History Professor Bounces from Oceans to Riverside to Vietnam

By Laila Rashid, CHASS Dean’s Office Student Intern
May 14, 2014

David Biggs, assistant professor in the history department here at UCR, grew up in Willington, North Carolina, right off the beach, where he began surfing when he was just twelve years old.  During the summer, his mother took him and his brother to the beach nearly every day, where they taught themselves how to surf, and he carried it all the way until his undergraduate career. When he began a lifelong relationship with Vietnam, Biggs was forced to put his love of the sport on hold, not knowing that he would eventually reside near one of the most classic surf breaks in the United States.

While pursuing his BA in history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Biggs pondered his future career plans. Initially, he believed he was going to become a lawyer to earn a lot of money, even if he sacrificed his happiness; before he could do that, he wanted to travel far away from the US.  In 1991, many former socialist countries, such as Germany, Czechoslovakia, and Vietnam were opening up to the west, instantly drawing his attention. Biggs found a volunteer teaching job in Saigon at a university, and spent two and a half years there. In the middle of this, he returned to the US for a year and worked odd jobs, such as picking apples in New Hampshire with Jamaicans and modeling for artists. During this time, his extensive reading led him to realize that he wanted to study more history and that money was not the biggest priority to him. Luckily, the volunteer organization called him to offer a new teaching post that opened in Hanoi, Vietnam. At that time, the US and Vietnam were reestablishing diplomatic relations, and the central committee of the communist party in Hanoi decided they needed an English teacher so some of the senior officials could learn the language; the Ford Foundation, a big American private foundation, put up the money to hire Biggs. “People are really surprised when they find out I speak Vietnamese,” he said. Since his university did not offer the language, he learned it alongside six year olds in a heritage language course. “No matter what language you learn, you pick up that society’s perspective on the world, life, and being human, and I think the Vietnamese perspective is fascinating.”

In 1996, Biggs returned to the US and pursued his graduate degree at the University of Washington, where he was reunited with his old hobby, surfing, thanks to a neighbor who happened to be throwing out an old surfboard.  In graduate school, he developed a love for intellectual work and pursued a side interest in writing code and software. To research for his dissertation, he returned to Vietnam, this time to the city of Can Tho, which recently was established as a sister city to Riverside. When asked about the challenges he faced in Vietnam, Biggs stated, “Every society has its long term problems—the more you live in a foreign society, the more you pick up on those challenges. The most heartbreaking thing for me is to see students who, because of restrictions in that society and its politics, can’t achieve all of their potential.”

When he moved to Riverside in 2004, Biggs picked up the old surfboard from his neighbor in Seattle and surfed for the first time in almost ten years. “It’s a great balance to intellectual work and working in a classroom. “ he said. On the weekends, he commutes to the many beaches in southern California, where surfing allows him to be more connected to nature. Currently, Biggs is working on a book about environment legacies of war in Vietnam, which involves visiting former military sites there, interviewing villages around these places, and doing research in American, French, and Vietnamese military records; he recently returned from this in February. He hopes to continue to work at UCR, which he believes fulfills the mission of public education, and eventually begin a book about surfing.

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