Mart Stewart (2000)
In Ho Chi Minh City, where Mart Stewart taught courses and workshops
in American studies and environmental education from late 2000
through the end of 2001, he found persistent and conflicting misconceptions
Some saw it, through rose-colored glasses, as a kind of paradise,
with excellent schools, good jobs and good music, he realized.
But old suspicions endured. More than two million Vietnamese died
fighting Americans in what they still called "the American
war"; every week someone died of an injury from unexploded
ordnance, and there was more news about the lingering effects
of Agent Orange. Cultural historian Huu Ngoc has described Vietnam
in the last decade as fighting its "third and most difficult
war of resistance"-to keep out the "social evils"
of the West.
However, Vietnam is a youthful country-60 percent of its 80 million
residents were born since 1975-and the young are keenly interested
in the United States. So Stewart, an associate professor of history
from Western Washington University, did his best to demythologize
it-with "internationalized" curricula and "post-colonial"
readings. He also developed the first American studies workshops
for university faculty in Ho Chi Minh City since 1975, and coached
high school teachers on how to "green" their courses
and use literature to teach environmental ethics.
Stewart says teaching at the University of Education's Center
for Exchange, Culture and Education Research in Ho Chi Min City
has been "one of the richest and most rewarding teaching
experiences" of his career. He also began some research with
Vietnamese colleagues that he hopes to continue during a return
trip this summer. His plans include a comparative study of rice
growing in the Mekong Delta and the American Southeast (he's already
published a book on the environmental history of rice growing
in 18th- and 19th-century Georgia), and perhaps a project on comparative
He will bring a new perspective to his teaching in Bellingham,
Washington, as well. He is developing a course, "Vietnam
and America," that will take a very broad look at the relationship
between the two countries. "The Americans and the Vietnamese
need to discover new stories about each other," he says.
He is also working to create an ongoing relationship between his
host and home institutions.
But the highlight of his Fulbright experience has to be the friendship
he struck up with a Vietnamese writer and fellow traveler that
blossomed into something more. "Her name is Lan," he
says. Together, they explored Ho Chi Minh City's lively sidewalk
stalls and markets-walking, talking and sampling the local fare;
"the sidewalks are one big restaurant," he says.
"We married a year after we met," he adds. "Making
it even more likely that I'll return and work in a place I loved
from the minute I stepped off the plane."
Mart Stewart (2008)
When Mart Stewart returned to Vietnam in 2008 to give several lectures and workshops in American Studies at universities in Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City and Can Tho, he had an opportunity to size up how much had changed since he taught American Studies in Vietnam in 2000-01 as a Fulbright Senior Scholar. Some of the colleagues he worked with at a half-dozen universities on his 2008 visit had participated in the colloquia series on American Studies he organized at the HCMC University of Education in 2001; these colloquia were attended by over sixty faculty from eleven universities and training institutions in HCMC. Some he met during his tenure as a Fulbright Senior Specialist at the College of Social Sciences and Humanities at Vietnam National University in Hanoi, where he helped organize an international conference in American Studies in 2003.
Others had attended one of the half-dozen workshops in American Studies he co-organized in HCMC, Can Tho, and Hue between 2002 and 2006. Some of these colleagues were now teaching American Studies courses that were the first to be taught at their institutions – and some at universities that were themselves only recently founded. Some had recently received advanced training in American Studies in several ways -- most prominently, by studying abroad on a Fulbright Scholarship. Many had traveled to the United States on study tours sponsored by the Fulbright Program or the Asia Foundation. Several colleagues at the International Studies Department at the College of Humanities and Social Sciences at Vietnam National University in Hanoi were now teaching specialty courses in a program recognized in 2004 by the Ministry of Education and Training as the flagship American Studies program in Vietnam. The issue that unified all of those who were interested in American Studies in 2000, how to introduce American Studies courses into university curricula in Vietnam, was now replaced by the question, “what kind of American Studies?” American Studies is now well-established in the curricula of Vietnamese universities, Professor Stewart discovered, and is now developing texture and specializations as a field.
Vietnam has itself undergone rapid change as it has grown more connected to the United States and to the rest of the world. Vietnam has had eight years of rapid, and until recently, sustained economic growth; it has gained entry into the WTO and hosted for the first time the annual summit of ASEAN leaders; millions of Vietnamese have left the countryside to seek work in Vietnam’s urban centers; the standard of living has steadily risen in urban Vietnam and the Vietnamese middle class has grown. The Vietnamese are struggling with growing pains and now are more likely to complain about inflation, air and noise pollution, and traffic gridlock as they are about the consequences of war and twenty years of relative isolation.
Vietnamese perceptions of the United States have at the same time developed more complexity. In 2000-2001, students often described the United States simply as either a place of bright promise, or as a big-armed country that had caused Vietnam a great deal of suffering – and within memory. Now, colleagues who are teaching American Studies have had opportunities to begin to specialize in topics of interest to them, which has meant that the panorama approach to teaching American Studies that prevailed ten years ago is no longer satisfactory. Increased exchanges with American culture and with Americans through the internet and study abroad programs has made a difference in the perceptions of young people, too. In 2000 fewer than 200 Vietnamese went abroad to study in American schools; in 2007, about 7,000, most of whom were students at American universities, studied in the U.S. Vietnamese young people have had other opportunities to learn about the United States: more Americans are now traveling in Vietnam; American movies and popular culture expressions, for better or for worse, are now widely available in Vietnam; students can google, also for better or for worse, any question they might have about American culture; and many young people participate in the global internet culture that links them instantaneously with their Yahoo Messenger pals in the U.S. Some students now develop courses of study in language study and American Studies that culminates in a final paper that goes far beyond anything imaginable in 2000; one recent example that was reviewed by Professor Stewart was a consideration of the relationship between the 1960s American counterculture and the anti-war movement that was originally sparked by a viewing of Across the Universe. Written by a twentysomething student in Ho Chi Minh City.
Professor Stewart will continue to return to Vietnam – his work in Vietnam has gained him a rich community of colleagues and friends, and he also has family there. He will continue to give lectures where he is invited, but now imagines those lectures will be like the ones he gave this year – far more specialized and designed to connect to courses and programs that are home-grown and well developed, rather than just getting started.
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