living in American culture through and through, but had these hints of Nigerian flavor throughout my life. I’ll never forget a specific phraseology that came to be in our household when I was a kid: in Igbo (my parents’ native tongue) ‘give me’ is ‘nye m’, but American slang for ‘give me’ is also ‘gimme’. So what did my siblings and I end up doing? We put the two words together and came up with ‘nyemmie’. That is a pretty accurate representation of the mix-o’cultures we had going on in the house.
As for a similar peer group, the answer to that is no. Apart from close family friends who lived miles and states away (we’d see them maybe once a month at gatherings), I grew up in a predominantly Caucasian neighborhood. I wasn’t bothered by that , though, and wouldn’t change anything about my upbringing.
3. What does success look like for you?
Good question – success is completely subjective, isn’t it? For me, success is defining a personal goal, and taking the steps to reach it. It’s not financial (though that doesn’t hurt), it’s not by way of attaining a certain status (though it can be). For me, it’s about continually striving for and reaching my pinnacle of wellness. At this stage in my life (mid-twenties) It’s ever-important for me to make smart choices, as well as be committed to and convicted by them. I think if I can achieve those three on a consistent basis, not only will I be living a well-rounded life, I will also have built effective and unshakable habits.
The reason I don’t list tangible attributes I deem as successful, is because I change my mind a lot. I want to be able to have that flexibility in my life without feeling resentful or guilty towards myself.
4. How did you discover what your passion & calling were? Or is that still something you are figuring out?
I think this is going to be something I’ll always be working towards, to be honest, and I am so happy about that! Have you ever met a goal you were striving towards for a long time, only to have no plan, motivation, or inspiration afterwards? That’s something I don’t want to feel again (because it’s happened before). There should always be something we’re questioning, to push us forward.
Anyway, through all the work I’ve done since I’ve started working I recognized the through-line as helping people help themselves. That’s something I feel comfortable devoting my life to, as it can be manifested in a myriad ways.
5. Before we get to what you are doing now, how did you get where you are today? Just a quick overview of your steps, career moves and decisions, starting from what you chose to study at university.
From my earliest memory, I have been a creative person: interested in art, fashion, and general aesthetics. When I was a kid I was always with a sketchbook or some paint, and when I was a teen my love for art was often seen through designing and making clothing. That said, it’s no surprise I chose to go to the Fashion Institute of Technology for university, where I studied Fashion Business Management. I loved my time there and embraced all that was the fashion industry. Concurrently, I was a writing tutor at my school’s writing center and was also enthralled by that work. I did a semester abroad in 2014 in Hong Kong and was opened up to all new disciplines I’d never even thought of before. That made me hesitate. During that time as well, a friend introduced me to the idea of teaching English abroad. I thought it sounded great, but I wanted to at least make use of my degree first.
So I did that for about two years after graduation, but wasn’t finding fulfillment; I’d even stepped into the non-profit sector for a stint. Well, after being let go from a job in the fashion industry I decided it was time for me to take a leap across the world and a leap of faith, and I went to South Korea to pursue the education track.
6. So you spent some time teaching English in South Korea. Why did you decide that was the next move, and what was that experience like?
Like I mentioned before, I was doing what I’d always been doing and I wasn’t finding fulfillment. Based on my time working in my university’s writing center, I knew I was an educator at my core. I was also well qualified to teach in South Korea according to their requirements, and had no strings holding me back to the US, so I decided it was a go!
The prominent thought in my mind at the time was: “You’ll never be younger than you are now. This is the time to do it.”
7. What was the best and worst part about living in South Korea?
The best part was being immersed in an entirely new culture. I was able to see the clear similarities and differences between what I already knew and what I was learning first-hand. Second to that, I’d say all the alone time I was afforded to get to know myself. It was totally an eat, pray, love type of experience for me, and that was unexpected.
The worst part, hands down, was being so far away from family. I think that explains itself.
8. Did you feel your experience there as a Black woman & Nigerian-American, was unique – if so in what ways?
I wouldn’t say my being a Nigerian-American had much bearing on my experience in Korea, but my being Black certainly did. Having been there for close to a year, my neighbors, students, and fellow staff saw me as a multidimensional person who had her own personality and was actually a human, but it wasn’t always like that. Being Black in the world in general, it’s a constant fight to show the world you are a discrete person, not a representation of the monolith that is mostly showcased through media.
In a more practical sense, when people (especially children) were curious about my hair or skin, I enlightened them, because I always saw it as coming from a place of curiosity and/or ignorance. If an adult person tried to touch me without asking, however, I bluntly told them to stop and offered no explanation.
All in all, in this regard, I know that my position was crucial in Korea being the first Black person many of the people I interacted with had seen in person, and maybe the only one they would ever see.
9. And what advice would you give to other Black women who want to travel or live there?
Simply know that you are different, that is your advantage, you are a goddess, and people truly do not know how to act in the presence of royalty.
10. Could you tell us about your creative passions?
I love, love, love writing. It’s one of those things for which it might take me a bit of coaxing to sit down and write, but when I get to it, it’s very hard to stop. I am turned on by words and language and use reading and writing to explore those. I started my blog, nkemistry.love, as something to keep me busy, accountable, and present on the journey I had in Korea, but it really morphed into something else as I’m morphing.
My blog is a lifestyle, travel, and wellness blog designed to make readers think and help them live sensationally. It’s for me and people like me – and I’ve found there are a lot of people like me out there, so that’s both motivating and comforting.
I also co-host a podcast, “When Girls Chat”, that was born out of the relationship I have with my co-host. We’d have these phone conversations for hours on germane and thought-provoking topics. They were unlike most conversations I’d had with girlfriends in the past. Funny enough, through the phone, it sounded like a pretty low-quality podcast, so I told her one day that we should start one, and the rest is history.
We talk about topics so timely for a millennial audience of women and men, and often share perspectives that people are thinking but don’t feel comfortable saying. It’s been a great learning and growing experience so far for us. Imagine rereading your journal entries to see how far you’ve come, but instead you’re actually listening to yourself and how you interact with another person. It’s like your own personal radio show.
Another reason why I really enjoy being a podcaster is having the opportunity to sometimes give a voice to the voiceless, as well as overcome some fears. I never liked the way my voice sounded when recorded and played back, and I was kind of apprehensive about sharing too much of my truth for fear it would make me look bad. Those insecurities have pretty much dissipated now.
11. Where do you see yourself in 3-5 years, professionally, personally and of course, geographically.
Professionally, I see myself as an educator – inclusive of writing and mentorship. Personally, I see myself loving myself even more than I do now. The strides I’ve made this year so far in this regard are astounding to me (because I didn’t even know how much work I needed to do), so I can only anticipate what’s to come. Geographically, I see myself in Abu Dhabi (details in final question) for at least the next two years, and after that, ask me again and let’s see where I’m at.
12. Have you been to Nigeria since you or your parents moved to the US? What was it like?
I’d first been back in 1998 and then again in 2012 – so there was a huge jump. Since then, I returned in 2015 and 2016. I’m pretty adaptable and low-maintenance, so while there was culture shock going back home, it was so exciting for me, and I embraced it all. To be honest, I really didn’t have expectations returning after the ‘98 trip because it felt like the first time to me. Going back in ‘15 and ‘16 though, I was excited to see my family, party, and eat roadside suya, of course, haha.
13. If you could only live in one city for the rest of your life, which one would you choose and why?
This is such a hard question! I’d have to say Cologne, Germany. I visited a great friend there back in 2015 and stayed with her for about two-weeks. I totally felt like a local and fell in love with the vibe of the city and the youthful atmosphere. I like the idea of exercising my brain by learning a new language, too. There was a good amount of diversity, and there was nature-a-plenty! Plus, let’s not forget all the pretzels I could ever want.
14. Favorite dish?
Haha, white rice and stew! Omo Naija princess over here. I can still recall the days I’d lick the plate when my meal was finished. It’s a little more difficult being a vegetarian now, but I still manage!
15. Best advice you’ve ever gotten about chasing your dreams?
Other than the upscale NYC mid-lifers who told me I should just do it (move to Korea to teach) and not look back, oddly enough, it has always been the naysayers and self-doubt projectors (yes, they have that title, lol) that motivate me the most. Hearing advice on something I’ve already decided upon is just confirmation bias. I like to know what my obstacles are so I can work through and around them. I guess I’m just a rebel at heart.
16. And what advice would you give to those that are interested in teaching English abroad?
I would say: do your extensive research, get some first-hand testimonials, and take as much time to mentally prepare as you need – also financially prepare, because it could cost a pretty penny to get to your location and settled in. Anyone looking for insight on my in-depth experience can contact me here.
17. So what’s next for you? And why Abu Dhabi? And what are you most looking forward to about this move?
Following this journey in South Korea, I’ll be venturing to Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates to fulfill a Writing Instructor position at New York University Abu Dhabi. In short, the story of my transition to Abu Dhabi is a testimony about staying in touch with professional contacts. I’ll have a post on my blog on that pretty soon, so stay tuned over there!
Honestly, I am equally excited about the job as I am about living in the country! I always get thrilled about newness and the Middle East is all that and a bowl of hummus for me. Along with feeling like I’m finally on a career path that both excites and challenges me, I am also so excited to learn more about Muslim culture and break down all the ignorance cemented in me from decades of misinformation. Those are the top two things that come to mind, but I’m looking forward to this next stage in life in general.
Whawhoo! Isn’t she such a gem?? I highlighted some salient points that I think just speak to what an amazing and introspective person Nkem is!
Nkem, thank you so much for thoughtfully answering my 101 questions!! Super excited for you on this next stage of life and I’m still shaking my head at how much we have in common (for example, I was a vegetarian for about 6 years…but asun (goat meat with pepper) brought me to heaven.
For some more fun facts about Nkem, make sure you check out her recent birthday post and show her some love! She also has a really awesome Nubian Narratives series on her blog that you’ve got to check out!
Let me know your thoughts below! Have you taught abroad before? Or hope to one day? And what are your thoughts on this series?