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