Monday, March 3, 2008

Living in USA - Part 10

My application for a travel award from Pfizer had been accepted. It came as a surprise, even to my major Professor, that I got the travel award for there were many applicants asking for it. I was awarded US$500 to cover a part of my travel expenses for my trip to Cancun, Mexico. My department paid the remainder of my expenses.

I was asked to present a poster of the results of my research works at the 45th Western Poultry Disease Conference in Cancun, Mexico. At the meeting, I felt so good when one of the speakers, a well-known coccidiosis expert, said, “There is a group of people in Georgia doing some good works on detection of sub-clinical coccidiosis. You all should go and have a look at their poster presentation.”

Many interested people came to my posters after that. They were impressed with the results of my works. For that, I was offered a job opportunity in a few poultry companies! I was tempted to take their offer, but thinking that money was not everything and there was the contract with the government that I had to fulfil, I had to say thanks but no thanks to the offers. If I were still a bachelor and not attached to any contract, I would surely have accepted their offer.

While enjoying the beautiful beaches at Cancun, I received some disturbing news from Athens. My wife was admitted to Athens’s Regional Medical Centre for her asthma. I was really worried for her. Who were going to look after the children? What about the baby? These questions really haunted me all day long. There was no more fun staying at the world’s famous tourist paradise. I just had to go back to my family. I tried to go back to Athens that very day, but there was no available flight out of Cancun.

With God’s grace, Azhar and Misliza were there. They called and told me not to worry. They would take care of things while I was not around. I kept on calling Diyana asking for the latest information. She was a great help. Under her leadership and with the help of Azhar and family, my wife and children were in good hands. After the meeting was over, I rushed back to Athens to see my family.

Not long after Cancun, it was time for me to take the comprehensive examination. There were five questions and a few glass slides that I had to answer and describe within about eight hours. The questions and slides were not that difficult but they took too much of my time that after the examination, I was so exhausted that I did not bother checking what I had written, like I usually did after every test.

Instead, I went straight home and played a few sets of tennis with Diyana, just to relax my mind. A few days after the examination, I was told that I did all right and they were impressed with the way I answered the questions and described the slides.

Throughout our last spring and summer in US, I was busy writing my thesis. For that I had to spend hours at a time, planning and writing. As a partial requirement for my Master’s degree, I had to produce two papers that would be sent to relevant journals for publication. It was decided that I should send my papers to Avian Diseases and Avian Pathology journals.

Besides the thesis, I was required to present a seminar of my thesis and defend my thesis with my academic committee members. Preparing the Kodachrome slides for this presentation would take me hours for I was still learning programmes like Power Point and Excel, the two programmes that were required to produce slides that I required. Randy helped me a lot in this work.

After going through the presentation for several times with Dr Bounous, my major professor, I was all set for my final seminar and defence. Feeling relaxed and confident, the seminar was excellent (from what I heard from fellow graduate students and professors) and the defence went through with flying colours!

Even the meticulous Dr Carmichael Paige complemented me by saying that she understood about 90% of what I was saying throughout the seminar. According to her, during my other seminars, at best, she could understand only about 60% of what I was saying. It was because, for the final seminar, which I was fully prepared, I spoke really loud and slow, like the way they wanted.

For my defence, it was more a discussion rather than an oral test. They were really impressed at the way I answered their questions. I was told that I passed my Master’s right there, after I successfully answered their final question! They even signed the necessary forms there and then for Dr Rowland would be on a long vacation after that. No words could describe how jubilated was I when told that it was over. I had just earned a MS in veterinary pathology! With the defence successfully completed, all that needed my full attention now was to complete my thesis.

At the end of spring 1996, Diyana was invited to attend certificate presentation ceremony at Chase Street Elementary. They still remembered Diyana. We were proud parents that day as Diyana, in her off-white long gown, walked along the hall to the stage to receive her certificates.

A few days after that, Diyana attended a prize giving ceremony at Clarke’s Middle School. We were invited too. Only parents of children receiving prizes were invited. It was a surprise, even to Diyana herself. No words could describe how proud we were when she was announced as one of the four best all-around students from more than two hundred students in the sixth grade! Besides that, she was also one of the students getting all A’s in her studies. She had proved once again that just within a few months after joining Middle School, she outperformed many American students. Once again it was proven that, we Malaysians could do anything if we put our hearts and mind to it.

The thesis was finally ready to be submitted to the School of Graduate studies for approval. According to Dr Bounous, my English was excellent, even better than many American students that she had supervised before. After a few minor changes, the thesis was approved for binding.

I could still remember how happy I was as I was walking towards the main library to deposit the five copies of my thesis for binding. At that time, the campus was busy with the Olympics. Most streets were closed and I had to walk all the way from Graduate school to the library.

For the Olympics, University of Georgia had been selected to host the semifinals and finals of man and woman’s soccer, volleyball, and rhythmic gymnastics. All during the Olympics, parking spaces were closed to students. We had to walk throughout campus.

Still on the Olympics, many international students, including me, thought that US had failed to project the universal spirit of the big sporting event. US media failed to cover all events like we used to see in Malaysia. All that were shown on television were events that US athletes ruled and had good prospects of winning gold medals, like beach volleyball, basketball, and tennis. Even the men’s hundred-metre dash was put on a low profile, just because an American did not win it as they had expected.

From talks with American students, I realized that they thought that they were the best and there was no reason for them to look at others who they thought as being inferior to them. For me that was the root of many problems faced by the Americans. Never in their minds to think that for once, other nations could be better off than them.

Still on this matter, I thought that American media were also to blame. All throughout my stay in US, not once I saw anything good about Malaysia or any other developing countries for that matter, on television. All that were shown were scenes of earthquakes, flood, and other negative things happening in other parts of the world. Running out of good ideas perhaps, or just because they wanted to ridicule Malaysia, I remembered watching a programme where they showed a cigar - smoking club somewhere in Malaysia!

With the thesis already sent for binding, there were no more course works or necropsy duties for me in the department. I spent more time relaxing at home rather than going to school. We had just slightly more than one month to go home. Packing things were our priority now.

Over the two-year period, we had quite a lot of things to pack. Friends, either at the family housing or at the Islamic centre, started asking me when we were leaving. I told them I would like to leave as soon as I was finished. Many were surprised at my answer.

They could not understand why I wanted to go home so soon. Some of them even asked me whether our children protested at my idea of going home. I told them we had a good life in Malaysia and our children were counting days to go home.

Actually, many foreign students, especially those from underdeveloped countries, would prefer to stay in US rather than going home after their graduation. They had good reasons for staying. For us, US was not a place to live for long and to bring up our children. The environment was just not there for a good full life.

When asked to compare Malaysia and US, I answered them in just a sentence. Whatever you could find in US, we had them too in Malaysia, but there were things in Malaysia that you could not find in US. “What?” they would ask back. “Security,” I answered back. In Malaysia, we could come out at two in the morning to have a cup of coffee and ‘roti canai’ in Kuala Lumpur or any other cities for that matter. We could not do that in US. We could get ourselves mugged or worst still, killed for that.

People had been killed without a reason in US. They were killed just because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time. I had read a tragic story of a family shot to death by a group of teenagers when the family took a wrong turn and ended up in a dead-end street, which happened to be the gang’s hideout. In short, there was no real individual security in America.

Everything was set. I had just received the letter from Graduate school informing me that I had fulfilled all the requirements necessary for a Master’s degree or in other words, I had got a MS! My two papers had also been accepted for publication in two prestigious international journals, Avian Diseases and Avian Pathology.

Plane tickets were received a few days ago from Washington DC. Once beaten twice shy, I decided not to choose the rough tumbling flight we used to take from Athens to Charlotte. Besides, we had too many baggages for the small aeroplane. Instead, we would be travelling to Los Angeles from Atlanta on Delta Air.

A whole 16-seater triple A van had been booked for our Athens Atlanta journey. My table and cabinet in the graduate student’s room had been cleared. All my notes, research results, and all other things collected throughout my two-year stay had been all nicely boxed. After emotional farewells with my major professor, lecturers, fellow graduate students, and staffs of the Department of Pathology, I left the College of veterinary medicine building with a sad feeling. Sad in knowing that most probably I would not be able to come back to Athens again, though deep in my heart I would like very much to. It was my dream to see that, one day, our children would again meet their friends and continue their interrupted friendship.

So on the morning of the 1st of September 1996, we left Apartment H210 for Atlanta. Katie, her mother and Bridget (Diyana’s friends) were there too to say goodbye to us. We decided to put up a night in Atlanta before the long journey home. We stayed at the Holiday’s Inn Atlanta. Amalia, like her brothers and sister, appeared happy to be in the hotel’s bed. Probably she too knew that very soon she was going to see her grandmothers, grandfathers and cousins back home in Malaysia.

We arrived early at Atlanta Airport. It was the 2nd of September, exactly two years since we first set feet on US soil. Malaysian friends came all the way from Athens to bid us farewell. It was really a sad event. Amalia and Amira exchanged presents. After hugging each other (with the same gender of course), we boarded the Delta Airlines heading for Los Angeles.

At Los Angeles Airport, we had to queue for the checking in. There were some renovation works going on at the airport. We quickly made our way to the Malaysia Airlines Golden Lounge. The lounge was a real treat for our tired bodies. The food and drinks served were excellent. An old White man couple, probably American, were surprised when they were told that everything served, including the liquor, in the lounge was for free. They wasted no time in tasting almost everything on the table.

I was occupied with US open tennis match on television. Every one of us looked calm. Except for our seven-month-old Amalia, who would be experiencing her very first long flight, there was nothing to worry us. We were going home, to our beloved Malaysia.

In the early part of the flight, Amalia cried a lot. I had to carry her in my arms, standing most of the time, to quiet her down. An old White couple in front of us was always looking at us, probably sympathizing with our plight.

Besides Amalia’s crying, everything else was fine. Syafiq and Syazwan were busy teaching two old English gentlemen sitting next to them a way or two about operating their mini-television sets. We reached Kuala Lumpur at about three in the morning.

With nine big bags, we had to use three trolleys to bring the bags to the custom checkpoint. They were surprised to see that many bags brought by a family. They decided to check just one bag, the easiest bag to open. How lucky we were!

Following the easy custom clearance, our luck suddenly changed. First I was informed that the airport hotel was fully booked for the night. No reservation had been made! Then I tried other hotels in the vicinity of the airport. All nearby hotels were also fully booked for the night. A hotel in Kuala Lumpur told me that they had room for us but there was no transport available to fetch us at the airport. How irritating!

With the entire luggage that we had, it would need at least four taxis. I was wondering why was it that there were no bigger taxis (a van for instance) like they had in US at the airport. I was so angry and frustrated at this inadequacy. I hope the relevant authority would look into this problem. Even baggage room at the airport was full and would not accept our luggage for the night.

Totally frustrated and angry, we pushed our trolleys back to the departure hall upstairs where it would be more comfortable for the children to rest and wait it out for daylight. It was not until about ten in the morning that finally a Pajero from my colleague in Wilayah Persekutuan office came and brought us to the Pan Pacific Hotel. My wife and the children slept throughout the day in the hotel.

At around two in the afternoon, I left them to report duty at my headquarters. I was informed that I would be posted to a Regional Veterinary Laboratory in Kuantan. When I came back, there they were, still fast asleep. They were still in US I presumed, and in Athens it would be five in the morning!

All in all, the children had learned a lot while they were in US. They were no more afraid to ask questions or voice out their opinion or feelings. In fact at times, they could be somewhat irritating with all their questions and smart remarks.

Diyana was all grown up, both physically and intellectually. Syazwan was a real attraction among his classmates with his Georgian accent. Getting used to the friendly and cordial US classroom atmosphere, it took some time and effort for the children to be familiar and at ease with our style of teaching.

Syazwan often came home complaining that one of his teachers had pinched him on his tummy for a little mistake that he had done. On other occasions he told me that teachers here were not as friendly and caring compared to his former teachers in US.

Initially too, the weather was far too warm for our little Amalia. She developed rashes all over her body whenever exposed to Malaysian sun and humidity. Even my wife, once in a while, complained that it is much easier to get things in US. There, many things were easily available under one roof.

After my explanation of how things were with us in Malaysia, they gradually stopped comparing US and Malaysia and accept our way. I know that they all love Malaysia, but who could blame them if they think that we are still far behind in many aspects of life. It is difficult for anyone to erase those sweet memories of the easy and fun-filled two-year experience of living in a developed country like US from their young minds. They now know what living in US is all about. They have come, seen and perhaps, to a certain extent, even conquered US! I hope those sweet memories would linger on as a treasure for their challenging adult life of the fast approaching new millennium.

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