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...

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