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Retiring NC State poet helped save endangered script from extinction

Posted on November 30, 2015 7:13 am by Nash Dunn

John Balaban.

John Balaban. Photo by Nash Dunn.

After trending toward extinction for decades, the fate of Vietnam’s ancient script, Chữ Nôm, now has a healthier outlook.

With a few strokes on the keyboard, anyone with a computer can write in Nôm: 字. That character, for instance, represents the Nôm word for “word.”

In addition, thousands of documents are being translated and digitized. New dictionaries and online look-up tools provide places to search for words.

NC State English professor John Balaban has helped lead many of the developments that kick-started Nôm’s rebound from an endangered calligraphic way of writing to a preserved tradition.

From translating the first Nôm book to be printed from a printing press, to working with other scholars to create the Vietnamese Nôm Preservation Foundation that continues to digitize texts today, Balaban’s initial interest in Vietnamese poetry has morphed into an admiration of the nation’s ancient culture.

The Vietnamese relics, photographs and writings that abound in Balaban’s home give some insight into his fondness for the country and its people. They’ll remain there, even as he takes a step back from his work with the Nôm Preservation Foundation and retires from his role at NC State.

Balaban has served as a professor of English for nearly 45 years at various institutions. He’s spent the past 15 at NC State, where he’s also served as the university’s poet in residence and where he helped establish the highly respected MFA Program in Creative Writing.

A recipient of The Academy of American Poets’ Lamont Prize, the Poetry Society of America’s William Carlos Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship and a National Poetry Series Selection, Balaban was also a two-time nominee for the National Book Award.

Balaban, who incorporates Vietnamese texts and translations into a literature of East Asia course that he occasionally teaches, has written 12 books of poetry and prose, many of which also speak to his time in Vietnam.

NC State Poet-in-Residence John Balaban, who is retiring, reads a poem he composed for Chancellor Randy Woodson' s installation in 2010. Photo by Becky Kirkland.

NC State Poet in Residence John Balaban, who is retiring, reads a poem he composed for Chancellor Randy Woodson' s installation in 2010. Photo by Becky Kirkland.

He first traveled to the country in 1967 as a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War. After teaching linguistics for a year at a university, he volunteered as a field representative for a group that helped evacuate war-injured children.

“Our job was to get them out of Vietnam and get them to hospitals in the United States,” Balaban said. “When they were well enough to come home, we’d bring them back to their families.”

Balaban spent two years volunteering with the Committee of Responsibility to Save War Burned and War Injured Children. It was during that time — even amid tragedy — when he started to hear poetry coming from the countryside.

“I’d be at a river crossing, waiting for a ferry to take me to the other side, and there’d sometimes be a blind person, led by a little boy, singing this old poetry,” Balaban described. “Sometimes there’d be a boat going by, and a woman singing.”

The Vietnamese he met not only sang the oral folk poetry known as ca dao, Balaban said, but also referenced it in debate and while telling stories.

Fascinated by what he was hearing, Balaban returned to Vietnam in 1971 to capture the poetry on tape.

Through a National Endowment for the Humanities grant, he spent a year recording farmers largely in and around the Mekong Delta. He transcribed the recordings into Vietnamese and published them —poems that for the most part had never appeared in print anywhere.

‘Spring Essence’

While recording the poetry from 1971-72, Balaban talked with locals about literature in general. Some suggested names of writers he should translate.

One 18th century poet, Hồ Xuân Hương, came up quite often. Hương was a concubine, or second wife, whose brand of risqué and rebellious poetry was unique for its time and often critical of male authority.

Balaban, center, visits the Thắng Nghiêm Buddhist temple in Vietnam in November 2012. Photo courtesy of John Balaban.

Hương wrote in Nôm, a script that was rebellious in itself.

From the first century A.D. onward, Vietnamese wrote in Chinese. However, that changed around 1,000 A.D., after Vietnam won independence from China and developed its own writing system. It was Nôm, a script similar to Chinese that served as the national vernacular script until the French forbade its use in 1920.

As the use of Nôm decreased and modern Vietnamese, quốc ngữ, became more prominent, fewer and fewer people knew how to read the script, Balaban said. In addition, the Nôm that already existed was written by woodblock, hand-carved or hand-inked, relegating the text to materials that often weren’t preserved and always had limited access.

It was a trend toward obsolescence, one that started to reverse when Balaban began translating Hương’s poetry.

Balaban worked with New York University professor Ngô Thanh Nhàn, who created a TrueType font for Nôm. That development, which allowed the ancient script to be keyed into the computer, led to the first typographic printing of Nôm in the book “Spring Essence: The Poetry of Hồ Xuân Hương along with Balaban's translations.”

More significantly, the new font meant Nôm could be further preserved through digitization.

Nôm preservation

“Spring Essence” was published in 2000, the same year Balaban started teaching at NC State. The project and newly created Nom Na Tong TrueType font unlocked the possibility to translate, reprint and digitize nearly 1,000 years of Nôm writings stored largely in libraries and temples around the world.

To try and preserve as many of those writings as possible, Balaban and several other scholars founded the Vietnamese Nôm Preservation Foundation. The group, consisting of Nôm scholars from around the world, has since helped translate thousands of documents while encouraging others to preserve the tradition.

At the Vietnamese national library in Hanoi, for example, Balaban and other scholars started working in 2007 to digitize more than 4,000 Nôm writings, many of which were literally rotting with bookworms. The NCSU Libraries donated funding and materials to aid the project, such as acid-free boxes that help preserve the documents.

At the Thắng Nghiêm Buddhist temple, the Nôm Foundation is preserving not only texts, but stone inscriptions, murals, placards and architecture.

At the Thắng Nghiêm Buddhist temple, the Nôm Foundation is preserving not only texts, but stone inscriptions, murals, placards and architecture. Photo courtesy of John Balaban.

The Foundation’s work also includes translating and digitizing Nôm at temples. At the Thắng Nghiêm Buddhist temple, the Nôm Foundation is preserving not only texts, but stone inscriptions, murals, placards and architecture. NC State’s College of Humanities and Social Sciences research office helped Balaban secure funding for travel and time away for the temple project. The U.S. Embassy in Hanoi and the Ford Foundation also helped, along with the Chino Cienega Foundation and the International Music and Art Foundation, among many other individuals.

“In the Communist era, a lot of temples were destroyed. These materials are important because no scholars have looked at them before,” Balaban said. “People understand the idea of digitizing a text, but the idea of digitizing a whole space has vast cultural value as well.”

Through the Nôm Preservation Foundation, Balaban has also helped Nôm scholars publish dictionaries and online resources for translation. A look-up tool on the foundation’s website allows anyone to search in Vietnamese or English for anything from broad concepts like “peace” (憺) and “love” (恋), to more specific words like “water chestnut” (荸) and “brindled ox” (犖).

Perhaps fewer than 100 scholars around the world can read Nôm. Balaban, who received the medal of appreciation from the Vietnam Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism for his work, said he can only follow the ancient script in modern Vietnamese transcription.

And while Balaban now plans to take a step back from the Nôm Foundation, his legacy will live on through an annual endowment award in his name. Since 2009, the foundation has given the Balaban Award to individuals who help preserve and propagate the 1,000-year heritage of writings.

The award was named by its benefactors, Dr. Phùng Liên Đoàn, a nuclear physicist, and his wife, Thư Lê, who joined Balaban in helping comfort war-injured children during the Vietnam war. Balaban said he is both embarrassed and pleased that his name is attached to it, but proud nonetheless that it’s helping Vietnamese scholars continue to preserve the ancient script.

“It’s such an important heritage that needs to be preserved,” Balaban said.

“Because of my background with the war, people try to make my overly long endeavors with this a part of dealing with the war. But if it ever began that way, it didn’t last very long. It’s simply fascinating work.”

Unafraid to engage: ‘Third culture kid’ Tuyen Truong grows from curious student to researcher, Army lieutenant

Posted on November 23, 2015 7:12 am by Nash Dunn


Recent alumna Tuyen Truong, left, talks with Jeannette Rogers at the Department of Interdisciplinary Studies graduation in May 2015. Photos by Marc Hall.

Amid a crowd of more than 100 people, Tuyen Truong stood up to ask a question.

It was the fall of 2012, and Truong — then a young ROTC cadet at NC State — had just listened to a panel of veterans discuss the challenges of adjusting to civilian life. The panelists, speaking during a “Finding Peace” forum at the university, talked openly about the physical and emotional toll of war.

As a student who hoped to enter the military, Truong voiced her concern: How was she supposed to reconcile what they were saying, knowing she, too, could face the same struggles?

Seth Murray, an international studies professor who attended the forum, remembers Truong's question well. “It was a moment where there were clearly a lot of personal situations at stake, but she was showing her intellectual desire to engage,” Murray said.

During the next few years, Truong’s curiosities led her much further, as she pursued a degree in international studies and continued to confront and explore new ideas. It was that curiosity that inspired award-winning research during her senior year and now, after graduating summa cum laude in May, a career in the U.S. Army.

“That’s what we want to see in our students at NC State: To come up with meaningful questions and spend some time figuring out answers to those questions,” Murray said.

The daughter of Vietnamese immigrants, Truong was raised in the United States, where she has been challenged to figure out societal quirks since she was a child.

She was born in a refugee camp in the Philippines, and when she was a baby, her family flew with several other hopeful refugees to Binghamton, New York.

From early childhood, Truong said, she grew up as a “third culture kid,” balancing customs and values she learned from her family’s cultural roots with American traditions.

Tuyen Truong with her family.

Tuyen Truong, center, stands with members of her family after her graduation ceremony in May 2015.

That dynamic created challenges at times and required Truong to take on tasks that would be unusual for many teens. She learned to read her family’s tax forms, for instance, and when applying to NC State, looked into student aid and college loans on her own.

After being accepted to the university, Truong said she refused to view her background as a burden, but rather as an opportunity to succeed — an opportunity her parents afforded her by coming to the United States. The second in her family to go to college, Truong attended NC State with support from Pack Promise, a scholarship program for students with financial needs.

“It intrigues me how differently you can be raised, even from one house to the next in a  neighborhood,” Truong said. “I love that each culture has its own core of ideals and morals and how that drives a person’s growth, even if you grow up in a country different from your own. I got the best of both cultures. Both the American and Vietnamese cultures influenced my growth.”

Military-related research

Truong put her mind to work when she embarked on a military study for her senior international studies capstone project: “Allergic to Change: Female Soldiers and the Right to Serve in Combat.”

Through her research, she found that the evolution of warfare and “disappearing front lines” requires the military to redefine combat and the role of female soldiers. Her poster won top honors at the 2015 NC State Undergraduate Research Symposium.

Interdisciplinary studies professor Carol Ann Lewald, Truong’s senior thesis adviser, said Truong began her research with the premise that women should not serve in combat roles. However, as she looked closer at the issue, she realized that was a gender-based assumption, Lewald said.

“She started to play with things on both sides and explore it, which is not an easy process,” Lewald said.

Truong, who left NC State as a Distinguished Military Graduate, is already putting what she learned to good use as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army. She was commissioned just before she graduated in May.

Lewald said Truong’s educational journey at NC State was aided by her openness to new ideas.

Tuyen Truong at graduation.

Tuyen Truong speaks to her fellow graduates during the Interdisciplinary Studies program graduation in May 2015.

“Part of the way we help is by giving students the space to engage with material without passing judgment,” Lewald said. “Rather than telling them, ‘These are the ideas and this is how you have to understand them,’ we try to provide the space that allows them to figure out where they stand in relation to those ideas. She really does embody that; she embodies what we want our students to do.”

Truong earned the honor to serve as the student speaker at the Interdisciplinary Studies graduation in May 2015. During her emotional speech, she thanked her mother, father and siblings — for whom her speech was a complete surprise — for their support. She also thanked what she fondly called her NC State family.

“Four years ago I stepped foot onto this massive brick campus as a 5-foot-1, wide-eyed, anxious freshman,” Truong said. “Today I leave this campus — still, unfortunately, 5-foot-1 — but with a little bit more knowledge and a lot more debt. All joking aside, it’s honestly been a fulfilling journey.”

Academic Press Fosters Global Conversations

Posted on November 19, 2015 7:05 am by Nash Dunn

Editorial A Contracorriente, an academic press created by Foreign Language and Literatures professor Greg Dawes, publishes books on Latin American studies.

Editorial A Contracorriente, an academic press created by Foreign Languages and Literatures professor Greg Dawes, publishes books on Latin American studies. Photo credit: Ivette Arends.

For the far-reaching field of Latin American Studies, distance can make sharing ideas among peers a challenge.

Greg Dawes, a Distinguished Professor in the Department of Foreign Languages and Literatures at NC State, makes use of modern publishing technology to encourage debate among leading scholars throughout the Americas.

Dawes is the founder and editor of A Contracorriente, a refereed online journal of Latin American Studies, as well as the founder and managing editor of Editorial A Contracorriente, an academic press linked to the journal.

A contracorriente is a Spanish phrase meaning counter-current or “against the grain,” as Dawes wrote in his introduction to the journal’s first edition. The journal and press exist to foster intellectual debate about Latin American politics, history, economics, literature and culture.

The journal has been active since 2003 and publishes three editions a year. Seeing the journal’s success in reaching Latin American audiences, as well as the network of scholars it created,  Dawes created the press in 2010.

Dawes said his motivation for creating both the journal and the press stemmed from a desire to include voices from Latin America in the global discussion of Latin American Studies.

“I wanted the discussion to primarily come from Latin America,” Dawes said. “Over the years, we’ve been able to get a lot of scholars from different countries contributing, which I think, and hope, has changed the field in some ways.”

Since its inception, Editorial A Contracorriente has published seven books by leading scholars from Argentina to Oregon. Titles published by the press include “Otras voces,” a collection of testimonials by Mexican and Central American immigrants in Southern California, and “El Tango entre dos Americas,” a historical examination of how the Latin American tango became an international cultural phenomenon and its impact in the United States.

Greg Dawes.

Greg Dawes.

While publishing presses are common at large universities, the significant overhead required to purchase and maintain printing equipment and supplies often prevented an academic department from operating its own press. Thanks to advancements in the publishing industry, a small operation like Editorial A Contracorriente can afford to exist.

Samuel Sotillo, a lecturer in the Department of Foreign Languages and Literatures, serves as the editing, design and production editor for Editorial A Contracorriente. In the planning stages of the press, a recommendation led Sotillo to a partnership with Raleigh-based self-publishing company Lulu. Lulu handles all printing and distribution for the press on an on-demand basis, printing and shipping single copies of A Contracorriente books when they are ordered.

“Thanks to the changing processes in publishing, we are able to publish without a large overhead,” Sotillo said. “It means we are able to produce high-quality content at an affordable cost.”

While Dawes and Sotillo collaborate with an international network of scholars for editorial assistance, some of their help comes from within their department. Dawes said the operation has been lucky to count on financial and moral support from department head Ruth Gross, as well as assistance that comes from a mutually beneficial arrangement with students in the department.

Cecilia Paoppi and Juan Nunez, two graduate students studying Spanish, help with copy editing, formatting and web archival. The students provide a useful service while gaining unique and valuable experience.

“It’s a great opportunity for the students,” Sotillo said. “They get experience working at the forefront of journal and production technology, and create a great network of people in the field.”

For more information about the press and to view a list of available books, visit the Editorial A Contracorriente website.

By Blake Samanas, web content writer

Experiencing Major Stress Makes Some Older Adults Better Able to Handle Daily Stress

Posted on November 18, 2015 12:36 pm by Nash Dunn

Photo credit: Patrick. Retrieved via Flickr and used under a Creative Commons license. Click for more information.

Photo credit: Patrick. Retrieved via Flickr and used under a Creative Commons license. Click for more information.

Dealing with a major stressful event appears to make some older adults better able to cope with the ups and downs of day-to-day stress, according to new research from NC State psychologists.

“Our study tells us that there’s no expiration date on the impact of life-changing, stressful events,” says Shevaun Neupert, an associate professor of psychology and co-author of a paper on the work. “And the study tells us that many people actually weather these major stressors and emerge more resilient and less easily influenced by daily stresses.”

And these major stressors can be good or bad, such as getting married, retiring or losing a loved one.

“Previous studies had only evaluated an individual’s response to either major stressful events or to daily stress,” says Jennifer Bellingtier, a Ph.D. candidate in NC State's lifespan development psychology graduate program and lead author of the paper. “We’ve found that these things need to be viewed in tandem in order to capture the complex ways that people respond to both kinds of stress.”

For the study, researchers had 43 adults between the ages of 60 and 96 fill out a daily questionnaire for eight consecutive days. At the beginning of the study, each participant was asked about any major stressful events they’d experienced in the previous year. The daily questionnaire asked participants about any stress they’d experienced that day, as well as three questions related to age: how old they felt, how old they would like to be and how old they thought they looked.

The results showed that people who had experienced major stressors responded differently to daily stress than people who had not experienced such stressful life events.

Study participants who hadn’t had a major life stressor in the past year were more likely to feel significantly older on stressful days, but participants who had experienced a major stressor were less likely to fluctuate in how old they felt on a day-to-day basis.

“They were much more stable in response to day-to-day stress,” Bellingtier says.

This resilience extended to people’s views on how old they looked.

On days that weren’t stressful, both groups of participants thought they looked approximately 10 years younger than their actual age. But there was an unexpected difference on stressful days. Participants who had experienced a major stressor thought they looked more than 20 years younger on stressful days – while people who had not experienced a major stressor thought they looked their actual age (i.e., they thought they looked 10 years older than they usually did).

This trend did not extend to how old study participants wished they were. Unsurprisingly, all of the study participants wished they were younger. But people who had experienced a major stressor wanted to be much younger on stressful days – whether compared to themselves on non-stressful days or to study participants who hadn’t experienced a stressful life event.

“We are now considering how people’s attitudes about their aging (i.e., feeling positive or negative about changes related to aging) influence an individual’s response to stressors,” Bellingtier says. “We see aging attitudes as comparable to major life-event stressors, in that they may function as important background factors that impact how individuals respond to stressors. Our preliminary findings indicate that individuals with more negative attitudes respond with more intense negative feelings following a stressor.”

The paper, “The Combined Effects of Daily Stressors and Major Life Events on Daily Subjective Ages,” is forthcoming from the Journal of Gerontology: Psychological Sciences. The paper was co-authored by Dana Kotter-Grühn of NC State.

Note: This story by NC State public information officer Matt Shipman was originally published by NC State News.

Where There's A Will ... Nontraditional Student Studies Abroad

Posted on November 17, 2015 7:21 am by dlleeder

Social work student Thomasina Williams studied abroad in Italy this summer.

Social work student Thomasina Williams studied abroad in Italy this summer.

Studying abroad allows students to apply their learning to the real world, as they gain first-hand experience with other cultures, languages, traditions and people. It also teaches students a lot about themselves, as they navigate new, unfamiliar environments. This Q & A highlights how Humanities and Social Sciences students have incorporated study abroad into their undergraduate career.

Thomasina Williams is a junior majoring in Social Work. She studied abroad in Italy during summer 2015, just one semester after transferring to NC State from Wake Tech. Her study abroad experience was especially meaningful, as she is the first of her immediate family members to attend college, and is a nontraditional student, an older undergraduate with a husband and two children at home.

What sparked your interest in study abroad?

A Spanish 101 classmate told me that she planned to study abroad, which would help her graduate earlier.  My response was, “Congratulations! Good for you to be able to travel.”  She replied, “Promise you can go with me?”  I was really shocked at first, but then thought “Why not?”  Things then fell into place. My husband was all for it because we both looked at it as a one-time opportunity that I couldn’t pass up. My passport process went smoothly and I easily made travel arrangements. I had tremendous help and support from family and friends.

Briefly describe your experience.

While in Italy, we stayed in Rome for the first four days with historical and cultural walks throughout the city. We then moved into our beautiful apartments in Perugia, where we studied at the University for Foreigners. Most of us were taking different levels of Italian from the elementary level to the intermediate, along with culture and cooking classes. Every day brought something new and exciting to look forward to. We took weekend excursions to Venice, Florence and Cinque Terre.  All the locations were beautiful, welcoming, and rich with history.

How did your study abroad relate to your major, career, or personal goals?  

The study abroad experience connects to my major because the dynamics of social work relate to diversity, community and social and cultural backgrounds.

I chose Italian because I have already taken Spanish; both are romance languages and are somewhat similar. I enjoy learning about culture, language and history.  These concepts go hand in hand with social work because we all have unique experiences that shape our interactions and attitudes.

My study abroad has encouraged me to consider doing social work on a global level. I hope to learn more about other countries’ governments and policies, and to help communities thrive.

What are some things you learned?

I learned so much about Italy – the culture, food, language, government and social issues. Every day, we learned new skills for being abroad: how to shop at local markets, how to use banks, how to use public transit systems and how to order food. People’s faces became very familiar to me in Perugia. It was a small city, and therefore it felt safe and comfortable. I met some amazing people in my class who were from other countries. They all brought unique characteristics to the table, making us a diverse group united in the common goal of learning Italian.

What were some of the challenges?

We needed to adjust to the lifestyle really quickly. (Plus, not having a dishwasher and air conditioner really humbled us!) We had to do lots of walking, but no one complained because we had to live there for six weeks and it became normal after a while. The cities were a bit busy and tourist crowds took a little getting used to. My advice is to research the places you are traveling to, read others’ reviews and experiences, have an open mind and respect other cultures the way you would want others to respect your own.

What were the rewards?

Some of the rewards included the confidence of completing our program.  Additionally, the students developed strong relationships, and we looked out for one another. It really humbled all of us to realize what we conquered in the six weeks we were there.  Overall, that was the greatest reward! Now, we are all back home with our families and friends sharing our remarkable stories. I have even encouraged others to obtain their passports, which is the first step toward international travels.

I urge anyone to travel abroad because there is so much to see outside the limits of your own country.  Yes, it takes money and sacrifice, but the intangible rewards are worth it.  It really did change my life for the better.