History professor serving Fulbright in Vietnam
IU South Bend history professor Jonathan Nashel is currently serving as a Fulbright Scholar at the Vietnam National University in Hanoi. He will be there through February 2024 as part of a project titled, “America and Vietnam: Teaching Our Histories.” He will give lectures in a variety of classes at the university, followed by a series of public lectures.
“They want to know how American college students learn about the Vietnam War – which, of course, they call the American War – so I will be giving some seminars and lectures on that topic,” Nashel says.
Presenting a nuanced and carefully considered approach to complicated histories has long been a specialty of Nashel. In his 2005 book, “Edward Lansdale’s Cold War,” Nashel took a broad approach to his subject, a shadowy CIA operative. In addition to the straight biographical facts about Lansdale, Nashel also took in a larger picture, including rumors and fictional accounts. Nashel calls this method of research “cultural mythography.”
With his Fulbright work in Vietnam, Nashel is applying a similar technique, using equal amounts of anthropology and history.
“Here, they’re interested in America – not just history but also current events and popular culture,” Nashel says. “I’m trying to explain America to them, while likewise turning it into a comparative thing, asking, ‘How do Vietnamese people understand these events?’”
Nashel says he has found the Vietnamese have generally favorable opinions about America and Americans, and that resentment about the war and its legacy of napalm and destruction has dwindled. Nashel’s wife, IU South Bend English professor Rebecca Brittenham, was able to join him in Hanoi, and the two have been adjusting to the busy street traffic and investigating the cuisine. One of their favorite bún chả noodle restaurants was made famous when Barack Obama and Anthony Bourdain ate there in 2016.
“All you have to say is ‘Obama bún chả’ and everybody knows which place you mean,” Nashel says.
When Senator J. William Fulbright initially envisioned these kinds of diplomatic visits, he hoped to spread diplomacy and understanding among cultures, in the interest of world peace.
“I’m trying to do what Fulbright wanted,” Nashel says. “It’s an example of what’s called ‘soft power.’ It’s not just wagging a finger and telling people how to act. America is using good will, showing the world that we are interested in learning from other cultures.”
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