Sunday, April 29, 2012

3rd Quarterly Report

I thought I'd share here what I just sent to the Watson Fellowship Office. Again, you might recognize some parts of it pulled from other blog posts, but let it at least be a summary of where I've been and where I'm heading.

April 28, 2012

To the Watson Fellowship Office,

Hello from Dublin! The unrelenting rain of the last few days has given me the impetus to stay inside and write this. I hope this finds you well and enjoying a spring that is somewhat warmer and drier than the one I’m currently experiencing in Ireland (although I must admit that after so many months in hot countries, it’s kind of a relief). 

When I last wrote, I was in Copenhagen on a week-long hiatus from my research in Germany.  There, I learned where my father gets his taste for rye bread and licorice and, for the first time in my life, was surrounded by people who pronounced my last name correctly. I met many of my Danish relatives (who had only been names in my mind up to this point), came face-to-face with my grandfather’s grave, and found it to be a restorative and thought-provoking week, as well as a trip that added to my understanding of my own name.  

I returned to Germany, this time to Berlin, to continue my research. I had many questions left from my first few weeks outside of Leipzig and was eager to have more conversations about the legal regulations for naming a child, as well as the phenomenon of “Kevinismus”, a term Germans have developed to describe the relationship between the kind of names chosen by parents and these parents’ socioeconomic status. Compared to my methodology in some other countries, I was able to conduct my research in Germany in a fairly conventional way. I met with a few people at the Freie Universitat of Berlin and also had the opportunity to attend a few parent/child classes with a friend of a friend and her one-year-old daughter to talk to the namers and the named there. Despite the unusually low temperatures, I enjoyed wandering around Berlin’s streets, attending a few events at the annual Berlinale film festival, and taking in countless museums and cups of cappuccino. 

On my twenty-third birthday (in between project countries #4 and #5), I flew to Istanbul to spend a few days with my sister.  It was wonderful to have some “vacation time” to explore that beautiful city, and most of all, to spend time with my sister and celebrate my birthday with someone who has known me since the day I was born. 

I then made a home for myself in Lusaka, Zambia’s capital city. While in Zambia, a family of missionaries living outside of Petauke who had serendipitously stumbled across my blog invited me to stay with them for a few days and learn about names in the Eastern Province. I had the experience of talking with many of their students (all Zambians and Zimbabweans training to be pastors) about the names of their children, cultural traditions, and the differences between Zambian tribes. Sitting with forty Zambian men over lunches of nshima (a thick maize porridge you eat with your hands), and talking to them about names, America, and why I wasn’t married yet, is an experience I won’t forget anytime soon. While in Zambia, I also traveled south to visit the majestic Victoria Falls and had the opportunity to come face-to-face with the recently-won African Cup of Nations.  I took advantage of a rainy season discount and spent a few days on safari in Kafue National Park. 

In Lusaka I hired a research assistant, a first of the year. Levis helped me with language translation, introductions, and just generally being someone I could walk around with in places that would have been very difficult to visit on my own.  Though Lusaka was not my favorite place in the world, I learned an immense amount there and, by the end of my stay, was able to compile a list of names from several different Zambian tribes that are given to babies to describe the circumstances of their birth (my favorite being the name, “Tikambenji”, which is given to baby who comes as a surprise, and means in Bemba, “what is there to say?”)

It was difficult to leave Zambia because of some of the close relationships I had formed there, but I was also ready for some cooler temperatures and coffee that wasn’t instant. I spent a couple nights in London en route from Africa and got to project country #6: Ireland, on April 13th. I’ve now been in Dublin for exactly two weeks and have five weeks left in Ireland before heading to my final project country: Iceland. (I’m sure you’re hearing a variation of this in all of the quarterly reports this time around, but I can’t believe I only have one more country left after this).  

I’ve decided to spend my time in Ireland in Dublin, Belfast, and Galway (meaning that I’m technically adding Northern Ireland as a project country, I suppose).  I am greatly enjoying Dublin for its literary history, cheap student theater tickets, and being surrounded by so many people who like to talk. So far I’ve found that my interviews about names here lead to conversations about family, language, history and politics, all woven into one. I’m mainly looking at how names play a role in identity politics in Ireland as well as religious conflicts up north. 

Although every place is still new, and it’s hard to ever feel prepared for what awaits me around the next bend, one major unknown--the unknown of if I can do this, and do it happily—has vanished. I think less these days about how I should be spending my time this year, and more about how I want to.  I think my major challenges for the next three months are trying not to think too much about my return to the U.S., and also the logistical task of making the meager remains of my stipend work in the two incredibly expensive countries of Ireland and Iceland.  (There will probably be a lot of ramen noodles involved). 

This year has affected me in some ways that are more tangible than others. I’ve become a better map reader and my spatial orientation has vastly improved.  Because of the variety of keys I’ve held in my possession, I’ve become very good with locks. I have learned words in new languages and a whole slew of facts about history and politics and religion that were previously foreign to me (literally). I have learned time and time again that one of the main disadvantages of being alone is no one to watch your stuff while you go to the bathroom, but this is more than made up for by one of the main advantages: never having to share dessert.  Because of this year I will be a better (and lighter) packer, a more adventurous eater, and a more entertaining person at cocktail parties.

But the experiences of my last nine months have also instilled in me many things that feel much, much bigger and that are much, much harder to articulate. At this point in the year, it is hard to avoid thinking about what awaits me when I return home because at this point my plans are nonexistent. I’ve been joking with friends and family that thinking about applying for a job in the east coast with an English Literature and Theater degree feels more daunting at this point than being a young American woman traveling alone in India does. I am beginning to brace myself for the inevitable, “So, how was it?” question, and trying to figure out how I will (literally and figuratively) unpack all that this year has been into my life at home. 

What I can say with certainty is that this year will somehow, inevitably, be brought back with me because it has become a fundamental part of who I am. What the last months have instilled in me beyond these tangible skills can only be described as a system of beliefs. In my last quarterly report, I talked about how much of this year has been about finding my own throughline—figuring out who you are is inevitable when the streets and people are constantly changing around you. Figuring out how to be a chameleon and adapt to all of these unknowns, while simultaneously learning what you need in order to feel at home there has made me feel somewhat invincible. It’s not a na├»ve, fearless invincibility, like the kind that leads teenagers to drive too fast on highways, but an invincibility that comes from realizing the world is small once you know how you can contribute to it. It comes from realizing your own power to connect with people, whether it is the Zambian man in the N’gombe compound who perpetually referred to me as “mzungu” (white person), the older couple in Mysore, India, who will hopefully keep calling me their child for the rest of my life, or my friends from college as we figure out how to communicate long-distance and as adults. 

No matter how many plane rides I take, there is still a sense of magic about the idea. I can’t quite fathom how it’s possible to be so many worlds away, and that in a matter of hours inside a small space, you can arrive somewhere so different from the place you left. I can’t believe I’m lucky enough this year to act as the throughline between places, and to learn how to do so. There is an invincibility that comes with the knowledge that I can land anywhere and find what I need. This landing could be disembarking from a plane, but it could also be a landing from more metaphorical fall, falls that I will most likely, inevitably face throughout my life. This year has taught me to recover from these landings, to be patient with myself, forgiving, and fearless. It’s taught me that connecting with other people is what the world is made up of, and above all, it starts by discovering your own power to do so. 

With gratitude and appreciation. See you in August, and thank you, thank you, thank you.


Nell Bang-Jensen





-Outside the Sansoucci Castle in Potsdam, Germany.
-With my birthday "cake" in Istanbul, Turkey.
-With the African Cup of Nations in Livingstone, Zambia.
-On the edge of Victoria Falls.
-On a microlight flight over the falls.
-On the side of the road in Zambia's Eastern Province.
-Taken in downtown Dublin. 
-In Howth, Ireland, a seaside suburb outside of Dublin. 

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