From war refugee to founding Vietnamese studies: a woman's journey of reconciliation

By Viet Anh   June 1, 2022 | 05:00 pm PT
Nguyen Thi Lien Hang, the first director of Vietnamese Studies at Columbia University in the U.S., wishes she can build bridges between the diaspora and Vietnam.

Hang left Saigon just before Reunification in 1975 as a five-month-old child. Her father, like many others working for South Vietnam government, decided his family with nine kids had to leave when the Northern Vietnamese army entered the city.

After transiting through several refugee camps in Guam and Hawaii, the family finally settled down in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Growing up in a new land, Hang regularly heard her parents, aunts and uncles speak worriedly about family members who stayed back in Vietnam because they lost contact after the war. She also saw how much her father and mother missed their homeland and were depressed for a long time.

From those stories she gradually understood that her family had been forced into a situation of fighting for opposing sides during the war.

People on her paternal side, who migrated from their hometown in Hai Duong Province in the north to Saigon in 1954, supported South Vietnam, while her maternal side, in the central province of Quang Binh, were on the side of the revolutionary forces.

There was a lot of hatred for Vietnamese in Philadelphia because they reminded Americans of "everything they lost."

People around Hang always asked: How could America lose that war?

All the questions about it were always U.S.-centric.

But she never found satisfactory answers to those questions as a Vietnamese-American. For that reason, she felt an urgent need to explore documents about the conflict and about Vietnam.

The initial questions were how North Vietnam won, how the Communist forces were able to defeat the U.S. and South Vietnam.

At college and graduate school, Hang focused on researching Vietnam during the Cold War, which was "a very dark period" in the history between the two countries.

Her time at schools coincided with the period when the U.S. and Vietnam started the reconciliation process in the early 1990s, which she describes as an "interesting conjunction."

"I slowly fell in love with Vietnam, where I was born."

Nguyen Thi Lien Hang, (2nd, L), meets with Vietnamese PM Pham Minh Chinh (3rd, L) in New York, U.S, on May 15, 2022. Photo courtesy of Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures, Columbia University

Chung Nguyen (1st, L) and Nguyen Thi Lien Hang, (2nd, L) meet with Vietnamese PM Pham Minh Chinh (3rd, L) in New York, U.S, on May 15, 2022. Photo courtesy of Chung Nguyen

Seeing the reconciliation between the two countries, she also feels it is imperative between Vietnamese and their brethren living overseas.

Hang has strong support from her father, who is very happy with what she has been doing with her career.

After Doi Moi in 1986, her family members began to visit Vietnam and sponsor some relatives' move to the U.S.

In 1994, at the age of 19, Hang returned to Vietnam for the first time. In 1998 she stayed in the country for one year to do research.

Since then she has been trying to visit Vietnam every year. She tended to focus on writing about a more peaceful and brighter future between the U.S. and Vietnam and about leaving behind their tragic past.

"I want to dedicate my life to building stronger bridges between my various communities in the U.S. and in Vietnam."

Setting up Vietnamese Studies course

With that motivation, Hang, a Dorothy Borg Associate Professor of History of the U.S and East Asia at Columbia University, sought to set up a Vietnamese studies program at the university.

In 2017 she and John Phan, an assistant professor in the East Asian languages and cultures department, started the program. His specialty is Vietnamese humanities and culture.

They searched for a director for the Vietnamese language program and selected Chung Nguyen from Hanoi in 2018, who hired an adjunct lecturer called Nguyen Quoc Vinh.

The team created a two-part program: Vietnamese language courses at all four levels for which Chung is responsible, and content courses (Vietnamese civilization, history and culture and East Asian languages) that Hang and Phan are in charge of.

Hang and Phan teach courses from undergraduate to PhD levels. Undergraduate, graduate and professional students from the law, business and medical schools at Columbia University and Barnard College take Vietnamese language courses.

Hang says the program has attracted hundreds of students and a lot of Vietnamese-Americans and non-Vietnamese are interested in Vietnamese studies.

Even students from Vietnam join these courses.

Chung says the number of students in her Vietnamese language courses increased from 10 in 2018 to 30 now.

The team plans to have summer language programs in Vietnam for which students can come to the country to learn about and experience its culture.

Hang believes this course will help increase the number of people enrolling for Vietnamese language courses at Columbia.

Growing interest in a 'new' Vietnam

A Vietnamese class at Columbia University. Photo courtesy of Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures, Columbia University

A Vietnamese class at Columbia University. Photo courtesy of Chung Nguyen

Hang emphasizes that there is increasing interest in Vietnam among students at Columbia.

In the past a majority of students in the U.S. were interested in Vietnam with connection with the war. It was true at the various universities she taught this subject. Over the decades people in the U.S. continued to make movies about the conflict. The American and Vietnamese soldiers who served are still alive and their grandchildren care about their past, she says.

"However, their attention today is more on the expansion of Vietnam-U.S. relations in various areas, and about the position of Vietnam in Southeast Asia and on the international stage."

Notably, young people in the U.S. think a more robust relationship between the U.S. and Vietnam could be a force for development in Asia, she says.

Besides, Vietnam has done well in dealing with Covid-19. Therefore, many students are attracted to a new Vietnam, want to visit the country to explore its culture, foods and modern entertainment, she says.

There are well-known Vietnamese-Americans in various fields in the U.S., and Hang thinks V pop could become a trend among youth like K Pop.

She believes that Vietnam is finally emerging from the shadows of its past wars, and will take a similar path to development like neighboring countries in Asia, particularly Singapore, South Korea and Japan.

In this journey, Hang wants to help foster understanding between the peoples of the U.S. and Vietnam through education.

With the recent developments in the bilateral relationship, Hang is confident the two peoples understand their shared values and are interested in the future.

This summer Hang's team will visit Vietnam to enter into agreements with partners like the VNU University of Social Sciences and Humanities in Hanoi, Fulbright University of Vietnam in HCMC and the Diplomatic Academy of Vietnam.

In the near future Hang and her team aim to increase student exchanges between the two countries.

Hang says they want to attract students who have no connection with Vietnam but are interested in the country and its culture, society and future.

"I think it is contingent upon Vietnam to continue to do well globally to attract the interest of bigger communities."

go to top