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Childhood Amid Change: Hue-Tam Ho Tai


The scholarship of Hue-Tam Ho Tai, Young Professor of Sino-Vietnamese History, is deeply affected by her past.

The daughter of Vietnamese revolutionaries, Tai was educated in the West at the height of the Vietnam War. As a result of her bi-cultural upbringing, she believes she has a special perspective on the complexities of being Vietnamese.

After spending her early childhood in France before returning in 1957 to her birthplace in Saigon, Tai says she went through "culture shock." She left Saigon for America when she was 18, and has lived here ever since.

"I had to think about what it means to be Vietnamese," says Tai, who teaches "Foreign Cultures 60: Individual, Community, and Nation in Vietnam," among other Vietnamese history courses. "It was not a spontaneous process."

Tai's childhood was tinged by the imprisonment of her father, a critic of U.S.-supported President Ngo Dinh Diem's South Vietnamese regime.

"When I was growing up, my father spent most of his time in jail," recalls Tai. "But...I was told time and again that he was a hero."

Tai says people would refuse to accept her mother's money for services when they realized who she was, insisting that she keep the money to feed her eight children.

Although Tai says she received a "good education" in Saigon's French schools, the realities of the brewing civil war did intrude, if indirectly.

She recalls students at her high school joining city-wide protests of Catholic Diem's prohibition of Buddhists' religious flags in 1963. Her school was closed for a month after Diem ordered the army to open fire on the protesters.

Tai's family sheltered refugees from the countryside and took precautions when they went outside.

"I had a friend who went to the cinema and was the victim of a terrorist attack. She lost a leg," Tai says.

After Diem's assassination later in 1963, Tai's father was released from jail to resume his writing and political activities. He became a representative in parliament. Yet her family's life was still constrained.

"Everything [my father] wrote was censored," Tai says. "When I left [for university] my parents didn't have a telephone. But even if they had, it would have been tapped anyway."

As an undergraduate, Tai studied political science at Brandeis University, where she was the sole Vietnamese student during the anti-war protests of the late 1960s.

While Tai says she was treated well by her peers, she perceived a distinct barrier between herself and the American students.

"Their concerns were constitutional," she says. "I was not concerned about whether my friends would be drafted. I was concerned about how events in Vietnam would affect Vietnamese."

Tai recalls that it was difficult for her classmates to appreciate the diversity of backgrounds and opinions of the Vietnamese.

She says that in the last few decades, the Vietnamese have attempted to restore traditions while modernizing.

"In the 1960s, people's aspiration was to have a bicycle. Now [after the economic reforms of the 1980s], their aspiration is to have a motorped, a car," she says. "[But] you drive down the countryside and realize that the people don't know that they have to get out of the way of cars."

Tai talks of the complexity of Vietnam, where the officially-socialist government has carried out economic reforms but still has no open academic dialogue about its history.

Tai says she has attempted to rethink Vietnamese history during the 26 years that she has been a graduate student, then professor at Harvard.

Tai adds that she wishes she were not the only Vietnamese studies professor at Harvard and that she could teach courses on focused topics as well as broad introductory classes.

"I would like to move away from [dominant historical themes of heroism and patriotism] and teach about Vietnam's ethnic and regional diversity, as well as implications of Vietnam's territorial expansion over the centuries."

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