Wednesday August 13 – The last week of my trip got very busy so I didn’t have time to update my blog. I have now arrived home in New Jersey and am finishing it all now! Hope you enjoy my last couple of posts (the final four posts to be exact).
After two amazing months in Senegal, I will return home to New Jersey from Dakar later tonight and I cannot believe it. I finished my fieldwork with a total of 88 survey responses which I am very happy with and in the next month or two, I will analyze my data to draw conclusions about the political opinions of Senegalese youth today. I will split questions into particular groups that measure different things such as the level of one’s belief in the influence of the Y’en a marre movement. I will also split subjects into different sample groups by age, gender, and political involvement to account for confounding variables when measuring political external efficacy, which is the degree to which one feels his or her government responds to his or her actions in the political process. Like I’ve previously mentioned, the main question I’m trying to answer is whether youth express an increased trust or willingness to participate in formal politics, namely the activities of political parties, since the 2012 elections and since the rise of the Y’en a marre movement. I haven’t taken a look at all the survey responses but form the several I have seen, my hunch is that youth’s distrust of politicians has remained consistent and strong. Y’en a marre might have politically mobilized youth on an unprecedented scale but a significant portion of youth believe they are working with the government. Another trend that I’m believing is that the 2012 opposition coalition was more about anti-Wade (anti-incumbent) rather than about the Macky Sall’s (opposition candidate’s) competency which explains why the majority of people strongly disapprove of his performance. It seems as if he has played the same old dirty game of politics as he has fired handfuls of Ministers in his cabinet. One positive way of spinning this is that since the invigorating events of 2012, the young citizenry demand much more out of their politicians and that Macky does not have as much time as past politicians to impress. I’m excited to look further into my research subjects’ responses and reporting my findings to the Northwestern professors who helped me and to the academics and politically involved people I’ve met in Senegal.
|Surveyed one of the poorest neighborhoods in Dakar, Guédiawaye|
Looking back on my trip, I cannot help but look at my last two months as a roller-coaster ride of challenges and triumphs. In the first few weeks, I was a naive, excited newcomer enjoying what the city had to offer before Ramadan started, settling into the cultural center and research center, and making new friends. Then shortly after I got settled, I fell ill for one week before going to the emergency room in the middle of the night for an operation on an infected umbilical cord. That incident and the week of recovery that followed was definitely the hardest period not only because I could not do anything during that time but also because I found myself homesick and understandably lonely in a country to which I had just traveled by myself. I expected the recovery to go well but there was still the possibility of returning home early if it didn’t go well which I really didn’t want. But I would be lying if I didn’t admit that at times I questioned myself “Why did I even go for this research grant opportunity?” or “Do I really want to do this?” which I also asked a few times throughout the year when I was busy and stressed with other things besides the research grant application. “Why was I all alone pursuing this when I could be relaxing with my closest friends back home or at college?” Since I had Wi-Fi access at my home, it was very easy to just block myself off from my Senegal adventures and just surf the Internet in my room – talking to friends on Facebook, watching “Suits”, reading news articles, anticipating junior year plans… missing Chicago, Northwestern, and NJ. This internal battle actually plagued me for most of my trip but I learned to deal with it and still make the most out of my Senegalese experience. I know this struggle isn’t what you might have expected since the rest of my blog has sounded really adventurous /fun up till now but I would be remiss to leave this part out.
|Enjoying the comforts of my room|
|Exploring the city|
I did both.
A couple weeks after the operation, I physically felt 100% and was cleared to do my research once again. Since I lost some valuable time, I suddenly found myself very busy with improving my survey, making appointments with political activists and party members, and reconnecting with new friends. In other words, I was back to normal – excited and motivated to pursue my project and experience the country. However, I still had to commute to the downtown hospital every day to change my bandage which took a significant chunk of time out of surveying time. In the beginning, I took a cab with a Senegalese friend to make this journey because I didn’t know my way around but more importantly, I didn’t know how to bargain for a good price with the cab. Everything in Senegal, including street vendors and public transport, requires waxale, or bargaining. However, after learning how to bargain in Wolof and continuing to improve my French, I was able to bargain the cab for a good price and take it by myself, which felt amazing the first time. When I found out I had to go everyday, I decided to take the bus which was a little hard to learn at first but became second-nature after a couple weeks. From the congested traffic to the crowded buses, Dakar is overpopulated (and polluted) in every sense. Sometimes, I would wait up to an hour at the bus stop and up to two hours at the hospital if it was busy. This was certainly not enjoyable and I felt like I was wasting my time but I knew it was something I had to do and deal with.
|Congested downtown area|
Despite the constant inconveniences, a week after I started working again, I was able to find an amazing research assistant for a good price and begin my survey fieldwork with relative ease. As I’ve described in my previous posts, my surveying had its challenges but was successful overall as I walked through 6 different neighborhoods in Dakar and surveyed young people in 88 households! I could not have done it without Macodou, my assistant, who turned out to be my closest Senegalese friend on this trip. As you saw from my last post, I have been welcomed into his family and I consider them to be my Senegalese family also. Macodou is one of the hardest working people I have ever met and he does everything whole-hardheartedly to support his family which I respect so much. He dreams of making it to the United States and although I know the immigration wait-time averages up to 5 years, I will do my best to help him in the process. All in all since my trip to the hospital, I would describe my Senegal experience as a steady upward curve (with small ups and downs) that exponentially got better in the last week or so. This is because I had more ease and success with my research, I became more confident in navigating my life in Dakar on my own, and I was able to explore more of the country and make friends.
|Macodou and I at Touba Sane|
|Party at the Korean Ambassador’s House in Senegal|
|Exchanging banners with the Dakar Point E Rotary Club President|
|Enjoying fresh coconut drinks at the beach with my Norwegian roommate|
|Some graduate students and I. Two are also from Northwestern!|
Here are my final takeaways from the trip
1. Culture Shock and Adjustment
Before Senegal, my travel experiences had consisted of a couple trips to Europe and South Korea – the second was an important culture shock in my life as I returned to my motherland. However, those experiences definitely do not compare to the culture shock I dealt with this summer as almost every aspect of life in Senegal and the U.S. is completely different. From the majority Islam population to the decreased standard of living, Senegal challenged everything I had ever been taught growing up. Some key notes:
Family, more than religion and politics, is the core of Senegalese society. Although the traditional structure of multiple wives and dozens of children has diminished, men are still expected to support the family no matter what and women are expected to stay home as caregivers. Marriage is seen as a necessity – a Senegalese doesn’t think for a SECOND that he or she will never eventually get married and settle down. One conversation with Macodou really struck me when he said that his biggest goals are to get a good job to provide for his family and equally as important, to get married to his girlfriend. I told him that young Americans are getting married at older ages because financial stability takes priority before settling down with someone. In Senegal, this is not necessarily the case as people get married and then deal with the financials afterwards, often living in their parents’ homes. All in all, most Senegalese live with their families while Americans are more likely to live in atypical living situations (single parent, gay couple, post-grad young adults sharing an apartment). I think the emphasis on the family structure explains a lot about the kindness and hospitality of Senegalese people but also characteristics like the country’s homophobia and its overpopulation that show that they are a little behind.
|Family at Touba Sane|
Despite having virtually no healthcare, a shotty education system, lackluster job opportunities, and dirty politics, Senegalese people live virtuous and happy lives in the name of God and family. They truly care about their country, democracy, economy and culture. They identify as Senegalese and are proud to be a Muslim and democratic people. Of course, they have been struggling with an economy that hasn’t improved in a very long time and things today don’t seem to be getting better. That’s why it is common for all Senegalese, including young people, to talk intensely about politics and other serious affairs in very ordinary places such as in the streets during the day or over the dinner table at night. In other developing countries, unacceptable economic conditions, corrupt political institutions, and ethnic or societal divisions often lead to social anarchy but in Senegal, there has been peace since its independence in 1960. They recognize its many problems but in the end, they love their country and they learn to lead modestly happy lives in it while hoping for better.
|The Senegalese flag is proudly hoisted throughout Dakar|
The biggest adjustment that anyone has to make when living in a completely different country is dealing with the fact that you stand out and that people treat you differently while respecting the very different cultural norms you live in. For example, I quickly had to get used to being gawked at, constantly honked at by cabs, and called “Chinois” or Chinese. With children, I particularly had to get used to the incessant staring and occasional laughing and Chinese yelling. It’s strange to say but I also had to get used to being looked at as more important, more valued, more intelligent and worldly. Some of the people that I met in the households I surveyed and at the village of Touba Sane jokingly asked me to take their children to America but I think some of them were definitely not joking. All of this was challenging and strange. Also, Senegal’s poverty exceeded what I expected and I had to learn how to navigate through that. These are the facts I knew before the trip:
- About 60% of the country is 33 years old and younger.
- 50% of this young population is unemployed.
- More than 50% of those who are employed work in the informal sector ie. street vendors
Despite knowing these facts, I was vividly struck by the ubiquity of street vendors and beggars in Dakar. This has reminded me that facts about poverty can easily impress upon someone as merely numbers until he or she has a very personal experience or connection to it – this really applies to everything in life that one decides to care about and not care so much about. Almost everyday when I walked outside, little children would come up to me holding up a bucket with desolate faces, begging for change. When I was at the beach or downtown with my European or American friends, we would constantly be approached by random Senegalese who would try to begin polite conversation but almost always, they would guilt you into buying their things. Don’t get me wrong: the Senegalese people’s well-know hospitality, or teranga, has been incredibly warming and pleasant.. but also overwhelming. People are truly nice and grateful towards Americans but you never ever know if they’re in it for the money or if they just really want to be friends with you. I’ve found that when they’re strangers who randomly come up to you, it’s just for the money but when you meet a Senegalese person through a friend, they are truly thrilled to meet you and befriend you – they might want to marry you after a week but they’re genuine. Also, if you say that you’re coming back in one year, they take you for your word very seriously and get hurt/mad if you don’t come back. I heard countless stories of this from fellow foreigners and their friends. As I’ve thought about this, I am comfortable saying that I will return because I cannot imagine living the rest of my life without returning at least once. However, I’ve said that I do not know when I will come back – only that I will eventually.
|Street Vendors at Grand Yoff|
2. Life Decisions
Entering my junior year, I am nearly done with my Political Science degree requirements and I will have this political research experience under my belt. Although I am excited to analyze my results, report my findings, and explore other Poli Sci classes, this experience has actually made me realize that I am ready to explore a new field. A field that I believe is just as, if not more, important than politics: economics. I don’t think someone can seriously discuss one without integrating elements of the other. I first decided on political science because it involves the study of domestic and international institutions that shape human behavior and produce the complex world that we live in today. Although learning about foreign policy, city government, and the international economy has been extremely eye-opening, I’ve come to realize that one cannot start addressing solutions to major problems without versing himself or herself in the monetary institutions that govern all these systems. Because when it comes down to it, the world operates on money. Your house, your education, the people you surround yourself with, your political and legal capacity, your lifestyle, your values and beliefs – these are all outcomes of the financial system because with whom and where you grow up is dictated by your income. Without political knowledge, I could not have reached this conclusion but without economic knowledge, I do not believe that I can address the question of how institutional flaws can be addressed or more importantly, whether they should be addressed in the first place. More specifically, I am fascinated with the growing debate on inequality not only in the U.S. (poor vs rich, shrinking middle class) but also in the international economy (developing countries getting poorer, developed countries getting richer).
This experience has also taught me that I do not want to be an academic when I grow up. I immensely respect the graduate and PhD students whom I’ve befriended on this trip for what they do but the lifestyle is simply not for me. It’s really cool that one gets to travel a lot and continually learn but it’s a very slow and independently-monitored process. This does not mean however, that I would not pursue an international fellowship or international research in the near future. This simply means that I definitely do not want to be an academic as my primary career. Although I’ve loved my stay in Senegal, this experience has made me realized that I would not want to settle down in the different country. Instead, I’ve become more and more convinced that the city of Chicago is truly where I belong. I know I want to delve myself into the economics, politics, and communities of Chicago gaining experience in the private, non-profit, and public sector. This doesn’t mean I don’t love traveling and I don’t want to travel for the rest of my life (which I address next) but simply that I know where I want to call home for a long time.
|In front of the National Assembly|
3. Global Citizen
This summer experience has motivated me to become an active global citizen for the rest of my life because it makes life enjoyable and exciting and it gives you a smarter perspective on your life. Drastically improving in French and communicating with my Senegalese family, friends, and colleagues made me feel cool and challenged, adequate and inadequate, cool and new all at the same time. I’ve learned that the concept of things getting “lost in translation” really holds true: there are certain nuances, feelings, unspoken understandings that a language simply cannot convey that another language can. This can be viewed negatively but I think this is what makes our world interesting and beautiful which has so many different societies that possess and take pride in their unique customs and culture. I’ve also come to realize that the best way, IMO the only way, to really learn a new language is to speak it throughout the day and constantly listen to how the native people speak it. The American education system from kindergarten to college really fails at this because rudimentary grammar exercises and memorizing vocabulary doesn’t do much if you’re not actually learning and practicing how to verbalize everything. In addition to Korean and English, it’s nice to say that I can now communicate in French because it means that I can interact with many more people in the world – 33 Francophone countries to be exact. After this summer, I am motivated to keep up my French by reading French news and remaining connected with the French-speaking people I know. I want to maintain this ability so that I may return to Paris, where my aunt got married to a French man two years ago, and reconnect with that entire side of the family. I refuse to forget it like I did with my Spanish, which I learned from Kindergarten to junior year of high school. Speaking of, my renewed desire to travel the world has me set on South America as my next international plan, perhaps Ecuador or Chile, because I haven’t been to that continent yet and I could relearn and re-practice my Spanish. In addition, making new friends from Germany, Scotland, Norway, and other European countries summer has motivated me to plan and do the ideal, expansive Europe trip that I, like many Americans, dream of doing – probably the summer after I graduate Northwestern. Even more, I so badly want to return to my motherland, South Korea, because it’s been six years since I’ve seen all my family there and I want to improve my Korean. Other places on my list: Thailand, Turkey, Israel, Afghanistan. So clearly, the hardest thing about being an active global citizen is that it requires plenty of time and money but getting this research grant has proven to me that if one really wants travel opportunities and works hard at making them happen, they are more than possible. There are also always ways to make traveling more affordable and shorter.
Most importantly, this travel experience has made me realize how little Americans know and care about the world and has reaffirmed that we are truly not the center of the universe like many of us subconsciously and consciously are taught to believe. Talking to my European and African friends about their country’s histories, politics, economies, and biggest priorities going forward, I’ve realized that America may have a large influence on other countries but that does not mean we are dominant in their affairs nor that we are qualitatively “better” by any stretch of the imagination. Because America is so big and surrounded by two oceans, it is so easy for us to stay in our communities, carve out our happy lives, and buy American exceptionalism. Yes, I am proud to be American and I do believe it’s a uniquely large, diverse, and free nation that present opportunities for people like my parents who immigrated here in the 80’s. But I also know that we have the highest economic inequality out of any developed country and serious societal problems along the lines of race that threaten the American Dream and the core American principle that one who works hard can advance himself in society. Every nation has its strengths and weaknesses, its beautiful and ugly aspects, its triumphs and tragedies. After growing up in such a rich, white, Jewish/Christian world, this summer I immersed myself in a poor(er), black, Muslim world. However, I refuse to even think about whether one is “better” than the other, a sentiment that mainstream America does not espouse, because in the end, we are all human and the world is too complicated and big to try to reach conclusions about who’s “better”. One doesn’t get anywhere when he or she starts comparing countries and talking about why certain aspects of one are better than the those of the other. Instead, I’ve learned that first and foremost, one must respect and appreciate the other for its pros AND its cons. If you’re trying to decide which one is better, stop because the only productive conclusion you’ll ever reach is that they are merely different and that we are all human.
|Grand Mosque (and some political graffiti)|
|One of few churches in Senegal|
On my last day, my Norwegian friend Vajna, who has traveled all over the world, warned me about “counter culture shock” which refers to feeling strange or depressed when you return home after having adjusted to a completely different country. Right now, I am so pleased with my stay in Senegal and so proud of how I adjusted to challenges that I wouldn’t be surprised if I experience a little “counter culture shock,” as I haven’t actually been home in New Jersey for 8 months. However, I’d be lying if I didn’t tell you how excited I am to get a haircut (8 weeks has been the longest I’ve ever gone without one), use reliable plumbing and electricity, enjoy air conditioning, reunite with all my hometown friends and family, eat homemade Korean food, drive a car, etc. Soon, I will enjoy the comfortable, privileged lifestyle in which I grew up and leave the Senegalese lifestyle with all its daily inconveniences. The power outages, the plumbing problems, the scorching heat, the pollution and dust from which I would cough, the 4 hours I took out of my day everyday to change my bandage at the hospital… these are things I will not miss. But, I will miss the beaches, historical sites, and cultural immersions. I will miss speaking French everyday and learning the indigenous language Wolof. I will miss the mafé, the ceebu jën, the buy, and all the other amazing Senegalese meals and drinks that I enjoyed. I will miss the peaceful Muslim communities and incredibly close-knit families. I will miss surveying Dakar neighborhoods, learning from fellow academics, and meeting prominent political figures in Senegal. Most of all, I will miss all the people: my home-stay family, Macodou, my friends at the Baobab Center, and many more.
As I depart for New Jersey with a layover in Belgium, I hope to avoid the delays and baggage problems that I faced on my flight back in June, which I so vividly described in my second post on this blog. But hey, out of the many things this trip has taught me, I’ve learned to embrace the uncomfortable things in life. Life is too short and the world is too interesting to stay upset or stationary for too long. When my friends ask me about Senegal, I will say that it was interesting, extremely different, and challenging but also rewarding, special and amazing because it’s a place that grows on you in ways you wouldn’t expect. This is also largely the consensus among the dozens of foreigners I know who have been to Senegal and those I’ve gotten to befriend here. I know I will be back to Senegal because I want to remember and experience all these things again. Obviously, the second time around is different anywhere but Senegal will always be special part of my life as it has allowed me to grow so much this summer. So Babenen (See you soon) Senegal because you’re worthy of a second visit and a visit from the rest of the world.
A big thank you to…
- Peter Civetta, the Director of the Undergraduate Research Grant Office, for giving me this incredible opportunity
- The multiple professors, graduate students, and faculty members at Northwestern who helped me discover my research question and develop my project
- Professor Rachel Riedl for guiding me through the long process as a Faculty Adviser
- The West African Research Center and the ACI/Baobab Cultural Center who eased my transition into a country I’d never been to and to which I was traveling on my own
- My friends and family for never questioning my pursuit of this experience and instead, encouraging me along the way.
- YOU for being interested enough to read this blog
Peace and love,