Being Elsewhere

The summer before my senior year in high school, I was one of fourteen students from my high school who went to Mbour, Senegal, a small fishing village for a summer study abroad program. None of us had ever been to Senegal before. On our second day, we were all separated and placed in different host families. Three of us had studied high school level French, but no one spoke Wolof, resulting in a glaring language barrier between us and our host families. On the day I arrived at my host family’s house, I felt completely scared, panicky and overwhelmed. Two scenes clearly replay in my head as I remember that first day. In the first, my hair is braided into tight cornrows. In the second, I attend our first big family dinner party. Replaying these scenes in my head, I realize it would have been a good opportunity for me to reflect on my status as an outsider and the implications it had on my identity. It would have been an important time for me to think about the people that I was living and working with in Senegal, instead of focusing on my own discomfort as I did.

Within the first few hours in my host family’s house, my host sister, Ngoné, and her aunt, Khady, sat me on the ground in front of them as they tried to comb and braid my very long straight Asian hair. It was tangled from a few days of travel, but they tried their hardest with the sharp comb to separate it into tiny sections and braid tightly against my scalp. It was a very long and painful experience. In my journal, I described this incident:

“My new braids are tiny cornrows and it was an agonizing experience to get them. It was hot and humid and my scalp was being ripped this way and that and there were thirteen people and me crushed into a tiny room all shouting Wolof into my pained face.Twelve of those people did not even have to be there, they just wanted to watch,  “Jackie Chan’s niece” get her hair cornrowed. By the last braid, I was pretty much convulsing every time Aunt Khady pulled and I was sweating and my back felt prickly. When Aunt Khady finished, I looked down to see a huge hairball with all of the hair she had pulled out.”    – July 22, 2013

Leigh Johnson
Having my hair cornrowed for the first time was both overwhelming and overstimulating. I felt like I had no control over the situation. I was in agony the entire time, so it was difficult to be aware of much else, including the other twelve people crowded into the room, because my mind was occupied by the new experience of getting my hair braided by my host aunt. Looking back, it would have been a valuable time to observe the family and relationship dynamics of the other twelve people trying to help and watch the braiding process unfold. I would have liked to understand or at least observe what my extended host family was saying and how they were interacting as they shouted in Wolof across the room. I realized that in this moment, I was too overwhelmed by the newness of the situation to observe or be reflective.

Leigh JohnsonThe second experience that I remember vividly feeling like an outsider in Senegal was the first night I had a meal with my entire host family. Ngoné, my host sister, had about 60 family members living in a little cul-de-sac neighborhood, ranging from newborn to 70 years old. These family members would hang out in the streets and front yards, and come together to eat dinner outside. The moment I stepped onto the property, I was swarmed. The children started yelling “Chinois, Chinois” and trying to karate kick me. I heard yells of “Jackie Chan!” with fists and hands flying toward me making hitting motions. With my limited French, I realized that people thought I was related to Jackie Chan or knew some type of martial art, because it was the only association they had with Asian people. I remember feeling frustrated and overwhelmed that I was being racially essentialized by being compared to a character in a karate movie. I felt attacked when one of Ngoné’s aunts chased me around the property for a good five minutes trying to fight me and grab my toes so she could crack them. After all, in their eyes, I was a “martial artist,” who could defend myself.

Leigh JohnsonIt has taken time to acknowledge that it was difficult for me to absorb my experiences in Senegal because I was preoccupied at the time with the sheer shock of being judged on the basis of my racial identity as an Asian. Prior to this trip, I had never thought about how I, as an American who presented as Asian, would be perceived elsewhere in the world. My time in Senegal was the beginning of my realization that even racial minorities have their own racialized prejudices against other minorities. By articulating this, my aim is not to be critical of the Senegalese, but rather to draw attention to the ways in which race operates across the world.

Looking back upon my time in Senegal has allowed me to realize how difficult it is to be an outsider or stranger in a new situation, and how hard it is to observe and analyze like an ethnographer must, when you are feeling completely isolated, confused, and labeled by others a stranger and a foreigner. I realize that it did get easier to be aware of my surroundings and observe once I got to know better my host family and the village I was staying in, but for the first half of my stay, it was almost impossible for me to recognize or feel anything except my own discomfort and outsider identity.


Leigh Johnston ’18 is a junior at Smith, with a passion for sociology, anthropology, and reading and writing ethnography.

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