A Peaceful Way To Serve The U.S.
Wednesday - August 02, 2006
Angry demonstrators greeted Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice last week in the Southeast Asian nation of Malaysia. Two-thirds of Malaysia’s 25 million people are Malays, and thus Muslim.
They see Rice and the U.S. president she serves as prosecutors of a war against Islam: one fought by American troops in Afghanistan and Iraq, waged verbally by the United States against Islamic Iran, and fought by Israeli war planes and troops against Hezbollah in southern Lebanon.
Representatives of the United States didn’t always meet with hostility in Malaysia. Forty years ago, in December of 1966, I was one of 88 volunteers who left Hawaii for Malaysia and two years as a U.S. Peace Corps volunteer teacher. Ours was the 14th group of young Americans to serve in Malaysia.
Last week, while Secretary Rice was being jeered in Kuala Lumpur, 14 members of Malaysia XIV met on the Big Island for a reunion. They came from Baltimore and Philadelphia, Lawrence, Kan., Chicago, Scandinavia, Wis., Fairbanks, Alaska, and Ojai and Cupertino, Calif. Four of us came from Hawaii.
The essential question at any reunion of 60ish folks is always the same: “How did your life turn out?”
The answer, at least for this small sampling of Malaysia XIV, was: “Remarkably well, thank you.”
Several enjoyed 30-year stints as public schoolteachers. Two of us logged equally long stints as college professors. A couple of women admitted to having done well financially: one in real estate, the other in the stock market. Another continues a successful career as a freelance journalist, novelist and teacher. Two other women shared talk of their pilot’s licenses and the type of airplanes they own.
Marriage hasn’t worked out all that well for the group. Divorce scarred the lives of several of the women. And one of those who married only once knew the tragic marital fate of having married me.
But all spoke with pride of their children. And all attested to the manner in which Peace Corps service had transformed their lives.
We had all come young to Hilo in August 1966. Most were 22 or 23. All of us were college-educated, but few had ever seen anything like Hawaii Island: multi-cultural, rural and agricultural, exotic - in short, very much like the country in which we would serve.
The Peace Corps spared no expense in training us. It housed us in plantation housing along the Hamakua Coast: Pepeekeo, Honolumu and Hakalau. Each morning it bused us to Hakalau Elementary School where, in some unused classrooms, we did several hours of Malay language drill, heard lectures on Malaysian culture.
And, ah, the lunches they served us. There my Midwestern palate met Malay and Indian curries, and I fell in love.
At various times, we all spent a week in Waipio Valley in a village containing various types of Southeast Asian housing. We spent another two or three weeks - the 60-year-old mind grows hazy here - practice teaching in a Hilo area school.
I went to Ha’aheo Elementary, a small, U-shaped building on a hill overlooking Hilo Bay and backed up against fields of sugar cane. Its students were Japanese and Chinese, Filipino and Hawaiian - and to a kid, beautiful. Ha’aheo El offered a slice of heaven.
Hilo prepared us well for Malaysia. Few of our number left before our two years service was up. And it changed us.
I taught in the Malaysian state of Sarawak in Borneo. My students were Malay, Chinese, an Indian or two, Ibans (Sarawak’s largest group, they the former “head-hunters of Borneo”), Kalbits, Kayans - and more. They taught me that I would never be happy again in the monochromatic Midwest from which I’d come.
And their teachers and headmasters taught me an even more important lesson: that we all want the same things in this life - shelter, food, a decent living, an education and future for our children, respect. Whether we live in an up-river longhouse in the jungles of Borneo or in a suburban split-level in Illinois, our ambitions differ very little.
We are all one in our shared humanity - whatever our ethnicity, whatever our nationality, whatever our religion.
I often feel that in my country’s saber-rattling, in our division of the world between good guys (us) and bad (them), we’ve lost sight of that. The 14 members of Malaysia XIV with whom I shared old peace stories last week understand, and I’m intensely proud to have been associated with them.
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