Akofa Wallace is what is termed as an adult third culture kid. She was born in Ghana but moved to the UK with her parents as a three-year-old, living in England and Wales before relocating to Saudi Arabia. She returned to England aged 10 where she attended boarding school in Gloucestershire and five years ago, moved to Vietnam's capital Hanoi with her husband. The mother-of-two tells us more about her globetrotting and the surprising similarities between the Ewe and Vietnamese languages.
Your husband's job brought you to Vietnam but what do you do there?
I am the communications manager at the United Nations International School of Hanoi (UNIS Hanoi) and a marcomms specialist, which means I develop marketing and communications strategies and carry out these plans on behalf of the school.
I’m passionate about education and its power to transform the lives, not just of the individual, but of families and societies. I also believe in the power of good, effective communication.
My job is to amplify the work of our faculty and staff, as well as give creative, exceptional students a platform to share their ideas and achievements in front of diverse audiences across a range of digital and traditional mediums. Essentially, I help shape the conversation, internally and externally, about the institution I work for, and I enjoy that.
What skills/ talents from your Ghanaian culture do you think have helped you in your role?
Patience and the ability to be comfortable with stepping into the unknown. Ghanaians typically don’t ‘sweat the small stuff’. We’re exceptionally resilient, taking life day by day while finding joy in all seasons.
What skills from Vietnam have you learnt that you think would be useful in Ghana?
The Vietnamese are forward-thinking people. When you look at how much their country has developed post war, you’re left wondering why Ghana can’t do the same. In Ghana, we talk about wanting progress. In Vietnam, they’re actively chasing progress down.
What is the city you live in like?
Hanoi is a bustling capital city, in which eight million people reside. Over the past five years, we’ve seen the city evolve, with new high rises and malls popping up frequently.
The most common mode of transport here is the motorbike. You can get most things you need at a very reasonable price in Vietnam. In terms of tourist destinations, I would recommend visiting Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City, Sapa, Hoi An and Hue.
Ghanaians typically don’t ‘sweat the small stuff’. We’re exceptionally resilient, taking life day by day while finding joy in all seasons.
Have you travelled much around Asia?
Yes, we once lived in Bangladesh, and travelled to Nepal and Bhutan. We’ve also visited Singapore, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, Japan and Myanmar.
Is there an active Ghanaian community there/ are there a lot of Black people there?
I’ve met the odd one or two Ghanaians during my time here. The former World Bank Country Director, Victoria Kwakwa is Ghanaian. And a Ghanaian Community in Vietnam Facebook group exists, boasting 157 members.
When I first arrived in Vietnam five years ago, Black people were an extreme minority, now there are more of us here. We even have an African food mart and a company that supplies afro hair products. There are also a few African sisters who can braid hair - a service that wasn’t available at all when I first arrived here.
How fluent are you in Vietnamese?
I can speak enough to take taxis, barter in the market, order food at a restaurant, say the time and converse with Vietnamese dignitaries.
Interestingly, the Vietnamese language is tonal, just like Ewe, so you have to be careful how you enunciate and be mindful of the pitch of your voice as you deliver some words. For example, in Ewe the word for money and time is the same 'ga'.
In Vietnamese, the word for money and time is also the same 'tien'. The literal translation of say, mi du Christmas, is 'we eat Christmas'. The Vietnamese way of say they are celebrating something also features food/eating: - chúng tôi đã ăn mừng (ăn is food).
What do you love about Vietnamese culture?
What I love about the culture is their collectivism. Vietnam is a socialist country so they look after each other, and they do so with sincerity. There’s similarities to Ghana in that they are very family-centred and respectful of their elders.
Also, wedding rites are similar. Grooms and their family visit the household of the bride bearing gifts. Our countries are far apart in distance, but our cultures are remarkably similar.
How have you coped during lockdown?
Vietnam was exceptionally proactive as soon as WHO and China confirmed cases in January. By mid-January, flights from China were being screened and passengers quarantined. By the beginning of February, the authorities shut schools down and they remained closed for 13 weeks! This was the hardest part for me, as a mother of a Year 13 student (my son is 17 years-old) and as someone working in a school.
As for a severe lockdown, we were all holed up at home for a two-week period, only able to go out for food and medicines. Vietnam implemented the contact tracing method throughout. Borders are still shut and we’re waiting for them to reopen.
The authorities were very strict but it’s resulted in under a little over 1,000 cases and 35 deaths (as of 1st October 2020), which is remarkable considering we share a border with China.
Tell us about your most memorable experience in Vietnam.
I’ve had many memorable experiences here which I’ll cherish for the rest of my life. The people I’ve met have enriched my time here, whether it’s the people that work in our home who’ve become like family, or my colleagues who see me as one of them or the diverse, dynamic expat community I get to be a part of.
Additionally, I’ve had remarkable once-in-a-lifetime moments such as singing an Ode to Uncle Ho on live Vietnamese TV, dressed in traditional Vietnamese wear (Ao Dai) with my 20-year-old daughter and her choir (Hanoi Voices). Plus, walking around a traditional market in the north of Vietnam dressed in Hmong ethnic wear, making a spectacle of myself!
I also participated in a special performance that was broadcast on Vietnamese New Year's Eve (Tet) across all the state-owned TV channels!
Could you see yourself staying there long-term or moving anywhere else?
We’ll be here for another year, then the adventure continues.
Any last words?
God’s world is truly remarkable and I feel so fortunate to be living a life as a nomad. I’d encourage everybody to travel if they get the chance. You learn so much about the world, people and yourself.
*All images of Akofa are credited to her.
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