Hoang T. Quan is a specialist in American Studies and teaches courses in both the Department of International Relations and the Deptartment of English at the College of Social Sciences & Humanities, Vietnam National University, HCMC. A SUNY Buffalo graduate, Quan is familiar with upstate New York and shared his observations on American culture in Vietnam.
Ithaca Times: When I taught at Vietnam National University there was substantial interest among Vietnamese students re: popular culture, particularly American & British. Musicians like Eric Clapton & John Fogerty were highly regarded. I attended a nationwide musical fest at which a band, composed of students from the Hanoi College of Engineering, won first place with its rendition of the Creedence Clearwater Revival "classic" about being "stuck in ol' Lodi again." Is there still a significant degree of fascination with western music? Would you be so kind as to speculate on the reasons for this attraction?
Hoang T. Quan:Yes, young people here still love western music, especially American pop music. The reasons: the singing and musical accompaniments are better than the locally made music; the songs are mostly about love, something they can never have enough of; some of the more radical, or progressive, topics that appeal to a selected group of young people (such as rich-poor gap, social discontent...) can be found in US pop or rap music, and not so much in Vietnamese music; English is the number one foreign language of choice in Vietnam, and thus, English songs are within the youth's ability to understand. Korean or Japanese pop music, on the other hand, would present a language problem to most of them.
IT: Would you talk about some of the novels, essays, poems and plays which are read in English Department courses in the College of Social Science & Humanities? How are they selected and how do students generally respond to them?
HTQ: As I understand it, the syllabi for the literature courses are rarely changed, leading to the same authors and works being taught to the students for decades. For example, many works taught in my literature classes when I was a student in the department almost 30 years ago, such as “A Rose for Emily” by Faulkner, Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby,” Edith Wharton’s “Roman Fever,” Robert Frost's “The Road Not Taken,” “Prayers of Steel” by Carl Sandburg, and Hemingway’s “In Another Country,” are still being taught to the students today.
As my colleague perfectly explained it, the syllabuses were written, and the works chosen, by her predecessors and she only carries them on. A few of the stories and poems were actually introduced by a Fulbright scholar when he was teaching in the department more than 20 years ago.
Most of the works chosen are short stories, rather than full novels. The reason, as you can guess, has to do with English being a foreign language to our students. Sadly, this outdated line of thinking fails to understand that many students in the department today are more than capable of reading and appreciating long and complex novels.
Although my colleague believed the students enjoyed the key works introduced to them, and the two respondents also said they loved most of the works (except “Vanity Fair,” “Roman Fever” and Oscar Wilde's stories, plus a few more), my guess is probably half of them don’t care too much about the works they are assigned to read, since the themes and topics do not speak to their interests and concerns. The lives they lead today, on social media and in the real world, are so far removed from the world they read about in their classes. (The instructors teaching these literature courses do not read much and have no interest in updating the syllabuses.)
IT: Are American, French and/or British films popular in Vietnam? Would you mention one or two? Is there a noteworthy Vietnamese film industry?
HTQ: The Vietnamese film industry has produced several big box-office hits over the last few years. Some people are seeing this as an opportunity to invest in making Vietnamese films and taking a slice of ticket sales away from US movies.
IT: On the whole, how have Vietnamese students & faculty responded to learning and teaching via Zoom? Quite a few American students have dropped out, particularly at the community college level. It's hoped that their numbers will go up again, once the COVID-19 crisis has run its course. What's the current situation with student enrollment in Vietnam?
HTQ: The students and faculty here responded fairly well to learning and teaching via Zoom. We don't particularly enjoy learning and teaching online, but under the circumstances we have no choice but to try to make the most of it. I'm sure the students are not very happy with this mode of instruction, but they have traditionally been mostly obedien and are not known to be rebellious, and the other alternative as you mentioned is to drop out, and that is not exactly an appealing option either, considering the fact that they would lose all contact and have no interaction with their friends for a whole semester, if not a whole year.
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