Celebrating The East-West Center

Dan Boylan
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Wednesday - June 30, 2010
| Del.icio.us

Eight-hundred alumni and friends of the East-West Center will gather this coming weekend to cogitate and celebrate. The cogitation will be on the subject of “Leadership and Community Building in the Asia Pacific Region.” The celebration will be for the 50th anniversary of the East-West Center for Cultural Interchange.

Both the cogitation and the celebration will be done in accents and from cultural perspectives most various. From the East, participants and revelers will come from China, Japan, Pakistan, India, Myanmar, Palau, Taiwan, Vietnam, Singapore, Korea, Thailand, the Philippines, Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, Cambodia, Laos, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. From the West: the United States, Canada, United Kingdom, Norway, France, Spain and Germany.

That’s as it should be. Since Congress passed legislation authorizing the East-West Center in 1960, more than 60,000 students, scholars and journalists have entered the ranks of its alumni, many of whom have taken up leadership positions in education, government, public health, the arts, journalism and the professions throughout Asia, the Pacific and the U.S.

The most famous of the American alumni is undoubtedly Stanley Ann Dunham, a grantee while working on her M.A. and Ph.D. in anthropology at University of Hawaii from 1973 to ‘78.

Besides her accomplishments as an anthropologist and microfinance specialist in various Asian countries, Ms. Dunham , gave birth to a future president of the United States.

The center itself is very much a product of Hawaii’s unique culture. In the late 19th century, King David Kalakaua had envisioned the Islands as a leader in a larger Polynesian confederation. He also presided over the explosion of the Islands’ sugar industry and the remaking of Hawaii’s population with workers imported from China, Portugal and Japan.

That population grew even more diverse with the arrival of workers from the Philippines, Korea and other countries. By statehood in 1959, Hawaii would claim the most ethnically diverse population in the country.

Amid these changing demographics, various community leaders began to envision a larger role for Hawaii in Asia and the Pacific. In Elusive Destiny: The Internationalist Movement in Hawaii (1980), UH prof Paul Hooper told the story of the Institute of Pacific Relations, “a forum for discussion of problems and relations between nations of the Pacific Rim.” IPR held its first two forums in Honolulu in 1920s and would continue to champion Hawaii’s role as a meeting place for the people of the Asia and the Pacific until mid-century.

By 1959, the idea had found other supporters, most notably various faculty at the University of Hawaii and delegate-to-Congress John A. Burns.

In his efforts to guide the statehood bill through Congress, Burns became particularly close to then Senate majority leader Lyndon Johnson. Burns asked him for help on the East-West Center legislation as well, and Johnson gave it.

The emergence of the center was one-part Hawaii’s diversity and location, one-part idealism and one-part a product of the Cold War.

So bring young Asians, Pacific Islanders and Americans to culturally diverse Hawaii. House them in the same dormitories, feed them in the same cafeterias, give them a grant for field study in Asia or the U.S., and pay their tuitions at UH where they would study for their degrees. Allow them to interact, and understanding would take place across cultures; hearts and minds couldn’t be far behind.

It worked. Dave Pellegrin, a native of Racine, Wis., arrived as a grantee in 1969. “The East-West Center was a mix of young, idealistic students from Asia and the United States,” he remembers, “and I can’t imagine a better way to get acquainted with Asia then by talking with your peers from throughout the region. That’s what we did, and that’s what they’re still doing.”

The Cold War is over, but in the age of globalization when the new economic superpowers are all to be found in Asia, understanding the region and its people has never been more important - and fostering understanding is what people at the 50-year-old East-West Center know how to do.

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