From an interview with PK Gyamfi-Aidoo, Product Designer, Movesnap, RBC Ventures.
PK is a strategic product designer with Movesnap at RBC Ventures, along with being a designer and photographer. Born in Ghana, PK moved to South Africa with his family when he was five years old, where he lived until he was fifteen. The son of a diplomat, he was exposed to a very international perspective from a young age, and is also very familiar with the feeling of not belonging. PK’s journey is one of growing up in a foreign country, rediscovering his own culture, studying in China and the U.S. and eventually finding himself in Canada. With a worldview developed through an international lens, PK shares a few thoughts on identity and Black History Month.
I didn’t always appreciate what it meant to be Ghanaian and African. I left Ghana when I was five, and when you’re five, you don’t really think about that sort of thing. We moved to South Africa and I lived there for about ten years during an interesting and challenging time in history, right after the end of apartheeid. South Africa was the foundation for everything that I had known to be true about life.
Because of my father’s job, I was exposed to many people and ideas that enabled me to form opinions or at least create the foundation to form opinions the way that I do now. Though I didn’t realize it at the time, my parents challenged my sister and I to think differently, to be different, to be a little bit more creative.
I attended a school with students that were white, black, Indian, Arab – kids from everywhere. We were encouraged to learn everything about everyone: global politics, global geography and sociology, and see the world as a whole. I don’t think a day went by where our parents didn’t challenge us to keep up to date with news affairs. I actually wanted to get into politics before I got into photography and art.
The political landscape of Africa was also changing around the time and collectively, Africans were asking themselves: What is Africa’s identity? How is Africa going to stand? And most importantly, what is each country’s identity within Africa? That question was compounded for me by the fact that as much as we are Africans, as Ghanaians in South Africa, we were still foreigners in another country. We had to adjust.
“Culture is the immovable brick in your foundation.”
When I was fifteen, I moved back to Ghana to finish off high school. That was a wake up call for me because living in the upper echelons of African society, unfortunately, had gone to my head. I was very narcissistic. Ghana has this way of humbling you. You quickly learn to be who you are, not who you think you are.
I started to discover more about my culture – to appreciate my culture and customs. I was reminded that the African culture is unshakeable and firmly rooted in family. I very recently started speaking in my native tongue again: It’s the Akan language, which is a highly expressive and contextual language. Depending on how you say something, it could mean something else. I had always understood it, but now I can speak it emotionally.
For me, culture is the immovable brick in your foundation. I struggled a lot in my formative years trying to figure out what my identity was. Because on one hand, even though I grew up there, I’m not South African, and on the other hand, when I moved back home, I wasn’t Ghanaian either because I was raised in South Africa. When I moved to New York I was African, not African-American. But because of how I was raised, because of the dueling perspectives and all of my experiences, I am who I am.
Changing plans, starting a new career, and finding your place
After high school, I spent a year in China as an exchange student and then went to New York where I studied photography at the School of Visual Arts. I really liked it, but heading into my final year, I was struck by the feeling that photography was not the right career for me. The department head allowed me to take a couple of design courses in my final year which enabled me to access design internships as well.
Around that time, I started working on my first startup which gave me a lot of experience. Then just before I graduated, I got an internship at a design agency in New York. It was a UX design job – essentially three months paid training with the potential of a job offer. I jumped at the opportunity! I transitioned from school to workplace in just a few months.
The people that I met were extremely smart people from all walks of life, teaching each other different ways of working and thinking and creating. Then a year in, there was an opportunity in the Toronto office, so I moved to Canada.
My first year in Toronto was a big adjustment and I wasn’t sure I wanted to stay. But I made a couple of good connections that helped me weather that storm. It was a very volatile time because there was so much happening and it was compounded by the fact that I was going through depression at the time.
Then I was laid off.
I felt like it was time for me to leave, and that this was not where I wanted my career to go. What did I want to do with my life? Where did I want to go? Where did I see myself going? I was itching for something new.
I planned to apply for a job at RBC but I couldn’t access the job posting because of my double-barrelled, hyphenated last name. The field would only accept one last name. It’s ironic that it was a UX issue that prevented me from applying for that job and led me to where I am now.
Literally a week after that, I got a message from a recruiter on LinkedIn asking if I was curious about opportunities at RBC Ventures. I did some research and realized that this was where I could finally put my design and UX skills together with all the strategic skills that I had garnered over the years. A week before lockdown I landed an interview and that eventually turned into my current job.
I chose to stay in Canada because my sister is here, I’ve made friends here and my girlfriend is here. I decided I’d like to stay in a place where I can finally put down some roots, which is something I have never really done. I got my PR (Permanent Residence) literally the day before Service Canada shut down due to the pandemic. I remember the woman saying, “You’re lucky that you’re getting this done today.”
Thoughts on Black History Month
Growing up, we didn’t really talk about race: it may have come up once or twice a year, like a footnote. But in America, it seemed like every second conversation was about race. That was a big culture shock to my system, but I learned from it.
I come from a place where Black history is not just one month, it’s every second of every minute, of every hour of every day – every week, every month, every year. It’s nonstop. The best way to say it is, where I’m from Black history is history. Period.
When it comes to Black History Month, I think the awareness generated by the event is good. There is a time and a space where everybody stops and pays attention to a particular side of history. We could have a bigger conversation about how being Black has been defined. In North America, Black History really focuses on black American history. We need to know the facts and understand history, so that we can have a productive discussion.
Newcomer tip: Don’t change who you are
As a child, I had moved from Ghana to South Africa and back again. Kids can make friends with anybody, no matter where they go. Being an international kid you become a kind of chameleon. You are trained to shed your skin and put on another skin to fit in. You’re always on your toes. It’s almost like a double-edged sword in the sense of a skill. You can fit in very easily, but then your identity can slowly begin to slip away. When I got to Canada I was overwhelmed by the feeling that I had to do it again.
One of my friends reminded me of the time I moved back to Ghana from South Africa. He said,”Your best years in Ghana were when you eventually realized that you were your own person and you didn’t have to pretend to be anybody else.” That was very powerful for me; that changed everything. From that point on, it was onward and upwards in terms of opening my mind to a lot more experiences as opposed to focusing on the downfalls.
I have been very privileged in my journey. What I have gone through is probably a much better version of what others might go through. If there’s any advice I can give newcomers moving to Canada, it’s just to know who you are and stick to that. I guarantee you that will get you much further being yourself than allowing the urge of wanting to fit in to change you. You may ask yourself if you should abandon your African side in order to fit into society, or stick with your African side and risk not fitting in? The answer will always come from just knowing yourself.