LOS ANGELES — Anxious students will often ask me what they should ideally aspire to be when they grow up.
First I tell them I will let them know once I myself have grown up!.
But their question is, of course, no joking matter: Young people, not yet beaten down, often search for ideal answers even amid the very pressing practicalities of their life — from completing countless graduate or law school applications to the inescapable grind of studying for the GREs or LSATs or GMATs while dealing with (or ending) nascent or evolving social and personal relationships.
I was asked the classic life-question just the other day by a fine young prelaw student, but for once I had a different and (to my mind at least) inspired answer: When you grow up, what you want to be is someone like Frank Gibney.
I explained that Frank Gibney was something of a legend here on the West Coast. Call him Mr. Asia-America, if you will. Long before most of us knew where Asia precisely was or even what it was, Frank was hard at work trying to figure out how to smooth out its relationship with America so that in the long run it was a thing of beauty, not a beast.
To this end, decades ago, he founded the Pacific Basin Institute, which morphed and grew and pitched its permanent tent at Pomona College, the excellent small school only an hour or so drive east of Los Angeles.
Gibney’s fascination with Asia started when he was a young naval intelligence officer in Asia. It was there that he learned not only how to speak Japanese but also how much he could learn from Asia and take back home to America its ideas, values and traditions.
As his fascination with Asia grew, he evolved into a knowing and prescient journalist. He stood out as a writer and editor at Time magazine, Life magazine and at Encyclopedia Britannica, where he was the prime mover behind its landmark Japanese, Korean and Chinese editions. In 1953, his first book on Asia, the well-reviewed “Five Gentlemen of Japan,” was published and in 1992 his masterpiece, “The Pacific Century,” came out. PBS converted the later work into an award-winning television series of the same name.
The list of life achievements goes on and on. But what cannot quite be calculated or archived or slap-labeled was Gibney’s persistent, ineffable and deep vision of an America and Asia tied together like one endlessly big, often-quarreling, trans-Pacific family. Precisely because this American pioneer was so schooled in the very many differences within Asia and between Asia and America, he was also keenly aware of our many commonalities.
Viewing Asians as people no different than Americans or anyone else may not seem like such a revolutionary thought. But recall the mass internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II, as if all Japanese thought alike and were loyal in the same way; or the anti-Chinese fever that erupted during the Cold War or in the wake of the Tiananmen tragedy of 1989, as if the Chinese could become the new Japanese as the hated icons of some Asian “Them.”
Fortunately, Gibney was unafraid to swim against the tide, even against the occasional anti-Asian tidal wave. Although an optimist concerning human nature, he was a hardheaded realist on geopolitics. But that’s why his vision of a trans-Pacific family was all the more deeply held: Asia and America could no more ignore each other than spend all their time fighting each other.
Only through such vision — and cooperation, understanding and repeated efforts — can Asia and America realize its common destiny. Gibney saw that and preached it and practiced it throughout his life. Here in Southern California, he was a colossus who fought tirelessly against the petty minds of racism, protectionism and parochialism.
Students benefited enormously from his work at Pomona and on other campuses; as did we adults, whether catching his spectacular intellectual contributions at the Japan-America Society of Southern California or at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.
And so when students ask for role models to look at, I tell them they could do little better than to examine the exceptionally excellent life of Frank Gibney, who died earlier this month at his home in Santa Barbara at 81. He used every year as if it was his last and lived a life that fulfilled his dream and inspired so many others of us with comparable dreams of our own.
Thus, in a way, what I want to be when I grow up is something like Frank Gibney.
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