“When I first came to Nepal, I hated it here,” recalls Sunmi Paik, a musician and educator who is now working to enhance music education in Nepal. “I was in transit from Bhutan and got a big cultural shock on arrival.”
Sunmi, a virtuoso pianist and PhD scholar in education at the Korea National University of Education in South Korea, first came to Nepal on 21 February 2020. She had spent some time in Bhutan as part of her PhD research. Nepal was supposed to be a short transit. Unfortunately, her flight home was delayed for months when South Korea got engulfed in a massive Covid-19 pandemic.
“I was then forced to stay here for 40 days, and the initial days were really difficult,” Sunmi says. Having traveled to around 30 countries around the world, Sunmi initially found Nepal the least hospitable of them all. Kathmandu was dusty and crowded and people stared at her uncomfortably. Adding to her misery, she also did not have many friends or acquaintances in the country. Coming from the naturally pristine Bhutan, it was a jarring experience.
Now on her second Nepal trip, Sunmi is a changed person. “Namaste, ma Sunmi Limbu,” she introduces herself as any other Nepali would. Limbu is a surname she’s unofficially adopted as she has been time and again mistaken for a Limbu woman. As for her Nepali skills, she is surprisingly fluent for the relatively short period of time she has spent here, and her conversations are a mix of English and Nepali.
“I find it easier to speak in Nepal than in English,” Sunmi says. “Learning Nepali was essential to understanding the people and culture here, and I am glad with the progress I have made.” Sunmi has also been learning the local Newa dialect and is confident she will gain some proficiency in the language soon.
So what changed her mind and made her adopt Nepal as a second home? It was a gradual process, and she realized it when she went back home. During her stay in Nepal, Sunmi had befriended many local musicians, professionals and amateurs alike. The pandemic and the ensuing lockdowns freed many gigging musicians who Sunmi got in touch with, and shared experiences and even collaborated with. She also traveled to Pokhara during her first visit to learn the state of music education there.
“I kept in touch with Nepali musicians when I returned to Korea. It was then that I realized I was in love with Nepal,” Sunmi says. When Nepal opened its borders post-lockdown, Sunmi went straight to the Nepali Embassy in Seoul and became the first Korean to get a visa to Nepal. She arrived here in January and has since been working to develop music education in the country.
“When in Bhutan, I had a chance to see its systematic and well-developed education system up close. In Nepal, music education is still primitive. As a musician and music educator, how could I ignore this?” she asks. On her second trip, Sunmi started organizing workshops for music teachers as she believes teachers can help bring big changes. “As a single person, I cannot do much. But if I train teachers here, we can together make a big difference.” The free workshops started small but have grown in size.
Music is a secondary or an optional subject in Nepali schools. There are music institutions and schools, but the teachers are not properly trained. Mostly, musicians with skills become teachers. Sunmi wants to instill internationally practiced and proven teaching methodologies in Nepali music teachers to make classes more effective for students. “Many times, the teachers are surprised by my simple yet effective teaching methods,” Sunmi says. “The master-courses I conduct will change teaching and learning processes and definitely produce more music scholars in the future.”
Nepal’s traditional cultural and caste divides meant only certain communities were allowed to be musicians. But Sunmi believes gradual changes will make music education progressively more palatable in the society. “At least by the time we get old and become grandparents, we’ll see children freely choose to study music as a major subject,” she says.
In Nepal till June, Sunmi plans to continue giving workshops to music teachers every two weeks. She is also developing music education books and curriculums. Sunmi has been appointed an instructor for Western Classical Music History at Kathmandu University Department of Music. “The university has been very accommodating and has offered me online classes when I go back to Korea,” Sunmi says. “I will also be visiting Nepal every year and make sure I see the changes I am trying to instill.”