Islands and Change

I’ve spent my entire adult life on islands – 6 years on Taiwan and 23 years on Oahu (Hawaii) – and all of the professional knowledge that I have today was learned on those islands.

When I arrived on Taiwan in the summer of 1989, I only knew one word in Chinese – xiexie, “thank you” – and basically did not know anything about the history of any Asian society.

I’ve learned a lot since then, and I’ve also seen so much change since then.


When I arrived in Taiwan in the summer of 1989, the Tiananmen Square Incident/Massacre had just taken place. I was in the Soviet Union that spring, and knew absolutely nothing of what was happening in China. When I landed in the US right after the protests had been suppressed, the first thing I saw was CNN coverage of “revolution in China.”

As it turns out, a political revolution did not of course take place in China, but as I started to study Chinese on the island of Taiwan in the fall of 1989, revolutions did come to one country after another in Eastern Europe, and eventually to the Soviet Union.

So I went to the island of Taiwan in a time of change.


In coming to Hawaii in 1993, it was clear that change was coming to much of Asia at that time as well. This change was not political change, but economic change. Taiwan, Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam and of course China, were all starting to “take off,” a clear sign that the “Asian Century” would soon arrive.

Two more years in Taiwan in the late 1990s made that perfectly evident to me, as signs of that society’s dramatic transformation were omnipresent.

Fast forward to 2018, and not just Asia but the entire world is now changing in dramatic ways. However, whereas we celebrated the changes of the 1980s and 1990s, the current changes are more complex.

While the political and economic changes of the 1980s and 1990s pointed towards a brighter future for many, the current changes are in some ways more ominous. Where, after all, is globalization, the digital revolution, automation, climate change, population growth and capitalism leading all of us?

At the moment, I think that most of what many people see are rising costs, declining opportunities and intense uncertainty about the future.


So in this time of change I’m heading to another island. I will try to learn there as much as I have learned on the other islands that I have spent the past almost 30 years on, and hopefully I can get some ideas about how to deal with the dramatic changes that we are all facing.

I am a big believer in the importance of history. I don’t think it provides a “model” for how to live, but it does provide us with ideas that can help us think about the issues we face, and today we face many issues that require a lot of thought and consideration.

So this is all to say that I will take a break from posting to this blog for at least a couple of months (although I might post announcements about the next Engaging With Vietnam conference). But when I return, I will be on another island, with a new outlook, and new ideas, but I’ll still be talking about history.

garlic fries

Oh, but I’m really going to miss garlic fries. . .

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