Africa People South Africa

From Kenya to McKinsey to “Pianist at Sea” — A 1995 Girl’s Journey

Written by China House

“You should go abroad and make more tries while you are young.”

When Kristin spoke to me, she was in Xiamen, China, getting her National Seaman’s Certificate. After obtaining the Seaman’s Certificate, she will work on an international luxury cruise. In her own words, she might “wake up in a new country everyday”.

Kristin, who graduated from Shanghai University in July with a bachelor’s degree in business, originally planned to study abroad for a master’s degree. However, Kristin decided to take a gap year to see and explore the world before further study.

“Why travel around the world? Because it’s cool.”

Kristin has such a sweet smile that if you meet her in a cafe in Shanghai, and you might have no ideas about what countries she had traveled to before.

Kristin in Kenya

Field Research in Kenya: Shocked and Moved

Kenya may be a turning point in Kristin’s “going out” journey in the summer vacation of her junior year in 2016.

Kristin met a professor teaching lessons about Africa at Yale University, where he covered a lot about the continent. Kristin was fascinated by the story and this mysterious land. Then the professor suggested, “Would you like to see it yourself?”.

“I’m kind of adventurous. I like to try new things, so I decided to try it,” Kristin said.

Because her birthday is on world AIDS day, Kristin has grown a strong interest in disease and health from her childhood. And she also has friends and relatives working in the health care industry. Therefore, the girl who was extremely interested in health care carried out field research in Kenya with the help of China House, a Chinese organization.

In the eyes of many Chinese people, Africa is a “land of danger”, full of diseases, wars, and looting. But is this the truth? If so, can China’s relatively advanced medical technology bring helps to Africa today?

With such ideas, Kristin interviewed a large number of stakeholders, including the local government of Kenya, local people, Chinese doctors there, public and private hospitals, international NGOs, slums, and Kenyan medical industry related to Chinese enterprises, etc.. Finally, she wrote an English article and successfully published it on an authoritative platform in the field of international China-Africa relations.


Kristin is interviewing a woman who has traveled five hours by car to see a doctor.

The trip to the slums is one of Kristin’s most profound memories of Kenya. From this experience, she said, she learned three keywords: contentment, kindness, and helpfulness.

At that time, she recalls, there was an extremely small primary school in Masare, the second-largest slum in Kenya. The whole school is in a dirty environment, with a total of two classes. Their classrooms were situated in a two-flor building, which looked very shabby and fragile. People were living on the first floor, and go to classes on the second floor. During the interview, the school principal told her that their conditions were so poor that they ahd to rely on only two teachers. Then pointing to a group of children playing in the distance, he said that although these children played like they were carefree, one-third of the children in Massare have AIDS, and many have been born with it. Most of them do not have a sense of protection, and some even get AIDS without knowing what AIDS is. Together with the poor living environment, this group of kids playing together may one day find themselves missing a member.

“And then I looked at the kids playing, and I don’t know if they were too young to understand or just too used to it, and tears just fell down.” It was the first time Kristin had ever met someone whose life was so different from hers. 

“I deeply regret that I forgot to bring candy to the kids. I brought many candies from China and wanted to give them some if only to give them a little bit of sweetness. But it was my first day in Africa. It made me very sad that I was in such a hurry that I forgot to bring candies with me.”

McKinsey Project: the “Dance of the Lions and Dragons

Shortly after the trip to Kenya, McKinsey, the world’s top consulting firm, was recruiting Chinese research specialists to several African countries to research the current situation, opportunities, and challenges of Chinese companies in Africa. Despite being an undergraduate, Kristin applied and got hired.

“They asked me a lot about my experience in Kenya,” Kristin recalls. As the youngest member of the research team, she saw colleagues with rich working experience from the top schools in China, such as Tsinghua University, Zhejiang University, Xiamen University, Wuhan University, etc. What Kristin found was that the researchers all had common experience related to Africa. Her research project in Kenya laid a solid foundation for her.

Kristin was first assigned to McKinsey’s Nigeria research team. There are 54 countries in Africa, and there are extreme differences between each country. Some of them are relatively developed and safe, such as Kenya, but some countries, such as Nigeria, may not have good security and health conditions. Lagos, where Kristin planned to go, is even known as the capital of crime. However, none of this made Kristin giving up her plan.

When she had done an immense amount of desk research and was already preparing for her visa, the day before she was due to submit her visa documents, the sudden incident with Ryan changed everything. When Nigeria’s army mistakenly bombed civilians, killing and wounding more than 100 people, it shocked the UN and, of course, Kristin. Although the area was far from where Kristin was going, when her family and friends heard of the incident, they were adamantly against the trip. It was the Chinese New Year, so she thought a lot and finally decided to give up the opportunity. “My family only cares about my safety. They don’t care if I gain high achievement or make great changes to the world. When I told them that I would give up the opportunity, they popped champagne to celebrate.”

But though God closed the door to Nigeria to Kristin, he opened another window — South Africa. “I love South Africa!” Kristin said when a spot suddenly opened up on the South African research team. Kristin speaks of South Africa with glee.

It was February in March 2017.

Arriving in South Africa

“I have to say the environment in South Africa is much better as we could get out at night. However, I found that Chinese people in South Africa have a relatively fixed life circle. Because there have been too many security accidents in the past, they choose the places to go carefully, which is indeed necessary for their long-term safety. But for me and my colleagues who came to South Africa for the first time, everything was new, so we explored everywhere. Once we went to the weekly food market in the central business district of Johannesburg (CBD for short), the market was actually very busy and crowded. They came from all countries, but we couldn’t see any Chinese. So it was kind of funny we were stared at everywhere we went.”  

According to Kristin, the research skills she learned in Kenya were practiced and improved in South Africa, which helped her do research. The trip to South Africa made her many friends with whom that she still keeps in touch, and her love for Africa deepened.

Her name is inscribed in McKinsey’s report, “Dance of the lions and dragons: How are Africa and China engaging, and how will the partnership evolve? “

Kristin in South Africa with the McKinsey team

“Pianist at sea”? Back to School with a Better Self

“I found myself enjoying the experience of going abroad and seeing more things. I will continue to study after that. I want to study international relations, but for now, I plan to stop my study and get a job to see the world and learn more. ” In late 2016, Kristin, who had planned to apply to schools, decided to take a gap year.

With her African experience and McKinsey resume, Kristin has been able to get into good schools — including her dream schools, Columbia University and Yale University.

This is not a momentary impulse, not to give up learning. On the contrary, after seeing a bigger world and meeting lots of interesting people, Kristin realized that by accumulating more social experience and then returning to campus, she could make better use of the school resources and maximize the value of time.

“When I told my parents, they strongly disagreed about this decision at first,” Kristin remembers the conflicts when she told her parents.

“A lot of people have the idea of taking a gap year, but their family members may be against it for some reasons. A big part of the reason may be that they haven’t planned out exactly what they’re going to do during the gap year. Where to go, what to do, how to do it, how long to do it, the feasibility of the plan, what you will get out of it, all these things have to be carefully thought out.” Kristin has been considering and paying attention to some domestic and overseas projects since her junior year when she had the idea of a gap year. When he was selected for the project, he would know more about it and make a clear plan. When talking to her family, Kristin is confident enough to come up with a detailed gap year plan instead of saying, “I’m not going to study for a while. I want to take a gap year.”

“My family finally agreed to my plan.” Kristin smiles.

“I had so many options to choose from, but in the end, I chose a job that I thought was special.” Kristin says, “I like to switch between different identities to keep life fresh and exciting. This time I chose a job with a special working place and form — maritime auction officer. “

Like her favorite movie, “Piano Man at Sea,” in which Tim Roth plays a character working on a luxury cruise ship.”But I will definitely get off the ship.” Kristin says with a laugh, “A big part of the reason I took this job was that it would take me around the world and maybe wake up in a new country. I’m also going to meet people from all over the world on the cruise. I’m sure I’ll learn a lot from this job, so I’m looking forward to it.”  

When asked what Kristin plans to do after she finishes her master’s degree, she says, “As the future is full of changes. I will not say ‘I must do something in the future because my ideas will change. For example, when I was a freshman or a second-year student, I wanted to work in the marketing industry for big companies. This was because I was limited in the framework of those categories of jobs and my knowledge was limited. But as I grew up, I realized that there were so many other options. I have to try a lot of things to know whether I like them or not. In college, I have been exploring what I want to do. I have done many internships in different industries, so as I learn more, I will know more and more about what I like and what I don’t like. Reading Hamlet at different times gives me different feelings, and so do my plans about the future.”

“Growth seems simple, but you can only grow up when you try things yourself”

“Do I regret going to Africa? Of course, I don’t regret it. Now I have become a fan of Africa. My college roommates gave me a nickname, “the flower of Africa”. Kristine smiles brightly.

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