This Week in Southeast Asian Studies (TWISEA)
August 21, 2015
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"...I decided to study the post Viet Nam – American war re-education camp experience because I am a product of that experience," wrote Gai-Hoai T. Nguyen
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This week, we will hear from Gai-Hoai T. Nguyen. She’s an alumna of our MA program in Southeast Asian Studies, and currently, she’s the Associate Director of the Center of Human Rights of UW. It’s a great accomplishment. And we are very proud of her!

Could you tell me how you became interested in studying Southeast Asia/Vietnam? Do you remember any moment when you realized that you wanted to study Southeast Asia/ Vietnam?

I was born in Viet Nam, but have been living in the US since I was eight years old. All I knew about Southeast Asia (SEA) and my “home country” was the small hamlet where I was born, and a small glimpse of the city where the fateful interview was conducted that determined our eligibility for immigration to the US. At one point in my young adult life, I decided that I wanted to learn more about my country and region of origin. This desire to learn more became serious when I was thinking about graduate school, so I applied to the Master of Arts program in Southeast Asian Studies at UW.

What was your research interest? How did you come to select such topic? And did it change much at all during the program?

I entered the program with the desire to learn about the country and region, but I did not have a specific research interest in mind. During the course of the Viet Nam Wars class, with Christoph Giebel, I decided to study the post Viet Nam–American War re-education camp experience because I am a product of that experience. How, you might ask, am I a product of it? A man was in the camp when his wife left him. When he came home, he met a widow, married her, and I am one of their children. It was because of that same re-education camp experience that my family was brought to the US and I became who I am today. The re-education camp led to a divorce, a second marriage, and the Orderly Departure Program (ODP) that brought us to the US for a second chance at life. That war and camp experience has majorly affected my father and me, so I eventually pursued it as my research topic. I began by researching “re-education.” Next, I interviewed people like myself, with a parent who went through a camp and came to the US through the ODP. At one point, I changed my mind completely and was not going to pursue this topic any further… I think it was fear of causing these people pain by asking them to recall and re-live a traumatic experience. I actually was going to switch to studying a type of Indonesian mask dance (I love dancing). And I did—for a little bit. But, thanks to the gentle nudging of a professor, I picked up the re-education and trauma as a topic again and conducted interviews with my father, as well as other community members (family friends), who went through this hell.

How was your experience at UW? Did it matter at all to you that you were a Southeast Asian American studying SEA?

My experience at UW was outstanding. I had wonderful classmates, staff and faculty members in the Southeast Asian Studies community who provided much needed support throughout the process. In particular, I am thankful for those affiliated with the Southeast Asia Center (SEAC) who gave me work, advice, funding, and academic as well as emotional support. For graduate students, the Center serves as a kind of haven. It’s a place marked by positive energy where the staff are as interested in you personally as they are professionally. I loved it there. The work experience at the Southeast Asia Center was also a crucial first-step to my current career in non-profit management. The Southeast Asia Center has very specific mandates and goals and, although these differ slightly from the directives of the Latin American and Caribbean Studies (LACS) program (where I worked immediately following the MA program), it was in SEAC that I began learning about nonprofit management and how to support organizations in achieving their goals. In turn, my experience with SEAC and LACS further prepared me for the administrative role I currently play as Associate Director for the UW Center for Human Rights. I am grateful to the Southeast Asia Center for helping me get my foot in the door to non-profit management.

Did it matter at all to me that I was a “Southeast Asian American” studying “Southeast Asia”? I feel like this question opens a can of worms, so-to-speak. There are academic criticisms of “Asian Americans” who study “Asia.” I’d go so far as to say there is a stigma attached to it, as though it’s a “phenomenon” or something. My gut tells me to answer this question as follows: It sure as hell did NOT matter to me that I was a so-called Southeast Asian American studying Southeast Asia. But as I try to articulate an answer, I suppose I have to admit that it did matter. Before entering the program, I did not know very much about Southeast Asia, and to me, that was embarrassing. I am not saying that everybody should be embarrassed if they do not know a lot about their “home” country or region, but for me, I was. Embarrassment aside, I was genuinely curious and interested in the region and country. How could I not be? It’s such a real part of my identity and people like my family and me are such a real part of that region’s history. I learned a whole lot about Viet Nam and the region through the MA program. However, I still feel that I know relatively little about Viet Nam and Southeast Asia. But I am okay with that. Graduating from the MA program was one of those experiences where the more you learn, the more you realize you don’t know. Still, the MA program quenched my thirst for knowledge and gave me something very valuable: an awareness that makes me more understanding of my (sometimes very unreasonable) father and countless other people in American and Vietnamese communities who have lived through similar traumatic experiences of war. I’ve never appreciated my father, and veterans, more than after I completed the program.

Fortunately for me, the faculty and staff I worked with in the Southeast Asian Studies program did not buy into the aforementioned criticism of “Asian Americans” studying “Asia.” They understood the very real connection, and the mutual benefits, to the student-scholars and the field when someone “like me” studies Southeast Asia. The program pushes students intellectually and academically even as it encourages students to study their own interests, using the methods that work best for the individual and her project.

Do you have any funny story about research or studying at UW that you'd like to share with us?

Funny story…hmm. To me it is a funny story now that I look back on it, but you may not find it so funny. Before starting the MA program, I was living in Oaxaca, Mexico for a year. Oaxaca is a very small city. When I stepped foot on UW campus a couple of months before the start of the quarter, I was overwhelmed with the big city and the size of UW. As an undergraduate, I studied at a very small liberal arts university in Tacoma so UW seemed like a monster! Anyway, I was on campus as a part of my trek to meet some of the SEA faculty prior to starting the program. The very first professor that I met pointed out that I had a low undergraduate GPA; I was a little bit confused because I thought achieving “cum laude” was not so bad. I did suggest to him that maybe he was mixing up my GPA with my GRE score, which is admittedly low. But, “what did it matter?” I thought to myself at the time. After all, I was already accepted into the program. There I was, recently returned to the US from a small town in a foreign country, financially broke and entering grad school without any funding. And on top of all that, apparently, I was not “qualified” for the program to which I was already accepted. I walked out of the office crying and thinking, “I do not want to start this program.” Little did I know the program would turn out to be two of the most rewarding years of my life.

Fast forward to two years: I found myself in a room with this same professor and one other faculty member. I do not recall the exact comment or question, but I was in the midst of my qualifying oral examination for my MA when that same professor made a comment that started me balling my eyes out. Okay, maybe not exactly funny, but it’s somehow poetic that I entered the program crying and exited the program in the same manner. At any rate, I had come to the exam prepared, with celebratory drinks and snacks, so the day was recovered in the end. That tear-provoking professor is one of two professors from whom I have learned the most and we remain friends to this day.
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Recommended Resources (5)
This section lists news items and other recently-published resources that have been recommended by faculty and grad students over the past week. To submit an item for next week, email

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For general information on funding sources, including FLAS, visit the SEAC website
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