Fifty Years at the Center
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.
The center’s founders had it right. Few places are better suited for the life-changing process of “interculturating” than mostly peaceful, mostly racially harmonious Hawai‘i. Like others at the center, I found that the real lessons in interculturation took place not in the seminars and lecture halls, but at pingpong tables, mini-Olympic games, late-night talk-story sessions and dormitory kitchens. Where else could you break bread with a Bhutanese monk, a Chinese journalist and educators from Cambodia, Kiribati or Kyrgyzstan?
Since 1960 more than sixty thousand participants from more than one hundred countries have taken part in center programs. They bring an incredible wealth and breadth of life experience with them. When I began my studies at Manoa, the war in Vietnam had just ended, and I was disappointed that few American students shared my interest in understanding the bitter fruit of our country’s involvement in Indochina. I thought my experience in Asia would distinguish me from other students, but I was wrong. Every East-West Center participant brings unique perspectives, ideas and insights. I met a Filipino Catholic school administrator who went on to become the Philippines’ deputy minister of education and a leader in UNESCO’s global fight against illiteracy; a Thai student who would become a member of Parliament; a Singaporean news executive who is now president of Singapore; a New Zealander who traveled the world writing for the Asian Development Bank. I met passionate educators and talented journalists including one who would later earn a Pulitzer Prize.
In the ’80s the center seemed about to change for the worse by abandoning students to make room for researchers who would transform it into a kind of mid-Pacific think tank. That didn’t happen, and today the center remains a robust institution for teaching and cultural exchange in partnership with some 600 institutions worldwide. The center has maintained its US government funding thanks in large part to Sen. Daniel K. Inouye. Current President Charles E. Morrison has brought balance and stability to the institution, says chairman of the center’s board, Puongpun Sananikone, the first alumnus to hold that position.
I met Puongpun in Manila in 1977 while I was doing my field study and he was an operations officer with the Asian Development Bank. To me, Puongpun epitomizes what the East-West Center is all about. He came to the center in 1964 among a group of Lao undergraduates. Fluent in six languages, he’s served as an international economist tackling development issues throughout Asia. As head of his own Honolulu-based consulting firm, PacMar Inc., he provides planning and project development services to governments and world organizations. Puongpun says the center changed the course of his life and put him on a pan-Asian path. “The center first exposed me to other Asians and made me more aware of our similarities and differences,” he says. “At its very core,” he says, “the East-West Center is about cultivating the ability to see issues and problems from the other person’s perspective.”
Today the center is applying that model of intercultural collaboration to address global megatrends and human rights issues. For example, the center helped develop computer models to track the spread of AIDS in Asia, and it worked to raise the Cambodian people’s awareness of the UN-backed Khmer Rouge war crimes tribunal. Its programs have grown well beyond its original five: An expanded Education Program prepares teachers for globally linked world; a Seminars Program promotes dialog among leaders and policymakers; the Pacific Islands Development Program enhances the quality of life in island nations; the center’s Washington, DC office furthers East-West dialog; and the new Asia-Pacific Leadership Program hopes to lure future leaders to the center with an interdisciplinary approach to regional issues.
Rudyard Kipling famously wrote that “East is East and West is West and never the twain shall meet,” but he didn’t anticipate the interdependent world we live in today. Not only has the East-West Center succeeded in getting the twain to meet, it has played matchmaker to scores of intercultural couples. One of the matches was that of President Barack Obama’s mother, S. Ann Dunham, with her second husband, Lolo Soetoro, from Indonesia.
As alumni gather this July to mark the 50th anniversary, the East-West Center celebrates its continuing success in making the world a more peaceful place. A more culturally interconnected place. A place more like Hawai‘i.