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.

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