Notes from the Field

Neil Armstrong, Southeast Asia, and International Literacy Day

September 5, 2012

Like many, I was saddened to learn of Neil Armstrong’s death in August. He was 82. When Mr. Armstrong made his “one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind,” I was a 12-year-old boy growing up in New Jersey. Like the other 600 million people around the world who watched Neil Armstrong walk on the moon, I was spellbound as he descended from “the Eagle” lunar module to become the first person to walk on the moon’s surface. But Mr. Armstrong was of course not just an “American hero” (a term he vigorously eschewed), but a global hero as well.

When Mr. Armstrong stepped on the lunar surface, it was a turbulent time in America. The U.S. was fighting a war in Vietnam, which was rapidly expanding into Cambodia and Laos. In addition, America was experiencing great racial tension, the struggle for civil rights, and, just a year prior, the assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy. Despite the turbulence, both at home and abroad, Mr. Armstrong’s walk on the moon seemed to serve as a great moment of unification for the country, together honoring the bravery and courage he (and fellow astronauts Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin and Michael Collins) exhibited.

Over the past 34 years, a time when I’ve been living in or traveling throughout Asia, the subject of Neil Armstrong and his famous walk on the moon would periodically come up. Most of the time it was talking with Asian friends about where they were and what they were thinking when Neil Armstrong first set foot on the moon. A Thai friend of mine said she was “thrilled” to have had the opportunity to shake Neil Armstrong’s hand when he visited Bangkok with Aldrin and Collins on their world tour in October 1969. I remember in the 1990s one Malaysian friend telling me Neil Armstrong heard the adhan or Muslim call to prayer, on the lunar surface and upon returning safely to earth converted to Islam. I told my friend that this was not true, but upon looking into this issue more I was surprised to learn that over the decades Neil Armstrong received thousands of requests from individuals and religious organizations overseas to participate in Islamic religious activities, including from Indonesia and Malaysia. Never wanting to offend or show favor to or disrespect to any religion, Mr. Armstrong never did accept any of the religious invitations.

But my favorite story about Neil Armstrong comes from a conversation I had in 2010 on a trip to Cambodia with a group of Asia Foundation trustees. I had the chance to speak with a 15-year-old student at Ksach Kandal High School in rural Kandal province, Cambodia; about 90 minutes outside Phnom Penh, much of it on a narrow, single lane road. In 2009, Ksach Kandal High School received a grant from The Asia Foundation to refurbish its library, and the Foundation donated several hundred English-language books through our Books for Asia program. One of these books was a biography of Neil Armstrong. This young man, who attended a simple school that sat three to a desk, said that he was so inspired by reading Neil Armstrong’s biography that he aspired to become Cambodia’s first astronaut. For someone who comes from a very poor country whose national literacy rate ranks 153rd out of 204 nations, this young boy’s aspirations may seem as far as the moon.

Perhaps the greatest testament to Neil Armstrong’s life was that his story could continue to inspire a boy on the other side of the planet to want to achieve great things 40 years after he set foot on the moon. As we celebrate International Literacy Day this week, let us hope that this young man and millions of other children around the world continue to be inspired by books, as only through a culture of learning can a nation truly embark on a path of sustainable economic activity and participatory governance.

John J. Brandon is director of Regional Cooperation Programs for The Asia Foundation in Washington, D.C. He can be reached at jbransdon@asiafound-dc.org. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not necessarily those of The Asia Foundation.

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