New Faculty Profile:Peter Zinoman

by Julia Sommer

Last year, the U.S. finally ended its economic embargo of Vietnam. This summer the two countries resumed diplomatic relations. This fall, Berkeley's first teacher of Vietnamese and Southeast Asian history arrived: Assistant Professor Peter Zinoman.

Junior Elizabeth Phu, who left Vietnam in 1979 when she was three, is taking Zinoman's "History of Modern Indochina" seminar this semester. "All my life I've only learned about Vietnam through the war," she says. "It's great to be able to take a course with a more in-depth, holistic approach to the subject and to learn more about my history and culture. I was really surprised that no one taught Vietnamese history at Berkeley before this year."

Zinoman comes by his interest in Southeast Asia naturally. A "foreign service brat," he grew up mainly in Laos and Malaysia, with occasional stints in Washington, D.C. "I was like Michael Fay," he said, recalling the American youth of Singapore flogging fame. "We led a very privileged existence, with servants. Southeast Asia became a powerful part of my identity."

When it came time for college, Zinoman picked Tufts. He was living in Kuala Lumpur and had never seen the small New England college. "It was a crap shoot," he recalls.

It didn't take him long to return to Southeast Asia, though--this time through a junior year abroad at London's School of Oriental and African Studies.

For graduate school Zinoman chose Cornell, the leading international center for Southeast Asian studies. Asked during his admission interview which country he wanted to study, Zinoman thought quickly and picked Vietnam--the only Southeast Asian country he hadn't visited.

"It was a fortuitous choice," Zinoman recalls. Vietnam opened up to the world in 1986, just about the time Zinoman chose Vietnam as his specialty.

He paid his first visit there in 1989, when Westerners were still an exotic rarity. "I was like the Pied Piper, followed everywhere by hundreds of kids," he recalls. "The people were amazed that someone my age (post Vietnam War) could speak the North Vietnamese dialect. They found it very moving that anyone would want to learn their language, which is terribly difficult."

Berkeley's search for a Southeast Asian historian started in 1987 with a $539,000 grant from the Henry Luce Foundation to the Center for Southeast Asian Studies.

The first two searches failed because applicants weren't quite up to the standards of the history department, according to David Szanton, executive director of International and Area Studies. "Most of the best young American scholars in the field had settled in Australia, where Southeast Asian studies is very important," says Szanton.

"In this country, interest in Vietnam and Southeast Asia was intense during the war, but faded when the war ended in 1975.

"Now the field is growing tremendously again. We have 30 students doing PhDs in 19 departments on some aspect of Vietnam. Almost 90 undergraduates are studying Vietnamese.

"More than 20 of our faculty have been to Vietnam, including a field research program in summer 1994 involving 10 graduate students and six faculty working with their counterparts at the University of Hanoi. The appointment of Peter Zinoman helps crystallize this surge in interest."

Zinoman chose "The Colonial Bastille: A Social History of Imprisonment in Colonial Vietnam, 1862-1945" as his dissertation topic, partly because so many of the men who now lead Vietnam were imprisoned by the French in the '30s and '40s.

His research took him to Hanoi--a city he has grown to love and where he met his Vietnamese wife, Nguyen Nguyet Cam. He spent last year there directing the Council on International Educational Exchange program for college juniors.

There's surprisingly little animosity towards Americans in Vietnam, says Zinoman, especially in the north. "The really nasty stuff involving G.I.'s happened in the south, and the Vietnamese won the war, so there's no syndrome."

Both Zinoman and Cam spend a good deal of time doing literary translations. Zinoman translates from Vietnamese into English, most recently short stories for the book "The Other Side of Heaven." Cam's translations from English into Vietnamese include "Charlotte's Web" and "Working" by Studs Terkel.

"There's been a renaissance in Vietnamese literature since 1986," Zinoman points out, "and we'd like to help give Americans access to it."

"My dream job" is how Zinoman describes his new post as assistant professor of history at Berkeley. Some of his reasons: a top-ranking department, great students and colleagues, a workable teaching load and a beautiful location.

Next semester he will teach a seminar on what the Vietnam War meant for the Vietnamese. He'll also teach a lecture course, "Introduction to Modern Southeast Asia," covering Vietnam, Indonesia, Burma, Thailand and the Philippines.

"I am delighted to hear Peter Zinoman call this his 'dream job,' since he was the dream candidate of a multi-department search committee," said Reginald Zelnik, chair of the history department.

"On a personal note, I am very happy to no longer be the very last name in the history department's alphabetical listings--a position I have held without challenge for over 30 years," he added.


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