For Samuel Thurston ’19, an international relations and anthropology double major, traveling to Vietnam to study culinary practices for the semester was an easy choice. “I’ve focused on understanding cultures across contexts during my time at HWS,” he says. “Getting a chance to further this education firsthand, using my other passion—for food—as a medium, made this a no-brainer. It’s also faculty-led, with one of our own professors here as a teacher and resource.”
During the semester, Associate Professor of Anthropology Christopher Annear guides students in conducting interviews with street food vendors and in writing about the vendors’ work and family, as well as the production and sale of food.
“My thematic focus is anthropological food studies in Vietnam,” Annear says. “It is through the labor, succulence, class, joy and culinary distinctions of food that students learn to see every-day Vietnamese life. There is enormous value in beginning to understand the nature of another person’s experiences and the cultural knowledge she uses to make sense of her world.”
The 15 students currently on the trip have had a whirlwind visit to the economically-growing country: they began the semester with Vietnamese language classes in Ho Chi Minh City, followed by a move to Hanoi, where they have been taking courses in Vietnamese history and culture, along with an independent research trip. Weekends are reserved for explorations into the surrounding area.
“We’ve spent relaxing days on beautiful beaches, bartered with locals at crowded markets, and been on breathtaking hikes in some of the most beautiful areas of the world,” says Thurston. “But if I had to pick what was most memorable it would be the food we’ve been able to try.”
Vietnam is a country that is “entangled in past trauma with the U.S.,” according to Annear, but that’s only one side of the story for the students currently living and learning there as part of the food-focused program. “The students will take home knowledge and empathy about the lives of people from a country that, for some, remains static in American imagination,” he says.
Annear says that attitudes among the Vietnamese toward the American students are positive. “In today’s Vietnam, the United States is a model for development, style and commerce,” he says, noting the inherent friendliness of the Vietnamese people with whom the groups interact.
Thurston agrees. “Students will take back to the U.S. their experiences of fun, shared successes and knowledge about Vietnamese friends. It can be a bit awkward at first, but people are very friendly and genuinely appreciate you trying to use Vietnamese language,” he says.