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Student Spotlight | John Tran’s summer FLAS experience

November 21, 2022

In the summer of 2022 John Tran traveled to Vietnam for an intensive Vietnamese language program. John received funding for the trip from the Southeast Asia Center’s Foreign Language and Area Studies Fellowship program. Below, John reflects on his experience as a FLAS Fellow, volunteer, and study abroad participant.

It is 11 pm Sunday, my final term paper was just submitted a couple of days ago, and after a 36-hour, two-connection voyage across multiple time zones I finally arrived at my destination. I stand in front of the same home that for the past decade has served as headquarters for my annual ancestral homeland pilgrimage. It has been over two years since I have been back, and unlike previous trips, my primary objectives were not traveling or vacationing; but rather language learning, archival research, volunteering activities, and a study abroad trip. Beside me are three pieces of luggage, all at maximum weight allotment, one filled with UW Libraries books to be delivered to a local academic institution in the north two months later. With the help of family members, I lugged them up three flights of stairs to the room that would serve as my sanctuary away from the hustle and bustle of Ho Chi Minh City during the first leg of my four-month venture in Vietnam. Any signs of jetlag were masked by exhaustion as I slept well that night.

At sunrise, I descended the same three flights of stairs to fulfill the obligatory reporting to the house’s patriarch, my father-in-law. This would be the same patriarch that came short of disowning me due to disagreements over how our families should handle COVID precautions early on in the pandemic; however, personal conflicts have no place for this trip, at least not yet, since I am here on “work” related matters after all. As if clockwork, and like every other visit, the next order of business is to hand over my US passport so that my in-laws can present it to the local authorities. Every household (and lodging establishment) must report any foreigners living with them, no matter the length of stay, and I am no exception – thus making for no shortage of reminders that I am a foreigner in a country that is at once familiar and alien to me regardless of how well I speak the language or look the part of a local. 

I hop on the back of my father-in-law’s motorbike as we head off on a work-necessities acquisition excursion: a SIM card, a bicycle, a desk, and a computer chair – all tools of the trade for which my work requires. Upon completion, next was a visit to the Vietnamese Language for Foreigners Center at the University of Social Sciences and Humanities (USSH), Ho Chi Minh City, a member institution of the Vietnam National University system. This is the same center I desperately tried to contact over email while in Seattle only to realize two things reign king in Vietnam: cash and in-person communications. After navigating the bureaucratic higher-education system with administrative staff, what I tried to accomplish electronically for the past couple of months was completed in a couple of hours while onsite. I was now enrolled in Advanced Vietnamese Language courses according to the requirements of my Summer Foreign Language and Area Studies (FLAS) Fellowship awarded by UW’s Southeast Asia Center. 

The next several days were dedicated to meeting with my academic sponsor for my post as Visiting Scholar at Fulbright University, Vietnam, and addressing the administrative requirements of Vietnam’s National Archives which entails documentation of institutional sponsorship to conduct archival research. The National Archives director vets every potential visitor to ensure their research is not too sensitive or otherwise classified as possibly subversive. For the next two months, my weekdays were spent biking to USSH campus to study Classical Vietnamese in the mornings, reading historical documents at the National Archives in the afternoons, and returning to USSH to learn Contemporary Vietnamese in the evenings. I spent my weekends alleviating the onset of Imposter Syndrome by reviewing the week’s materials. I cannot recount the last time I worked so hard yet felt so unsure of the work that I was doing.

I then transitioned to Hanoi, where I would stay working out of the National Archives there for the next month. It did not take long for me to realize the convenience of “living at home” was no longer. I now boarded in an apartment having to do my grocery shopping and cooking, all things I took for granted while staying with family for the past two months just the week before. Nonetheless, I tapped into the network of scholars I built while in the country to help with my time in Hanoi. It turned out that COVID-19 caused a bottleneck of researchers waiting to enter the country and the past summer was the first time since the start of the pandemic that the Vietnamese government fully allowed for foreign visitors to enter. I engaged with scholars from all around the world interested in Vietnam studies, an opportunity certainly not available under other circumstances. My time researching in the country’s capital was unexpectedly productive and successful. I came across documents that helped expand my research on post-1945 language- and culture-making in Vietnam. Unexpectedly, Hanoi has become a must for future research trips. 

Spread throughout my stay in both metropolitans were visits as part of my role as a Board Member of the Greater Seattle Vietnam Association (GSVA) to a total of three orphanages and two boarding homes for the underprivileged run by four organizations. I was charged with visiting these sites located in all three regions (north, central, and south) to gain a better understanding of their work and to deliver financial support. Two organizations operating out of Can Tho and Kon Tum are run by local private organizations and funded through private donations. The other two organizations are run by local government funding in Hai Phong and are part of the Seattle-Hai Phong Sister City relationship organized by the City of Seattle. Our financial support came in the form of tuition sponsorship, a moon festival celebration, and two (literal!) tons of rice. Also, my visits to these organizations resulted in a presentation at GSVA’s annual meeting just last week where I presented on my trip and each location’s connection to the land on which they operate. I observed that land use and land rights served as obstacles for the private organizations while such barriers were not prevalent at the government-funded sites. 

The last leg of my four-month stay in Vietnam involved participating in a three week early-Autumn UW Study Abroad program called “Vietnam: Building for Peace in the Wake of War”. Our cohort consisted of 21 students across various undergraduate and graduate programs, a program assistant, and Professor Christoph Giebel, of JSIS and History, leading the group. Starting in Hanoi, we flew south to Hue, the former imperial capital, and explored three provinces in the central region to learn about the country’s history by tracing the legacies of War. I am appreciative of all the experience gained particularly because of the collaboration with Peace Trees Vietnam, a Seattle-based NGO, and the depth of historical and cultural knowledge Professor Giebel provided. However, during this trip segment, I confronted the realities of our privileged positionalities as we learned about unexploded ordnance (UXO) and attempted to beautify several schools for ethnic minority children. The sense of Orientalism and grips of the Western Savior Complex were unavoidable as we university students do our best to understand and (dare I say) help the local life. The readings on volunteerism Professor Giebel had us engage with before departure shed valuable scholarly input into such issues that are commonly associated with the convergence of education and volunteering. Nevertheless, I highly recommend this study abroad program to anyone considering it.

Picture: John Tran (right) stands in front of the Hue Imperial Palace tennis courts with Charles Vo, Academic Year 2022-2023 FLAS Fellow, Vietnamese.

I returned to Ho Chi Minh City, where I had less than a week to wrap up loose ends, say my goodbyes, and prepare for the Autumn term, starting just two days after I landed in Seattle. I have been stateside for over a month now, yet am still processing my experience, the archival documents I brought back, and my new language skills. I am grateful to the Southeast Asia Center, JSIS, and the University of Washington for the experience, and trust that I will benefit from it for years to come.