Updated: Jul 26
Karen Etornam Minta was born in London, hails from the Volta Region of Ghana and has lived and worked in Ningbo, China. She talks about learning Mandarin, her interest in helping start-ups and why she’d probably relocate to Ghana.
Tell us more about studying in China?
I studied in Ningbo, sub-provincial city in northeast Zhejiang province, during my second year at the University of Nottingham. I went as an exchange student in September 2013 and returned in June 2014. The exchange was part of my degree in Accounting and Finance for Contemporary China. Essentially, the degree focused on applying accounting and finance to China. While I was there, I also taught English.
What was life like there?
The main challenges when I first got there were adjusting to the time difference and not having instant access to my family or friends via social media. Navigating an unfamiliar space is difficult enough, but with basic Mandarin-speaking skills, this was exceptionally tricky.
Having warm water with every meal and using chopsticks all the time was also something that was new to me. Nonetheless, I adjusted to the Chinese way of life as I got better at speaking the language. I found that I became unbothered with social media and drinking hot water developed into an obsessive habit (something I still do now!). My Mandarin tutor said it is good for my health and hygiene but it is also good for my blood circulation.
During my nine months in China, I spent my spare time travelling around China. I got lost in random parts of Ningbo navigating the city using public transport rather than taking taxis. I took solo and group trips to other major Chinese cities such as Shanghai, Guangzhou and Beijing, as well as more rural parts. The scenery in some parts of China is incredible and climbing the Great Wall was a highlight.
Living in China was a very humbling experience that challenged me in ways that I didn’t know I could be. I would not change it for the world. It highlighted my strengths, opened my eyes and gave me a lifetime opportunity to live in Asia.
I am from the Volta region and my Ewe name is Etornam which I prefer much more than Karen! It means God has answered by prayers.
Did China live up to any stereotypes you had or challenge them?
The rice and noodles with every meal stereotype lived up to its expectation. I think I alternated between rice and noodles 90% of the days that I was in China.
But apart from that, my expectations of China were based on my research and from that, I concluded that China is not trying to achieve economic development by following the Western world. Rather it is trying to become an economic powerhouse on its own accord.
In Ningbo, what I saw through the architecture, namely the regular construction of skyscrapers, was that China was on a rapidly developing economic path.
One thing that surprised me was how popular KFC was over any other fast food. There is literally a KFC on every corner.
Tell us about learning Mandarin and teaching English.
I found the best way to learn is to spend time (if possible) with people who speak the language you are trying to learn. That helps to pick up the language faster, it guides you to speak the language in a much more natural format and encourages everyday conversations rather than what you learn in a classroom setting.
I paired myself up with native speakers who were students at the university I went to and would teach them English so they could help me with my Mandarin. I would say that this was probably one of the best parts about living in China because they would invite me back to their homes to do home stays and meet their families. This was an exciting way for me to immerse myself in the culture and see it from an indigenous person’s perspective rather than a foreigner.
How has knowing Mandarin helped you in your career/socially?
People find it interesting so it is always a good conversation starter socially.
I have been able to help translate branding material which is in English into mandarin but also help direct tourists on the London Underground!
In terms of developing my career. I was involved in a working group that often discussed the business opportunities that they could go after in Asia which was great insight for me so early in my career.
What do you do in your UK job?
I am at a business manager in Atkins, which is a design, engineering and project management consultancy firm, and I am responsible for three key functions.
The first responsibility is running the administration function that provides support across the whole of the transportation division. Secondly, I have a focus on driving continuous improvement and positive change within the function. Lastly, I also lead on parts of the operational and compliance workstream for the division.
What is your aim long-term from working in this sector?
I love bringing together small parts to make up the bigger picture and long-term, my ambition is to become an expert in operations, with a focus on helping start-ups.
I would love to apply such expertise to the African continent. The transportation sector across Africa is an area full of great opportunities, so I hope that by working in the transportation sector, I can learn what it takes to drive the engine of a large corporation that impacts regular people on a day to day basis.
I also want to build on my transferable skills as an operation specialist in areas, such as stakeholder influencing, leadership, communication, collaboration and resilience, that I can apply to various projects that I see myself getting involved with in the future.
What do you like about living in the UK?
I have had access to a great education system, I have met and worked with some incredibly intelligent and talented people and I love the fact that there is a broad gateway to the rest of the world. This has helped me experience some unreal travelling experiences across the globe.
I love living and working in London because there is so much diversity on a wide spectrum which makes life interesting. I can meet and interact with people who are similar to me but also meet amazing people who are different to me. I can eat food from different cultures and I find so much creative inspiration by living here. Before lockdown started, London was a bustling city that never slept, meaning I could always find something new to do if I ever was bored. London has a really good transport system and I love the fact that in less than half an hour, you can travel from a central business district like Canary Wharf to one of the most eclectic areas in the UK being Shoreditch.
Which tourist sites would you recommend to someone visiting London for the first time?
I really like going out to eat and drink in Shoreditch because it is a vibrant area and it is always bustling. I also like going for walks in the Battersea Power Station development. It’s crazy to see what they have done to the area. The Black Cultural Archives in Brixton is a great introduction to the Black British experience and if you have time, I would take a look around Emirates Football Stadium and go to the Happening Bakery in Finsbury Park to get a bagel.
Have you faced prejudices living in the UK and China?
In the UK, I have met people who have made me feel like an outsider and that I don’t belong because I don’t fit a ‘mould’ of what a Brit is supposed to look like. I had similar experiences in China too. One thing that was peculiar was that some Chinese people I interacted with were unaware of cultural differences, so sometimes I was seen as a celebrity and everyone wanted my picture. Other times, there would be an assumption that I was some sort of animal who should be in the jungle. Someone did say this to me once!
Tell us about your experience of visiting Ghana?
I haven’t had the opportunity yet to spend longer than a month in Ghana but every time I go, I fall in love with the country more and more. My mum is from Likpe Bala and my dad is from Santrokofi. I have been going regularly since childhood and often refer to Ghana as home. The organised chaos of Accra helps me to appreciate other parts of the country. The economic development of Ghana has been phenomenal and has had a positive impact on the country. As a result of this it has created so many opportunities for many people and that’s what excites me about Ghana.
Could you see yourself moving anywhere else long-term?
Absolutely! The thought of moving to another country is an adventure I would like to embark on. My fiancé and I love the African continent so we do plan to live there at some point. It will probably end up being Ghana but let’s see where life takes us!
How have you coped during lockdown?
I have been working full time so I have still been quite busy!
I love drama so I do a lot of acting related things in my spare time so lockdown has given me the opportunity to work on developing my drama skills and to write some short stories and monologues.
I have also completed some random courses from the Open University that I said I didn’t have time to do before lockdown when I was ‘super busy’. I have also been able to have some interesting conversations regarding African economic development with some really cool people which has given me ideas which I am excited to execute in the future.
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