Friday, October 28, 2011

1st Quarterly Report

The three-month mark has meant even more Watsoversary-esque reflection because it means that my first quarterly report for the Watson Foundation is due. The Fellowship office requests that we think of our reports as "long letters home." In light of this, I thought you might enjoy reading the report as well, although you might recognize some familiar ideas from previous posts.

Also, for those of you who are just discovering this blog, or who want the spark notes version of it (I don't blame you), this should offer a good summary of where (in body and mind) I've been so far this year.

(I already submitted it to the fellowship office, so don't tell me if there are typos).

To the Watson Fellowship Office,

Greetings from Hyderabad, India. I need to begin this “long letter home” with a sincere thank you. The last three months have already had such a strong impact on me that it’s impossible to imagine where I’ll be in another nine. There have been countless moments when I’ve stepped back from my surroundings with an unavoidable smile to myself because I just cannot believe what I get to be a part of. I can’t imagine a more exhilarating, enriching or terrifying way to spend this year, and it’s proved to be all of the above already.

After a brief weekend of sightseeing in Singapore, I spent the first eight weeks of my Watson year in Bali, Indonesia. There, I was based in the cultural center of Ubud which I found to be an easy and welcoming home base to begin my research and my travels. I spent my days there engrossed in conversations with members of the incredibly friendly Balinese populace, taking an Indonesian language class at the local library, wandering through rice paddies, learning from a mask maker, attending countless ceremonies and other cultural events, and making a home for myself. I stayed at the same homestay for the two months that I was there, and as a result, it felt like I was not only visiting, but living in Ubud. It was a triumph to reach the end of two months and realize I could navigate my way around efficiently, bargain with confidence, converse in the local language, and had formed relationships that would continue into the future.

My conversations about names in Bali were ones that I seemingly stumbled into; I quickly discovered that I would have more success with people when casually discussing the stories behind their names over a cup of coffee, rather than setting up formal interview times in advance. I took copious notes about these naming traditions, mainly continuing to marvel at the fact that the entire population goes by one of four first names, and realizing how much that says about the place and people itself. In Bali, the collective seemed to be of the utmost importance, and names reflected this. I found that talking to people about their names also inevitably involved discussions of reincarnation, trances, and ceremonies; these traditions were a fundamental part of their identities and pushed my own thinking past a usually skeptical and secular framework.

Being in the same place for a few weeks allowed me to get used to being somewhere completely on my own. I was amazed by how quickly eating in restaurants alone became second nature, how much more I paid attention to myself and was aware of my own moods, my health, even things as seemingly simple as my hunger and exhaustion levels. I was able to form close relationships with those around me and I felt I was able to integrate myself into daily life there, as much as I could hope to as an outsider. I also had the chance to meet Sara Bates, another Watson fellow who was based traveling in Bali. It was an incredible coincidence to find two Watson fellows in the same language class in Ubud on the first day. Although Sara and I were busy with our own schedules and research, it was great to see her in language class, talk about how we were doing, and use each other as resources as we were both just starting out. Having the experience of meeting Sara has made me (already) eagerly anticipate the returning fellows conference where I’ll get to meet 38 other kindred spirits.

On September 21st I flew to India. For the first two and a half weeks I stayed with a couple living in Mysore and members of their extended family. Most of the stories about names I gathered came from evening conversations in their living room as Savithri, my host, shared her vast knowledge of Hindu mythology. I also worked with several Professors at the Central Institute for Indian Languages, many of whom were studying naming trends in general. It was strange to be thrust back into an academic world after studying naming in Bali in such an anecdotal way, but it was a reminder that my experiences in each place will be different and the way in which I do my research, as well as what I focus on, should change accordingly.

Because India is such a diverse (and massive) country, I decided to spend my seven and a half weeks here traveling around to different parts. Since leaving Mysore I’ve divided my time between Bangalore, Kochi, Kanyakumari, Madurai, Chennai, and now, Hyderabad. In each of these places I’ve been trying to have a balance of academic and casual conversations about names with people from different backgrounds. However, I’ve found that traveling around this much might not be as conducive to doing research as it was when I was based in one place for a longer period of time. Realizing this has given me something to take away from India as I plan how to spend my time in other countries. In India it’s also been a bit frustrating at times that my interactions with people have also been limited by concerns for my personal safety. Although Indonesia and India were both places where I have grown used to sticking out, in India, this seems to come with more unwanted attention and I’ve learned to be pretty cautious when traveling by myself here. That said, learning to navigate my way through these bustling Indian cities and realizing I can manage by myself here has been one of my greatest triumphs. Just getting by on a daily basis in India has made me a much more assertive person who is quicker to stand up for myself and to fight for my own rights and respect. I’m coming to appreciate that just because something is difficult it does not mean that it is bad.

I think my greatest challenge of the year so far has been figuring out how to spend my time. Names are a topic that is both very broad and very specific, and studying names doesn’t lead to a set schedule with events to be at or training programs to embark on. The advantage to studying names is that I can talk to anyone. The downside is that because of this, it makes it challenging to define for myself when I’m working on my project and when I’m not. I’m realized that for myself it is helpful to create some structure (whether it’s also taking a language class so that I’m better able to communicate with people, setting up more interview times in advance, engaging in some kind of cultural activity, or teaching an English class a few times a week). I’ve also found writing to be an immensely helpful way for me to make broader connections related to my project. Although initially I started a blog with the intent of keeping my friends and family updated on my adventures, I underestimated how useful this outlet would be for my own research. I’ve found that after having conversations with people, I’m best able to step back and make broader connections (about names and also just about all that I’m processing on a daily basis), when I try to articulate them in writing.

The difficult questions that Director Chris Kasabach said we are probably asking ourselves in his letter last August, “Am I doing this right? Am I as productive as I should be?” are questions that continue to haunt me on an almost daily basis, but as he also suggests, I am becoming more and more open to “embrace the ambiguity” and find “new answers” that work for me. In this light, I have become more forgiving of myself. I have realized that I need to be more patient and feel triumph in my successes because I don’t have professors or parents or friends praising me for my efforts. I’m realizing when you’re traveling on your own you have to be your own second, and third and fourth opinion, so you better trust yourself a lot. I’ve learned that I need to create a lifestyle for myself that’s sustainable for a year, and it’s a different kind of traveling than when you’re trying to pack in all the sights and sounds in a short period of time. I’ve learned not to feel guilty that I’m not seizing the day if I sleep in on a Saturday, and I’ve learned that it’s okay to indulge in the occasional slice of pizza, even if it’s not traditional Indian food.

I can say with certainty that the last three months have made me feel more independent and confident than I’ve ever been before in my life. There are times every day where I look around and can’t quite believe my eyes. There are moments that stand out, moments like making eye contact with a fifteen year-old girl about to undergo a tooth filing ceremony in Tabanam, Bali, or riding through Ubud traffic on the back of a motorcycle to go to a clinic with a 103 fever, or reaching Kanyakumari, the southernmost tip of India and seeing the sea which, from that point, stretches all the way to Antarctica, or trying to say goodbye and thank someone for their tremendous hospitality and generosity, and realize I can’t do this without getting tears in my eyes. Moments like this are what are defining this year for me and although there are moments of uncertainty, doubt, fear, and sickness as well, those are, somehow, less memorable.

During the next few months I plan to be in Morocco, Germany, and perhaps Mali. Although Mali wasn’t originally a project country, in my research thus far, several people have suggested to me that I study the system of “cousinage” and its relationship to naming there. I’m currently trying to tweak my plans, visa application, and budget to see if adding this stop might be a possibility. I do know that I’ll be in Morocco (and hope to be based in Rabat) from November 13th-January 9th. Until then I’ll be continuing my travels in India with a few days left in Hyderabad and then two weeks around Delhi. Let the adventure continue!

Thank you, again.


Nell Bang-Jensen


-With a friend’s two year-old daughter in their family temple outside of Ubud, Bali.

-With my mask maker friend, Oka, his grandson and grandson’s friend in Mas, Bali.

-Near the Tanah Lot temple in Bali.

-Receiving a blessing at Tanah Lot.

-Climbing back down after a sunrise hike up Mt. Batur volcano.

-Outside the Somnathapura temple near Mysore

-With a new friend, Pushpa, in her village near Mysore.

-With a new friend, Vaishya, at a temple in Hyderabad.

-At Golconda Fort in Hyderabad

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