Earlier this month, the people of Vietnam got their first taste of McDonald's chicken McNuggets and world famous fries after the company opened its first restaurant in Ho Chi Minh City to a bustling crowd of patrons.
McDonald's isn't the first U.S.-based fast-food company to establish itself in Vietnam, but its opening -- among those of restaurants such as Subway, KFC and Starbucks -- could not have happened without many significant changes altering the culture, economy and social organization of Vietnam in the past few decades.
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The transformation of Vietnam and its budding role in the world economy will be the subject of the next Global Studies Forum at Benedictine University, "Vietnam: Conflict, Continuity and Change," from 7 to 9 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 27, in the Krasa Presentation Room on campus, 5700 College Road, Lisle. The public event is free.
Jack Harris, professor of sociology at Hobart and William Smith Colleges, will be the featured speaker. At HWS, Harris serves as director of the public service minor, coordinator of the American commitments program, director of the men's studies program and a member of the Asian language and cultures program.
Harris also has served on the board of the ASIANetwork, a consortium of more than 170 North American colleges focused on strengthening the role of Asian Studies within the framework of a liberal arts education. He is currently the co-director of the ASIANetwork Service Learning and Environment in Asia Program.
In June 2013, Harris directed the ASIANetwork-Mellon Foundation Faculty Enhancement Program, which provided a group of U.S. scholars, including Vince Gaddis, professor of history at Benedictine, with a seminar and comprehensive tour of Vietnam.
The trip helped Gaddis develop a new course, "Contemporary Vietnam: 1975-Present," as well as increased opportunities for faculty and student study-abroad opportunities.
"Vietnam is emerging as an economic powerhouse," Gaddis said. "Many American manufacturers, such as Nike, and other businesses have begun operations in the country in recent years. As a country involved in many global markets, we need to understand how this new form of Asian authoritarian capitalism works and its implications for the future of democracy."
Several issues in the news of late, such as discussions over the Trans-Pacific Partnership -- which would create the world's largest free-trade zone among the United States and a dozen Pacific Rim countries including Vietnam -- have put the country's diplomatic, as well as economic, role in the world in the spotlight, Gaddis said.
"Understanding the history, culture and economic geopolitics of the region are becoming ever more important," Gaddis said. "In addition, Vietnam and China are engaged in a serious border dispute. While not militarized right now, this could lead to some level of diplomatic conflict with severe consequences for the region. China is also engaged in a similar dispute with Japan.
"I hope people will leave this presentation with several ideas in mind," Gaddis said. "I hope they will see that Vietnam is a culturally significant and vital global player, while recognizing that we need to see Vietnam not as a country in which we had engaged in a bloody war against communism, but as it is stands today as a place that welcomes Americans and has a culture and history we can all learn from."
Recognizing the increasing influence of Southeast Asia, Benedictine has expanded its academic programs in China and Vietnam. Today, more faculty members are taking advantage of those partnerships, leading students on special trips or coordinating other collaborative projects as part of their coursework.
The global studies major at Benedictine combines the school's unique cultural heritage sequence with courses from a number of disciplines to provide students with an understanding of the forces shaping the world.
For information about the Global Studies Forum, call Gaddis at (630) 829-6262.