October 5, 2003 - Seattle Times: Thailand RPCV Collin Tong keeps his ideals alive

Peace Corps Online: Directory: Thailand: Peace Corps Thailand: The Peace Corps in Thailand: October 5, 2003 - Seattle Times: Thailand RPCV Collin Tong keeps his ideals alive

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Thailand RPCV Collin Tong keeps his ideals alive

Thailand RPCV Collin Tong keeps his ideals alive

Former Peace Corps volunteer keeps his ideals alive

For the past couple of years, Americans have had some compelling reasons to look outward and engage with the rest of the world. We aren't known for doing that, but in fact, there have always been Americans who have pursued connections across borders.

Business, curiosity, family history all draw people's attention abroad. But in 1961, President Kennedy created a new path to that connection, the Peace Corps, which would send Americans to live and work abroad to further the interests of world peace and human progress.

About 190,000 Americans have served abroad since then. They all come back changed in some way, and most of them see the world differently afterward.

Collin Tong served in Thailand from 1968 to 1969 and was recently appointed to the board of the National Peace Corps Association, the organization of returned Peace Corps volunteers.

Tong lives in Seattle and works downtown as senior director of news and westside communications for Washington State University.

"It was my first real experience seeing the world from the perspective of a poor nation," he told me the other day. After a year, Tong said, "I came back to culture shock. This is such an affluent country."

Tong was a quiet, well-behaved, A student in school, but early this year he found a louder voice.

He created a new organization, Peace Corps Volunteers for a Better World, and put together an ad that ran twice in The New York Times in opposition to the war in Iraq. He got nearly 2,000 people to sign the plea for peace and to donate the thousands of dollars the ads cost.

Tong has eight Rolodexes lined up neatly on his desk and the credenza behind it. His job requires that he have extensive contacts, but that's not why he collects all those names and keeps so many relationships alive. He does it because he likes people and because relationships are important to him. Once he gets to know you, he never forgets you.

In 1991 Tong became friends with an Iraqi man. They have coffee every week and often talk about whatever is happening in Iraq and the Middle East.

Last Christmas, Tong and his wife sat in his friend's home with him, his wife and three children looking at photos of family back in Iraq.

As he looked at those faces and thought of the danger they would face in a war, Tong says he decided he had to do something.

"We all face a moment where we have to make a decision," he said, "Someone's got to do it," and this time it was him, except he didn't know what it would be.

Then at a meeting in January of people concerned about the looming war, attendees were asked to tell the group what action they planned. When his turn came, Tong, who'd had no idea before, thought of an ad.

He called The New York Times to ask how much it would cost. He couldn't believe he was hearing himself do this. They told him a full-page ad would cost $127,000. He got busy, sitting at his home computer night after night until early morning e-mailing everyone he could think of.

But he only had a few weeks and quickly realized he wasn't going to make it, so he switched to a half-page ad. People kept signing up after the first ad ran, however, and he soon had enough to run a second ad.

He'd done something that one of the people he admires might have done.

In his downtown Seattle office, Tong is surrounded by photographs of people who have inspired him.

There is a photograph on his desk of former Seattle School District Superintendent John Stanford, and another photo of Stanford on a wall.

There is a large poster of Robert Maynard, the late editor and publisher of the Oakland Tribune and one of the people responsible for bringing a generation of talented Asian-American, black and Latino people into journalism.

On another wall hangs a large picture of one of Tong's brothers, Roland, who was murdered in San Francisco in 1982. Roland was an attorney who worked relentlessly for social justice representing impoverished clients in Harlem and later in San Francisco.

Their parents were immigrants from China. In San Francisco, their mother was a seamstress, and their father and grandfather ran a grocery store. All of the brothers have been socially active.

His brother Ben is a clinical psychologist. His brother David is an editor at the San Francisco Chronicle. David and I worked together years ago with Maynard in Oakland, and it was David who first signed up for the Peace Corps.

Tong, who studied for the ministry before switching to journalism, says, "As a person of faith, I believe we are interconnected on this planet." His service in the Peace Corps deepened that conviction. You get to know people and you feel a sense of kinship that outweighs surface differences. "If Americans could only know the human faces of the people of Iraq," he says, it would make all the difference.

We might adopt Kennedy's idea and spend less effort looking out at the world to hunt for enemies, and more reaching out to make friends.

Jerry Large: 206-464-3346 or jlarge@seattletimes.com

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Story Source: Seattle Times

This story has been posted in the following forums: : Headlines; COS - Thailand; Advocacy



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