Teacher challenged me
to push all boundaries
I had a provincial childhood, knowing little about life outside of Oahu. As a scared and anxious kid, I let horror movies get the best of me and jumped into bed with my younger brother when firecrackers exploded on New Year's Eve. So imagine everyone's surprise when, after graduating from college, I circled the world solo, starting with just $90 in my wallet. I spent seven adventurous, romantic and risk-taking years abroad before returning to Hawaii.
How did this transformation come about?
Helge Hilding Mansson, Ph.D., changed my life. He was a Danish psychologist who specialized in cross-cultural research at the University of Hawaii. As his student clerk for three years, I typed his correspondence, articles, exams and grant proposals.
Besides being my benevolent boss, Helge was a gadfly. He tried to debunk my cherished beliefs about my Roman Catholic faith, premarital sex, politics and personal goals. Good or bad, he took me to the extreme, nether reaches of my mind. Nothing was off limits. What he said was revolutionary to me, but when one considers the context -- the permissive, hippy days of the 1960s -- it doesn't seem so radical. We disagreed, but always respected each other.
It was an era of political upheaval. Students everywhere demonstrated against the Vietnam War and the military draft. Helge was one of the leaders from Educators for Peace who supported the 1968 sit-in at Bachman Hall. We protested the lack of academic freedom at UH and the denial of tenure to an assistant professor of political science, Oliver Lee, for his stance against the war. More than 150 faculty members and students were arrested and thrown in jail for a few hours. Fortunately, a month later, the judge acquitted us all of trespassing, expunged our records and returned our bail money. Also in 1968, Helge led the march to the governor's office, where we confronted Gov. John Burns over the same academic issues as well as the killing of Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement.
Helge forced me out of my comfort zone and showed me there were other possibilities in my life. When I heard about a movie director from Korea who was auditioning young women for a role in a film to be shot in Tahiti, Helge urged me to try out for it. It took courage for the timid girl in me to accept the challenge. I auditioned, but didn't get the part. Still, I'd learned that trying new things wouldn't hurt me. In fact, it made me feel better about myself.
Since I had never been "off the rock" except for a brief trip to Maui, Helge taped a map of the world to my office wall. Born and raised in Denmark and married to an Indian woman, he had traveled practically everywhere. At the time, he was planning to take his sabbatical in India. If it weren't for the map and his insistence that I see the world, I would never have had the nerve to leave Hawaii in 1968, then spend six months in California, 10 months in Thailand, three months in Europe and five-and-a-half years in New York City. All by myself!
Traveling the world gave me a knowledge of other people and cultures I would never have had if I'd stayed in Hawaii my entire life. Moreover, my experiences proved to me I could handle any misfortune or misadventure life threw at me. No longer a fearful child, I am now able to cope with anything and everything.
Helge left Hawaii in 1975 and returned to Denmark, where he taught at Aalborg University for many years. Divorced, he married another psychologist and they now live in New York City. We stay in touch with letters and e-mail. Lunches during his periodic visits to Hawaii are a treat for both of us.
My life hasn't been dull, and much of that I attribute to the professor who hired me so many years ago, a man named Helge. He came at the right time to the right place -- and things since then haven't been quite the same.
Glenda Chung Hinchey is an author and frequent contributor to the Star-Bulletin.