Story by Stu Glauberman
Photos courtesy East-West Center
The first time I heard of the East-West Center was in Laos. After knocking about Asia as a freelance correspondent for the San Francisco Chronicle, I was teaching at the Lao-American Association in Vientiane. It was 1975. A decades-old civil war was winding down in a slow dance, with the certainty that the royal Lao government would be toppled and the US-backed American school I worked for would be shut down. I was weighing my options when a Laotian teacher who had just returned from Honolulu told me about the East-West Center—its generous scholarships, the aloha of its students and staff and, of course, the irresistible beaches of Hawai‘i.
In those days an East-West Center grant covered the cost of tuition at the University of Hawai‘i, housing at the Hale Manoa dormitory and, even sweeter, a fully paid field-study trip to a remote corner of the Asia-Pacific region: Students from Asia did field work on the US Mainland, and students from America flew off to Asia or the Pacific. The center enrolled one student from the United States for every two it accepted from the Asia-Pacific region, working something like the Peace Corps in reverse. Instead of sending Americans out into the world, it sought to bring students, journalists and future Asia-Pacific leaders to Hawai‘i.
With a communist revolution brewing in Laos, a stint in Hawai‘i seemed like a good idea. In the 1970s the center comprised five institutes doing research in communication, culture learning, food production, population and technology development. I tossed a coin to decide: communication or culture learning? When the new government asked me to leave Laos in 1976, I headed to Honolulu.
Nearly every long-term participant at the East-West Center will tell you the same thing about the place: It opens your mind. You have the opportunity to live in a true Asia-Pacific community. You learn to appreciate other points of view and find multicultural solutions to problems. You forge enduring friendships with people you would never otherwise meet, even people your government had encouraged you to think of as your enemies.
Despite the impressive signage along East-West Road, the storybook Japanese garden and the glittering Thai pavilion on its twenty-one-acre campus, few are aware of the center or what it really does. Because it sits in the midst of UH Manoa, many wrongly assume it’s a college. Ironically, as the East-West Center celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, this acclaimed institution in the heart of Honolulu is better known throughout Asia and the Pacific than it is here at home.