Sunday, January 29, 2012

2nd Quarterly Report

I just completed my second quarterly report for the Watson Foundation and thought that I would share it here. You may recognize bits and pieces of it from previous blog posts, but I thought it was worth putting up here as a shorter version of the last three months. Happy reading.

January 28, 2012

To the Watson Fellowship Office,

Happy New Year! I hope this finds you well. I’m currently munching on a Danish pastry while looking out at the snowy streets of Copenhagen. The decision to leave my project country of Germany for a week and come to Denmark was a rather spontaneous one made after a distant relative offered me the use of his apartment here and I was able to connect with a few potential research contacts. It feels appropriate to the spirit of the Watson that the halfway point finds me in a new city that I had no idea I’d be visiting when I left last July!

I can’t believe that I left the United States whole six months ago, but I also can’t believe that I have six more months of transitions and travel left to go! The thought is both exciting and exhausting. When I last wrote, I was in Hyderabad, India before heading north to spend my last two weeks in India sightseeing around Delhi, Agra, Jaipur, and the small northern town of Simla. I thoroughly enjoyed taking those two weeks to experience India in a different way and I found that after nearly eight weeks in different Indian cities, I had finally become a much more assertive and confident traveler. There were many things I had finally figured out about life there (navigating my way through the chaotic train stations, surviving the Delhi metro during rush hour, learning how to eradicate bed bugs) just when my time was up! It was difficult to say goodbye to a place that profoundly impacted how I view and move about the world, and difficult to say goodbye to my new “Indian families” who had opened their homes to me, but I was also exhausted and ready to be in one place for a while.

I arrived in Rabat, Morocco on November 15th and had the good fortune of coming into contact with a young woman with a spare room who was willing to rent it out to me. It was wonderful to be in the same place for the eight weeks I was in Morocco . The apartment was right near the ocean and I loved wandering my neighborhood, buying groceries in the fruit and vegetable market near my place and getting to know the kids who played outside. After a lot of time in Indian hostels, I loved being able to come home and cook for myself and be based in one place long enough to form some wonderful new friendships. I took to Rabat quite quickly and loved the interesting combination of European and Arab influences you find just wandering the streets. I loved the chaotic medinas, taking brief trips to Fez and Casablanca, and sampling more varieties of olives than I ever knew existed.

In Morocco I had a range of conversations (formal and informal) about naming and I took a few Moroccan Arabic classes to learn how to communicate on a very basic level. One highlight of my time there was that some teachers at a school became interested in my research and the idea of the Watson fellowship in general and had me come in to be a guest speaker in their classrooms. My conversations with the students about their relationships to their own names and identities were some of the most fruitful of this year. Morocco is the first country on my list where the decision of what to name your child is shaped by governmental pressures. There is a set of laws and an approved list of names that can be used because these names are said to represent “Moroccan identity.” As you can imagine, conflicts arise when there are different ethnic groups who want to use different names and are excluded from this idea of what a Moroccan identity is. I really enjoyed my conversations there and felt that I had developed new strategies for research and new definitions for what that research can look like.

Another highlight of my time in Morocco was meeting my parents at the Casablanca airport on Christmas morning. It was wonderful to be able to share a sliver of this year with my family (and I think, reassuring for them to see me “in action”). It was a very joyful reunion and wonderful to spend some time reflecting on this year with people who know me so well .

On January 9th, after a stop at the iconic Rick’s CafĂ© in Casablanca, I flew to project country #4: Germany. I experienced a lot of culture shock at the Frankfurt airport and was reminded it was my first time setting foot outside of Asia or Africa in over five months. From Frankfurt I traveled to eastern Germany to a rural town outside of Leipzig where a family had generously agreed to host me. I lived with them and their 3 daughters (ages 5 weeks old, 2 and 4!) for about three weeks and because I was constantly surrounded by children, I was able to meet a lot of parents who recently went through the naming process in Germany. Germany also has a strict set of naming laws and serendipitously, I met a whole slew of academics who teach at a university that offers its own department of onomastics (names). I’m eager to continue my research in Germany when I head back there (this time to Berlin, rather than the east) at the end of this week.

I’ll finish up my seven weeks in Germany at the end of February at which point I’m taking a week-long trip to Istanbul to see my sister and celebrate my 23rd birthday before heading onto project country #5: Zambia, on February 28th. I have a feeling from here on out things are going to be moving very quickly indeed!

When I think about the next few months I have similar feelings to as when I left home last July. I am nervous and excited and can’t quite believe I’m doing what I’m doing. But now, I have the confidence that I can, indeed, do this. As more and more time passes, I am becoming more and more appreciative of what these experiences are teaching me about myself. Although I still question how I’m spending my time and if I could be more productive and what the end goal of all of this is, I’m worrying less about it. I feel less tethered to home and have stopped thinking about what I might be missing out on. I’ve learned to plan less, say yes more, and have dinner with just about anyone in the world, even when we don’t speak the same language.

I recently mailed a wedding present to a former director and dear friend at home and we had a conversation about the beauty of all of these tangible little reminders of all of the other worlds out there. We talked about how pulling them altogether can sometimes feel like a great challenge, but also an immense gift. She wrote, “The world is just full of so many things. They do not fit together tidily. Which, I suppose, is partly why learning how to recognize yourself in many different situations, in all the changing landscapes, in the shifting configurations, so that you become your own throughline, ends up feeling like its own superpower. Knowing your eccentricities, and knowing your worth, and trusting yourself to evolve, and giving yourself permission.”

These words were just about an exact articulation of what I was feeling, and a perfect understanding of how this year has already so profoundly shaped who I am and who I will be for years to come. I have learned to recognize myself through my interactions with so many people, in many different time zones, in many different languages. I’ve learned what I need in order to feel safe, in order to feel happy, in order to contribute to my surroundings in a positive way, in order to feel like me. As I begin to slowly face the reality that I will eventually be returning home from this adventure, the possibilities for where I go from here seem vast and overwhelming. Sometimes I wonder if this year will just feel like a dream. What the idea of finding your own throughline does for me, is remind me that this year will always be an integral part of who I am, of how I think, and how I understand myself and others. It’s a superpower indeed.

I am excited, nervous, and a little tired when I think ahead to the next six months. I can only imagine they will continue to shape me in ways I can’t begin to imagine yet.

A thousand thank yous for this gift. I am learning every day.


Nell Bang-Jensen


-At Hunmayan's Tomb in Delhi
-At the Taj Mahal in Agra
-Sunlight in a Moroccan Medina
-In Sale, Morocco
-About to eat a Moroccan tajine (that I made!)
-With my family in Rabat, Morocco
-The Hassan II Mosque in Casablanca
-Street view in Leipzig, Germany


  1. well this was just the loveliest read! happy 1/2!

  2. Maura, you are so kind. I'm already looking forward to a lunch date next August (4 corners of the earth sandwiches, perhaps?) where we can talk about all this and more in person.