Category Archives: Special Issue: Cultural Encounters

Too Close To Home

Like many others, I travel to see, hear, feel, smell and taste the unfamiliar. While interning with a contemporary dance company in Bangalore, India, I simultaneously benefitted from and deeply resented a lack of the ‘unfamiliar’ in my environment. Looking back, I longed for an escape from Western culture, and I was frequently left feeling unsatisfied by the pervasiveness of my own culture amongst those with whom I associated.

I knew, in an intellectual sense, that such thoughts imply that there is some sort of quintessential, exotic, and static Indian culture to be experienced; at the time, I used this knowledge to justify my minimal effort to go out of my way to create opportunities to experience “traditional” India. Though I ate street food, wore Kurtas, and traveled to Hampi to see ancient temples, I heavily relied on many Indians’ knowledge of Western culture, particularly the English language, to move through the country with relative ease. I did not learn a single word of Hindi or Kannada, the local language. I was able to live and work in Bangalore speaking only English, but every time I did struggle or feel frustrated – getting a cab or ordering food – it was because I was interacting with a local who did not speak English. Not knowing a local language meant I was mostly having meaningful interactions with English speakers only. I suppose this was one aspect of Western culture I was totally comfortable holding onto. Tasting new food, wearing new clothes, and seeing sites were all significantly less daunting than learning a new way to communicate.

I traveled to Bangalore to intern with a contemporary dance organization. Or was it that I interned with a contemporary dance organization in Bangalore so I could use Smith College funding to travel to India? Both reasons hold some truth. The Attakkalari Centre for Movement Arts, a non-profit organization, like most dance companies, included a professional performing company, a two-year diploma program for young adults, summer camps and intensives for children and teenagers, and community classes. The organization’s primary goal was to increase the practice and appreciation of contemporary dance – a predominantly Western discipline with widely acknowledged origins in modern and ballet and less discussed origins in Eastern somatic practices.

The company also offered training in a variety of traditional Indian movement practices, such as Bharatanatyam and Kalaripayattu. Just as contemporary dancers in the United States and Europe are often expected to be proficient in ballet, many contemporary dancers in India, I learned, believe traditional Indian movement practices to be foundational to their work.

Though I did learn a great deal about the state of dance in India by taking classes and speaking with dancers, my internship mostly involved performing miscellaneous administrative tasks. Aside from employing dancers and dance teachers, the company had nine full-time individuals performing administrative and production duties, and these were the individuals with whom I spent Monday through Friday 9 AM to 5 PM. Most had master’s degrees in varying disciplines, including psychology, arts administration, business, and lighting design. All spoke English fluently and used English to speak with one another while at work. This was, in part, because many professional people in Bangalore had moved from elsewhere, so they all knew different regional languages. Their proficiency in English was due to their high level of education. Several probably also learned English from their parents, as is characteristic of many people from middle to upper class in India.

I spent most of my time sitting at a desk working from my laptop. Some of my duties included researching international (mostly European) choreographers to invite for master classes and/or artistic residencies, as well as contacting high schools from which to recruit students for the diploma program. I was told that my being from the U.S. would intrigue career counselors at international (English-speaking) schools. Since I came to India hoping to fulfill my desire to escape Western culture, I often felt frustrated with my role being centered on my Western-ness. I resented my employers for not letting me truly experience India. This feeling was exacerbated by the fact that I spent most days inside the office, working at a computer. I felt like I was not really learning anything about India because, I was not, in my eyes, truly experiencing it by working for this organization. Aside from the fact that it was obviously not the duty of my coworkers to ensure I was seeing “the real India,” even though they actually often gave me restaurant and shopping recommendations that they felt represented a quintessential India, I fixated on the prevalence of English speakers around me as a symbol of my ‘inauthentic’ experience.

English speakers are prolific in India because of Britain’s imperial presence in the country, beginning in the 17th century and formally ending in 1947. In the 1830s, public schools across India began teaching English, and shortly thereafter, university students and government employees were expected to speak English. According to the 2016 EF English Proficiency Index published by the EF Education First, India ranks 22 of 72 countries rated for their English proficiency, indicating “moderate proficiency.” As in many other locations around the world, British colonization infected India with the idea that the English language and other aspects of Western culture are emblematic of economic and moral progress.

However, those who do not have formal education or professional careers often do not have as strong of a grasp of English as those who do, which is why I was not able to communicate efficiently with many cab drivers, restaurant workers, and other informally educated persons. The caste system in India, which divides Hindus into four main hierarchical, inherited, socioeconomic categories, exacerbates the inability of persons to move in and out of socio-economic positions. Not only has such a system made socio-economic upward mobility quite difficult in the past, contemporary Indian capitalism continues, in some ways, to inhibit individual economic growth, as in many other capitalistic economies.

My discomfort with speaking English was in part due to the fact that my being around English speakers in India meant that I was only associating and connecting with individuals from particular social statuses (specifically, higher income and lighter skinned). I was aware that by only being able to speak English, I was limited in the number and range of people with whom I could interact, which fueled my fear of having an inauthentic experience. Not only did I feel insecure about struggling to communicate with cab drivers and restaurant servers, but I was very uncomfortable with the fact that I could only efficiently communicate with more privileged persons. I recognized that just by being able to speak English, I was automatically seen as valuable in the workplace. Although my coworkers are certainly not to blame for social inequality in India, I think my resentment towards them for speaking English was a manifestation of my own discomfort with having benefited from inequality.


Dana Duren ’17 was born and raised in Austin, Texas. There, she first developed her passions for both dance and global cultural phenomena, which led her to double major in dance and anthropology at Smith College. Dana has mostly pursued both subjects separately, though she did conduct ethnographic research on different dance groups while studying abroad in Ghana. As of now, she intends to pursue dance performance, choreography, and education. She recently presented an original work “There’s something we’re not telling you” as a part of her senior thesis for the dance major.

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In Between Two Shanghai Cities

Last year, when I decided to study abroad in Shanghai for a semester of my junior year, I was excited to discover the modern and vibrant city depicted in the media. The program that I joined described Shanghai as “a bustling international metropolis and global financial center” on its website, and the cosmopolitan characteristics of Shanghai  ensured opportunities to meet people from all over the world, speaking both English and Chinese, and to adapt to the culture smoothly. The city appeared to be inclusive of diverse cultures and people. I was thrilled to live in a metropolis where I would learn about Chinese culture while  also remaining connected to more familiar western values. However, the Shanghai that I experienced was a city in flux, still new to foreigners, limited in its inclusion of other cultures, and perhaps not as modern as presented in the media.

The Bund and Lujiazui are the landmarks that I first visualize when thinking of Shanghai. Multiple glass skyscrapers and iconic buildings, such as the Oriental Pearl Tower and Shanghai World Financial Center in Lujiazui, and the vintage Western-style buildings in the Bund, across from the skyscrapers, both attract tourists. The alluring contrast between two sides of the Huangpu River is highlighted at night. When the city turns on lights in Lujiazui, the glass buildings become colorful screens that illuminate the area. On the other side of the river in the Bund, dim yellow street lights brighten the old architecture, giving people the impression that they might be in Europe.

The Bund and Lujiazui are symbolic spaces representing the past and the future of Shanghai. The Bund, one side of the Huangpu River, is characterized by Western-style architecture, shows the historical roots of Shanghai as a colonial trading city that opened after the First Opium War in 1839. The Treaty of Nanking, signed after the defeat of China in the First Opium War, allowed foreigners from Britain, America, and other European countries to occupy Shanghai. It is a part of the century of humiliation– an era when China  lost face and sovereignty, defeated by Western countries and Japan from 1839 to 1949, yet it indicates the beginning of international Shanghai. On the other side of the past, in Lujiazui, the skyscrapers reflect the new Shanghai that has become a global economic, trading, and financial center, the ‘modern’ future that the city plans to pursue.

However, Shanghai as an international metropolis seemed to be an illusion rather than a reality in the area in which I lived. I stayed in Yangpu District, a northeastern part of Shanghai city, which was neither international nor modern. In Yangpu District, the sidewalks were uneven and narrow, full of puddles of filthy water from restaurants, as a strong unpleasant odor emanated from overflowing garbage bins, and the honking of cars and motorcycles filled the air. Gray cemented buildings in the area – five floors high or lower with signs of Chinese characters – were often closed or empty. Old, odorous, dirty and bereft of attraction, Yangpu District was far from the glamorous depiction of Shanghai as international metropolis.

There were few foreigners or people of diverse ethnicities in this area. I was in a program with other American students, most of whom were white. When my friends walked in the neighborhood speaking Chinese, local people looked curious and confused. Yet they were displeased when I could not speak Chinese well, because they assumed me to be Chinese. When the local people figured out that I was Korean, they either emphasized the possible similarities between Chinese and Koreans or compared me to other Korean women that they saw in the Chinese media, which idealizes Korean beauty and cherishes the beauty of Korean actresses and singers. For them, I was not as much of a foreigner as my white friends, and I had to fit into the stereotypical image of Korean women projected in the media. As I began to realize that my everyday life attracted people’s attention and disturbed their common sense and beliefs, I started to wonder about the unrepresented part of Shanghai and to question the emphasis on modernization and the successful development of China in Shanghai.

The center of Shanghai was definitely modern and fit the depiction as an international metropolis, yet it was still not international in terms of inclusion and diversity. My white friends were treated differently from the Chinese and other people of color. On many occasions, white foreigners were treated as marketing assets in business. Club promoters would encourage my friends to come to clubs and bars and tended to pay for all expenses if necessary, while I had to pay for my cover. As I witnessed the different treatments that my friends received and the easy access open to them, the idealization of white foreigners became clear. One time, one of the promoters told me that once when he had set a table for a group of foreigners, the manager had asked about the race of the individuals in the group and showed his strong preference for white foreigners over black foreigners. This story demonstrated; the ethnic hierarchy or racism in this otherwise international city. The favoring of white people seemed to create the distinction between Chinese and foreigners and discourage diversity in Shanghai. In Yongkanglu, the well-known bar street for expats, expats have also created their own space in Shanghai, further exacerbating segregation in the city. The clear division between the local people and expats, the ethnic hierarchy, and the idealization of white foreigners that I observed in the center of Shanghai did not correspond with the sophisticated image of a cosmopolitan hub that the city claims to be.

Although I was always taken as Chinese because of my appearance, I was more exposed to the spaces where foreigners would go; my position as a foreigner was more accepted in spaces where other foreigners were present. Yet I was overwhelmed by my disadvantaged position and the unfair treatment that I received and thus unable to stand the seemingly China-centric perception and exoticization of white foreigners.

I did, however, have advantages as a student studying abroad. I explored both the center of Shanghai and other districts. Through my constant movements between the center of the city to Yangpu District, I was able to see the interactions between the Shanghainese and my white friends in different social settings. Especially in the spaces of nightlife entertainment, where white foreigners were the most familiar, I was able to see the different social dynamics based on the race and the status of foreigner and the limitations of Shanghai as a cosmopolitan city.

The disconnect between the depiction of Shanghai as modern and international and the actuality of Shanghai in Yangpu District can be explained by the effort of the government to present itself and the city as part of the global trend of modernization or even westernization. Yet this effort has resulted in a gap between the reality and the image. This illusory image of Shanghai then influences the Shanghainese to maintain their reputation of ultimate modernization by idealizing and exoticizing white foreigners, diminishing the value of diversity, and creating otherness.

In my ignorance of Shanghai and with my American values contributing to my outsider’s perspective, I readily believed the government’s depiction of the city as one that merged western and Chinese cultures. My experience, however, in both the center and periphery of Shanghai did not correspond to this idealized depiction. With my new understanding that there are “two Shanghais,” I can acknowledge the discomfort, curiosity, unfamiliarity, and possible ethnic hierarchy or racism that I dealt with. My lived experience of Shanghai may be discomforting in its confrontations with issues of race, modernization, diversity, and representation, yet I hope it is also equally revealing of the limits imposed by my own ethno-centric and American perspective.


Yoon  Roh ’17 is a senior majoring in Anthropology and Government.  She was born and raised in South Korea before she attended Miss Hall’s, a boarding school in Pittsfield, MA. She has love for elephants and hopes to one day volunteer at an elephant refuge camp in Kenya.

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To be Always Elsewhere

I could feel my heart pounding in my small chest faster and faster. I was on the verge of breaking out into an anxious sweat when it came to my turn. The words came out of my mouth sounding alien and awkward: “I am from the United States”. There were no looks of confusion, doubt, or suspicion, but I felt like an imposter. I was an imposter. My teacher and fellow second grade classmates nodded in approval of my response and the boy next to me proceeded to answer the teacher’s question: Where are you from?

While it seems like such a simple inquiry, usually following a trail of other repetitive, mundane questions of what one’s name, age, birthday, and favorite food are, it has continuously been a source of anxiety, confusion, and haunting throughout my life. I went home that day to ask my parents where I was truly from to give rest to my doubts. They themselves seemed slightly confused at my question telling me ‘why the United State of course!’. I proceeded to ask them where in the United States I was born, and whether or not we were Korean. At my early age of six years, I perceived true U.S. citizens to be white and was confounded by the idea that my ethnically Korean family could be from the U.S. All the pale skinned, freckled boys and girls at my school would proudly state I’m from California, Wyoming, and ‘insert US state’ before I moved to Singapore! All the little girls in Disney shows and movies depicting the typical American girl did not look like me. My parents curtly replied that I was born in Englewood, New Jersey, I was indeed Korean, but I was not from Korea because I never lived there. They were astounded as to how I could ask such preposterous questions and carried on with their adult matters as my child self tried to make sense of what I was told.

It was true that I was Korean but had never lived in South Korea. Both my parents immigrated to the United States when they were entering their first year of high school. But what was also true was that I had never lived in the United States either. I had no recollection of this so called Englewood, New Jersey. My mother gave birth to me in New Jersey but almost immediately returned to Japan, where she was living at the time. Technically, I was from Japan. It was the last country I lived in. But regardless of this confusion, I took my parents word as a six-year-old child does, and proceeded to live my life with the belief that I was from the United States. During the following years of my life, a myriad of events occurred that caused me to feel more of an imposter, stranger, and foreigner no matter where I was.

I hailed down a cobalt blue taxi with its signature 6552-1111 Comfort imprinted on its side. The air was thick and humid, as it is every day in Singapore, and I was running late for a family dinner. I jumped in the cab. Hi Uncle, Tanglin Road in front of Tanglin Mall please. A few minutes had passed as I cooled down in the air conditioned vehicle, when the conversation began. You Korean ah? Yes, yes I am. Ahn-yeong-ha-sei-yo (hello in Korean)! Oh wow that was very good! So how many year you live in Korea before coming to Singapore mm? This is the typical conversation I have had with Singaporean taxi drivers during my 19 years of living there. Singapore is an incredibly diverse country, not just amongst its citizens, but also with its array of  expatriates who move to live there for the long term like myself. Because of Singapore’s diversity and constant influx and flux of expatriates and travelers, there tends to be an interest in one’s origins and ethnicity. I lived in Korea for a few years but moved to Singapore when I was five. Wow! You like Singapore more? Yes, yes I do. While I lived in Singapore, I was comfortable and even at home. I loved the heat and humidity, the greenery everywhere, the food, the people, the transportation. I have such longing when I see photos of Singapore’s skyline, feel an intense humidity like Singapore’s, and eat dishes with similar flavors as those of Singapore. But it was these day to day conversations with taxi drivers, cooks at hawker centers, and locals that caused me to feel so out of place in a country where I felt so at home. It was a daily reminder that, no, I was not Singaporean and would never be. I did not have any local friends and neither did my parents. We stayed in our expatriate bubble, with our expatriate friends and expatriate schools. I was never asked if I was from Singapore. It was always assumed that I was from South Korea, because I was Korean.

I looked calm, but my heart was racing and a thin layer of cold sweat covered my body under my thick winter coat. I was in Seoul, South Korea, for my winter break in 2016. As I got into the taxi, I pulled myself together and confidently stated gang-nam-yuk (Gangnam station). I rejoiced on the inside as the cab driver silently started to drive. I took out my headphones and plugged them in. Please do not talk to me. Please do not talk to me. But of course he sparked a conversation with me. I know how to say hello, count to five, and a few food items in the Korean language. With this minimal vocabulary, Singaporean cab drivers thought I was fluent. But in Korea itself, I was hopeless. A few seconds had passed since the cab driver asked me something. I swore under my breath and finally replied. Oh, no Korean, Chinese. I am Chinese. Oh you China! Okay. And then silence.

I sat in my own shame and embarrassment for the rest of the ride. I had learned throughout my life that being Korean and not being able to speak the language is an incredible disgrace. My mom has been berated by her aunt-in-law for not teaching me the language. I have been called ‘not Korean enough,’ ‘fake Korean,’ ‘not really Korean,’ and ‘you’re just American’ by Korean peers in both high school and college. There are times when I wonder how different my life and identity would have been if I was fluent in Korean. The conversations I could have joined, the nuances of a culture I could have understood, the possible connection and relationship to my grandparents are all what-ifs. But then I realize the prejudice, shame, and disgrace I have felt by a country and very group of people I could have been a part of. Is language a requirement for belonging to a country? When I speak aloud in Korea, I speak English, my only language, my native tongue. When I’m with my Korean friends, I am called their mee-gook-sah-dam-ching-goo (American friend).

Hi! You Chinese? Ni hao! I finally snapped. I’m fucking Korean! Walking the streets of New York City as an Asian woman can be exhausting some days. I slammed the door on my way into the one room apartment in Brooklyn my two friends from Smith and I had rented for the summer. I was still in fury. The air conditioner was balancing the humid, sweltering summer day. Amidst the heat and my own sentiments, I missed Singapore. I later went to Korea Town for dinner with high school friends from Singapore. I felt safe and comfortable surrounded by other Asians; I could let my guard down. Between boarding school and college,  I have lived in the United States for the past eight years of my life, and I am here to stay. Throughout my time in the United States, I have become hyper aware of my Asianess, my race, meaning the very fact that I am Asian isolates and alienates me. This hyper awareness is a hum singing throughout all times of the day. You are our token Asian friend! What are you eating? It smells weird. I heard in Singapore you can’t chew gum. Do Koreans eat dog meat? Are you good at math? Later that night when I returned to my Brooklyn apartment, I thought about the incident again and recollected that I had stated that I was Korean. But was I? Ethnically yes, but identity wise? No. What did it mean to be Korean, American, or Singaporean? A few days later, I was walking around Manhattan. Again, Ni hao! You are Chinese? Go back to China. I whipped around and yelled I am American, there’s nowhere to go back to.

Labels, terms, and categories can have detrimental connotations. But on the other end of the spectrum, they can give one an identity, community, culture, and dialogue to engage with and belong to. It is these positive attributes of defining words that propelled me to constantly search for a category I could compartmentalize myself into. Third culture kid, Asian, Korean, Korean-American, Asian-American, American, expatriate, 1.5 generation, 2nd generation, Asian, Singaporean, international student, and more are all terms that have been used by others or myself to grasp who I am, where I am from, and where I belong. I am a United States citizen, ethnically Korean, and grew up in Singapore. But it is not that simple. There were times when I so wanted to be a Korean, an American, or a Singaporean to each of its own. But I realize that in my own case and that of many others I am none and all of these. When I replied I am American, that statement in itself holds so much meaning and questions. Could I say it because I am a citizen? Did my family moving back to Connecticut recently have something to do with my response? Was it because I have felt more at home here day by day? What if I moved to another country? Depending on the time, place and context, how I define myself is constantly changing. I use to want to fit right into one compartment, having felt like an outsider no matter where I was, but my life has been shaped and influenced by all three countries and its people.


Geena Choo is currently a senior at Smith College majoring in Anthropology. She was born in Englewood, NJ to Korean parents, lived in Singapore for the majority of her life, and moved to Hartford, CT recently. She loves drinking lattes, reading books, and dreaming about her future pet golden doodle and wire fox terrier.

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Chai and Pani Puri by the Road: How to Tell the Story

It is easy to forget when going abroad, whether for work or pleasure, that we return in a way as unofficial ambassadors. We may not think of ourselves this way, and it might not seem ethical or appropriate, but it is a reality. Last year, Smith College gave me PRAXIS funding for an internship in India. I spent three months interning for a human rights organization in New Delhi. In my case, the boundaries were clear: I was to be a representative of the college whilst abroad, and in turn represent to the donors who made the experience possible my vision of India. Smith College was waiting to hear about not only the quality of my internship, but also about my trip on a personal level. As a woman, I had to be prepared to answer loaded questions regarding my safety during the internship.

In the aftermath of the 2012 Delhi rape case, India could not escape intense international media scrutiny. In the years since, navigating discussions about India outside of the college bubble has been a minefield. The cases of violence against women that dominated news feeds seemed everyone’s first thought. As a consequence, well wishes and congratulations regarding my internship position were colored with concern and safety warnings. Fully aware that these negative images of India were only one part of a larger picture, I left with the intention of  bringing back another view of India, one that would not play into the media stereotypes perpetuated by ratings-driven news broadcasts. My goal was objectivity and observation-based representation.

Of course, this is much easier said than done. The summer I spent in Delhi was a blur of scorchingly spicy food, friendly stray dogs, and kind people. I was warned that people would stare, maybe even touch me without permission, and that street robbery was common. Even though none of these things happened to me, they happened to others as they do in many other countries or cultures where customs are vastly different from our own. It soon became clear that this duty of representing India in a more nuanced and truthful way would perhaps be the most difficult aspect of my trip. I would have to be careful in my reports back, to both Smith College and the many relatives and friends who waited for my return. They would have to be honest and truthful, but I also had the responsibility to not play into stereotypes, especially in such a racially-polarized political moment in time.

I alternated, from one day to the next, between inhabiting the mainstream narrative and  adopting a highly critical stance. My entry to Delhi was guided by the Northeastern community, as I was staying in the young and diverse Humayunpur neighborhood. By virtue of the way I look, this community of people took me in. They pointed me in the right direction when I got lost in the tightly packed enclave, slipped extra momos into my bag on my way home from work, and were patient with my pathetic attempts at Hindi. I was taken to a jazz club by new friends and ate roasted corn whilst watching Tamil movies. I went to the older markets, avoiding expat haunts like Connaught Place and Khan Market in favour of smaller places my co-workers recommended to me, in some sort of effort to experience something authentic, misguided as that might be. In any case, who would eat at Johnny Rockets as my fellow American interns liked to do, when you could have chai and pani puri by the road?

Of course the India that I experienced and spoke of upon my return could not be completely objective. I still had the unwanted responsibility of proving this internship was ‘safe’ to recommend to other Smith College students and that the PRAXIS fund had been used for worthwhile purpose. To be frank, I had to justify my enjoyment of the summer and of India to many people, despite the fact that I witnessed upsetting and difficult situations. Would my positive observations in some way be a betrayal of the those who are attacked, marginalized, assaulted, and ignored? How could I write about India without exoticizing or essentializing a country that is more akin to a continent? How would I answer questions about India’s currently booming growth in the development sector without discussing the displacement of large numbers of adivasis? Did my research interest in government-sanctioned displacements influence my attitude towards particular sectors of society? The questions were seemingly endless.

My thoughts on India would not be of any national or even local importance. Yet I still felt the need to do justice to my experience without perpetuating general negative attitudes towards India. Instead, I needed to find a a way of representing India truthfully as I had experienced it whilst steering clear of essentializing or romanticizing. After all, the image of Jyoti Singh, the Delhi rape case victim who has become a stand-in for all victims, was impossible to forget.

The current racialized politics in the United States compounded the difficulty I had writing about India. As fear and anger towards minority groups grow, anti-Indian sentiments have increased. While I did not want my descriptions of India to contribute to harmful minority stereotypes, I also did not want to want to minimize the very real suffering of women, adivasis, Muslims, and countless other groups across India.

In the end, I could only hope to articulate the cloud of contradictions and dilemmas inherent in observations of ‘elsewhere’. I have no answers as to what is or isn’t appropriate or ethical. Before you can begin to parse out a representation that is as unbiased as possible, you first have to understand your own politics and the position from which you are making these observations. In my case, I was a foreigner, privileged, and supported by funds from a prestigious academic institution. How did these factors contribute to the picture I was trying to paint? Did my desire to not contribute to negative stereotypes blind me to negative things that occurred? Has my own previous history of travel led me, through comparison, to take lightly, or simply not notice, people who stare? I am sure the luck that I have in making friends wherever I go influenced my observations more than I could imagine. Kind people have let me into spaces I could not otherwise enter, and have in turn imparted their own subjectivities to me, changing the way I saw and how I processed my own observations. Anthropology has taught me that nothing is without politics, and no one is without bias, so perhaps all that one can do is to navigate and temper our observations with an awareness of our own subjectivity.


Bella Revett ’17 is a senior Anthropology major, focusing on South Asia here at Smith. She enjoys reading, playing with her rabbits, taking photos, playing music, and general tomfoolery.

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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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Surmounting Class Differences in a Collegiate World

Although I have only recently realized it, I have always felt like an outsider while at school. It first occurred in high school when I decided to take classes within the International Baccalaureate program. I had always been very good at making friends and did not expect to feel uncomfortable. I was, after all, still at the same institution, though with new peers. When I walked into class with a group of students who had been studying together for four years or more, it was one of the first times in my life that I felt ostracized. They knew a plethora of writing strategies, study habits, and academic rules that I had never heard of before. School became something at which I had to work hard, even though in the past I was able to navigate it with ease. Socially we were even more different.

When the students from my program were studying with private tutors and taking expensive ACT prep classes, my friends and I were stealing booze from our alcoholic parents and sneaking out of the house to smoke cigarettes at the park. While they were scheduling their SAT subject tests and college interviews, I was trying to figure out how best I could help three of my best girlfriends who had all somehow gotten pregnant in their teens.

The problem was only exacerbated when I started working and moved out of my mother’s house during my senior year of high school. I suspected that no one else was experiencing anything similar to my newfound independence and it made me feel so alone. When I decided to go to community college, my peers judged me and questioned my decision. In a class where the majority of students were going to Ivy League schools and their liberal arts equivalents, going to a two year school was not only unacceptable but embarrassing. Financially, it was the best option for me. Since I was supporting myself, I needed to go to a school that allowed me to work full-time. While at community college, I joined an honors program and could not help feeling a similar dissonance. Although the other students in the program tried their best to invite me to group activities, I could never go because I was always working. With my busy schedule, I found it difficult to keep up with the workload. Although my grades were adequate, I always felt less intelligent than the other students. When everyone else moved on to four-year universities, I stayed behind because I was unsure as to how to go about balancing my personal and financial responsibilities while still pursuing my education.

The third year of community college was imperative for my academic career because it connected me with an administrator who initiated my transfer to a four-year school. With the help of some fantastic professors, I became much more confident in my academic abilities during my first year at Smith. Socially, however, I was even worse off than before. Being geographically separated from my friends and family made the differences between other Smith students and I seem insurmountable. I have still not overcome this divide. It emerges in class, at meal times, at campus events, and anywhere else you can imagine. I might say something that would be completely acceptable at home that is completely unacceptable here on campus. I frequently do not understand words in class that are common knowledge to the other students (it was at Smith that I discovered the meaning of “neoliberalism”). Oftentimes I hope to engage in healthy debates with other students that quickly get out of control–conversations gone awry when passionate debate becomes an argumentative struggle. It is not uncommon for me to feel misunderstood, shut down, and confused.

Thankfully, my experiences at these institutions has given me the vocabulary to speak about these issues. I was amazed by how simply having the words to describe what I was feeling made my struggles concrete and real. It was at Smith that I realized the root of my discomfort developed from class differences. I also “discovered” that I am a first-generation college student. Terms like these clarified and explained the differences that I had not been able to put into words and helped me find a few other students with whom I could relate. I realize that there are many students on campus who come from working class families and countless students who are first generation. However, I frequently find that because we are at different points in our lives, we have little in common. Those differences make me, sometimes irrationally, uncomfortable. I know that there are very few students on campus who have jobs and that, out of those who do, very few of them rely on those jobs to pay for food or bills or rent. Many students on campus come from liberal families that have instilled progressive values into them from a very young age. Countless students engage in excessive drinking and smoking which I, having done it for most of my adolescence, have moved on from. Even small things like the fascination that most students have with the play Hamilton seem elitist and therefore out of my reach.

Fortunately, now that I have access to this new vocabulary I am better able to recognize the reasons for my feelings. That is a tool I wish I had had access to before my time at Smith. Yet, recently, I have realized that I wish I did not see the differences between my peers and I so clearly. Because I have such an amazing and supportive group of friends at home, my relationships at Smith can be awkward and inconsequential in comparison. Differences between my peers and I cause rifts in both social discourse and ritual. As a result, my experience at college has been lonely. Although I originally blamed other students for creating the divide between us, I am also at fault for our lack of meaningful communication. Over time, I have subconsciously cultivated an intense prejudice against the wealthy and elite. Because of this, I often misjudge others before getting to know them simply because we come from different social classes. Lately, I have been spending more time getting to my peers and attempting to look past our differences. I approach this by thinking of my experience at Smith as if I were an anthropologist and the college is my field site. I try to consider every student and professor here to be subjects who behave in ways that I simply do not understand. More importantly I strive not to perceive those unfamiliar actions as negative experiences that divide us. Instead, I aspire to understand where the other students come from. Everyone experiences struggle in their lives and social class is far from the only factor that generates adversity. I hope to work on listening to those hardships and putting them into perspective by striving for less biased interactions. Consequently, I hope to be able to recognize why my biases exist and how they play into the formation of my relationships at Smith and elsewhere.


Tiffany Wilt ’17is a transfer student from Montgomery Community College. She was born and raised on the outskirts of Washington, D.C. and currently calls Wheaton, Maryland her home. After graduation this Spring, Tiffany plans on attending Georgetown University to complete a Masters degree in Latin American Studies.

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When I Discuss Anthropology with People in China

Recently, one of my friends said to me, “All anthropologists are lonely.” I had never really thought about the loneliness of anthropologists until that moment. For a long time, I have agreed with the view that almost all humans are lonely, so her comment somewhat sounded like a cliché. However, after a second rumination, I began to understand what she was referring to: anthropologists have an additional layer of loneliness, because they consciously choose to take a step away from a community to acquire a more effective perspective to critically observe, analyze, and criticize social dynamics. I revisited this idea a couple of times, and realized that as a Chinese international student majoring in anthropology at Smith College, I have indeed encountered interesting as well as bitter situations in which I experience this loneliness, particularly when I talk about anthropology outside classes. When I engage in such uncommon conversations with people in China, I have found my academic training and international experiences help me to untangle the invisibility and mysteriousness of the discipline back in my home country.

Anthropology is yet to be a part of public discussions in China. When I tell people that anthropology is my major, they have a hard time envisioning both my academic life at school and the discipline in general. No matter where the conversation happens – at my high school reunion party, at a bank when I was opening a new online account, in an Uber, at the museum where I was interning, or family meetings – the following question is always asked, “What is anthropology?” or, “What does anthropology do?” Sometimes, I hear other feedback such as, “Wait, I have only heard about sociology. What’s the difference?” “Are you talking about ethnology?” or, “Oh, that sounds like the study of the arts of minority ethnic groups in China.” These unexpected, sometimes slightly irritating comments indicate that most Chinese people have not yet established conceptions of modern anthropology as a research field. It takes me a lot of time to introduce the field and explain my experiences in most conversations. In the end, many of my listeners joke that I should prepare a short introduction essay on my smartphone, so that I can ask people to read it before clarifying people’s misunderstandings. (I am seriously considering this advice.) Since most Chinese I encounter lack a fundamental recognition of anthropology as a discipline, I have had many opportunities to analyze the reasons behind such unfamiliarity and to reexamine my own perceptions of the field.

The Chinese outside academia have a very vague impression of social science. The basic education system in the country focuses on science and humanities, and the subjects closest to social science include history, introductory politics and economics, and socialist ideologies. If people have not taken relevant social science courses in college, they probably have not had a chance of encountering, let alone knowing, any theories or research methods in the disciplines, unless they have read about them on the Internet. They might not be able to engage with anthropology’s basic tenet that almost all ideas and thoughts are culturally constructed and people are capable of self-reflecting on what they observe, which is critical not only for individuals’ lives but also for higher-level decision making in all social sectors.

For people who have occasionally heard about social science in China, their understandings of anthropology are largely different from what I view as American anthropology. Their responses reveal certain historical developments and theoretical advancements particular to Chinese anthropology and its own political environment. Chinese anthropology developed from British anthropology. It has its own history and respected anthropologists with whom I was less familiar. Though I could recognize a few European theorists and some early American anthropologists who had been discussed in my theory class at Smith, other scholars and theories were new to me. Chinese anthropology also acknowledges a distinct category of anthropologists from western countries who conducted their fieldwork in China. I needed to construct a new academic toolkit to understand their language of research. I noticed that the focus of Chinese anthropology was different from that of American anthropology. Chinese anthropology focused on minority ethnic groups in Yunnan, Guangxi, and other less-industrialized regions, while the American discipline expanded to study all social groups and industries in society. That is perhaps one of the main reasons that I found people were more familiar with terms and topics related to these minority ethnic groups than immigration, technology, or other heated sub-fields addressed in the U.S. Thus, I needed to insist on the existence of urban anthropology, science and technology studies, or even economic anthropology to people who tried to correct me that we might be talking about ethnology.

The last but perhaps very significant observation I had was about the conscious or unconscious patriotism existing in Chinese anthropological research. When I asked about the current direction of Chinese anthropology, people with some knowledge of the discipline sometimes suggested that Chinese researchers were trying to find their unique theories and paths of anthropological research instead of building on Western knowledge. These assertions derived largely from the broader social context of Chinese history in the last century; after the series of wars in the first half of the twentieth century and the subsequent development of a modern country, a nation-wide intention of regaining respect and rights in the international community emerged across Chinese society. However, the confrontation between communist and capitalist ideologies in larger global politics led to China’s amplified attempts at establishing the  visibility of its own political and economic achievements in a global community controlled by the assumed animosities of opponent countries. Consequently, patriotism seemed to become a political necessity, for the nation and for its citizens. In anthropology, domestic social scientists tried to construct their unique specific identities, contexts, and knowledge to gradually formulate the independence of the discipline.

As a student majoring in American anthropology, I then had to approach China and Chinese anthropology in a new way. Because the anthropologists in the two countries have created completely different paths for their research, I could not automatically interpret Chinese anthropology as though I have studied it, which I indeed have not. While I still identify as belonging to China, my anthropological training is distinctly American. My own opportunity to  study abroad has been a privilege and a chance for me to gain a singular experience. Though I see the unique traits of Chinese anthropology better now, I also want to deconstruct the complicated domestic puzzles in the Chinese practice of the discipline by applying insights from American academia. I continue to ask myself and will ask others: what is anthropology in China? And, as I pose these questions, I feel the loneliness of anthropologists that my friend and I discussed not too long ago.


Danyi Zeng ’17 is a senior majoring in anthropology at Smith College. She grew up in Southwest China and moved to the eastern coast of China with her family. With the experience of living in different areas and feeling the cultural diversity within the country, Danyi found anthropology is an inspiring discipline that offers her a highly self-reflexive toolkit to re-understand her own identities. Recently, she aims at bringing her knowledge and skills acquired from social science into real-world industries as well as seeking her further academic interests in East Asia.

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Look Out, Look In

“Look out!” my friends reminded each other repeatedly, as we wandered out into the streets filled with cars, buses, trucks, motorcycles, bikes, pedestrians, cows, goats, horse carts, and sometimes an occasional elephant. After three weeks in the southern Indian state of Kerala, we were still lost without clear lines on the road. We watched auto rickshaws speed by, sounding their distinct horns in an aggressive greeting, if not to merely inform others of their presence. The chaos of the mysterious system that seems to guide the roadways in India is something that must be seen to be believed. It also required a bit of vigilance to assure no one in our group carelessly steps off the crumbling curbsides.

We were quite nervous to jump in our first auto-rickshaw. We had seen them driving past our cars and vans for over a week now and we knew we would eventually be riding in one ourselves. After negotiating a fare that was likely high above what the locals would typically pay, four of us crammed in the back of an auto for our first ride. The raincoats we wore over our kurtas, as we anticipated the arrival of a monsoon at any moment, stuck to our skin as we squealed and squirmed trying to get situated in the back of the auto. We waved furiously to our friends crammed in the back of the auto following us. It was liberating for the humid air to suddenly feel like a breeze as we sped up passing villages, crossing bridges and smelling the seawater on our way from the hotel to the city. We were crossing over into a new period of our time in India. We had the freedom to roam.

It was liberating and terrifying, and a hilariously small step into the next months of new adventures and experiences. For the first time though, we were moving through the streets without the safety of the car window. Suddenly the stares, smiles, smells, sounds, and sights, were no longer guarded by a glass shield. We were experiencing India in a whole new way. It was the stares that I felt most penetratingly though. I was ready to see all this new place had to offer but I wasn’t entirely ready for it to see me back. People stared not in an unfriendly or aggressive way necessarily, but they no doubt stared. Sometimes my friends would ask if I could feel the weight of the eyes on me and I most definitely could.

The stares made me intensely alert to my otherness in this new space. I could pull my scarf tight to cover my fair skin and freckles, but my blue eyes still were impossible to shield. My time in India was intended to be an intellectual journey and I had begun to internalize the stares that questioned my belonging in the space and distracted me from acting as a camouflaged participant observer.

From my courses, I was keenly aware of India’s dark history of colonialism. Furthermore, I feared my presence only propagated the often-shadowy roots of international aid and investment, anthropology’s colonial histories, the missionary conquests and white savior complexes that have brought so many here from “the West,” and the many other toxic power dynamics that seek to exotify and exploit the Global South. I knew there were limits and barriers to my understanding of this place due to these histories and structural dynamics that have developed over time.

When eyes from every street bore down on me, I feared these limits and my own ability to conceptualize this experience. Though not explicitly hostile, they felt haunting, daring and intense. Somehow the stares both broke the ice and continued to keep a barrier between myself and whomever was with me on the street. They were unrelenting and left me feeling exposed. It was as if the person doing the stare was seeing through me. In the coming weeks, I tried to let go of these worries and the guilt that followed these interactions. I found that a simple smile allowed for a break in the tension. Young girls were especially eager to smile back at me. Though I still secretly worried they saw me the same way that young girls in the U.S. see the slim, fair models that are plastered all over billboards and tabloids. Even India the preference for fairness is reflected in advertisements. And here I was a billboard for a neoliberal, colonial aesthetic.

My unique appearance or the experience of being stared at might not have had anything to do with the histories and dynamics that I felt the weight and guilt of. My professor advised me to suspend my own judgments or concerns about what the staring means to me or how it makes me feel.  The interaction she said might have much less to do with my presence and myself as a representation of these structures than I assumed it did.

It was the babies’ and children’s’ stares that never failed to jar me though. Their eyes were often painted with thick black Kajal (or kanmashi in Malayalam). I assumed for most of my time in India that this was purely cosmetic. Along with its cosmetic history though, there was another history I was completely unaware of. As I dug deeper into the meaning of Kajal, I discovered that mothers applied it to their children’s eyes to strengthen them and protect them against the evil eye.

The evil eye (typically understood to be a blue eye) is a curse believed to be cast by a malevolent glare, usually given to a person when they are unaware. Many cultures believe that receiving the evil eye will cause misfortune or injury. Reading this immediately complicated my initial impressions and experiences of feeling I was being stared at. I was not only being stared at but I was also doing the staring. I felt suddenly all the instances of looking into people’s’ homes and lives and communities could echo this idea of “harm from the eye” or produce a “maleficent influence.”  My stare did have the potential to cast a malevolent curse and to cause harm to those who were unaware of my gaze. But the tiny babies that stared back at me with Kajal lined eyes had their own sources of strength and ferocity that I wasn’t even previously aware of. The experience served as a greater reminder of the limitations and histories of my individual understandings- the ones that I was creating while in India and the ones I brought with me.

I had never realized the histories that the color of my own eyes held or any of these connotations to people in other parts of the world. This is not to say that it was the reason that I was experiencing the feeling of being stared at or that anyone looking at me was necessarily connoting it to the evil eye, but it serves as a reminder of the complexities of cultural exchange and the histories that influence them. I wish I had spent more time recognizing that those looking back at me had their own history and fierce forms of protection against my potentially “malevolent gaze,” instead of being overwhelmed by my foreign aesthetic and my own self-consciousness.

For the rest of my time in India, I was told to “look out” every time I crossed the street. I dodged buses and auto-rickshaws adorned with talismans warding off the evil eye, a reminder of my foreign gaze. Paradoxically India taught me to “look within” myself to examine my own limitations and biases in my understanding. Of course, my own understandings and perceptions played a huge role in the way that I am experienced India. The perspectives, histories, assertions, and cultures of those observing me and my own perspectives were somehow being exchanged and examined in these small interactions that required us to look, see, and stare.


Lucille Ausman ’17 is a senior at Smith College studying Cultural Anthropology and International Politics. She participated in a Global Engagement Seminar in Southern India during the summer of 2015 with Professor Charles Staelin and Professor Nalini Bhushan. This traveling seminar was title “India in Transition” and it examined the contrasts between India’s rapid modernization and it’s ancient philosophical histories. The course also attempted to question how we define modernity and traditionalism. During her time in India, Lucille interned at Madura Microfinance in the city of Chennai and did research on the financial habits of female entrepreneurs in rural villages.

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Dearest Child

Dearest Child is an ode to my 10-year-old self. It is what I wish someone had said to me when I put on my hijab and left my house for the very first time. It also explains the impact my mother had on the choice I made to wear the scarf but how through time I wore it for myself rather than because she told me to. For me the hijab has a deeper meaning than just scarf;  it is  a legacy that has been passed down for hundreds of generations. My story highlights the struggles that Muslim women like myself face wearing the hijab in this day and age where it is interpreted as a negative restraining article of clothing rather than a liberating piece of their soul.



Nadia Aman ’20 is currently about to finish her first year at Smith College as an intended engineering major. She’s a first-generation college student, the first in her family to go to college. Nadia is an Ethiopian-American Muslim who lives in Portland, Maine with her two sisters, Samia and Ikram, and her parents, Mamo and Kedija. When Nadia isn’t studying, she enjoys long walks, playing soccer, writing poetry, and hanging out with her friends.

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Waiting for the Train

Could telling my story and finding the right metaphor be the bridge connecting the differences I experienced  living and studying  in  two very different cultures ?



Cassiopeia Lee ’17 is a graduating senior with no immediate plans and a general love for learning and exploring. At Smith she cultivated her passions for languages, human rights, justice, and global perspectives, and knows that she’ll only learn more in her future endeavors.


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Dear Soon-to-be-Balkan-Traveler…

Dear Soon-to-be-Balkan-Traveler,

You are likely unaware of your luck in scoring this trip of a lifetime, but I must warn you of one thing: approximately four weeks before you depart for the Balkans, please do yourself a favor and start increasing your coffee intake. In particular, if the youthful city of Pristina is amongst your destinations, take careful notes. In Pristina, preparing and consuming coffee in style is a practice all citizens undertake. Ask any Kosovan about Pristina’s coffee culture, and they will be quick to inform you that Pristina makes the best macchiato in the world: it’s all in the froth allegedly. Just a Euro will get you one of those small jolts of heaven with a puffy cloud of milk, unassumingly yet delectably gracing the forefront of your gaze. While you’re charting your caffeine consumption patterns pre-takeoff, you might as well begin collecting copious Euros for coffee change. You are going to want to say, “macchiato, ju lutem” day and night. Would you like to go out with friends? One must drink coffee. Would you like to people-watch from one of the many sidewalk cafés? One must drink coffee. Would you like to marry a Kosovan? One must learn to make coffee.

On the topic of making coffee, we must turn our attention to Pristina’s Turkish coffee, as this is the decoction you will need to recreate to indulge your Kosovan spouse. I stand corrected: you need to learn Turkish coffee methodology to indulge yourself.  The coffee addict inside must also be fed from your own home;  am I right? Grab a tin of coffee, a grinder, your soon-to-grow biceps, a traditional xhezve pot, and get practicing. Do not stress, but perfecting your handling of the xhezve may even come in handy at the workplace. At my summer internship in Pristina the first xhezve hit the stove not even five minutes into the day. A friendly peak around the corner from my co-worker would welcome me to the first of three office-wide coffee breaks of the day. This common occurrence in Pristina’s offices is an undervalued way of cultivating teamwork and positive relations amongst employees. During my two-month internship, I estimate that I spent approximately three hundred hours with my mouth engulfed in rich Turkish coffee cream. They were hours I certainly do not regret, and I guarantee you won’t either. I wish you a wonderfully caffeinated Balkan adventure.



P.S. Repayments for this advice are welcome in cups of coffee. I’d love to reminisce across steaming mugs about football, friendly faces, and all those jaw dropping views that stop you mid-step. Gëzuar and sretan put!



Renée Picard ’17 is a Government major in her final semester at Smith College. She is driven by a curiosity in in security studies, foreign affairs, and post-socialist states. Her travels and work in the Balkans impels her to share her love of the cultures with anyone she meets. If she is not completely immersed in a book on the region, you can find her searching for new travel deals, hitting the New England trails, or trying to perfect her brunch recipes.

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