‘Uncle John’ celebrates 25 years of China friendship

[Story and photos by Mike Foley, originally published in the PCC Imua Polenesia newsletter, June 2007]

John Muaina (fourth from left, back row), his wife Luella, Carolyn and Eric Shumway
and Napua
Baker (right, back row) meet with AEM alumni in Xi’an, China 

Polynesian Cultural Center Vice President of Human Resources John Muaina recently represented the PCC as he and his wife, Luella, toured China with BYU-Hawaii President Eric B. Shumway, his party and the university’s 62-voice Concert Choir for three weeks in May to celebrate the successful completion of 25 years of BYUH/PCC’s unique Asian Executive Management (AEM) internship training program.

“Uncle John,” as all AEM interns know him, has worked with every single participant since the program began with the first six trainees in 1981. He said he has traveled to China on business “at least a dozen times.” This tour took him first to Urumqi, in far northwestern Xinjiang Autonomous Uyghur Region, then Xi’an — where he met the most AEM alumni in a single group, then Beijing and Tianjin. Afterward, the remainder of the group went on to Mongolia for several days, while the Muainas returned to Hawaii.

“Going so far west to Urumqi in China was quite unusual, and we had a wonderful exchange there,” Muaina said. “But the thing that really sticks out in my mind this time was being able to travel with the large number of BYU-Hawaii students. We’ve come to Beijing in the past with the PCC Promo Team, but this was quite different because we really had the opportunity to share the spirit of BYU-Hawaii.”

“Many of our AEMs remember that unique spirit. They told me, ‘This reminds me of being back at BYUH.’ I believe they reacted mainly to the spirit conveyed through the voices of our Concert Choir: We were able to effectively touch the lives of many who were there. It piqued their interest and let them know there’s something here that needs more looking into.”

“We reached out to thousands of people,” Muaina continued, explaining that the AEM alumni were a tremendous help in facilitating arrangements for the tour and helping with logistics at every turn.

“In Xi’an we met with 19 of them; and all of them expressed to President Shumway that upon their return to China, they felt they had become much kinder and more patient toward their fellow workers, much more appreciative toward their children and spouses, and that their experiences in Hawaii had made them better people.” He added that there are also at least six AEM alumni from Mongolia, “but China’s been the main focus for the past 25 years.”

“Some [alumni] indicated it had been a challenge because it’s hard to duplicate the spirit they felt in Laie, and they are the only ones in their work environment exhibiting the kind of spirit they remember so well; but I told each of them to continue to keep that spirit. Others also said the time they spent in Hawaii was almost like a dream, and the choir’s tour recharged their batteries. They said, ‘Yes, that’s exactly how I remember the aloha spirit. I didn’t dream it.'”

“At the same time, I have been greatly appreciative that our BYU-Hawaii Concert Choir students represented the Church well,” Muaina continued, noting that the Church is not officially recognized there and members do not “actively or passively proselyte” in accordance with China’s religious affairs laws.

Many of the AEM alumni were equally thrilled to meet Uncle John’s wife, Luella. “I enjoy the program, too, because I get to know the Chinese interns,” she said. “For example, we’ve had several of them come into our home during holidays. The first Halloween we did that, they were so amazed; even the concept of Thanksgiving and singing Christmas carols was new to them.”

“I think our AEM alumni have really tried to capture the aloha spirit in their personal lives,” John Muaina added. “I believe that’s why they’re so excited to see us when we come. One of them said to me once, ‘These are people who are excited to believe in something. For many years it was difficult to believe in anything in China, but coming to Hawaii has given me faith that I can truly have something to believe in.’ That’s the bottom line for me,” he said.

AEM alumni share their mana’o

Zhou Bin, an alum who works in the Shaanxi Provincial Government Foreign Affairs Office in Xi’an, came to Laie in 2001: “I remember the aloha spirit the best. That was the most important thing,” he said, shyly admitting he also really enjoyed BYUH basketball games, especially when the Seasiders scored over 100 points and everyone got ice cream. “Everyone gave me a lot of help with my studies, and the internship helped my career: I learned modern management skills.”

Lily Li Leng, who returned from PCC in 2006 and is currently a manager for the Shaanxi provincial Diaoyutai Guest House organization in Xi’an, also remembers the “aloha spirit, the love and peace. The people were so kind and friendly. It was a happy time for me, and I loved Hawaii. I was so excited to hear the choir, because I know some of the students.” She added that it was hard to leave her husband to go to Hawaii, but the spirit of cooperation and working together has helped her career.

As did the others, Stephen Yaning Liu, who attended the AEM program in 2002, fondly remembers the spirit of aloha, and he especially liked working in the luau. “My classes at BYU-Hawaii were also wonderful. Many of the teachers stick out in my mind. They were great teachers, and I feel my experience definitely helped my career. The experience of studying and learning in Laie has contributed a lot to my entire life, although I was just there for 10 months. Being in Laie was like a family to me, even though there are students from over 70 countries at BYU-Hawaii. Even if we didn’t know each other, we were friendly. This was amazing to me.”

Madame Yanning Wan, one of the inaugural six AEM interns, attended the choir’s musical social in Beijing. She still remembers the “beautiful scenery, clean air and the very warm people in Laie.” As the head of a Chinese fine arts auction house, she also said the internship “very much helped my career. It gave me a great competence, and I think I changed into another person after the experience, which really helped me.” She the other members of that first group “are all doing well,” and added the only other woman with her then now lives in Canada.

“Actually, Madame Wan set a high standard of performance,” President Shumway said. “We’ve had approximately 200 Chinese interns come since then, but it was that first group that set a standard of excellence and involvement with the people. They were so smart, and all got good grades. They were a very special group, and our relationship with China began with them.”

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