Friday, February 29, 2008

Living in USA - Part 9

With the coming of 1996, came our second winter in Georgia. The winter, like our first, was cold too. I was getting busier with my works. The research project I was doing was going on smoothly. In fact, according to other graduate students, it went too smoothly compared to theirs.

After completing my trial project, I was supposed to start the real project based on the results obtained from the earlier works. However, during an academic committee meeting, after reviewing my results, they decided that it was good enough for a Master’s degree!

So, I was asked to stop doing further laboratory trials. Instead, I was asked to go to the field and make field comparisons between my Microscopic Lesion Scoring System and their traditionally used Gross Lesion Scoring System in evaluating the severity of coccidiosis in chicken.

I was also asked to start writing my thesis and at the same time, start preparing for my comprehensive examination. Ohhhh! I felt so relieved and glad that it was nearly over.

For the field comparison of Gross lesion scores and Microscopic lesion scores of chickens, I was sent to Fieldale Poultry farms in Baldwin, Georgia. Dr John Smith was particularly helpful in allowing me to collect samples and getting hold of important data for the field trial. In his simple laboratory, I was impressed at how they control poultry health proactively by regular large scale monitoring, instead of the fire-brigade approach that we are presently practising in Malaysia.

Every month at a fixed date, all the contract farmers would bring in ten birds for every chicken pen to be tested for various tests such as coccidiosis gross scores, colour scores, bursal scores, bone strength, gizzard scores, and other diseases A graph would then be drawn for each and every farm and from this, a proper action would be taken by the veterinarian concerned to solve the poultry health problem of the farm.

Sometimes in February 1996, I realized that Diyana had been mistakenly placed in a lower grade than she deserved to be in. Comparing her age with her best friend, Zahrah, I noticed that they were of the same age. I went to see her Principal to know more about her situation. There and then they realized that Diyana was wrongly placed in the fifth grade. She should have been in the sixth grade!

Quietly the school’s secretary told me that they (the teachers) loved Diyana too much to let her go. That was the reason why they kept silence about the matter. Surprisingly I was not angry for their action. I knew that Diyana had changed a lot in term of personality and self-confidence while studying at Chase Street Elementary School. She was no more a small girl that she used to be when we first came to US.

I explained to the Principal the reasons why I wanted Diyana to go to sixth grade, at least for a few months. Actually, I wanted her to learn to be self-reliant faster. In US, sixth grade is in the Middle School not in Elementary School like it is in Malaysia. In the sixth grade, students would be given their own lockers for their things and they moved from room to room for their different subjects. In short, they were more independent in Middle School. So, Diyana went to Clarke’s Middle School for her sixth grade.

At first we were a bit worried about the change. We, including Ms. Johnson, her class teacher, were scared that Diyana could not cope with the life of a Middle School student. However, Diyana proved otherwise. She took to Middle School life like a duck to water.

I could still remember how excited she was when she was given a locker of her own. I had to buy her a combination lock and taught her how to use the combination of numbers for locking and unlocking the locker. Miss Causey, her councillor teacher, was so impressed with her that soon they became good friends.

Soon, like any growing up young lady, she began to have many friends. I was glad that she was happy to be in the sixth grade. Still missing her teachers and friends in the fifth grade, she often went to her former school and took part in the activities and even joined them in their annual trip to Jackal’s Island.

She even had a sleepover with her fifth grade friends in Miss Seymour’s house. For that sleep over, I had to double check and make sure that there were really no men in the house! In US, to be accepted as a member of a sleepover team was an honour for a girl or a boy. It was more so if you were a foreigner! So, Diyana had once again proved herself by being accepted by her friends as one of them.

In the sixth grade, Diyana was more involved with the violin. She was accepted as a member of the junior high orchestra. Zahra was a member too. As an orchestra member, she had to practise more. Every day, she would spend the first period of school practising with members of her orchestra.

Many evenings at the family housing barbecue place, there they were, Diyana and Zahra, playing violin. Now she started playing more classical music and it surely was nice to listen to her playing.

Clarke Middle was an excellent school as far as orchestra was concerned. It had won the first place, the best Middle School orchestra, in US. Seeing that she had a great talent with the violin, I decided to buy the violin for her. Besides the school orchestra, I also sent her for extra violin lessons from Ms Schab, her former fifth grade violin instructor. I had to pay her US$14.00 / a one-hour weekly violin lesson.

On the 17th February 1996, my wife began to have her labour pains. Soon after breaking our Ramadan fasting for the day, I rushed her to Athens’s Regional Medical Centre. I was with her all along during her entire labour.

For the very first time, I witnessed the whole process of childbirth. It was the birth of our fifth child, a daughter. We called her Noorul Amalia, the light of our hope and ambition. She weighed 3.02 kg.

Compared to her nursery-mates, she was so tiny and cute. Her shining big black eyes made her the favourite baby among mothers and visitors at the hospital. According to US law, she would be automatically a US citizen. So, now there was an American among us!

Because of her early-than-expected arrival, her baby shower, which was organized by the department, came after her delivery. It was a delightful event. She received many things from my lecturers and fellow graduate student friends.

After obtaining her American birth certificate, I contacted our Embassy in Washington DC for her Malaysian birth certificate. So, she now had two birth certificates. She was, at least until she was eighteen (so I was told), a citizen of two countries, Malaysia and USA.

The birth of Amalia caused great excitements among my friends from countries like Philippines, India, and other less well-to-do countries. For them to have a child born in US soil was a real blessing as it would be much easier for the parents to get US citizenship. I quietly told them that I had never thought of it that way. I was too much a Malaysian to give it up and become an American.

Noorul Amelia’s normal delivery costed Malaysian government a whopping US$ 6,000. My wife, because of her placenta previa problem, had to undergo six ultrasound examinations before the delivery. Each examination costed US$250! Luckily, we were insured. Then we realized how lucky we were to be Malaysians. I hope the Malaysian health system remains as it is for a long time as any move to privatize it would for sure burden many Malaysians.

A few days after her delivery, Amalia had jaundice. For four consecutive days her tiny legs were pricked to obtain enough blood for assessing the severity of her jaundice. Luckily her serum bilirubin level returned to normal fast.

After that painful episode, Amalia was always in the best of health. She would be the centre of attraction wherever we brought her, be it in the shopping mall or in the recreation parks. Americans young and old, married or singles would be attracted to her black hair and her large shining black eyes.

By the way, most newly born American babies had very little hair and they sure were much bigger than our Amalia. They would always beg us to allow them to hold her. Our neighbours always called her a cute doll with large shining black eyes.

Being born in US made her eligible for free infant milk. All we had to do were to produce the coupons issued by the Health Department at any participating stores for the two-week supply of milk. The baby milk supplied came in liquid form. All we had to do was to mix it with luke-warm water and there we had it, nourishing milk for Amalia. Our Amalia seemed to flourish on the milk!

To be continued

Living in USA - Part 8

In Athens, the children were busy telling their friends the fun and the excitement they had throughout the holidays. The holidays produced an album of photographs for our collection. All in all, it had been a worthwhile holiday for us as a family.

I did not think that we could possibly come back to Florida in the near future. Talking to friends a few days after the holidays, the children knew that they had been lucky to have us as their parents. According to their friends, it was seldom for American parents to bring their children to Florida and see five places in one visit like we just did. It was just too expensive and time consuming.

For me, I did not really mind the time and money spent during the holidays. It had been my philosophy throughout my stay in US to expose my children to all the good things US had to offer and shield them from all the evils that many Americans did. In short, the Florida holidays had been a success.

The end of summer meant that it had been almost a year we lived in US. With the approaching autumn, one more member of the family would be going to school. During a sort of IQ interview with officials from the preschool program, I was flabbergasted on hearing how well Syazwan answered the questions.

“When you’re cold, what will you do?” asked the lady pre-kindergarten coordinator.
“I’ll put on my jacket the whole day long!” he answered calmly.
“When you’re hungry, what will you do?” one of the ladies asked.
“I’ll ask my brother to get me rice!” he answered simply.
“Then what will you do?”
“I’ll eat it of course!” answered Syazwan as-a-matter-of-factly.
“Syazwan, tell me what will you do when you’re tired?” the lady asked her third and last question.
“Then I’ll go to sleep.”

The lady was totally impressed with what she just heard. I was impressed too with the way he answered the questions. Syazwan was selected to join a pre-kindergarten programme at Chase Street Elementary School.

The class was a trailer, complete with air-conditioner, heater, reading and playing corners, and a lot of toys! All together there were eighteen boys and girls in the class. In the beginning I was a bit unsure whether Syazwan would be able to blend in and be accepted as an active member of the class.

This fatherly fear stemmed from the fact that Syazwan had never been out of the house alone for a long stretch of time. Syazwan proved that I was wrong. Within a month, Syazwan, not only was he able to make friends with his classmates, he was speaking English like he was born a Georgian.

He was so popular with his classmates and loved by his teacher, Miss Kimberly and her assistant, Miss Jawanna. According to them, Syazwan was a good, well-behaved boy with a big heart to learn the language. They were really surprised, when compared to the other foreign boys in the class, he outperformed everybody as far as English was concerned. So impressed were they with Syazwan’s English that they all thought that we all spoke English at home.

Besides being good in English, he was also exemplary in manners and like to help in many of the class activities. So good was his behaviour, he was fully trusted by his teachers and he was often asked to escort girls to the rest room!

Some of his classmates that I could still remember were Courtney, Tara, Ben, Shawn, Mariah, and Mario. Courtney Green was especially close to Syazwan. Syazwan would normally blush when teased by Diyana about their friendship.

At the 4th July fireworks we met Courtney and her family among all the crowds. It was our last summer holidays and they had not seen each other for more than a month. She came towards us and said, “ Oh Iwan, I miss you!”. Syazwan was really embarrassed that night. He said nothing. I knew that she really missed him. It was the last time that they met.

From her aunt working at Dunking Donut store, I was told that she had moved to another town and would be joining kindergarten there. I told her to tell Courtney that we were going home to Malaysia and Syazwan would join standard one in Malaysia.

With the coming of autumn too, Diyana and Syafiq were promoted to the higher grades. Diyana joined the fifth grade and Syafiq in the fourth. Diyana, for the first time in her school life, began to show her interest in music. She took part in the school choir and orchestra. In the school orchestra, Diyana chose to play violin.

So I had to go around Athens searching for music shops that had violins for rent. I found many such shops, but I was not eligible to rent one just because I did not have a credit record!

That was the way Americans did business. You had to have a credit record before you were eligible to rent or do business by means of credit. Finally I met a private musician who was willing to rent me a violin and so began Diyana’s debut in a violin.

To our surprise, she really was talented in using the instrument. Soon she was playing her violin whenever she was free and in the orchestra, she was really amazing, playing the violin with style and confidence.

Talking about autumn would not be complete without saying something about the trees. The trees, they surely were something to watch and appreciate during autumn. We did not have to travel far to see this fascinating phenomenon. All around the campus, we could see leaves changing colour from green to either yellow, orange, red, purple or other sorts of mixed colours. They even had announcements over television, radio, and papers predicting and forecasting when the foliage would be at their best for the sake of those who were willing to travel far just to see this great gift of God. For us, our photo albums were full of these beautiful trees.

Sometimes towards late October every year, there was a festival call Halloween night. I did not quite understand the reasons why they celebrated Halloween. All I knew was that Halloween night was celebrated by all, young and old alike, all over US.

That night, young and old would all dress up in all sorts of costumes and make up which normally took the theme of ghosts or scary characters. The olds would wait in their houses for the kids to come calling asking for sweets and goodies and the young would walk from house to house, knocking on the door of each house visited.

I remembered on our first Halloween night. I had to escort my three children, around the whole family housing. Syafiq was dressed up as Count Dracula and Syazwan as a cat, complete with whiskers nicely painted on his cheeks. Diyana was too embarrassed to follow, so instead, she was with her girl friends and a lady chaperone throughout the night.

Those residents interested in taking part in the celebration had to paste the Halloween sign, a picture of a pumpkin, on their doors and had to be prepared with all the cookies that would be enough for the night. The children would only knock on such doors.

When almost all the apartments taking part in the celebration visited, the children came back with three plastic bags full of sweets, candies, and other goodies. They were enjoying themselves despite the night’s sub-zero temperature. All those snacks lasted them for weeks!

Then came Christmas, the second Christmas since we came here. Christmas and New Year were two occasions that were celebrated in a grand fashion by the Americans. Weeks before Christmas, shopping complexes would be crowded with people. Many of them were busy buying gifts for their loved ones. A Christmas would not be a Christmas without all these gifts.

It was during this gifts buying seasons that most shopping complexes would have their cheap sales. Cheap sales in US were really cheap. Imagine, things were sold at 50% discount and an additional 20 - 30% taken off at the counter.

An Arrow shirt would, after all the discounts, cost only seven to eight dollars! So during such a good buying time, we too were busy buying a lot of things. Commerce, a town about forty minutes drive from Athens, was our favourite place to go during cheap sales seasons. Goods such as quality china, silverware, shoes, towels, and shirts were usually sold at very low prices in many of the factory outlets found there.

One or two weeks after Christmas, once again shopping malls would be crowded with people. A first time visitor must be wondering why, after spending lavishly on gifts before Christmas, people still came back for more spending. Actually it was not because they had too much money to spend, but one to two weeks after Christmas was the time to return the unwanted and redundant gifts for either money or other things of equal value.

It was a practice that during Christmas, gifts were usually given together with receipts, just in case the recipients of the gifts needed to exchange them later. During this period, returned gifts, mostly toys were sold cheap. We bought a lot of toys for Syazwan during this time.

Talking about gifts, I was fascinated by their ingenuity in making full use of the culture of giving without letting anything went to waste. The first example was what they called a wedding shower. A few weeks or months before a couple was married, all their close friends would open up a register at one shop. All gifts bought for the couple would be registered. This would of course prevent the couple from receiving the same items from friends.

The baby shower was the second example. Before a baby was born, the couple would be asked what items were needed for the baby’s arrival. They would require a frank answer from the couple. Most of the items pertaining to the arrival of the baby would be bought as gifts. So on most occasions, these two cultures helped the going-to-be-married and expecting couples a lot in term of their budget. I wished this good American culture should be followed and practised widely in Malaysia.

Still on gifts, I also found that the Americans were all out in their celebration of birthdays and wedding anniversaries. For these two occasions, a fitting gift was always expected of. The value of the gift would of course depend on the economic standing of the person concerned. Overlooking or forgetting the birthday or wedding anniversary of one’s lover or spouse, to many people, was an unforgivable mistake. Relationships and marriages had been known to go sour as a result of such a mistake. Luckily, many Americans that I knew only had one wife and one or two children.

To be continued...

Living in USA - Part 7

Then came summer, a time where most Americans, except graduate students probably, would be enjoying themselves, get their free sun tan whether by being at beaches or just by lying around in front of their houses or in the field somewhere.

Schools would be closed for three long months. Parents would be near crazy just thinking how to fill up their children’s free time. Summer camps were a few options parents had to make sure children used their free time wisely, but they could be very expensive.

As for us Muslim parents, the Athens Islamic Centre organized classes for children. In their free times, Syazwan and Syafiq were always playing outside, coming up only to quench their thirst. Swimming pools were crowded with people trying their best to keep cool.

Students, the undergraduates mostly, came to school in their skimpiest of outfits. It was in summer too that I was first introduced to biopsy duties. Surgical specimens from the university veterinary clinics and other clinics from all over US were processed, stained and read by graduate students together with the pathologists.

Reading and interpreting biopsy slides was a real challenge to me. There were too many skin conditions and tumours in dogs and other animals that I had never heard of before. My previous veterinary studies in Malaysia did not put very much emphasis on small animals and tumours.

Like always, pathologists working with me were always great helps. Whenever I was in trouble interpreting a lesion, they would always say, “Come on Azahar, don’t be discouraged. You’re still new in this. We’ve been doing this work for more than twenty years”.

It was true. They were really experts in the field. By looking at the breed and the age of dogs and the site of the tumour, through experience, they almost could tell what kind of tumour it was most likely be. More importantly, they were willing to share their expertise with graduate students like me. I thought I had learned a lot about animal neoplasms from them. Dr Latimer was one such an expert. The latest news I heard was that he had moved to Texas A&M University.

The children were nagging us for a summer vacation. Florida was always on our mind as the next holiday destination. Travel guides, discount vouchers, and a detailed map of hotels and places of interests were in our hands long before summer. All these were obtained by just a phone call to the American Automobile Association (AAA). I was a member of this association as soon as I got myself the car.

So one fine day, on the 20th of August 1995, driving a brand new white 1995 Ford Taurus, we once again left Athens for a city called Kissimmee, in the heart of Florida’s tourism area. Being fully prepared, we drove the eight-hour distance calmly, knowing that I had memorized the route and had our accommodation reserved.

The highway was full of cars but the drive was smooth and relaxing. Along the way, we stopped for lunch at one rest area. We reached Kissimmee at around 5.00 pm and went straight to the Econolodge hotel. The hotel was cheap, only US$27 per night. To our delight, there was a North Indian Restaurant (Muslim) at the hotel. The owner, believe it or not, knew Malaysia and our first Prime Minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman!

Sadly he did not know that Tunku was no more with us. Wasting no time, we ordered two ‘nasi beriyani’ for dinner. It was delicious and worth all the money that we paid for it. After dinner, we discussed the places that we were going to visit. As there were too many good places and our budget was limited, we all agreed to visit five main attractions of the city; Disney World - Magic Kingdom and Disney-MGM studios, Epcot centre, Universal Studios, and Sea World.

We bought two adult and three children 4-day value passes for admittance to the Magic Kingdom, Disney-MGM studio, and Epcot centre. These passes, together with tickets for the Universal studios and the Sea World totalled a whopping US$800!

The next morning, everybody woke up early. The children were all too excited about visiting the places that they lost interest in breakfast. An interesting thing about cooking our own food in a hotel room was that we had to be smart in bluffing the smoke detector. We had to cover the smoke detector with a plastic bag whenever we were cooking!

After a simple but delicious breakfast of Malaysian style tuna sandwiches, we left the hotel for our first destination, the Magic Kingdom, one of the many Disney Worlds’ attractions. We arrived at the main gate just a few minutes before it was opened.

After paying for the car park, we had to find a parking space and get into lines and waited for a special wagon train that would take us to the monorail station that would finally take us to the Magic Kingdom. There was a big crowd at the Magic Kingdom. It was just like a big city with people walking merrily, hands in hand along the streets. You could hear all kind of languages being spoken.

The children insisted on getting onto one of the horse carriages. We hopped onto one and everybody just loved the ride. The two Morgan horses brought us right into the centre of Magic Kingdom.

In the distance we could see the famous Cinderella’s castle. There were too many things to see and do at Magic Kingdom. A whole day was probably not enough time to cover everything. Besides going into the various shows such as the Snow White and the seven Dwarves, Cinderella’s Castle, It is a small world, Tomorrow’s land, Fantasy land, and the Lion King, the children and my wife were also busy running here and there, going after famous Disney characters looking for their autographs and for photography sessions with them. They were characters like Genie from the Aladdin series, Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum, Captain Hook, Goo Baloo, the Queen of Hearts, Gideon, and Sheriff.

The Parade was really something to watch. All the characters of Disney, in eye-catching colourful costumes passed through the main streets of Magic Kingdom amidst the loud music of the marching bands. Syazwan was on my back trying to catch a glimpse of the passing parade while Syafiq and Diyana were craning their heads through the crowd to catch sight of their favourite characters.

Towards the end of our visit to the Magic Kingdom, there was a heavy downpour complete with thunderstorm and lightning. People, including us, as if impervious to water, walked leisurely through the rain.

Soaking wet, we did not bother looking for cover; instead, we went on along the streets looking for souvenirs. While waiting for lemonades, we ran across a family from Malaysia. He was a Datuk businessman holidaying with his family in Florida. It was a small world after all. They were from Kuala Lumpur on a business cum holiday. At around seven, we left Magic Kingdom for the hotel. We slept early that night.

Epcot Centre was our second day’s destination. From far the huge golf-ball-like building attracted us. In the building, we travelled through time, to the various stages of development in human communication. It was an interesting, well designed, and above all, an informative journey.

The show that made all of us screaming in fear was Honey, I Shrunk the Kids. Inside the theatre, we had to put on some special 3-D spectacles. The three dimension effects made us felt like being really tiny. The dog’s sneezing caused our faces to be covered by tiny droplets of its saliva - how disgusting!

The sound made by thousands of rats running towards us was so real that everybody lifted their feet off the floor. Suddenly a very large python surprised us all as it came very close to our faces, with its long sharp fangs ready to bite. This made Syazwan screamed and ran onto my lap.

For me, I liked the Energy show. There, we were brought along the energy pathway, right into the ages when dinosaurs ruled the earth. The dinosaurs were so real. For fear of getting soaked for the second day, we deliberately missed full size replicas of China’s attraction and other representative countries and left Epcot Centre early.

On the third day we visited the Disney-MGM studios. The Honey, I Shrunk the Kids playground was a real treat for the children. There, everything was built in gigantic size. There were giant rotten doughnuts, burgers, old photographic films, ants, and many more objects, just like we saw in the film.

Syafiq and Syazwan were chasing each other through the tall grasses and over burgers and rotten doughnuts. At the Indiana Jones stunt show, with our own eyes, we saw how the great movie was made.

The scenes of burning planes, spears coming out of the ground as our hero was walking through the ground, a giant cannon ball rolling menacingly close to the hero, and the professionally choreographed fist fights between the villain and Indiana Jones all made us rooted to our seats. That day the children learned a lot about the art of filmmaking. Like in the Magic Kingdom, here too the children were rushing here and there to get autographs and pictures together with characters like Mickey Mouse, Aladdin, and the beautiful Princess Jasmine.

Of all the places visited so far, I thought the Universal studio was the favourite among us, especially the children. The studio was just like a big US city, with streets, buildings and all. We just had to amble along the streets and chose what we liked to see.

Diyana caught sight of the ghostbusters’ car. She ran towards it and asked me to have her picture taken as she leaned against the car. First we stopped at the Alfred Hitchcock’s theatre. There were collections of old films produced by him. The replay of a classic murder scene in a shower, as seen in the film Psycho played by Tony Perkins, was so realistic that made many in the audience covered their eyes in terror.

Leaving Hitchcock, we joined in the long queue of people waiting to come face to face with King Kong, the movie epic so loved by many. Actually, we were all play-acting as if we were being rescued from a city devastated by a giant gorilla by the name of King Kong!

In the so-called evacuation process, we had to get to the cable car station where we would be carried away to safety. On the way, we had to pass through old buildings with walls and pillars full of graffiti, just like a really rundown city somewhere in US. Reaching the station, some authority called all of us to be calm and get onto any of the cable cars fast for King Kong was not far behind, running amuck destroying everything in its path!

The cable car brought us right through what remained of the city. Suddenly, out of nowhere, there it was, King Kong, in front of us in rage. There were fires everywhere. Then King Kong came towards us and we all could see the raging red eyes, the long razor-sharp fangs, and the huge muscular arms extending towards us as if trying to rip us apart. However, the cable car was racing away at a fast speed getting away from King Kong. We were saved at last from the marauding beast! King Kong was so realistically designed that no wonder in film it looked so lifelike. The children were so very excited after the great thriller.

After the success evacuation, we all went straight to another action filled scenes, the earthquake! We got ourselves onto a train. As we were travelling, there was an announcement over the radio saying that an earthquake had been detected. We were told to hold on tight to the train.

Then everything went haywire. The bridge was collapsing, a petroleum tanker bursting into flames, and gallons of water gushing out towards us. Everybody was screaming his / her head out!

Within just a few minutes, everything that had fallen apart by the mighty force of the earthquake, came back, all nice and normal as if nothing had happened. That was what movie magic was after all. The set must have taken the ideas and efforts of many brilliant engineers and designers working together, to produce what we had just witnessed, felt and experienced a moment ago.

From the natural disaster area, we went straight to a quiet fishing village. It was supposed to be quiet, but of course at the moment, it was thronged with people, all trying to feel the attack of Jaws. The line was terribly long, winding all the way in a maze-like fashion. It was amazing to see that the people were so patient waiting their turn. No body even tried to jump the queue even though many were grumbling about the heat.

I was scared that the heat might affect my children. After about nearly two hours, we reached the boats. Everybody jumped into a fishing boat, ready for action. As the boat was making its way towards an open sea, our eyes were alert for surprises. Then, out of the water apt a giant great white shark with its mouth wide open leapt at us as if trying to swallow the whole boat.

The boat sped away. One of the shark hunters at the back of the boat started firing away at the shark. He missed. The shark came back towards us. Its dorsal fin was clearly visible at the surface of the water. Syafiq and Syazwan were debating whether the shark was real or not. Confusing them further, I told them that it was real.

We rushed back into the harbour to get help. On the way we saw another boat in ruin, burning, and almost being sunken. Perhaps it had been the victim of the same shark. We reached the harbour safe and sound but our hearts were still pounding vigorously. We had a photography session by the sides of a huge ‘shark’ caught by the fisherman.

The three suspense episodes made us all very hungry and thirsty. As luck was with us, there was a Chinese restaurant not far away from the harbour. From the menu, we chose something close to our appetite, seafood fried noodles and seafood fried rice. Both the fried noodles and fried rice were really good and ample. We had to box it just to prevent the good food going to waste and for our second meal later.

By the way, in US it is customary for restaurant-goers to box in whatever food they could not finish. I think this practice should be encouraged in Malaysia as I personally think that we waste too much of our good food, especially during buffet lunches and dinners.

The heavy lunch and the heat of the afternoon made me sleepy and tired. The children, on the other hand, were pushing us towards a pavilion not far from the restaurant. It was the ride of Back to the Future series!

As usual, after a long line, we were escorted into a futuristic space vehicle. We were told of the safety procedures before the take off. Our mission was to go after an escaped criminal. When everything was ready, off we went speeding at the speed of light. On the way, we came so very close to knocking many things but the great pilot was successful in bringing us safe and sound to our destination. The thrill of flying at such a great speed made Syazwan begging us to go back for more. I just had to say no to his incessant pleas. We still had too many interesting places to visit.

Quite fed up with all the excitement, I decided that it was time for a more relaxing theme. We chose Barney and friends. At the theatre, we all met Barney, Baby Bob, B.J. and his many friends. Barney was actually a television character well loved by most young kids in US. “I love you. You love me. We’re all family, with a great big hug and kiss from me to you. Won’t you say you love me too....” there went that famous rhyme sung by Barney and his friends.

We tried to have pictures taken with Barney, but the crowd was too big for us. Instead, the children got Barney’s signature for their collection.

On our way back, we stopped at the Ghostbusters theatre. It was here that we found out that it was wrong to judge a book by its cover. As we made our way into the theatre, we saw nothing in it that we first thought worth waiting. As we were about to make our exit, there was this eerie sound coming out of the theatre.

There and then we changed our mind and decided to wait for our turn to enter the theatre. The show was both frightening and entertaining. The ghostly figures were so real that on a couple of times, Syazwan screamed in fear.

At Nickelodeon studios we saw how children’s game shows, such as Galah Galah Island, were made. We were brought on a tour of the whole studio. The children loved it. We left Universal studios fully satisfied with all we had seen and experienced.

On the last day of our holidays, every one of us woke up late. The previous three days of continuous walking and waiting had taken its toll on our bodies. I felt that I really needed a good traditional massage to sooth all the pains, especially in my legs.

We arrived at the Sea World quite early. The sky was dark and soon it began to rain. We stopped at a souvenir stall and bought us five raincoats expecting that we had to walk in the rain. First we went and saw the beautiful flamingoes and the ever-playful dolphins. We met a family from Malaysia while we were at the flamingo pond.

Then there was this aquarium and the ray pond. At the ray pond, we saw hundreds of rays swimming so gently in the shallow manmade pond. An interesting experience for all of us was to touch and feed the slimy creatures. Syafiq and Syazwan, though hesitant at first, soon began stroking the fish that they used to have for dinner back home!

It was still raining nonstop. Trying to escape from the wetness, we joined in the crowd towards the White Thunder, a helicopter ride to the North Pole. The ride was full of adventures. We had to pass through many difficult times. The snowstorms, the avalanche, and the near crash added the excitement of the helicopter ride. Reaching the North Pole, we went straight into the research station and were met by friendly polar bears and walruses.

After the White Thunder ride, we approached the must-see show, the killer whale stadium, where Shamu the killer whale would be performing alongside many other whales and their human trainers. While waiting for the show to start, we were entertained with video shows pertaining to killer whales. Through the question and answer session, we knew more information about killer whales. We then knew that a group of killer whales was called a pod, not a school or a herd!

The whale show was mesmerizing. Shamu and friends performed brilliantly, jumping, swimming, and splashing. Once in a while they, following orders from their trainers, started splashing water towards the audience. Everybody sitting in the front rows was sure to be wet, really wet.

Besides the killer whale show, the sea lion comedy show was in a class of its own too. The children were laughing their hearts out in seeing the antics of these friendly creatures and their funny trainers!

Besides being a great tourist attraction, Sea World was also playing its role in the conservation of aquatic wild life. From the huge tanks, we saw for our first time, manatees, the creatures that once used to be abundant in Florida and were believed to be the origin of the Mermaid myth. How I wished, people should be more conscious of their responsibilities in keeping the nature’s equilibrium. It was almost eight when we began leaving Sea World for our last night in Kissimmee.

As we still had a day’s entrance to the Magic Kingdom on our value passes, we returned to the place just to get pictures of places that we missed during our first visit. Syazwan was successful in getting a replacement of his misplaced Mickey Mouse hat. At about 10.00 in the morning, we left Kissimmee for Athens. We reached Athens at around eight at night.

To be continued

Living in USA - Part 6

Time travelled fast. Soon spring was here. If all these while everywhere we went, we only saw leafless trees, spring brought something that we had been missing - colour. Only the beautiful and magnificent Magnolia tree behind our apartment was still standing with leaves even in the coldest part of winter.

Within a short time, trees started blooming. Flowers were everywhere, yellow, purple, red, blue, and a variety of other colours. Fields and vacant places by the roadsides and railway tracks were now alive with all sorts of flowers. The university campus turned to be a really beautiful garden.

Birds were plentiful too in spring. Red cardinals and the noisy Blue jays were my favourites. With their bright red colour, red cardinals were the ones that normally caught our eyes as they were busy courting, hopping from a branch to another.

In spring too, birds would be busy building their nests. Knowing that they would not be disturbed, a pair of Robins even laid their eggs in a broken fire host box just next to the door of our apartment. Four beautiful green eggs were also clearly seen in a simple nest on a tree in front of the apartment.

Squirrels and chipmunks were seen almost everywhere, either chasing each other or busy gathering seeds and cones. So approachable were they that Syazwan was always tempted to give them a chase thinking that they would make adorable pets. Of course they were just too fast for him.

With spring came hay fever! Pollens were everywhere. When I said everywhere, I really meant everywhere. They were on cars, floors, window, and even on our eyebrows and heads. Floors of our apartment airways would be yellow from the accumulation of pollen.

I was sneezing most of the time when I was outside. My wife seldom ventured out of the apartment in fear of getting asthmatic attacks. For the children, nothing bothered them. The cool weather was a bonus for them for then they could come out without having to be in thick clothes.

Around Athens there were a few places worth visiting, especially in spring. They were the beautiful botanical gardens, the zoological park, and the various recreational parks. The rose garden was my wife’s favourite place during our free times in the evenings. We would spend many hours just admiring roses that came in various colours and sizes.

The herbal corner was also an attraction to us. We could not resist ourselves from ‘stealing’ some bay leaves for our daily use every time we visited the place. At the zoological park, the children enjoyed the sight of the friendly raccoons, wise old owl, proud peacocks and the lazy bears.

With spring too, came fourth graders field trip. Diyana had been trying her best to convince us that it was safe for her to go to Rock City. She even asked her teacher, Ms. Johnson to talk to me and convince me in letting her go. Knowing that she would be taken care of and would be in good hands, we agreed. So, Diyana went to Rock City in Chattanooga, Tennessee and learned a lot about geology from the trip.

We were glad that her classmates accepted her. In fact everybody loved her. Her good manners (from their point of view, I presumed) made her Ms. Johnson’s and Ms. Seymour’s pet student. According to Ms. Johnson, her good manners had a great influence on the general behaviour of her classmates.

Being accustomed to Malaysian way of life, she stood every time she wanted to say anything in the classroom. This polite behaviour continued throughout her stay despite Ms Johnson’s reminder that it was not necessary for her to stand up every time she wanted to ask or answer a question.

Academically, she excelled in most subjects. For that she was awarded a certificate of Academic Excellence, which was personally signed by Bill Clinton, the President himself! As a Malaysian, I was proud of her achievements.

She was also active in extracurricular activities. She was elected as a patrol (comparable to a prefect in our school here) member. Syafiq, on the other hand, though did not perform that well in academics he was learning fast and was very popular to with his classmates. He even got his Citizenship award for his good behaviour!

It was also in spring that Dr Bounous and I began discussing my Master’s research project. Knowing that I was sent to US to do something about avian pathology, we had planned it in such a way that I had and would be taking a lot of avian courses besides the normal pathology courses taught in the department. For that I had to commute daily between the departments of pathology and avian medicine.

It was finally decided that I would be doing a research project on coccidiosis in chickens, something that was more practical and would not involve too many laboratory works. Dr Danforth of Maryland kindly supplied the Eimeria maxima oocysts. My academic committee members included Dr. Denise Bounous, my major Professor; Dr. Mark A. Goodwin, an adjunct Associate Professor from Southeast Poultry Laboratory in Oakwood, and Dr George N. Rowland, a Professor at Poultry Research Disease Centre, Avian Medicine ( I was told that he passed away recently). All of them were great human beings, always ever ready to give me a helping hand whenever I needed them. They were also generous with their knowledge and ideas and were forever willing to share them with me.

It was in spring too that I was first assigned to necropsy duties. I chose to be on duty for a full week at a time. There were a lot of cases to do. On the average there would be three to four carcasses to be necropsied. They came either from the university clinics or from private veterinarians around Georgia.

Sometimes I received weird animals such as chameleons, ostriches, snakes, sea horses and even molluscs for necropsy. Though I knew almost nothing about the anatomy and histology of these creatures let alone their diseases, it was still fun and interesting for me as they were really a pathological challenge for me.

To widen my pathological horizon, I even volunteered to do fish histopathology under the guidance of Dr Howerth. Doing necropsies and interpreting gross lesions were not really that difficult for me. It was the histopathological slide readings and interpretations than bothered me a lot.

Just imagine since leaving Universiti Pertanian Malaysia that was way back in 1981, I had never touched, let alone read and interpreted a microscopic slide. At times I felt like a fool, especially so when I was describing the normal things in a tissue section.

For a newcomer, even very little things in the slides seemed to be very significant. However, the pathologists on duty were always encouraging me. Instead of ridiculing me for my mistakes, they kept on saying that it was all right and I could be better with time. When I was right, they would always complement me by saying well done, an excellent job. All these encouraging and motivating words helped me a lot in going through the tough, sometimes mind-boggling works as a resident pathologist.

As far as I could remember, all throughout my two-year-stay in the department, I was never ridiculed even when I made silly mistakes. For them, even the word ‘good’ or ‘fine’ was not good enough as a complement. I wished bosses back home would do the same.

Besides the routine necropsies, I also had to get myself, like the other graduate students, involved in Tuesday’s slide seminar. Almost every Tuesday, a speaker would give a short talk on any pathology topic. In each session, he or she would normally present three to four glass slides of tissue sections for graduate students to describe. The glass slides were distributed to students three to four days before the seminar. On the seminar day, a student would be called in an arbitrary manner to describe a slide.

It was not so much the case that the slide was very difficult, but the stage fright could sometimes make you fumbling around looking for the right knob on the microscope. To show the most significant lesions that you saw previously, on the television monitor was no simple matter.

On many occasions I ended up by saying, “Well, I hope you all will trust me in that the nuclei of many hepatocytes contained large, basophilic inclusions”. My Malaysian accent too, at times, made me very difficult to be understood, especially by a few lecturers who had never gone out of Georgia.

A few of them said that I spoke too fast, but I guessed all they wanted from me was for me to speak the way they all did. I never changed the way I spoke throughout my stay in US.

An Australian graduate student once told me that many Americans wanted us foreign students to speak the way they did. To him, that was ridiculous. They did not know that they were the ones that were missing a lot of things in life as a result of their attitude.

He used to say that: “A person who speaks three languages is said to be trilingual. A person who speaks two languages is called bilingual. Then what about a person who speaks only one language? An American, of course!”

I saw there was nothing wrong with my English accent. All these made graduate students disliked Tuesdays. At times, we began to question the seminars for we would always feel or made to feel like a fool in front of all the pathology experts, but in return, no grade was given for all the efforts. Despite the fact that nobody among us graduate students liked the Tuesday seminars, with time and experience, I somehow found it beneficial at least from the point of view of learning pathology!

To be continued

Living in USA - Part 5

On the way to Athens we passed the states of Kentucky, Ohio, and Tennessee. The drive through Kentucky brought us right into the horse country. I loved to see the gently rolling horse farms.

In Tennessee we drove up the winding road to Smokey Mountain Park. The road was congested with cars, campers and buses carrying holidaymakers. We really had to crawl to get to Gatlinburg. It was really an attractive little city specially built for tourism.

We went up a hill in a cable car to a skiing resort. In the resort, they produced their own artificial snow to cover the hill slopes making it suitable for skiing throughout the year. There, the children were having their good time throwing snowballs at each other. Soon Syazwan befriended an American boy of his age and they soon were doing the same.

Smokey Mountain Park was the place where huge crowds gathered every autumn to appreciate the world of colours provided by the autumn leaves.

After a good night’s rest and a heavy breakfast, we left Gatlinburg for Athens. On our way down the Smokey Mountain road, we stopped besides a small river. In some parts of the river, the water was frozen. The children were enjoying themselves playing with the ice crystals hanging beautifully, as if being expertly carved by ice sculptors, on branches and twigs of trees along the river and hill slopes. We also met some Malaysian students busy taking photographs at the entrance of the park. They were from a university in Tennessee.

Our first holiday in US was over. Though not that properly planned, it had been a successful one. In one sense, we were lucky to have travelled that distance after a short time in US. Not many international students, or Georgian students for that matter, had done that. Many American students that I had met told me that they had never travelled out of Georgia, or the furthest they had travelled was only to Florida!

An American graduate student who used to play basketball with me in the evenings, told me that I was lucky to have the chance of travelling overseas. For him, the only overseas travel that he had was to the US Virgin Islands. That too was during his fully paid honeymoon! We had travelled through seven states and covered more than 3,000 miles in just a week! Surprisingly despite the long drive, we were still fresh as before when we arrived in Athens. I just could not imagine how such a long drive would have done to my body if I did it in Malaysia.

Winter in Athens could be very cold, but snow rarely fell. People in Athens were really looking forward for snowfall because schools and offices in Georgia would be closed if there were snow, even an inch on the road. People from northern states, where snow falls were common, would laugh at this but I was told that people in Georgia were not ready for snow, and to prevent any misfortune from happening during the rare snow fall, Georgia government decided that it was safer to declare a state holiday in the event of snow fall. However, there was no snow during our first winter in Athens. However, we still had to put on three layers of clothing whenever we ventured outside our warm apartment.

It was also in the first winter that I learned that car’s windshield needed to be scraped free of frost every morning before we could see where we were going. We were required to add Antifreeze in the car radiator to prevent water from freezing on us.

Syazwan was delighted with his discovery that a cup of water placed outside the apartment would be frozen within less than thirty minutes. With that simple discovery, so began his daily natural ice-making projects! Besides the simple ice, he also successfully produced a variety of products ranging from frozen orange juice, tea, and even our very own ‘air sirap’.

However, winter had many virtues too. First of all, the cold made us hungry all the time. My wife had to cook overtime just to satisfy our children’s good appetite.

Talking about food, halal food was easy to find in Athens, or at least in Georgia. We could find everything, from rice, glutinous rice, fish, lemon grass, all the spices, banana leaves, ‘daun pandan’, coconuts, durian, and the list went on provided we spent some time looking for them.

As far as halal chicken, we got it from the mosque. Halal beef and mutton were normally obtained from a Pakistani butcher shop in Atlanta. Beef price was cheap. The price of ribs (here ribs were sold together with all the quality meat attached) was just US$ 1.99 per pound.

For every trip, we normally bought a lot of beef that would last us for months! After every trip, we would have juicy steaks for our lunches and dinners! As for the supply of fresh fish, we normally went to two big fish and vegetable markets near Atlanta.

It was during these food hunts that we came across several oriental food stores that were mainly owned by Vietnamese, Koreans, or Filipinos. In such stores I found many exotic Asian foods. One day, I even found our own ‘sambal tumis’ there. On one occasion, an American family approached us asking us where to find the Malaysian ‘sambal tumis!’ According to them, they were introduced and later fell in love with our ‘sambal tumis’ when they were teaching in ITM.

All in all, we did enjoy the same kind of food that we normally have in Malaysia. Of course besides our normal Malaysian food, we had also added to our daily menu, a variety of American food including spaghetti, cheese, and pizza, just to name a few. We used spaghetti in place of our familiar yellow noodle. The result was we had fried spaghetti, tom yam spaghetti, laksa spaghetti, curry spaghetti, spaghetti soup and so on.

Cheese too was slowly becoming our children’s favourite. As far as fruits were concerned, grapes, apples, pears, peaches, and strawberry were much cheaper than in Malaysia. Talking about strawberries, I remembered how irritated was Diyana when Shamsuddin teased her for not liking the berries. At that time she still did not know how good strawberries were. Strawberries were too expensive and difficult to get in Malaysia.

After a while, all my children just fell in love with the fruits. Syazwan was lucky for during a field trip organized by his school, he was brought to a strawberry farm to have a try in harvesting the fruits. The fridge was always full of fruits, besides a variety of cereals and cookies. Katie, Diyana’s friend, really enjoyed herself with these fruits and cookies whenever she came visiting.

As far as tropical fruits were concerned, I did find durians during a few of my trips to Atlanta. They were expensive though. A frozen durian would cost around US$20.00! With other fruits, we had to make do with canned products. They had canned pineapples, rambutan and even mangosteens. However, watermelons, being an almost universally found fruit, were abundant and they were comparatively cheap.

It was also in our first winter that we performed our Ramadan fasting. Fasting in winter was easy because days were both shorter and cooler. We normally broke fast before six in the evening. Because of the cool weather, we seldom drank much water or fruit juices while breaking fast.

Our daily life went by as usual in winter. The children still went to school, but with a note from us telling their teachers that no food or drinks should be offered to them throughout the day. Diyana and Syafiq observed the fast diligently while in school and for that they were admired and appreciated by their friends and teachers.

For me, I had to explain to them what Ramadan was and after all that, they still wished that I could have a small drink during the day, especially when they saw me all exhausted after a necropsy session. They just could not understand why I had to torture myself fasting!

To many of them religion was not a serious thing. They would be referred to as religious freaks if they talked too much about religion. Once there was a big controversy when a school tried to implement a one-minute silence prayer session before the weekly school assembly. Many of them said that the school authority had no right to force certain religious beliefs onto their children. So, finally the idea was shelved.

No matter what many of them thought about religion, I always try my very best to give the true perspective of Islam to many, including my professors. Usually they would listen to our explanation with open minds, even after I told them that Jesus was never crucified and he was not the Son of God.

The greatest joy was when a newly converted Black American approached and asked me to teach him how to perform ablution and midday prayer at the mosque. During my stay in Athens, I saw a handful of Americans came to the mosque to say the Shahadah and became a Muslim. “Back home in Malaysia, how many non-Muslims have we ever converted?” I frequently asked myself.

We celebrated our first Hari Raya Idilfitri in US in a really modest way. The children, however, still got their new clothes. Idilfitri prayer was held in the vacant space in front of the Islamic Centre. Despite my ‘Baju Melayu’, it was cold in the parking lot. ‘Takbir raya’ was different. There was no melody to it like we normally had in Malaysia.

However, the sermon given by Hisham, a student from Egypt, was good and touching. It touched on our responsibilities towards our parents. Without realizing it, tears started streaming out of my eyes that morning. Though not declared as an official holiday, the children and I all were allowed a day off on Hari Raya.

After the prayers we, the Malaysian students, had a big party in the Family Housing Park, with satay, ‘nasi himpit’, and many more dishes. To get the Hari Raya feeling, we even played a few Hari Raya songs from tapes specially ordered from home. Though not as joyful as in Malaysia, Idilfitri was still something special to us. We missed home though.

To be continued...

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Living in USA - Part 4

A few weeks after settling down in US, I noticed that many people, be it Americans or people of other nationalities, did not know much about Malaysia. This irritated me a lot, especially in this information technology age, where you could get information about Malaysia by just touching a few keys of the computer.

They still thought that Malaysia was still so backwards that we did not have modern amenities like shopping malls and fast food chains, like KFC and A&W. I still remembered one day as we were coming back from a dinner at KFC, an Indian graduate student approached us and reminded me not to expose our children with too much KFC while we were here as they would find it difficult once we were back in Malaysia.

Calmly I explained to her that back home, we had KFC and many more American fast food chains everywhere, even in small towns. It was hard for them to believe what I had told him. Until now, I still think the government has to do a lot more to sell Malaysia to the world. A once-in-a-while campaign was just not enough. However, I think it has always been that way with the Americans. They just could not be bothered with the other parts of the world. To them, we were inferior to them in all aspects.

A few days before my first Christmas and New Year break, my friend, Nordin paid us a visit and suggested that we went on a holiday. Knowing that then was the best time for travel as I was still free, I agreed to his suggestion. We decided to go northwards.

Our first objective was to search for snow for the sake of the children. They had been begging us to take them to places with snow. We rented an automatic maroon Dodge Caravan for the trip. Driving in US roads was quite an experience. Besides driving on the opposite side of the road, there were minor differences in the way they drove and most important, they were generally better and more considerate drivers than we in Malaysia.

We left our apartment quite late in the afternoon. We decided to keep on driving north until we were too tired to drive. After about eight hours of driving and a speeding ticket (we were caught doing 75 in a 55-mph zone near Richmond City), we stopped for a night rest at Alexandria, a small city in Virginia.

The police here did not normally have roadblocks for catching speedsters. Instead, they normally blended in the traffic following closely behind the speeding car. The familiar short siren and the blue lights of the police car would only be switched on telling us to stop whenever the speeding offence was performed over certain time duration. Also we did not have to come out of the car, like we normally did in Malaysia. In fact our act of coming out of the car could be taken as an attempt to resist arrest, so I was told.

The police officer would then approach the car and a summons would then be issued. As for the compound, we agreed to share and each of us had to pay more than a hundred dollars for it! We stayed at Alexandria’s Day’s Inn, a quite decent motel. That night, we had grilled chicken for dinner in one small restaurant a block away from the hotel.

The next morning, after breakfast, we left Alexandria for Washington DC. As far as driving was concerned, we had a mutual agreement between the two of us. I would be driving on most highways (it was the easier drive) while Nordin, who was younger and had more experience driving in US, would be driving through cities, especially when we had to find the right way after getting lost! Without a detailed map of Washington DC, we had to go round and round most of the city in search of the city’s great tourist attraction areas.

With a spirit of never giving up, we did find what we were looking for, the Museum of Natural History, Lincoln Memorial, Veterans Memorial, Smithsonian Institute, and of course, the White House. The weather was getting very cold but still there was no snow.

While walking towards the White house, we noticed that Syazwan was unusually slow. He was walking so slowly that we always had to wait for him to catch up. Then we realized that the extreme cold had affected him. His legs and body were ice cold. I rushed him into the van and switched on the heater to warm up his freezing body.

On seeing this, a Chinese lady hawker offered a muffler and cotton ski mask to us at a relatively cheap price, out of sympathy perhaps. Only when his body temperature returned to normal, he became active again and so we continued walking towards the White House. We went into the White House’s beautifully landscaped compound and enjoyed the live Christmas trees.

Being too cold, Syazwan had to answer the call of nature behind some shrubs in the garden! Until now, whenever he sees the White House, be it on television or in newspapers, he would yell, “I was there! I was there! I peed there.” It was in Washington DC that we were mistaken for Cambodians by a group of Cambodian tourists!

A fact of life you had to reckon with living in a country like US was that, it was almost impossible to tell what nationality one was until and unless he or she opened his or her mouth and started talking. My wife had been mistaken for a Peruvian and for me with my kind of face I either had been mistaken for a Mexican, Egyptian, Indian, or even a Bangladeshi!

Diyana was always in an unforgiving mood every time she was mistaken for either a Filipina or an Indian. She was so proud of being a Malaysian! So engrossed was Diyana in playing around the real and well-decorated Christmas trees in the compound of the White House, she lost her favourite watch along the way.

The Museum of Natural History was the other favourite place for the children. Over there, they enjoyed the collection of dinosaurs’ skeleton on display. Syazwan could not believe it when I showed him the complete skeleton of the famous Tyrannosaurus rex. It was after watching the movie Jurassic Park that he knew most of the dinosaurs by name.

Later at the park, Syazwan was busy chasing after the noisy sea gulls, playing catch-us-if-you-can with the beautiful birds. While walking through the big crowd in the park, for the first time we had salted Pretzels for lunch. From then on, we had Pretzels whenever we were out shopping. They were filling but not fattening! I was amazed every time I saw pretzels being made. The dough was thoroughly kneaded, accurately weighed, and expertly twisted by the pretzel-maker. My major professor even had a large container full of dried pretzels in her room. According to her, she could keep on nibbling them without fear of getting fat.

Satisfied with what Washington DC had to offer, we moved on to New York City. Nordin was doing most of the driving to New York. Approaching New York, we decided that it was wise to stop and have a nice sleep in a city just outside New York. We stopped at Newark for petrol and were advised by old man at the petrol station to find a motel near Newark Airport.

We followed his advice and stopped at quite a cozy hotel at the Airport. Newark was an eerie city at night, and you would not like to wander around it without a very good reason. At eight, the city was already deserted, not even a soul was seen walking the empty, garbage-strewn city. The deafening silence of the city was only occasionally broken by the sporadic sound of police sirens. The city reminded me of a scene from the Twilight Zone.

Fresh from the night’s rest, we continued our way towards New York. Just like driving to Washington DC, without a good map of New York, we just had to bulldoze our way into the city and hoped we found our way. It was not that difficult really. According to Nordin, New York drivers, especially their cab drivers, in many ways, were just like KL drivers. We passed the famous Empire State building and many bridges on our way to the jetty that would take us to the Statue of Liberty.

At a toll plaza somewhere just outside New York we were yelled at by a security guard for not having enough coins for the toll. There we just had to throw the right amount of coins in a kind of basket. The gate would be opened only when the exact amount of coins thrown in. There were signs everywhere along the road to the toll plaza warning drivers to be ready with the exact change of coins, but being first time in New York, we missed these messages.

After going around quite a big part of New York, we finally made it to the jetty. We took a ferry to the Statue of Liberty. It was a joy ride all the way. At the Island, there was a long queue of people waiting to get up the Lady’s crown. We joined in the line and waited for about three hours before really getting into the Lady.

While in line, our Syazwan found time to befriend a boy by the name of Jeremiah. He and Syazwan were always playing together. Jeremiah’s father had to carry him on his back just to separate them when it was their turn to enter the lady. The extreme cold made the waiting really unbearable. We tried everything that we could think of to keep warm but failed.

According to one wise old lady at the back, no one could get used to that kind of cold, not even if he came from Alaska. After a snail-pace one-by-one walk inside the Lady’s spiraling staircases, we made it up the Lady’s crown. The feeling once you reached the topmost level made it worth all the suffering that you had gone through while waiting. We were reminded through the public address system to be considerate to others behind and stop there just long enough to appreciate the view of New York City and may be for one or two snapshots as a proof that we were the lucky few who had come, seen and conquered the Statue of Liberty.

From New York we proceeded to the famous Niagara Fall. Our quest for snow up to now was still unfruitful. Despite the bitter cold, still there was no snow anywhere. Niagara fall was a sight to behold. Its thundering white water and rainbows amazed us all. No wonder it was regarded as one of the seven natural wonders of the world! We were a bit frustrated for not being able to cross over to the Canadian side of the fall. They said that the fall was more awesome and majestic on the Canadian side. It was my fault for failing to get our I-20 form endorsed at the University’s International student’s centre. Without it being endorsed, we would not be allowed back into US. Clearly, it was a case of being too near and yet too far! It was also a case of me not paying attention to details.

Besides the waterfall, we also visited an aquarium in Niagara City. For the first time, the children came face to face with playing bottle-nosed dolphins and had trick photography sessions in cages with great white sharks. Forgetting that it was New Year’s Eve, we had great difficulty finding a place to sleep.

Most hotels and motels were fully booked. At last, after a long search, we found ourselves a cheap old motel. We did not really have a good sleep that night. Outside, peoples were drinking and getting themselves drunk. The sounds of broken bottles made my wife and me wide awake most of the night. Our motel room’s door was no help either. It was in a really bad shape. Anyone could just give it a slight push and he or she would be in the room in no time. While in Niagara City, Nordin made a telephone a call to his friends over in Purdue University, Indiana. He received some good news. Snow was falling furiously over there.

After a brief family discussion, we decided not to let down our children’s wish of playing with snow. So, we continued on towards Indiana. After a heavy breakfast, off we went to Indiana. It was in Ohio that for the first time in our life, we saw, felt, and touched real snowflakes. While stopping at a petrol station, it began to flurry. Snowflakes were falling from the sky and our children were scurrying all over the parking area trying to catch some snowflakes.

So, after a few hundred miles of travelling, our quest for snow was finally successful! At Purdue we saw a lot more snow. A few Malaysian undergraduates willingly brought us around campus so that our children could enjoy snow. They really enjoyed themselves. Syafiq and Syazwan were busy either throwing snowballs at each other or snow-sliding along hill slopes around campus. We put up a night in the city.

That night more snow fell. By morning the van was covered by two to three inches of snow. The children had the best time of their lives playing with the snow, making snowmen and again throwing snowballs at each other. They momentarily forgot about the cold! Then we thought that we had travelled long enough and my wallet was also getting thinner. So, we then decided to head back to Athens.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Living in USA - PART 3

Being a member of the school’s parent’s teachers association, I was made to feel quite at home by teachers and other parents alike. Besides me, there were a handful of foreign parents whose children attended Chase Street Elementary School. They were from China, Korea, Mexico and other Latin American countries.

In no time we made quite a number of friends, especially the parents of Diyana’s best friends. I still remembered how exciting it was when I prepared chicken satay, complete with rice cubes and all to Diyana’s classmates. They all loved it, especially the rice cubes and the peanut sauce that went with the barbecued skewered chicken. “Thank you sir for the meal. It was the best that we have had since a long time!”.

Their genuine compliments after the meal made all the trouble that we had to undergo preparing it really worthwhile. Sadly I had to miss most of the children’s field trips due to my tight academic schedule. However, I always made it a point as far as possible not to miss all school activities and conferences.

What I liked most about school activities in Athens was that there was no lengthy speech by politician and each activity would not take more than two hours. One such activity that we enjoyed most was the school’s Christmas celebration. The children, including ours, would participate in choirs and music shows. There was also face painting session that Syazwan and Syafiq loved so much. Teachers would paint whatever character or design on the participant’s face for a small fee.

As Syazwan was too young (he needed to be four before or on the first of September) to be accepted into a pre-kindergarten class, he spent most of his free time at home, watching television. He was allowed to go out of the house only when his brother and sister came home from school.

We used to go down the hill behind our duplex and play Frisbee. When it was time to go home, Syazwan, being a gentleman he was, never forgets to collect beautiful wild flowers for his mama.

Unlike in Malaysia, here we had to be extra careful with our children whenever they were playing outside the house. Generally, children here were taught and continuously reminded not to talk to strangers, never get into a stranger’s car, and never accept anything from a stranger without a parent’s consent. So don’t be surprised if small kids whom you meet in the street will not answer your questions and instead, walk away from you! It is just the way they were taught by their parents and teachers and not because they dislike you or anything.

In school too, children were taught about their body and not to allow anybody to touch any part of their body. During these know-and-respect-your-body sessions, girls and boys would be put in different classes. I was told that there were too many paedophiles and mentally sick people around that you could not be too careful in taking care of your children. This is something that I wish and pray will never happen in this beautiful country of ours!

In our new neighbourhood, soon Syafiq and Syazwan made a few friends. They were Suzanne and Carina, two lovely children of a Mexican couple working in a poultry processing plant in Athens. They all went to the same school as our children.

To our surprise, the girls were very good football players. Together with their elder brother, Martin, cousins, and Syafiq, they played soccer almost every afternoon in a vacant lot at the back of the house.

The friendly dog and a cuddly and slightly over weight Persian cat from the next house neighbour were the other main attractions for our children. One night when the moon was full, a little wild rabbit from the nearby brush made its way into our compound and everybody was glued to the window, all very quiet, admiring its grace and beauty as it was silently and cautiously eating the grass and nibbling at the fallen poor-man’s apples. For all of you who had never been to US, poor man’s apples are wild fruits just like miniature wild apples. They are sourish and a bit bitter in taste.

As for me, the first quarter was a real challenge. After about thirteen years leaving the university and being a government officer, I found out that here I had to do almost everything on my own. Gone were those days where I could just direct my subordinates to do almost anything for me. There was no typist to type all my reports and other paper works. In fact, in the whole of pathology department, there was not even a typist!

There were only two secretaries in the administration office. They were mainly responsible to the Head of Department. Everyone typed his or her own works.

It was about the computer that I struggled a lot. This was because back home in Malaysia, I was too stubborn or simply lazy to touch the computer. As a result I was almost totally computer blind coming to America.

With hard work and a constant help from fellow graduate students and a technician by the name of Randolph Brooks (Randy), gradually I became quite a good user and a great admirer of computers To improve my computer skill, I even bought an old, but still useable Tandy computer from Shamsuddin.

Like me, the children too, after a while, became good with computers, at least my young ones knew how to play computer games! Computer golf was one of our favourites. Soon all of us knew what an eagle, a birdie, a bogey or a double bogey was all about! We would be very excited when one of us got a hole in one and our names appeared on the computer screen as those who scored a record low. We laughed at each other every time the ball fell into the water. Once in a while, we even managed to beat Jack Nicklaus in a man against computer match!

Besides golf, the children also loved the great car race. It was fun to watch Syazwan ‘driving’ a Porsche. So fast was he driving that on many occasions he received tickets for speeding. Many times too, he drove straight into the sea! Both Syafiq and Syazwan would burst into laughter every time Syazwan was booked for over speeding.

As far as education was concerned, surprisingly I found out that it was much easier to digest, absorb and most important of all, remember all the courses taught compared to when I was an undergraduate at Universiti Pertanian Malaysia (Universiti Putra Malaysia, as it is called now). I guessed it was the working experience that had helped me a lot or perhaps there was less pressure of being afraid of failing.

Besides that, the presence of friendly lecturers also played a definitive role in my smooth transformation from an officer to a graduate student. They were always there to help you whenever you have problems, and more importantly, they respected you and treated you as their own peer and not as their lowly subordinates. It was easy to gain their confidence and respect.

From a fellow senior graduate student, I knew that students would be good in the eyes of the lecturers if they did their best in whatever tasks they were assigned to do and speak up when necessary. From the seniors, I gradually learned the academic, research, and social norms of the department. Despite being away from the academic circle for so long, within a reasonably short time I became fond of studying and learning on my own. In short, just a few months after registration, I became a full-fledged, highly motivated graduate student!

In the Department of Pathology, I was given a table, a chair, and a microscope. The table was placed near the door, in one corner of the room facing the wall. No Feng Shui at all I guessed. At times, especially when my ego was up, I hated them for not giving me a better place and started comparing it with the facilities I was given when I was an officer in Malacca.

Sometimes I did wonder why foreign graduate students, were given a less comfortable room compared to the Americans even though we paid more for the fees (by the way, I was not the only foreign graduate student complaining about the matter). With me were Amy Brix (she graduated one year after my arrival), Mary Gray (presently she is working at Russell’s Research Centre), Anna Patricia (a graduate student originally from Colombia but now a permanent US resident), and Chaeyong Jung (the only male graduate student besides me in the room, a South Korean). Lucia Garcia, a graduate student from Mexico joined us a few months before I graduated. She took Amy Brix’s table. It was on the table that I completed most of my histopathological slide readings and other paper works. Recently I was told that Susanna, a Croatian graduate student, now occupied the table.

For the first quarter, I had to take the subject General pathology together with DVM students. As they started the quarter a few weeks earlier than me, I had to do my own study all those topics that I had missed. I even had to take the first test later than them.

As far as the professors were concerned, there were Dr Crowell (a real joker who always create laughter and joy in the class), Dr Howerth (or just Buffy to us), Dr Barry Harmon (he passed away a couple of months back), Dr Carmichael Paige and Dr Greg Hall.

The teaching style was really fascinating to me. Lectures were kept to a minimum. Students were encouraged to do their own study at the CALC (Computer Aided Learning Centre) at their own time. Glass as well as Kodachrome slides were easily accessible for reference. Good, thorough and easily understood printed notes were made available to all students. With that kind of learning atmosphere, I got an A for General pathology. Even I was surprised with my own achievement.

After slightly over a month staying at the duplex, my application for an apartment in the family housing was approved. We were assigned to apartment H 210, not very far from Azhar’s apartment. It was a two-bedroom apartment. It was a real blessing from God the Almighty since I was beginning to find it difficult to go to school at night without having to worry about the safety of my family at home. I was considered very lucky getting the apartment so soon as normally a student had to wait at least six months to a year before getting one.

So with the help of a few Malaysian students, and by renting a tow-truck, we moved into our new apartment. Everybody in the family was very happy. My wife was especially happy for now she would have a friend, Misliza, within walking distance to have a friendly chat or to turn to in time of need.

The children were happy too for now they had many more friends from many more nationalities to play with. The family housing complex was so international that made you feel more at home. There were Chinese, Koreans, Iranians, Indians, Pakistanis, Turks, Syrians, South Americans, Thais, Malaysians, and Filipinos etc. living together in harmony with their American counterparts.

You could smell all types of aroma, oriental mostly, if you happened to pass by the family housing just before lunch or dinner times. It was here that Diyana and Syazwan met their closest friends, Zahra and Muhammad respectively. They were the children of Hussin, a graduate student from Iran who was doing his masters in bacteriology over in the Poultry Disease Research Centre.

Children being children, soon they began forming groups. Diyana in one group, and her Latin American neighbours in the other. They were frequently involved in heated debates comparing the economic success of Malaysia over Peru, Brazil and Ecuador.

More than once, I had to intervene. Only after my explanation of the actual fact, with proofs of course, they slowly believed that Malaysia was a better country than Peru, Ecuador, Brazil or any other Latin American country for that matter. I particularly remembered an occasion when one of the children’s fathers even went to the library just to check me out. Later he approached me and said that I was right after all. He even asked me about helping him finding a job in Malaysia!

She was so proud being a Malaysian! Once I overheard Diyana and her friends talking about Malaysia.

“Do you have television programmes in Malaysia?” asked one of her friends.
“Excuse me. We make televisions!” She answered in a tone that explained it clearly that Malaysia produced and exported television sets.

To be continued...

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Living in USA - Part 2

My very first official duty was to get our social security cards at the Federal Building in downtown Athens. It was at the office I first noticed how efficient it was the way they handled things. All of us obtained our social security numbers, at least the temporary letters, in less than half an hour.

Within two weeks, we received our social security cards by priority mail. I strongly suggest that our National Registration Department should learn something from this. I had to wait almost two years before getting my new identification card!

The next thing was to open a checking account at one of the commercial banks in Athens. Here again I noticed how easy it was. Neither an introducer nor a very high deposit was required for the exercise.

Then it was time for the student identification card. After filling an easy, user-friendly form and a simple photography session at Tate’s students centre, the card was ready within twenty minutes. An interesting observation that I made while filling forms was that sex, race, and religion of the applicant were never asked in any of the form. I was later told that such particulars were personal and not included to prevent any form of discrimination.

After obtaining my student’s identification card, for the first time I went to Department of Veterinary Pathology at the College of Veterinary Medicine to meet the faculty members, especially my graduate coordinator, Dr. Denise Ida Bounous.

The College of veterinary medicine’s main building was only about ten minutes walking distance from the family housing. It was a really classic building, blending well with its surrounding. Unluckily, Dr Bounous was away and instead, I went to see Dr Duncan, the then Department Head.

He was a friendly and wise old man. I was advised to change, from being an officer to a student. According to him, for this transformation to be possible and successful, I required a lot of adjustments. “Never feel bad when a technician order you around. You’re no more an officer you used to be in your country. Over here you’re just another one of our many graduate students.”

Those were his first few sentences that really stuck to my mind until I graduated. With his help, the registration process was over in no time. I had to do a lot of walking for that though! Besides that, I also had to get my MMR (mumps, measles, and rubella) shots before I could be officially registered.

Most of the free times available in the first week were spent by going around Athens City, shopping for essentials and necessities and not to mention doing a lot of window-shopping. Sears, Uptons, Macy, J.C Penny, T.J Max, Wal-Mart, and K-Mart just to name a few, were our favourite places to look for clothes and other household items.

As far as grocery shopping was concerned, we preferred shopping at Kroger as it supplied the freshest and highest quality food around Athens.

Athens was not a really big city. Being a University City, it had quite a cosmopolitan population. One thing that never failed to amaze me was the friendliness nature of the people of Athens in general.

Whenever we passed them, be it on the roadsides, at the mall, or anywhere that you could think of, they would always smile and say “Hi! How are you doing?” Everybody you met, irrespective of age, colour, sex, or social standing, would say this. It was a sort of the way of the South, so I was told.

To many of the Americans (at least people of my age group and younger), colour was just skin-deep. You removed a few millimetres of what-ever-coloured skin you are blessed with; you would have the same raw flesh and red blood underneath!

We were greatly moved by a real-life story of a handsome White American marrying his Black fiancé who had lost one of her legs in a tragic bomb explosion in Oklahoma City. Back home in Malaysia, I had come across a story of a man terminating his engagement to his fiancé just because she had lost a centimetre of her fingers in an accident at her working place!

It was during these many shopping outings that I realized that Americans use credit cards or personal checks for almost everything. Once, I met a rich-looking middle age lady issuing a check for sweets valued at sixty-nine cents! Everybody that I knew, including university students, had one or sometimes more than one credit cards. Most people could afford using credit cards, as the minimal monthly payment was very low, much lower than ours.

Unlike in Malaysia, personal checks were accepted everywhere in US, at least in the state where the checks were issued. All you had to do was to show your driving license to verify yourself whenever you issued a check.

also noticed that Americans did not have official identification cards like we do. Driving license was used for all sorts of verification purposes.

They seldom carried much cash around either. It was a rare sight to see a fifty-dollar note in a normal man’s wallet.

It was also during these shopping sprees that I learned how strong consumers were in the US. Every item bought, except underwear of course, could be returned for cash or exchanged within a month of sale without any question being asked or exchange of sour faces and irritating remarks. A receipt was all that was required for such an exchange or full refund.

It is sad to see the opposite in Malaysia. In many shopping centres it will not be unusual to find these notices: “Anything sold is not refundable”. “Personal cheques are not acceptable.” I guess the FOMCA must be sleeping in this matter!

Besides trying to get acquainted with the classic city of Athens, I was also frantically looking for a house or an apartment. For this, I had to browse through the advertisement column in local newspapers and students’ advertisement corners at several locations in the campus.

After countless frustrating telephone calls, I finally found an affordable duplex (comparable to a single storey semidetached house in Malaysia) for rent at Kim Chase Street. It was about six miles from campus on the way to Commerce, a great shopping town that we later fell in love with.

The manager, a UGA student, was so kind to let me have the duplex without having me to sign the agreement form. I guessed she was sympathetic with me, as she knew well that I would soon be given the family housing apartment in campus. Besides her, there were a few other UGA students residing in the area.

The housing complex had about one hundred houses nestled in beautifully kept pine trees. Security wise or perhaps because of my prejudice against a section of American people (I would not say who, but I guess you know who they are) who were normally associated with crime and violence, I did not quite like the house. Imagine, the windows were so simply made that any ten-year-old healthy boy could push himself through without even exerting himself.

But I had no choice, I just had to move on and started living as a family on our own. Ten days were long enough for us to impose on Shamsuddin.

Soon after getting the house, I found myself an old but reliable car. It was a 1983 blue Ford Escort Wagon. The owner was a fine arts professor who was getting rid of the car as he had far too many cars to maintain. He needed the money too, so I was told. I paid him US$ 1,900 for it.

When everything was ready, we moved into our newly rented duplex. Following a Malay custom, we even had a buffet ‘kenduri’ for that. Many Malaysian students were there. They, for a change, enjoyed all the Malaysian dishes prepared by my wife. The duplex was partially furnished, carpeted, and equipped with a romantic fireplace and a wooden deck at the back.

It was in the duplex that Syazwan celebrated his first birthday party in US. It was his fourth birthday. It turned out to be quite a party. Many of his friends from the neighbourhood came along and joined us at the party. Syazwan was very delighted, especially with all those birthday presents from the guests.

After a while, I realized that it was to my advantage to have a Georgia driving license. So, I went to the Georgia State Patrol office for the purpose. Since I already had a Malaysian and international driving license, all that I had to do was just to take the computer test on US traffic rules and regulations. Having studied well all the rules from a handy little booklet a week before, I passed the test in one try. It was easy. All you had to do was not to have more than six wrong answers! I made four mistakes.

One of them was still debatable though. According to them alcohol was a drug! After passing the test, getting instant photographs, and less-than-half-an-hour waiting, there it was, my Georgia driving license. A state-driving license was important because with it you could issue cheques, get a cheaper car insurance premium, and even a lower car rental. It sure was less cumbersome than producing the Malaysian international passport every time we issue a cheque!

After getting ourselves settled in the new neighbourhood, it was time for me to look at our children’s schooling. At Athens-Clarke County Education Department, I was told that Noorul Diyana and Khairul Syafiq would be enrolled in Chase Street Elementary School.

Here in Athens, children were enrolled in schools nearest to their homes. Those who preferred to send their children to schools, which were not within their home area, could do so but they had to forgo the free school bus.

Before being allowed into a school, like me, they had to get inoculations against measles, rubella and mumps at Athens’s Department of Health. The nurses giving the inoculations were really good in what they were doing. Imagine, Syafiq who was always scared of needles, did not even wink an eye while he was inoculated! He did not even realize that it was over when the nurse had completed her job.

At Chase Street Elementary, the oldest Elementary school in Athens, Diyana was placed in grade four and Syafiq in grade three. Soon the two of them made friends and seemed to enjoy the good atmosphere provided by the school and teachers. Teachers were so friendly and the sight of teachers hugging their students was nothing new.

In the school, a class consisted of only around twenty students. If a class contained more than twenty-five students, the Parents Teachers Association would start complaining for an additional class.

A good school bus system was available ferrying them to and fro from school to our duplex for free. They had separate buses, equipped with safety belts, for pre-kindergarten and kindergarten kids. I was amazed at how well they, these bus drivers, looked after the safety and welfare of the children. These buses would normally stop right in front of the children’s house every time they came to fetch or send back the children. The children would not be allowed to disembark until and unless their parents opened the door!

If the parents were not in, they would then be ferried back to the school where teachers on duty would look after them until their parents came! How I wished Malaysian government could provide such a service or at least have a centralized school bus system! In school, they would have a free high quality breakfast and a hearty lunch. However, I had to inform the cafeteria caretakers of what they could and could not eat.

Friday, February 15, 2008


It was three in the afternoon Friday the second of September 1994, to be more exact. After being feted with delicious food and drinks in the luxurious MAS Golden lounge, we were called in to get on board the Malaysia Airlines Boeing 747 heading for Los Angeles. Thanks to the Public Service Department, Training Division in particular, our tickets had been upgraded from the Economy to the Golden Club Class.

Our three children, Noorul Diyana, Khairul Syafiq, and Khairul Syazwan, were all very happy about the journey. They were all too excited about their first international flight. As soon as they were comfortably seated, everybody was busy trying his and her MAS Air vision Individual Television sets. Soon they were too busy either playing with video games or enjoying the latest movies to worry about what might lay ahead.

The monotonous drone of the jet’s engine was occasionally interrupted by Syazwan’s laughter as he was tickled by the antics of Rowan Atkinson or more popularly known as Mr. Bean.

My wife had a mixed feeling about the long journey. Initially she was not that happy when I told her of my plan of going to US. She was too close to her parents and the mere thought of living in a far away country worried her. She was also worried about her asthma. She feared that the extreme sub-zero temperatures of US winters might worsen her condition.

Friends, sisters and not to mention our own children, had managed to persuade her and make her change her view about us going to US. Judging from her facial expression, I guessed now she too was looking forward for the experience of living in US.

As for me, I was both anxious and happy about the whole thing. Anxious thinking about living in a foreign land with the welfare and security of a family of four to think about and happy for finally, I was on my way to achieve my up-to-now unfulfilled dream. A dream that I had since my school days, that was to continue my studies abroad.

As Prof. Sheikh Omar of the Universiti Putra put it when I met him for a reference letter, I was a bit late but still not too late in pursuing my personal ambition of becoming a veterinary pathologist. Rightfully, I should have done it long ago when I was offered to do it just after I graduated. But then, I was just too tired of studying and living on ‘nasi kawah’. Also, the attraction of working and earning a living of my own was simply too great for me to resist.

Fourteen straight years of formal education, six in Primary schools, eight in a Boarding school and six in a university was just too exhaustive for me. However, philosophically speaking, I guessed that it was just my destiny. Perhaps I was predestined to go overseas together with all my family members.

The take off was a smooth one. True to her reputation, the in-flight service was excellent. Much to the delight of Diyana, we were all addressed by names by the friendly and ever-smiling stewardesses. There were still many empty seats in the Business class. We enjoyed the spacious legroom and the wider, more comfortable seats of the exclusive cabin.

Best of all, the food served was ample and delicious. Cold drinks were offered freely without us having to repeatedly ask for them. Syazwan, with his good appetite, really enjoyed the food and drink served and was constantly asking for more, knowing very well that everything on board was free. The freshly baked buns and butter were his favourites. Knowing that he loved the buns so much, once the stewardesses even agreed to keep them warm and ready for him well after dinnertime. He was deep in his sleep when the buns were first served.

Syafiq, the quietest of them all, was engrossed in a world of his own, playing with his video games. Next to me, Diyana was constantly pinching herself and occasionally my arm, just to make sure that she was not dreaming and that she was really flying to US. In short, everybody was having a good time throughout the flight.

The plane made an hour stop in Taipei. We were asked to disembark so as to allow the cabin crews to prepare for the incoming new passengers. Much to our surprise, we found that most shops at the airport were closed. Even our little Syazwan was angry at a salesgirl in one of the food outlets at Taipei Airport, when his wish to buy a piece of cake was not entertained. She kept on saying that they were ‘closed’. To anybody with a sound mind and good eyesight, it was a great lie. The shop was wide open and the arrays of mouth-watering cakes were clearly exhibited for customers. I guessed she was just really lazy to entertain only a handful of customers like us. How rude and inconsiderate! While going around the airport, we ran across a family from Kemaman who was also going to the US. They were going to South Carolina. The husband was going for a short course in petroleum engineering there.

After about eighteen hours of flight, at about 6.30 pm local time, we reached Los Angeles Airport. We were lucky I guessed. The custom and immigration clearances were easy and smooth. The children, especially Syazwan, were running all over the arrival hall. They were the first among us to set feet on American soil, or rather American concrete!

They were all very excited and looked surprisingly fresh. Contrary to our expectations, the long flight did not have any visible effect on them. Instead, we were the ones who were feeling a bit weary. I thought that probably it was what they called the effect of jet lag.

With the help of a well-drawn sketch given by a friend in Malacca, we found our way to the US Air ticket counter without much problem. So, it looked like that there was no truth in the advice given to her by a friend in Malacca. She was constantly reminded to put on a pair of flat shoes as the walk along LA Airport would be a long one and wearing high-heeled shoes would be dangerous as she could be easy prey to muggers roaming the LA Airport! Reluctantly, she was forced to buy a pair of flat shoes that she never would have bought if not for the seemingly true advice.

On the way to the ticket counter a taxi driver approached us and asked, “Are you all Malaysians?” “Yes, we sure are,” I replied. “No wonder your faces look kind of familiar....” he went on and on as he willingly accompanied us to the ticket counter. He was a real Malaysian indeed. He had been living in Los Angeles for almost fifteen years, most of the time as a taxi driver. I was not that surprised for I knew Malaysians were almost everywhere in this wide world.

Once I even met a group of Malaysians in a deer farm in a far-off island of Mauritius! We had to wait for almost six hours for the flight to Charlotte, North Carolina. Feeling very hungry, we roamed the beautiful airport for food. Being the first time in a foreign land, most of the foods sold were not to our taste. Even hot ‘teh-o’ was not available. I forgot then that coffee, and not tea, was the favourite hot drink of the Americans! The only drink resembling tea available was the plain-tasting bottled drink that they called iced-tea. We ended up eating potato chips and some leftover cookies brought from Malaysia. We had to thank my mother for the ‘baulu’.

Syazwan, being as active and friendly as ever, soon was busy playing with American boys, some of them twice his age. It was amazing to see how they managed to understand each other for then Syazwan neither speak nor understand even a word of English. With their own kind of sign language, they were communicating well as if they knew each other for years. Syazwan had to say good-bye to his newly found friends when they got on board a plane to Florida.

Looking at how easily he made friends made me feel confident that he would not be lonely for too long once we reached Athens. While waiting for the plane to Charlotte, we were all very proud to be Malaysians when we overheard the following remarks from a group of American soldiers who were admiring our new Boeing 747.

“Look at that. What a beautiful new plane. It must be the Malaysian Airlines.”
“See that, that’s the old plane that we’re flying in soon,” a balding but tough-looking corporal added while pointing his finger at an old plane belonging to one of the American airlines.

The plane was really old. Syazwan and Syafiq could not control themselves. They burst into laughter when they saw one of the plane’s crewmembers stretching and struggling to reach and clean the still-dirty spots on the plane’s front windshield! I was very sure that the old plane was being used only for domestic flights. No matter what, I would not want to be flying in that plane! I would rather fly in our own Malaysia Airlines anytime, no matter how much more expensive the fare is.

The flight to Charlotte took about five hours. Compared to Malaysia Airlines, the in-flight service of US Air Boeing 767 was, to be frank about it, horrible. My shoulder was constantly being rudely knocked every time a stewardess passed through. Simply put, she was too big and rough for the job. Even Diyana noticed the difference in the way the stewardess did things during the flight. For the in-flight music, we even had to rent the earphone!

I had read much about ways of cutting expenses, but renting out earphones to your own passengers was just too much. As for food, we were only served hamburgers and peanuts throughout the five-hour flight. By the way, we were in the economy class on US Air. Spying into the first class cabin through the slightly opened curtain, I was sure MAS business class was far better in term of service, food and also in-flight amenities. It was drizzling when we reached Charlotte.

In Charlotte we discovered that we would not be travelling in a jet plane to Athens, Georgia. It would be just a small plane. I did not even know what kind of plane it was. All that I could still remember about it was that it had about sixteen seats and it was old. Syazwan and Syafiq sat right behind the pilot’s cockpit. Once in a while, Syazwan leaned his head trying to catch a glimpse of the pilots.

The flight to Athens, at least in the first ten minutes, was rough. The heavy rains and strong winds rocked the plane so much that we felt like vomiting. My wife was especially worried and scared. The first thing I did when we stood on solid ground at Athens Airport was to raise my two hands and say my thanks to the Almighty God that we had landed safely.

At Athens Airport, Dr Azhar Kasim, my colleague in the Veterinary Department and Shamsuddin Ahmad, a lecturer from Universiti Pertanian Malaysia, met us. I was very glad that they were waiting for us. After a brief introduction, we were driven, in two cars, to Azhar’s apartment in the University’s family housing.

There, we were treated with delicious and filling lunch. The weather in Athens was cool and comfortable. It was autumn then. After the very delicious Malaysian lunch kindly prepared by Misliza (Azhar’s wife), we were brought to Shamsuddin’s apartment, our temporary home. As we entered the apartment, we were greeted by two friendly hamsters, which were scurrying all over the hall. They were accidentally set free when their cage fell down the table, probably knocked down in their attempt to get at the invitingly delicious green broccoli stems nearby.

The family housing was located on a hill overlooking a spacious sports complex and a lake complete with a manmade beach by the side of a large freshwater lake, Lake Herrick. The apartment had two bedrooms, a hall, a bathroom, and a small kitchen equipped with an electric stove and a big refrigerator. We were in a way lucky to have Shamsuddin as our host. He was a very gracious host, a good helper, and most important of all, a very patient human being.

Sometimes I wished I could be like him, always calm and composed came what may. Being a married bachelor (he had to send his family back to Malaysia as two of his children were going to sit for important school examinations), we were warmly welcomed to share his apartment for a time being until we found one of our own. He had to bear the havoc and all the hustle and bustle caused by our children, especially during the early days of adjusting to the time difference. Just imagine how embarrassing it was for me when the whole family was busy preparing lunch at one in the morning while the host was sound asleep. (I was not too sure whether he got enough sleep during this period).

However, one thing for sure, he seemed to enjoy my wife’s cooking and soon he began diligently noting down the recipes. He particularly liked the Chinese style fried rice and ‘asam pedas kepala ikan’. The cool weather greatly increased everyone’s appetite. By the way, we got ourselves free fish heads from Kroger’s seafood section in Athens. They just did not know what to do with the heads and most of the time, except when there were Asian shoppers passing by; the fish heads were just dumped into the wastebasket. What a waste of good food! So, whenever I happen to be there while they were preparing big fishes for making fish fillet and stakes, I always made it a point to reserve the fish heads for me.

So frequent was I in taking the fish heads that they knew me by sight and sometimes they would reserve a few fish heads just for me. Besides the free fish heads, being a seafood lover, I loved their scallops, mussels, clams, shrimps and tuna. On many occasions, many Americans came and asked us how to cook the squids. For many of them squids were used only as baits while fishing. We gladly gave them some quick pointers in preparing and cooking the squids.

Once, I even corrected Kroger’s management when they were selling lemon grass leaves instead of lemon grass stems! It would take some lengthy explanation before they understood that we Asians used the stems in cooking, not the leaves! The Arab and Bangladeshi students seemed to enjoy lemon grass so much. During Nordin’s wedding feast at the mosque, they were really busy munching on the fibrous lemon grass stems in our ‘rendang ayam’.

to be continued