50 years ago Chris Hawley took up a VSA assignment at a newly founded university in Khon Kaen, Thailand. An assignment that was to inform the rest of his life.
“I was assigned as an English language specialist to help develop curriculum and teach at Khon Kaen university up in the northeast of Thailand,” says Chris. “This is the early 70s when the war was raging across the Mekong river just to the north of Khon Kaen in Laos and Cambodia and particularly Vietnam and northeast Thailand, looking back now, was seen by the western world including our government in New Zealand as the next vulnerable domino to fall.
“The university was new, only about three years old when I arrived, it only had two faculties and they wanted to get quality English language teaching going there because their students needed English in order to do postgraduate work, especially young staff, and to graduate and get jobs.
“I loved it - I made many good friends with students and staff, which has continued until now but my other passion that developed in the first year through my students was development projects in the countryside.
“There was communist insurgency around us in the northeast; there were a few parts of the northeast that were regarded as not safe to go;
Khon Kaen was absolutely fine but that political ferment was not that far away.
“There was military rule then in Bangkok and some of my students were angry and frustrated with the corruption and the lack of freedom of speech and they channelled their idealism into negotiating with remote villages in the northeast and developing agreed projects with villagers to, for example, build a school or a library or something like that which
they’d never had before.
“I was asked to join them and so I spent my breaks in very remote parts of Northeast Thailand living in the temple with a hundred students and three or four hundred villagers building something together. So for me there were two aspects to my life: one was the professional job teaching English and developing curriculum and the other one was this wonderful rich experience out in the countryside.
Deeply involved in Thai society and engaged with his work,
Chris did two two-year assignments back to back at the university. “I didn’t feel I had enough time to do what I wanted to achieve in two years so I went back for a second assignment, at the invitation of the University of course. After four years I had this yearning to go back to my family roots. I travelled on a truck with other young people for four months across Asia from Kathmandu to London.
“In London I found a job almost immediately. It was under the Harold Wilson Government and involved dealing with workplace racism in British industry. My experience in Thailand and learning Thai - to look at the world in a different way - was vital to that and I spent a lot of time working with Muslim and Hindu and Buddhist immigrants who were suffering a lot of prejudice in the workplace at the time.
“When I returned to New Zealand a few years later, the first people from Chile were arriving as refugees from the Pinochet dictatorship.
I somehow connected with people who were asked by the government to do the on-arrival program for Chilean refugees so I got involved with that and within a few weeks of that happening the first refugees began to arrive from Vietnam.
“That led to me getting involved in establishing the Mangere Refugee Centre Education programme and then coordinating refugee education based in Wellington for ten years. And of course the VSA work I had done meant I could speak in Thai with many of the Cambodian and Lao border people who were arriving, had been where they lived, and understood where they were coming from. I like to think that helped them in their resettlement here.”
Chris’ refugee work led to another stint at VSA, this time as a staff member. “I joined VSA again as a Development Director and I persuaded the VSA Board and the government that we should go back into Indochina and start going to the top of the cliff. I’d been working with the ambulance at the bottom of the cliff for 10 years with refugees here and I thought it was time we Kiwis went back to those countries to work on projects that helped people earlier on.”
Those programmes ran for more than 20 years. In the 90’s as New Zealand’s international outlook expanded beyond its traditional Anglo western partners, Chris began to play a role in building relationships between New Zealand and Asia.
“I was talking with John Hinchcliff, he was the President of what was then called the Auckland Institute of Technology and he encouraged me to go and work there to develop an international strategy from scratch for them.
“I brought with me all my connections with the Asia Pacific region and spent a lot of time visiting and travelling in Asia, Latin America and the Pacific to develop a whole range of exchange and cooperation programmes. And of course there was a business element to it, but I wanted to build friendships between my people and this country and the people of the Asia Pacific for the future benefit of all of us. I guess I’m still idealistic like that.”
“I think that all goes back to my time with VSA. I’d grown up reasonably conservatively and I think Thailand was where I first really understood what it is like to be able to look through other people’s eyes. And with it to understand that the world is not black and white but that with a bit of effort and care you can connect with anyone and find remarkable friendships.”