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Recalling the first three days in America

“The Acropolis!” Several of us in the bus chorused as we passed lighted houses on the hillsides on our way from San Francisco Airport to the Peninsula. Obviously, several of us high school students remembered our Greek studies. Those that didn’t simply exclaimed “Wow” multiple times at the lovely sight. We were all very excited. For some twenty high school students from the Philippines, this was our first day in America. From the first step off Pan American Airlines, I could hardly contain myself. I knew, the rest in my young group were like me, eager, happy and anxious.

I was in Palo Alto, California for a three-day orientation along with other American Field Service (AFS) scholars from Asian countries, several decades ago. We stayed at Stanford dorms in Escondido, two tall structures a few stories high – a rarity since at that time there were few (if at all) buildings in Palo Alto that were more than a story high — two buildings that stood like twins easy to spot even from El Camino Real, the same that stand even now on campus, stalwart through the decades.

Our orientation was geared primarily to introduce us to the US and acquaint us with American ways. We learned more about the American educational system, particularly the high school system that we were entering as seniors. The talks furthered our eagerness to meet our host families who were waiting for us in various states of the country. They also triggered numerous questions in our minds (it definitely did in mine) as to how we would react when faced with different traditions, strange customs, or cultural traits we were unfamiliar with. I mention the all-inclusive “we” here, because we, the foreign students, often discussed among ourselves, exchanged impressions, and admitted we had mixed emotions – generally, however, we were thrilled and felt prepared, like soldiers restless for battle, or dancers footloose for the music to begin.

Presentations and discussions each day flowed into an after-dinner program that turned out like an amateur show, with song and dance numbers showcasing the various countries represented in the group. I remember dancing the Tinikling (bamboo dance) with other AFSers from the Philippines. There was no rehearsal, just an impromptu kind of performance, which, to our surprise, turned out really amazing – meaning no disaster or clipped ankles in the process of jumping between poles. Since the performance was on a patio behind the cafeteria, we drew more audience from folks not from our group who were dining then. We might have been so good that we were asked for a repeat performance on the last day of orientation. We obliged.

Among the best features of the presentation was the food. That was our initial introduction to American cuisine, continuous days of having meat and mashed potatoes, hamburgers, hotdogs, bacon and eggs, apple pie, apple juice, orange juice, and yes, some Italian spaghetti and lasagna. I think majority of the Asian rice eaters didn’t mind that no rice was offered during the orientation. On the third day, however, I missed my sinangag (fried rice) with eggs and sardines or fish at breakfast. I missed my steamed rice with laing (gabi leaves) cooked in rich coconut milk. I was also sorely missing my family. The anticipation about the new place, new American family to meet, unfamiliar food, and a new high school felt all so wonderful – but I still missed my family. In the evenings, burying my face in the pillow, I would shed some tears.

But on that third day, three female scholars I quickly struck friendship with and I decided to stroll outside of the dormitory. When we reached the street, all four of us were of one mind and started to lift our thumbs up for a hitch hike. We didn’t know where we wanted to go, after all, we weren’t familiar with the place. We just craved for adventure. Less than a minute passed when a small light blue beetle Volkswagen stopped right in front of us. Two American girls – we guessed, from a private school nearby because they wore uniform plaid skirts and white blouses – flashed broad smiles at us and invited us in. The size of the car didn’t bother us; we quickly piled into the back seat: two on the hard-cushioned seat, and two on the laps of the unfortunate ones. I happened to be one of the fortunate ones. Introductions started and we were so giddy with excitement that we forgot to explain who we were and where we came from. The American girls smiled funny at us, and with our foreign-accented English, we declared we’d be happy to go wherever they were going.

The young driver said they needed to go to Town and Country. We didn’t care if that place was a town, city or country, we just wished for an out-of-the-ordinary venture, a get-away. The girls must have read our minds, for they happily said we could go explore as they did their errand. The adventure ride, to our surprise, ended in less than five minutes. We stopped at a row of low ceilinged stores all looking very much alike. As the two got out, we stayed cramped inside, thinking they’d be back after a quick stop. However, they motioned for us to get out of the car, suggested we start exploring, and said it would take them around half an hour and we needed to be back at the car by a certain time. In very cheerful tones, their youthful soprano voices rang out in duet – “This is Town and Country!” All four of us looked at each other and suddenly laughed. The American girls laughed, too. They were very smart. They knew exactly what crossed our minds. We wanted adventure, and there it was, in good ol’ Town and Country, a shopping center in Palo Alto, practically a stone’s throw from Stanford University campus.

All four of us AFS students spent our 30 minutes of adventure well. We stayed in one specialty store and tried all the colored glasses on display. Each of us came away with a fancy looking pair that made us look like movie stars, or so we thought – we triumphantly congratulated each other for our superb choice – though quite expensive, we parleyed, meticulously counting our pennies and dollars. Thirty minutes were up and we hustled to where the beetle was parked. The two American girls were waiting for us. And we all approached, wearing our movie star shades, feeling glamorous. The Americans giggled as we hastily piled back into the back seat, same arrangement of two on two.

We got back in time for early dinner. As others in the group walked to the cafeteria, we quietly took our seats for a sumptuous spaghetti and meatball dinner topped with vanilla ice cream on apple pie. We talked little of our adventure, careful not to let our chaperones know we goofed out without permission. The four of us were giggly high, though, recalling how we experienced hitch hiking for the first time in our lives (for me at least, the only time).  The evening featured a talent show as in previous nights, and ended with a lengthy lecture of reminders about being in a new place with a new family, new school, new friends and acquaintances. I was pretty sure the rest of the AFS students were like me, with our minds ahead of our bodies and imagined what awaited us. Excitement dominated, and we were antsy, restless and yet nervous. This was the real adventure, so I thought, like a whole new panoramic dream about to begin.

I still think about those three days of orientation, my first introduction to Stanford and Palo Alto, California. Had I known Palo Alto was going to be my new home in my adult years, the place where my husband and I would raise our children (my son was born in Orange, Orange Co. and my daughter, at Stanford), the community that we have gotten to love and appreciate, the city where my husband passed two years ago – I probably would have listened more closely to those two American girls who rattled off some interesting bits about the city (not yet quite the Silicon Valley it is now) as they drove their curious and capricious passengers back to Stanford campus – and I probably should have remembered their names; they lived in Palo Alto then.

Linda P. Jacob

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