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Building a strong community for Southeast Asian studies at UCLA

Carved Aspsara figures, Angor Wat, Cambodia. (Photo: iStockphoto.)

Building a strong community for Southeast Asian studies at UCLA

UCLA historian George Dutton aims to create a more cohesive community of faculty and students who study Southeast Asia.

By Peggy McInerny

International Institute, September 6, 2013 – UCLA historian George Dutton, who became the new director of the UCLA Center for Southeast Asian Studies (CSEAS) in July of this year, remembers with affection belonging to similar centers as a graduate student. Weekly brown-bag lunch talks brought together faculty and students who shared an interest in the Southeast Asia region and its multiplicity of peoples, cultures, languages and religions.


UCLA historian George Dutton. (Photo: Peggy McInerny.)

“One of things that I’d really like to do at CSEAS is to increase the sense of community among Southeast Asianists on campus,” says Dutton. “I want to encourage people to interact with each other a little more frequently than they do, to encourage people with particular Southeast Asian country interests to engage the region as a whole.” The vehicle for building this community will be a regular speaker series — either weekly or biweekly — on a specific day.

That community extends beyond faculty to graduate and undergraduate students. “I want to give graduate students a sense that they belong to this community of scholars in the way that I felt when I was a graduate student, “he remarks. Dutton also plans to reach out and get to know the graduate students working on the region across campus. “You have to prepare the next generation by bringing them into the conversation and making them feel welcome.”

In addition to supporting a community of scholars, CSEAS assists graduate students via Foreign Language and Areas Studies fellowships (funded by the U.S. Department of Education through Title VI) and research scholarships (the center awards competitive Lemelson Fellowships for research on Indonesia). Its outreach activities include organizing training workshops for K-12 schoolteachers in California and encouraging the development of curricular materials.

Dutton’s other plans for CSEAS include greater networking with the dozen or so Southeast Asia studies centers around the country. He hopes in particular to collaborate more closely with the Center for Southeast Asian Studies at UC Berkeley, with which CSEAS shares Title VI funding as a National Resource Center, and the Southeast Asia Studies program of UC Riverside. “Networking is quite important,” he notes, “given our limited resources and the need to strategize about supporting Southeast Asia area studies in difficult financial times.”

A region of diverse cultures and peoples

Southeast Asia —generally understood to include the countries of Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar (Burma), Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia, East Timor, Singapore, Brunei and the Philippines — is incredibly diverse, says Dutton. Its people speak thousands of different languages and represent a myriad of social and cultural practices.

Given its location as a kind of oceans crossroads, continues Dutton, Southeast Asia has felt the impact of successive waves of cultural inflows, each of which has left a profound imprint on the region. Yet he is quick to add that all of these cultural influences have been “localized” — adapted and modified by the peoples in the region to suit their own needs.

These inflows initially included Hinduism and Buddhism, together their linguistic and literary textual traditions, from the Indian subcontinent, and the cultural and textual influences of Confucianism and Chan/Zen Buddhism from China (largely in north Vietnam). Next came Arabic and Islamic cultural and textual practices, primarily introduced through South Asia; and, most recently, the European cultural and literary practices brought by colonial powers.

In broad terms, says Dutton, “the Islamic-Arabic traditions have tended to leave a more substantive and measurable impact in the island world of Southeast Asia, whereas in the mainland world, the earlier Indian and Buddhist-inflected cultural practices have tended to retain their influence.”

Interdisciplinary approach a good fit for the region

“If you are looking at Southeast Asia,” explains Dutton, “the only way to make sense of it is to view it from multiple vantage points.” An historian of Vietnam, Dutton was trained by an expert in Indonesia, which gave him early and sustained exposure to a comparative regional perspective.

Today, he teaches interdisciplinary courses in both UCLA’s Department of Asian Languages and Cultures (Religions of Southeast Asia, and soon, Southeast Asian Literature) and the International Institute’s International and Area Studies Interdepartmental Program (Introduction to Southeast Asian Studies). ”Those are the kind of courses I love to teach,” remarks Dutton. “I find them so stimulating because they get me out of my small corner of Vietnamese history to look at the larger region.”

In the 20th century, the region’s vast array of cultures and peoples was the focus of substantial anthropological research. Today, he says, researchers are looking at the impact of modernization and the advance of the modern nation state on the region’s cultural and religious practices.

With a collective population of some 600 million people, Southeast Asia is strategically situated along crucial global transportation routes. Many raw materials both pass through and come from the region, notes Dutton, including minerals crucial to modern economies, such as bauxite, copper and oil.

Currently, an uneasy dynamic exists between the countries of the region and China, he explains, which is investing heavily in raw materials extraction and dam-building projects. Although national political elites in the region often welcome the investments, Dutton points out that the environmental consequences of such projects sometimes provoke resistance, such as in Burma and Vietnam.

Because many of the last untapped resources in Southeast Asia are located in remote upland areas populated by ethnic minorities, the drive to exploit these resources is intensifying the region’s traditional tension between lowland and highland peoples. “Modernization and technology have eliminated much of the geographical protection these upland peoples enjoyed in the past,” observes Dutton. “Now there is a double pressure on these areas: population expansion and the allure of natural resources.”

Southeast Asia, then, offers unique examples of the contemporary processes of modernization and globalization, as well as a fascinating history in which widely varying cultural influences have been blended and synthesized. Stay tuned for the lecture series!

George Dutton is associate professor in the Department of Asian Languages and Cultures, in addition to serving as director of the Center for Southeast Asian Studies at UCLA. His most recent works include "Sources of Vietnamese Tradition" (Columbia, 2012), co-edited with Jayne S. Werner and John K. Whitmore, and "The Tay Son Uprising: Society and Rebellion in Eighteenth-Century Vietnam" (University of Hawaii, 2006).

Recent articles include “Beyond Myth and Caricature: Situating Women in the History of Early Modern Vietnam” in the Journal of Vietnamese Studies (Spring 2013) and “Threatening Histories: Rethinking the Historiography of Colonial Vietnam" in Critical Asian Studies 45, no. 3 (Sept. 2013 — forthcoming). He is currently working on a biography of the Vietnamese priest Philiphe Binh, who lived in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, which he expects to complete in late 2014. Click here for a profile of Professor Dutton published in 2012.
 

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