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Diary Offers Window into French Indochina

A chance encounter with a rare original source took a professor and his students on a captivating journey through Vietnam. In a colloquium at UCLA, Bucknell U's David Del Testa and Los Angeles educators discuss how to share a 19-year-old woman's personal story with K-12 students.

Diary Offers Window into French Indochina

David Del Testa presents the Beaucarnot diary. (Photo by Jonathan Friedlander)

By Angilee Shah, Staff Writer

Claudie Beaucarnot agreed to allow this to be put up [online] only because I said it will be useful for students.

It was 1999 in the Aix-en-Provence's Colonial Archives in France, and David Del Testa was looking for information about railroads. He was working on his doctoral dissertation about labor and nationalism in French Indochina in the first half of the twentieth century.

As he and fellow researchers were scanning through a box, they stumbled across a document, a misplaced typewritten transcription of a young French woman's 1943 vacation diary. Del Testa was captivated.

"Any time you find a diary, you just sort of know," Del Testa recalls. "There are so few original sources like that."

But the diary was just the beginning of original sources Del Testa would find about life in colonized Vietnam. The transcription was created in 1990 by Claudie Beaucarnot, the author of the diary. Within one year, Del Testa found Beaucarnot herself, living in Dijon, France. In 2002 he spent four days in her home, interviewing her about her life in Vietnam. Meeting Claudie Beaucarnot turned out to be a transformative experience: "I have a lot of respect for her and the world she lived in and the values she had," Del Testa says.

After creating a 50-page transcription and 100-page annotated translation of the diary with the help of some undergraduate students, Del Testa considered creating an edited volume of papers around the diaries. In the end, however, he decided to use the resource in a more dynamic way. In the 2003-04 academic year, Del Testa created a seven-student course for undergraduates at California Lutheran University to learn about Vietnamese history through the lens of the Beaucarnot diary. At the end of the year-long course, the students applied for and won a Freeman Foundation AsiaNetwork Faculty-Student Undergraduate Field Research Grant to travel to Vietnam and retrace Beaucarnot's steps.

After a delay because of the outbreak of SARS, Del Testa and three undergraduates headed east in May 2004. By this time, Del Testa had moved to his current position as a professor of history at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania.

When the group returned, Del Testa began working on a website, Adieu Saigon, Au Revoir Hanoi: The 1943 Vacation Diary of Claudie Beaucarnot. The online work-in-progress features the transcription and translation of the diary, as well as photos from the students' travels in Vietnam and from Beaucarnot's family albums.

Beaucarnot wrote the diary at age 19 while on a family roadtrip down the Chemin des Ecoliers, more commonly known as the Mandarin Road, that runs from Hanoi to Saigon along the coast of Vietnam. But the diary is not just the simple thoughts of a teenager. "The beauty of the diary is that it is so frank," Del Testa explains. "There's a lot to fill in, a lot to talk about," not the least of which stem from the fact that Beaucarnot's maternal grandmother was a landed Vietnamese woman who had a five-year marriage contract with her maternal grandfather, a French math teacher.

On April 10, 2006, Del Testa presented the site and solicited feedback from a group of Los Angeles-area teachers and scholars at an event put on at UCLA by the Center for European and Eurasian Studies and the Center for Southeast Asian Studies, where Del Testa had briefly served as assistant director in 2001. "Claudie Beaucarnot agreed to allow this to be put up only because I said it will be useful for students," says Del Testa. He is committed to the site's growth as a compelling learning tool and resource. Teachers, from the elementary to high school level, were interested in the prospect of creating lessons from the material and personalizing history for their students. One suggested a lesson plan for comparing Claudie Beaucarnot's racially mixed community to those in the United States today. Another gave ideas for using the material in French language instruction.

The Beaucarnots were both typical and atypical of the French elite of Indochina. Claudie Beaucarnot's mother married Claude Beaucarnot, the director of a tile factory and an adventurous man who circulated in the high society of Hanoi. Claudie (left, in photo at right) went to Lycée Albert Sarraut for high school and spent summers in the hill stations with her family. But "they are quite distinctly a 'mixed family' in colonial society," says Del Testa. Claudie's mother and father had two children—Claudie and her younger sister Nicole—and adopted two children from the Association of Abandoned Métisse Orphans; métisse means of French and Vietnamese background.

The Beaucarnots were part of an emerging community of Vietnamese and mixed families, a community Del Testa says is often misrepresented in current literature. The family socialized with Vietnamese and Chettiars, South Indians who also lived in Indochina. In the preface to her diary transcription, Beaucarnot writes: "I could not have believed that two years after this simple account of our world—of the French of Indochina—would collapse on 9 March 1945."

From that day, when the Japanese took control of Indochina, to the defeat of French forces by the Viet Minh in 1954, nationalistic sentiment and the value placed on racial purity increased. The métisse were being hunted, and the Beaucarnots' community was in danger. One hundred thousand racially mixed people fled the country, Del Testa says. Claudie's mother passed away in 1946, and her father returned to France in 1951. In 1949, Claudie married a French military doctor, and the couple moved to France ten years later. The couple had four children. Claudie Beaucarnot turned 80 this year.