Thomas McElwee

Major: Spanish

Hometown: Charlotte, NC

Study Abroad Program: Where in the World Are We? (Hong Kong and Viet Nam)


Globalization and the Textile Industry:

5 weeks of a research project and a summer seminar in Vietnam and China.

My study abroad program for this summer, called WITWAW or Where in the World Are We?, is linked to a class I took in the spring of 2007 called AMST 277, Nation and National Identity in an Era of Globalization, with Dr. Robert Allen. WITWAW is essentially an extension of this class as it entails designing and carrying out your own individual research project – anywhere in Asia – that investigates the themes of the course for the first four weeks of summer. For the fifth and final week of the program, all of the participants of WITWAW convene in Hong Kong, China to present the ‘deliverable’ of their projects and to take a week-long Capstone seminar on the history, culture, and identity of Hong Kong, the quintessential global city. My individual research project took me to Vietnam, Hong Kong, and Mainland China with the goal of receiving an introduction to the global textile industry (operations, supply chains, outsourcing) and the intention of putting all of this information into the context of Vietnam’s economy, one that is rapidly becoming important in the region, particularly with their accession in the WTO in January of 2007.

I started in Ho Chi Minh City, the most westernized part of Vietnam given its alliance during the ‘American War’, as it is called there. For a week, I worked with the Supply Chain Management Firm that does all of the sourcing for Belk, a department store with close ties to the state of North Carolina. I learned much about the ins and outs of the textile industry during the week with this company through various interviews, office visits, and factory tours. In Hong Kong I again paired with Belk’s sourcing company and was offered a view of their internal operations both in their Hong Kong headquarters and in various Mainland China locales.

Working with this company in Vietnam and Hong Kong, I was also able to learn much about Vietnam from a macroeconomic perspective. I learned about how eager Vietnam had been to enter the World Trade Organization, again pouncing on an opportunity to move ahead. Despite being a communist country, Vietnam has been gradually moving towards a market-oriented economy. During my factory tours, I learned also about the various tax incentives and other perks that these companies had received from the Vietnamese Government to encourage them to invest in Vietnam. In some regions, the government had collaborated with these companies to create huge Industrial Parks that housed multiple factories – even living quarters for workers, managers, etc – that created ideal conditions for Foreign Direct Investment.

An indispensable bulk of information for my project certainly came from these official tours, interviews, and presentations, but my experiences while on my own in Vietnam taught me an equally important amount of information about this country, its culture, myself, and more.

For example, during my first week in HCMC I was introduced to the exciting pulse of present-day Vietnam, an aspect of the Vietnamese identity that I think goes hand in hand with its economic progress and future as a nation on the rise. This introduction came my very first morning as I tried to cross the street. On most roads in HCMC, even ones up to 4 lanes wide, the crosswalks are either non-existent or are simply marked by the typical white paint – there is no light that actually tells you when to walk. So I found myself standing on a sidewalk waiting in front of this so-called crosswalk watching a constant stream of motorbikes and the occasional car or bus buzz by. When, and how, was I supposed to cross? I found the answer by watching how the local Vietnamese standing next to me on the sidewalk crossed – they just did it: because the flow of traffic is so heavy, the pedestrian literally must initiate by just starting to cross. Like them, I walked in a straight line and kept a steady pace, and was amazed at how the motorbikes simply swerve around you – sometimes at an uncomfortably close distance.

In the two weeks following HCMC I traveled to Hue, Hoi An, Hanoi, Ha Long Bay, and Sapa - essentially traversing the country from the South to the North. The general buzz of energy that was conveyed to me that morning in HCMC – that of everybody moving somewhere and everyone trying to accomplish something – could be felt everywhere on a microeconomic level during my time in these places. I saw it in the ethnic minority village people in the mountain town of Sapa who spoke near-perfect English learned only from hawking handicrafts and trinkets to foreign tourists. I saw it in the ‘English for Tour Guides’ class I joined for a night in Hanoi, where students who either went to University or took a part-time job by day studied English 5 nights a week so they could eventually take part in the booming industry as a government-sanctioned guide (after passing five very difficult exams, of course). Many of these same students had the eventual dream of opening their own tour companies. I saw it in the clothing shops turned same-day, custom tailors that were scattered throughout Hoi An, and I saw it in the bustling local markets of HCMC and Hanoi. Everywhere, you could find an entrepreneurial spirit and drive that I think characterizes the country well.

My crossing the street my first morning in HCMC is just one example of an experience/event/encounter whose implications reverberated throughout my time abroad. Reflecting on these various stories continue to teach me about Vietnam or Hong Kong in ways that go beyond what can be learned from a text book. This simple memory of being afraid to cross the street on my first morning in HCMC means a lot more to me now – it represents my broader understanding of Vietnam and their economy today, and how I have grown to greatly respect and take interest in this country that is beginning to emerge onto the global economic stage and will certainly continue to do so in the years to come. I am grateful to have been given the opportunity to put experiences like these into a broad, global context, and I look forward to sharing – and expanding upon - what I’ve learned during my remaining two years at Chapel Hill.