Army service leads to career in area studies

Keith Taylor, professor of Asian Studies, celebrates his 50th anniversary as a U.S. Army veteran this Memorial Day, service to the country that determined his academic career.

As a college graduate, after basic combat training Taylor participated in a special intelligence course at Fort Holabird in Maryland vaguely titled “Area Studies.” He and his cohort went through months of intensive training in the covert collection of intelligence outside the U.S.  (Much of their training and subsequent activities is still classified.)  Taylor spent nearly a year studying intensive Vietnamese language at the Defense Language Institute in Virginia before being deployed to Vietnam.

“It was pretty unorthodox compared to the rest of the Army. We were asked to do things most people only read about in thrillers.  We had successes and failures.  We experienced both tedium and terror.  But we served to the best of our abilities, and after discharge got on with our lives,” said Taylor

For Taylor, that meant a return to school: he received a Ph.D. in 1976 from the University of Michigan. He taught in Japan and Singapore before returning to the U.S. In 1989, he took a position at Cornell University.

As an expert in Sino-Vietnamese cultural studies, Taylor has written about Vietnamese history and literature, including his most recent book, “A History of the Vietnamese.” He pioneered the teaching in North America of literary Vietnamese in the character script based on literary Chinese called chữ Nôm. 

 “When we signed up for army intelligence, none of us knew where it would take us. For me, it determined the academic focus of the rest of my life. I’m looking forward to seeing where army service took the rest of my army comrades at a reunion this Memorial Day. Most of us haven’t seen each other in 50 years.” 

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 A page from The Tale of Kieu, written by Nguyen Du and first published in 1820