Vietnam, a place full of opportunities

Mrs Thu Trang Tran is our Senior Teaching Fellow in Vietnamese – here she talks about her experiences teaching Vietnamese at SOAS

Coming to London 7 years ago, I never imagined that I would become a language teacher here, yet this job has given me 6 amazing years as member of the Department of South East Asia at, a unique and beautifully integrated environment. Not only am I inspired by my young, exciting students from all over the world, I also get the chance to learn and understand more about my country, about its culture and history.

​Núi Bà Đen, Tây Ninh – Photo by Josh Black

Some might know that Vietnamese is a tonal language, which is such a strange concept to many people, especially Westerners. But it is definitely not as difficult as they may think. Most of our students can manage to master the tones quite well because they only need to be able to raise or drop their voice at the right time; the best comparison is with singing. And singing is always fun, isn’t it? Apart from the tones, Vietnamese grammar is relatively easy compared with many other languages because words do not change their forms according to the number, party, tense, modality… And unlike some other South East Asian languages, we use the Roman alphabet, which makes it much easier than the scripts used in, for example, Thai and Burmese.

Modern Hanoi – photo by Thu Trang Tran

Seeing my students learn Vietnamese, I see myself many years ago trying to learn English. It makes me think about how things have changed and how language has helped to bring the world closer. English has given me a lot of opportunities; it has broadened my knowledge and helps me travel around the world. Many students choose to study Vietnamese with a similar wish, to explore the world, to know more about different cultures and seek opportunities in Vietnam, a country full of potential and among the most important emerging markets in the world.

During my 6 years at SOAS, I never cease to be inspired by my students, by their desire for knowledge, their exciting ideas, their great determination and dedications to the subject. I have followed some students from their first days at SOAS through four years of language study and even to their PhD courses and have been amazed by how they have matured over the years, from being overwhelmed with the new and independent environment to being so confident and knowledgeable, from knowing nothing about Vietnamese to speaking, understanding and reading news in Vietnamese comfortably. Some go on to do research about Vietnam as PhD students, some find jobs and work in Vietnam in teaching, journalism and the film industry, while others have gone there to visit and do charity jobs. For all of them, Vietnam really has a lot to offer and has given them fascinating and unforgettable experiences.

Old Quarter in Hoi An – Photo by Thu Trang Tran

Given the number of recent initiatives and new policies introduced by the Vietnamese government to boost economic growth and international integration, there are plenty of opportunities in Vietnam in term of careers and research. If you are interested to further your opportunities South East Asia, Vietnam is an excellent choice. We always welcome all enquiries and visits by students who are interested in learning Vietnamese at SOAS

Thu Trang Tran, April 2017

Researching in the Jakarta Film Archive

Dr Ben Murtagh, Senior Lecturer in Indonesian and Malay, researches and teaches Indonesian cinema. Here he writes about the main film archive in Jakarta.

One of the most enjoyable aspects of my research on Indonesian cinema has been the opportunity to spend time at Sinematek, the Indonesian film archive, in Kuningan, Jakarta. The archive holds a treasure of resources that are vital to anyone researching on Indonesian film. Occupying several floors of a larger building, the holdings of Sinematek, otherwise known as Pusat Perfilman Haji Usmar Ismail, named after one of the greatest Indonesian film directors, can be broadly divided into three parts.

Researching in the archive

On the top floor there is the library, which in addition to a large number of books, dissertations and journals related to Indonesian and world cinema, also has a tremendous collection of clippings related to all aspects of the Indonesian film industry. These clippings go back decades, and so for research on films from the New Order period (1966-98), one of the best ways to get started is to simply ask the librarians for the clippings related to a particular film. Clippings are also organised by topics and by certain key names, as well as by date. Clippings are still collected each day by the staff of the library from a range of newspapers and magazines. The quality and quantity of clippings from any given period and topic will obviously depend in large part on the diligence of the staff member responsible at the time. While sometimes I have been exasperated at the lack of clippings on a particular film, at other times I have been amazed and relieved that whoever was doing the work was so conscientious.

One other very useful aspect of the holdings is the collection of scripts and synopses. During the New Order days, production companies were required to lodge a copy of a script and synopsis with the archive. As I’ve discovered, the original script is often significantly different from the final film – and so offers a fascinating glimpse into the development of the film, and in some cases what got cut as the project developed. My work on Istana kecantikan, – an important film from 1988 about a middle class gay man forced to marry due to familial pressure, – benefited no end from being able to read significant chunks of Asrul Sani’s script which never made it into the final film, including a whole ‘gay wedding’ scene.

Dr Ben Murtagh (middle) with Library staff

The other really important aspect of the archive is the films themselves, and on the floor below the library there is a team dedicated to the preservation of the films in a whole range of formats, as well as stills and posters from the films. There are viewing rooms where the films can be watched, and the team there will do what they can to help any researcher access the resources they need. Certainly the holdings are not complete – some films have gone missing, and others were never archived in the first place. For example, it is a constant frustration that I’ve not been able to get hold of copies of Mereka memang ada (They indeed exist), a 1982 film about Indonesian waria, and Gadis metropolis 2 (Metropolitan girls 2), the sequel to a 1991 film about three Jakarta middle class women, nightclubs, and a lesbian stalker.

Reading room in the archive

If anything, problems related to maintaining the archive have become more difficult in recent years. Production companies and individuals often do not willingly contribute to the archive leaving big gaps in the holdings and Sinematek itself is drastically underfunded. Nonetheless for anyone wanting to work on Indonesian cinema, it is a very good place to start, and without doubt the staff of the archive make it a truly warm and welcoming location for research. And if anyone reading this should come across either of those two films I mentioned – please, please let me know.


Dr Ben Murtagh is Senior Lecturer in Indonesian and Malay at SOAS. His book, Genders and sexualities in Indonesian cinema, was published by Routledge in 2013.

A Year Abroad in Vietnam

With a Vietnamese mother and a Jewish father, I was always intrigued by different cultures and languages – in being different in general. Initially accepted to study French and Hispanic studies at Bath University, it all changed when I accompanied a friend to a talk at SOAS. Despite never having heard of SOAS, from the moment I stepped into the JCR and realised that it was possible to study Vietnam and Southeast Asian cultures, it was all over for Bath. I pulled out and quickly applied to SOAS to study Vietnamese and Development Studies – and so began my exploration of Thailand and Vietnam.

Hiking and biking Mai Chau with a fellow SOASian who flew over from Japan to join me for a week.

Under the tutelage of world class leaders in the field of Southeast Asian Studies, my knowledge quickly expanded and I began to focus on gender in Vietnam and Thailand, particularly how traditional notions of masculinities and femininities translated in a contemporary context. I was supported by my teachers, particularly Dr Dana Healy, who introduced me to books, films, resources and helped me to tailor my course in a way that inspired me. Towards the end of first year, I had an itch that I had to scratch. I was desperate to learn Thai in order to explore gender from the ground up. Supported by SOAS, I took a year off and spent my time between Phuket, Bangkok and Maha Sarakham.

Fast forward to third year and I was ready for my year abroad. I had heard incredible, confusing, outrageous and inspiring stories from former students about the immersive year, and it was time to make my own story.

 I spent my year abroad in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, studying at Trường Đại học Khoa học Xã hội và Nhân văn (Ho Chi Minh City University of Social Sciences and Humanities). The flexibility of the university allowed me to fully invest myself in my studies (I opted for 6 hours a day), whilst traveling to different parts of the country and teaching self-defence workshops.


The view from the top of my apartment in Bình Thạnh dítrict, HCMC

The university was right in the heart of Ho Chi Minh’s central district: quận 1. The location meant that during the day, I was easily within reach of libraries, cafes, friends’ homes, art, history and business. I would ride a motorbike to class, accompanied by brave souls who volunteered to sit on the back of the bike and guide me. I spent many evenings studying alongside Vietnamese students who majored in Korean, Japanese, German, Thai and English and we would all tell stories dipping in and out of different languages. I soon became friendly with the local food vendors, particularly a young boy who sold nước mía (sugarcane juice) and found my addiction to this drink hilarious. Every time I would place my order for 3-4 cups of nước mía, he would laugh at me but throw in a free drink. Then there was the woman who sat near him and sold noodles. She knew I was vegan, so whenever she saw me coming would make up a special box for me. When I was feeling particularly outrageous, my favourite vegan restaurant would deliver food to the university for me.

One of my teachers invited me to travel to the countryside with her daughter, another teacher would bring me bananas to class and a different teacher would bring me Vietnamese desserts. I became friends with a girl who worked in the city’s elite gym and gave me free membership. In the evenings, I would return to quận 7, the Korean district where I lived with a Vietnamese friend and her sister. On the weekends, we would jump on bikes, board the ferry and make trips to the sea, their hometown and remote restaurants. I was adopted by my Korean hairdressers and also tutored their children, who would beg me to watch Disney films. Their grandma taught me to knit, and their Vietnamese maid would feed me and tell me about her family.


Teaching self-defence to the Raglai community in Phan Rang

A particularly memorable part of my time in Vietnam was the opportunity to continue providing self-defence workshops – a project that I started during my gap year. Using my background in Muay Thai, and the help of social workers, I had built a self-defence program for young girls and women. This time round, the charity had invited me to rework the program for children who belonged to a minority group of Raglai people in Phan Rang, Ninh Thuận province. The Raglai live in a matriarchal community, where inheritance is through the mother, land belongs to women, and women have to go out and “catch” their husbands. Once they have caught a man and have had children, the man comes and goes as he pleases. Despite this, domestic violence was prevalent and the charity wanted women and children to be aware of their bodies and to have some basic knowledge of self-defence. In partnership with Catalyst Vietnam, I spent just under a week teaching the children physical literacy and self-defence.


One of my youngest students proudly wearing her boxing gloves

Whilst in Vietnam, I also wrote my dissertation which focused on the clash of masculinities amongst the Vietnamese diaspora of California (“Caught in the Crossover: Exploring Gendered Relationships to Space and Identity within the Vietnamese American Diaspora”). My Vietnamese teachers were aware of my ongoing project and interest in gender, and would therefore spend hours giving me personal insights into their experiences of gender in Vietnam. During one lesson, my teacher turned up with pages and pages on abortion, even showing me an online cemetery that existed for aborted fetuses, something that I would have never learnt about without their active engagement and support. One female teacher told me about her experience of domestic abuse, another told me about what gender performances were like in post-war Vietnam and another about her daughter’s experience of gender traveling back and forth from Japan. To cut a long story short – apart from it being clear that I have a love affair with food, the above provides a mere snapshot into the multiple and different relationships that I was lucky to experience in the city. It is the people that really transformed my time there and taught me one of my most important lessons: hiếu khách (hospitality).

Jessica Boyd,  4th year BA Vietnamese and Development Studies, October 2016.

Jessica’s blog can be found at

Teaching and Learning Thai Language at SOAS

I have had an enjoyable time as a teacher for Thai language at SOAS for the past fourteen years. Year after year, different groups of students walk into my classes. Some are complete beginners, whilst others are inspired by their holidays or a short stay in Thailand and want to learn more about its language and culture. Regardless of their different backgrounds, these eager students have one thing in common; they realise that a good working knowledge of Thai is an essential key to the understanding of this complex society and, for some, their own future living and working in that society.


Temple of the Emerald Buddha, the Grand Palace, Bangkok. Photograph by Sud Chonchirdsin

Our Thai classes have always been small, which enhances students’ opportunities to participate and concentrate on developing their language skills. To me, learning a foreign language is always a challenge. Students make mistakes but through these errors they learn and develop their skills. If you walk past my classroom, be prepared sometimes to hear a roar of laughter because someone in class has just inadvertently said something very funny or rude due to misunderstanding the tone rules for Thai. For example; Carol tried her new Thai sentence ‘Could I buy a shirt?’ but by simply mispronouncing one word, what she actually said was ‘Could I buy a tiger?’ (shirt=เสื้อ with a falling tone and tiger = เสือ, with a rising tone). On another occasion Tom told Miki ‘You are unfortunate’ [unfortunate=ซวย, with a mid tone]   when he had intended to say was ‘You are beautiful [beautiful=สวย, with a rising tone].

So by making just a tiny mistake in tone pronunciation you will never forget the importance of the tone of a word for the rest of your life! These kinds of surprises happen all the time, but it makes us have a great fun and learn a language in a different way – though there are times that I have to confess I wish it didn’t happen!!!!


River taxi along the Chao Phya River, Bangkok. Photograph by Sud Chonchirdsin

The atmosphere in our classes is very informal, and students contribute to the development of teaching and learning through their questions, some of which are not easy to explain instantly, even for a native speaker, and make you think and try to find a clear and satisfactory explanation. Our class is not only a language class; through texts and other teaching material, students learn more about Thai society and cultures and this knowledge leads to another level of learning, especially when students are linguistically competent enough to discuss specific topics from the texts they are studying. When Thai politics or some cultural issues are discussed, there can sometimes be quite a heated debate and a strong division of opinion among the class. These interactive learning styles definitely contribute to students’ progress. As a teacher, it is always very rewarding to see students’ achievements as academic years progress and how their hard work pays off. One student Richard, who knew nothing about the Thai language at the beginning of his studies and hated it so much when he was forced to roll his tongue for a low class consonant (roughly an equivalent of R in English), is now happily living in Thailand, speaks fluent Thai and works for a humanitarian international organisation on a good salary!

All of these opportunities are made possible because SOAS understands the importance of less widely taught languages and supports the teaching of such subjects. Its multinational and multicultural body of students, Thai included, also supports the learning of foreign languages. I still remember when I was asked by Dr Manas Chitkasem, who was in charge of Thai language when I first came to SOAS as a student almost 30 years ago, to help his students to practise speaking Thai. A well-equipped graduate with good knowledge of different languages will be well placed to work effectively in our complex and multicultural world.

Thai can be studied as part of a undergraduate or postgraduate degree in South East Asian Studies, or can be taken as an open option as part of a full range of degrees offered at SOAS. To find out more about the Thai Language modules we teach in the South East Asia Department, take a look at our website. Or just drop me an email at

Dr Sud Chonchirdsin, Senior Lector in Thai, September 2016

One Year on into a Degree in Vietnamese and International Relations

I originally applied to SOAS for Politics and International Relations, with the intention of perhaps taking a language as part of the Language Entitlement Programme. I had chosen SOAS because of its unique non-Eurocentric perspective among UK universities on global affairs. Other universities I had submitted applications to for the same course had almost identical syllabuses to each other so picking SOAS was an obvious choice with its specialised regional modules on Africa, the Middle East and the different parts of Asia in politics, literature, culture and languages.

The summer before my first year at university I went to Vietnam to stay with friends and travel around the country and enjoyed it so much that I decided I wanted to study Vietnamese. Conveniently I was going to the only university in the UK that teaches the language! I emailed the Department of South East Asia saying that I wanted to change my degree to International Relations and Vietnamese and wrote a bit about why I was interested in Vietnam and they couldn’t have been more helpful in changing my course.

Henry and passenger, Hoi An

Hector and passenger, Hoi An

My first year involved taking two modules in International Relations and two in the South East Asia department (one of which was Vietnamese language). I enjoyed all aspects of my course thoroughly, but especially the modules which I took in the South East Asia Department which had great student to lecturer ratios. There were only four of us in my Vietnamese Language course and we had two teachers, Dr Healy and Mrs Trang which made learning the language from scratch so much easier with all the support and attention we were getting. For non-language modules, I took English Literatures of South East Asia which was a comparably small class and the most enjoyable time I had ever experienced studying literature. The books were interesting, our lecturer, Dr Mulaika Hijjas, was an expert in her field and knew many of the authors personally which meant we had classes discussing their books with them on a regular basis! Instead of wondering what the author meant by something they mentioned in their book, we could ask them. All my lecturers know us personally and would happily talk about our course, assignments and all things South East Asia and more with us, something often unheard of from what my friends at other universities have told me. The other module I took was South East Asia on Film and was hugely interesting, watching famous Hollywood films about the region from a different perspective having learnt about Orientalism and Postcolonial thought on the films.

Ha Long Bay, Photo by Henry Drinkall-Gash

Ha Long Bay, Photo by Hector Drinkall-Gash

SOAS hosts a vast number of lectures in an infinite range of subjects, a few of which I attended throughout the year. My only regret is not having gone to more with all the interesting speakers that the university attracts. Furthermore, being in London in itself is a great resource, as all the other London universities, think tanks, institutes and museums all host their own events which means there’s something going on every day. My advice to new students would be to go to as many events as possible because you can find out about new topics and fields which you wouldn’t otherwise come across, and these can influence your course of study and which modules you pick. Another suggestion would be to make extensive use of the library, which is truly one of a kind and holds so many resources on niche academic research and books, films and articles in every language SOAS teaches – all of which are fantastic language learning tools.

Hanoi, Photo by Henry Drinkall-Gash

Hanoi, Photo by Hector Drinkall-Gash

Perhaps the biggest attraction to doing a language at SOAS is the opportunity to do a year abroad in countries which other universities don’t offer. I will be doing a year abroad in Vietnam which I am greatly looking forward to, especially given the support of a SOAS alumni network in the country and throughout South East Asia. Due to being one of the (very) few students from the UK to study in Vietnam each year, there is a great deal of flexibility in the programme and location of study and the other opportunities available which means the year abroad really is tailor made to the individual.

I would suggest all the above are the reason to study at SOAS, rather than anywhere else, and for those who have already decided to go already to definitely take a language as part of their degree, and in particular a South East Asian language given how unique your degree would be!
                                                                            Hector Drinkall-Gash, 1 August 2016

‘Tenderly crafted revelations, delicately spun meringues’ — the Singapore film 7 Letters screened at SOAS

On the 17th June 2016, the Department of South East Asia, SOAS, University of London hosted the UK premiere of the Singaporean film 7 Letters  followed by a post-screening Q&A with director Royston Tan in conversation with Professor Chris Berry of Kings College London. The event was organised by Dr How Wee Ng.The screening was sponsored by the Singapore High Commission in London and the Singapore International Foundation. 7 Letters is an omnibus of seven short films from seven of Singapore’s leading directors (Boo Junfeng, Eric Khoo, K Rajagopal, Jack Neo, Tan Pin Pin, Royston Tan, and Kelvin Tong ). Partly government funded, the film was made in conjunction with SG50 – the jubilee celebration of the city-state’s nationhood.

London-Prof Chris Berry hosting dialogue session with Royston Tan (1)

Professor Chris Berry in conversation with Royston Tan

According to Royston Tan, however, while government celebrations of the anniversary were very nationalistic, 7 Letters, provides a much deeper and introspective sense of what it means to be Singaporean. Issues of multiculturalism, the preservation of Singaporean heritage, disaffection produced by rapid development and the trauma of historical separation from Malaysia are issues delicately addressed throughout the films in a subtle exploration of the complexities of Singaporean cultural identity. 7 Letters revisits the interesting and multi-faceted history of Singapore as a nation through issues of identity in British colonial times, the Golden Age of cinema during the 1950s to 1960s under the Federation of Malaysia and the changes brought on by rapid economic development as an independent nation-state.

London-pre-screening reception (1)

Pre-screening reception

Among the gathered audience, the film succeeded in producing a discussion that followed
the contours and anxieties  that  are highlighted in 7 letters. From discussions with the audience, these complex sentiments were poetically captured in the words of an artistic director, Hi Ching: “This set of 7 poignant, reflective filmic letters by seven Singapore directors are pretty far removed from what one would expect as an offering to mark the 50th anniversary of their city state. What tenderly crafted revelations of subtle emotional states they turned out to be. So fragile were some moments that one was terrified to breath for fear of upsetting the ambience of delicately spun meringues.” Hi Ching succinctly describes the multifaceted, subtle yet highly personal journeys that fill the screen. It is a film that evokes traditional community yet does so in a nation that celebrates its own version of modern multiculturalism. According to Professor Chris Berry, in an era when film production

London-Cheryl Toh of SHC presenting token to Prof Berry (2)

Cheryl Toh of the Singapore High Commission with Chris Berry and Royston Tan

is going global, here is a champion of national film.  On a more critical note, Hi Ching adds,“Perhaps it is telling that the uniformity of such a meticulously controlled society that is Singapore has produced this corpus of work, which shares amongst its directors a similarity in yearning of loss and pain threaded with such abundant lashings of a nostalgic past, in honour of its 50th anniversary.”

A final irony of this film is that in its reflection and search of the nation’s  ‘lost’  golden age of cinema, it may herald in a new golden age of Singaporean film production. In the Q&A, director Royston Tan claimed the film was “a reflection of what we have achieved and what we have lost”. It may also be a sign of where both Singapore and its bourgeoning film industry are heading in the future.

Tavan Dutton, SEA Dept student, 23 June 2016

How did studying at SOAS result in me spending three years and counting in Thai prisons?


Alex demonstrating criminal fashion sense at the Phi Ta Khon Ghost Festival in Loei, Thailand

My first thought upon stepping inside the Central Prison of one of Thailand’s troubled Deep South provinces, was to question how I had ended up there. Which were the choices that had led me from a SOAS classroom studying BA Thai and Development Studies to standing there, my sparsely thatched head baking in the hot sun, blinking at the light as I stooped to step from the gloomy antechamber, through the 5’ 5” wicket in the large reinforced steel gate, into the inner courtyard of the prison? Anyone who has walked over an open sewer behind a Thai fresh market on a sweltering April day will be able to imagine the smell that confronted me as four prisoners, chests glistening with sweat, dragged a cart of food waste past me and the other two foreigners who were newly arriving in the prison. It felt a long way from Russell Square in the Autumn of 2007, where a class of six students had sat, chanting initially indistinguishable vowel sounds, under the watchful eye, and attentive ear of Ajarn Vantana.

I was 27 when I started my degree and determined to make the most of my chance to study. Choosing to study Thai with Development Studies gave me a good balance between studying a country I loved and some broader knowledge that would help me ensure my future employability. Not everyone who studies in the South East Asia Department will necessarily go on to work in the region and, whilst the department will teach you numerous transferrable skills, a joint degree provides one way to ensure you get the best of both worlds.

I had begun the degree with a smattering of basic conversational Thai but my knowledge of tones was almost non-existent, and lacking an ear for music I was concerned it would remain that way. Thankfully the course at SOAS has been honed over generations, and within three weeks all six of us were able to repeat and identify the five tones (admittedly not without mistakes), read a short, simple passage, and write most of the more regularly employed letters of the alphabet. Thai is undoubtedly a difficult language to learn and it takes, or at least took me, a lot of hard work to become proficient; but the system is set up to enable you to succeed. On graduation you should have read at least one short novel in class, regardless of whether you study the three-year degree, or choose the extra year abroad.


Alex and fellow Thammasat students during his year abroad

After initially choosing to study the three-year BA programme, I switched to the four-year degree with a year abroad in Thailand at Thammasat University, in Bangkok. That year provided me with an opportunity to develop my Thai language skills, and gain an insight into Thai society that you’ll struggle to ever replicate as a traveller. Living frugally on my student loan, I got by without working and enjoyed fully immersing myself in the University experience and beyond. I took the opportunity to volunteer a couple of days a week at the National Health Commission (NHC), in the Ministry of Public Health (MoPH). The NHC took me from Nakhorn Sri Thammarat in the South, to Chiang Mai in the North. It taught me a whole new set of vocabulary and led to my first job in Thailand after graduating. The year abroad was not without its trials and tribulations, but having Ajarn Rachel overseeing from afar meant that we always had a safety net.

On my return to SOAS a quirk of the schedule meant that I had the extreme good fortune of one to one classes with Ajarn Sud for the whole of my final year, that resulted in my Thai developing rapidly under his firm but friendly stewardship.

What I found, and still find, inspiring is the extent to which the SEA Department’s staff are not only experts in their field, but are so passionate about continuing to learn, and to inspire others to do the same. Perhaps my status as a mature student made that element feel particularly important, but almost all the courses I took at SOAS were fresh and constantly updated as the results of new research and well-used sabbaticals came into play.


Railay Beach in Southern Thailand, a more appealing location than a Thai prison

With all of that advice and support behind me, why was I being accompanied into a prison and looking back into the smiling but heavily tattooed face of a detainee whose scarring clearly suggested bullet wounds? My first job in Thailand, in the MoPH, helped me develop the professional vocabulary that made me a strong candidate for a position as interpreter with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), and like two of those who graduated a year after me, that is what I had become. Having been based in the Deep South for 15 months, I now work across the country, but am based in Bangkok. It is fascinating and engaging work, primarily relating to ensuring humanitarian conditions of detention. It is without doubt that the small-class teaching at SOAS, and the exploratory year abroad, were essential in giving me the skills and knowledge that have enabled me to establish myself, join the ICRC, and build a career in Thailand in the four and a half years since my graduation. If you’re considering studying at SOAS, what are you waiting for?

Alex Dalliston graduated with a 1st class degree in BA Thai and Development Studies in 2011. He now works as a Thai Speaking Delegate for the International Committee of the Red Cross in Thailand. He is also studying back at SOAS, a long distance Masters in Global Diplomacy. 

Alex Dalliston, March 2016

From an MA at SOAS to a Career at Cornell

Dr Chiara Formichi  completed her MA in South East Asian Studies at SOAS back in 2005. She then continued at SOAS to write her doctoral thesis in the Department of History.  After holding positions in Singapore (post-doctoral fellow at the Asia Research Institute), Leiden (research fellow at the KITLV), and at the City University of Hong Kong, Dr Formichi is now Assist. Prof. in Southeast Asian Studies at Cornell University. Her monograph Islam and the Making of the Nation: Kartosuwiryo and Political Islam in 20th Century Indonesia was published in 2012.

Chiara on the Deng Plateau, Indonesia

Chiara on the Deng Plateau, Indonesia

Most of my childhood was spent in Indonesia, and I returned to Italy for schooling in my teens. After starting an undergraduate programme in Islamic Studies in Rome, I wanted to connect my personal history to my studies – isn’t Indonesia the largest Muslim country in the world, after all? Yet, as I embarked in this direction, I realised that options in my home-country were very limited. I had all the necessary resources to learn Arabic and Persian, but I had to commute by train for 6 hours to take a module in Indonesian Language and Literature. I completed my Laurea and hopped over to London to study Southeast Asia at SOAS. I couldn’t have made a better choice.


Dr Chiara Formichi (left)

Arriving at SOAS was inspiring. I recall meeting with Pak Ben before the beginning of classes – he was to assess my language skills – and he made it clear that my broken “market” Bahasa was not good enough to enrol in year two! My self-confidence was crushed. How could I have been able to function in Indonesia for so many years, and not be qualified for “intermediate” Indonesian? Three weeks into the term I found myself struggling with subtleties of grammar I had never before noticed. It was not until later, when I had returned to Indonesia to research my Ph.D., that I grasped the full importance of those classes. Meeting with military officers, bureaucrats, professors and religious scholars; giving lectures; reading archives from the late-colonial period and the daily newspaper; listening to recorded oral history and watching TV; all were possible only thanks to Pak Ben and Pak Din!

Left to my own devices I would have never left SOAS (even though the food and weather are much better across the Indian Ocean!), and part of me never did, really. After the MA in Southeast Asian Studies I spent a year travelling across Southeast Asia, visiting new places and spending time with SOAS friends who had returned home from the UK. A year later I was back at SOAS to pursue a Ph.D. in Southeast Asian History. Although I entertained other – maybe more “prestigious” – universities in the UK, Europe and beyond, returning to SOAS was a no-brainer. No other school holds the same concentration of material and human resources on Southeast Asia. Language teaching, library holdings, professors, fellow students, food outlets and artistic exposure, are all there, at your fingertips.

Book Cover: Islam and the making of the nation

Book Cover: Islam and the Making of the Nation

I have since crossed the Atlantic, as I teach Southeast Asian Studies at Cornell University (Ithaca, NY). Inspired by my advisor, Prof. Clarence-Smith, and other SOAS teachers, I endeavour to share the same interdisciplinary spirit and multi-sited analysis, as I offer classes merging Islamic Studies and Asian Studies. The relationships formed at SOAS remain active and a vital part of my personal and professional lives. Some former classmates are still my best friends, now scattered across the globe. Others are now established scholars and cherished colleagues, with whom I am occasionally lucky enough to collaborate. And the professors still answer my queries, read my drafts, listen to my academic dilemmas, and offer the wisest and kindest advice.

Chiara Formichi, February 2016

Looking Back on a Degree in Indonesian

Lukas Fort graduated with a 1st class degree in BA Indonesian and Social Anthropology in 2015. Here he reflects on his time in the South East Asia Department and his year abroad in Indonesia.

My six-month stay in Indonesia in 2002 first sparked my interest and intrigue in Indonesian cultures. And it was this personal curiosity about South East Asia and Indonesia in particular that subsequently led me to SOAS, where this early inquisitiveness about Indonesia was strengthened through the study of the Indonesian language. Without a knowledge of the local language this engagement with a different culture would remain superficial.

Lukas fort image 1

Lukas Fort in Indonesia

While at SOAS, I had the opportunity to study for a BA in Indonesian and Social Anthropology, a joint honours degree that is unique to SOAS. Having the privilege to be part of the Southeast Asia department meant being in the only institution in the UK where one can immerse oneself in the study of the languages and cultures of the region as well as being a part of a group of enthusiasts and experts with whom one shares a certain curiosity about the world. My study of Indonesian language at SOAS allowed me to become a specialist in different field: not only language, but also politics, history, gender, film and literature. It is this specialist knowledge that continues to inform my interest in the dynamic cultural landscape of South East Asia.

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Lukas at Universitas Gadjah Mada

The Southeast Asia department at SOAS provides its students with the opportunity to spend a year abroad in the country of their chosen language. As a student of Indonesian, I thus undertook a year-long study programme at two different universities in Indonesia. This well structured and organised programme allowed me not only to improve and practise my Indonesian language but also to strengthen my regional interest. After spending one semester learning Indonesian and Javanese language at Universitas Gadjah Mada (UGM) in Yogyakarta I then conducted a research project in Bandung under the supervision of academic staff from the Universitas Katolik Parahyangan (UNPAR). This semester-long fieldwork is what made my year abroad experience so unique for it gave me the chance to apply all my language and academic skills to an independent study project. Furthermore, this experience of first-hand research also enabled me to develop a great professional and social network. Even when the year was over the relationships didn’t end; the special network of alumni gives great opportunities and access to further study and work opportunities in Indonesia.

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Travels in Indonesia

However, this programme is fantastic not only for the academic and social opportunities it provides but also because it allows students to use their free time to explore and visit places all over Indonesia During my year of study abroad I visited the islands of Sulawesi, Bali, Lombok and Sumatra and as a result explored the cultural and natural beauty of the vast archipelago. In terms of other extra-curricular activities I taught English at a local school as well as got involved with a local NGO working with street kids. This invaluable experience of immersing myself in Indonesian culture meant I returned to the UK not only with a great network for future work and research opportunities, but with a huge store of memories and affection for so many inspirational, friendly and caring people I met along the way.

Since my graduation in 2015 I have started a postgraduate degree in education at the IOE, University College London, and I am currently teaching geography at a state school in London. The specialist and cross-subject knowledge I acquired during my time in SOAS was essential to me being accepted for the study of Geography while the skills and experiences gained through my year of study in Indonesia will no doubt inform some of my teaching skills and practices. I can only encourage others to take on a SOAS journey of knowledge and self-transformation.

Lukas Fort, December 2015

A Career in Travel and Journalism in Vietnam

Joshua Zukas has a BA degree in Linguistics and South East Asian Studies from SOAS. He now lives and works in Hanoi (Vietnam) where he runs a website called  

I was initially drawn to Vietnam not only for its severe beauty and engaging history, but also for its incredible dynamism and the vast array of opportunities the country has to offer. I studied Linguistics and Southeast Asian studies at SOAS with a specific focus on Vietnam and Indonesia, which gave me a deep insight into the languages, cultures, politics and history of these two remarkable countries. 

After some careful deliberating at the end of my degree, I decided to pack up my life and forge a new home between Hue (in Central Vietnam) and Hanoi (the nation capital in Northern Vietnam) and it was the best decision I could have made. But I haven’t forgotten about Indonesia – I make sure I go back at least once a year to keep up with my Indonesian.

In Hanoi I have one foot in travel journalism, the other foot in freelance marketing for travel and hospitality, which is how I got involved with Vietnam Television (VTV) and presenting a two-part documentary about Hue. The first part is entitled Vietnam Discovery: Hue – The Land of Art. The second part is on Hue’s ancient pottery and porcelain mosaics. That show was not my first, as last year I presented another mini-documentary about traditional drum-making, and hopefully it won’t be my last.

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View from a coffee shop. Image from Hanoi Hideaway used with permission of Josh Zuzas

I also write and run, a website that explores Hanoi’s fascinating café culture, a side of Vietnam that is often overlooked by the Western world. Running the website has gone some way in positioning me as somewhat of a Vietnam café ‘specialist,’ and it has lead to interesting projects not only for local publications but also the international media, including the BBC and The Diplomat.

Josh Zukas, December 2015