Summer reminds me of Midway. Midway was the designation for the reunion at Washington DC of the year’s American Field Service (AFS) exchange students. It was an impressive and animated congregation of youths from various countries around the world, all starry- and misty-eyed from missing the American host families and friends they left behind, yet eager for the return back home to be with their own families.
It was at Midway where the AFSers — who had just graduated from their American senior high school and said goodbye to their American families and friends the week before — struggled with the hard core of conflicting emotions: a crazy mix of sadness, nostalgia, longing, yet with the joy and anticipation at the thought of going home.
Midway carried a mysterious fascination for me in my youth, and you’ll later know why.
I was an AFS scholar in the 60’s, and Midway was a special event for me. It was exciting, it was educational, it was friendship-building, but strangely wistful in many ways. Sorely missing our American families and friends, we cried together, consoled one another, and celebrated memories. That, in my mind, was what was so special about Midway – AFS scholars sharing stories upon stories of our one-year stint in America … regaling about the country and the people we had learned to understand, appreciate and love.
AFS students from various countries were assigned in different states to host families and high schools for a year. The program was designed and operated on the premise of fostering international understanding among a diversity of cultures. These teenagers acted as “ambassadors of goodwill”, and supposedly represented what was best of their own countries. They were carefully selected among numerous contestants, judged for their scholastic and extracurricular achievements, and matched with American families on the basis of their background and personalities. The choice for the AFS scholarship followed tiers of tests and interviews.
I was placed in Greensburg, Pennsylvania, with an American family: Mom and Dad (I called them), and three siblings the oldest of which was a 14-year-old girl, the closest to my age. Living with an American family was the best way to know a new culture. It was a big learning curve for me, having been raised in a very old-fashioned family whose Filipino traditions merged primarily with the Hispanic influence and the shadow of the American imprint. The Philippines was a colony of Spain for 400 years and, subsequently, a commonwealth of the United States for 50 years.
Back to Midway — a joyful reunion of AFSers of that year, over 200 of different nationalities from around the world. A remarkable change, I noted. This time, at Midway, versus during the early orientation of that scholarship year, these students were speaking very good English, mostly, with the American accent. Amazingly, there was little trace of any accent belonging to the ethnic origin. I shouldn’t have been surprised, because I was like them, too. We were honestly speaking like American youths! The transformation was mind-blowing – in speech, that is, not in looks. In appearance, we were much the same, except … a bit more modern-looking, but with a lot more confidence. We had grown, personality-wise, that is. We felt comfortable with ourselves, and some, overly comfortable, because they were acting “wild” (so I thought). Meaning, wildly extroverted. Like youths who had “arrived”.
At Midway, our sadness from when we first left our host families and which continued during the first leg of the tour, gradually dissipated. We laughed at the funny and awkward stories, cried when we remembered our host families that we missed so much, empathized on the hard knocks of learning ways of a different culture, and brazenly teased each other about lost young romances and budding puppy loves. Midway provided the occasion to realize we were not alone in our foreign experiences, both happy and challenging. Our world was the same – the AFS world, we called it.
The bonus of Midway at DC was listening to then Attorney-General Robert Kennedy give the welcome talk, and touring the rousing city of power and architectural beauty. Midway was a resting point, three days to relax, have fun, celebrate after a year of hard academic work and promoting one’s culture of origin, and getting psyched up for the bus tour cross country before the flight back home.
Several yellow buses left Midway on the third day, each carrying a mix of some 30 foreign students treated to a grand tour of different states before the return home. We were hosted by families in every state, a quick recipe for culture mingling, and definitely a special opportunity to know other American families and build friendships. I remember well highlights of my bus tour.
In Boston – it was our attendance of a Boston Pops Orchestra concert on the water front, with the legendary Arthur Fiedler leading a most enjoyable rendition of classical, Broadway and pop music. Followed by a barbecue in a host’s huge backyard; this, on a summer evening when the smoky fragrance saturated the warm air and lingered a while. I recall rigorously washing off the aroma from my hair when I reached my host’s home. I actually dreamed of the heavily sauced baby back ribs, the best I had ever eaten.
In New York — the highlight was my blind date set up by the teenager of the family, a strange arrangement with her co-band member, a tall, good-looking boy who played the trumpet and who had a known crush on her. That attractive girl asked a Greek American college senior in the neighborhood to be her date. I guessed that she liked him. My date was gentlemanly and attentive enough, though I caught him throw sad glances at my new friend. I determined to tell her that when we got home – but I don’t think I did. The college young man drove us to Staten Island where we walked the deck to where the ferry boats docked. Bracing the nippy wind, we took time to promenade, looked through deck telescopes and watched the shimmering lights on the other side at Jersey shores. Out on the bay, it was a cold, romantic night, with multiple stars above. My noble date placed his coat over my shoulders, as he tried to beat the sound of the wind with soft, pleasant chats. I thought then, that Sarah (oops, her name slipped) should realize how thoughtful and sweet that boy was – but I couldn’t tell her, and I don’t know why.
In Rhode Island — I recall our delightful ride on a small yacht owned by the hosting family, for a tour of Martha’s Vineyard. I was fascinated by the Kennedys’ big, stately home close to shore, and wondered if the figures I saw playing on the beach in front of the house were the Kennedy children. It was at Rhode Island, at a party in a restaurant on the wharf, where we heard that our male chaperone, a fresh graduate from Yale, proposed to an Argentinian exchange student who cried the whole stretch of the bus tour because she was missing her American family so bad. Perhaps, her endless sobs enchanted him. I will always remember that Guatemalan fairy tale (as my bus mates called it) because in honor of that romance, we all learned to sing Guantanamera – sang robustly in chorus every time we saw those two love birds during that bus tour. I was thrilled to learn later that year that the young man followed the AFSer to Argentina. Guantanamera!
In Indiana — I got very sick. Terribly dizzy, I could barely hold my head up. I was rushed to emergency and, unknown to me then, there was a Vietnamese AFSer who also was taken to the same emergency unit. Seen by the same doctor, we were diagnosed with fatigue – probably, too much fun and excitement that we couldn’t handle. Both of us were driven from the hospital to the Indianapolis home of our lady chaperone, also a recent college graduate and a lovely young lady. Her mother took very good care of us for three days. Most of that time, we relaxed in the lush backyard garden in moo-moos lent to us by the host mother. And what I remember well was the Vietnamese girl’s incessant ramblings about her country’s plight during the Vietnam war. The war was still raging at that time. We were together in a large bedroom with twin beds at opposite sides. Strange, her voice would lull me to sleep in the evenings, and when I dozed off, I still carried that voice in my head, a high, sing-song tone inflected with youthful anger and pride. I was just so thankful that her delivery did not weave dreams of combat in my sleep.
After the hiatus in Indiana, the Vietnamese AFSer and I were flown to San Francisco for our scheduled flight home.
Aah Midway — I fondly remember: long Congo lines of foreign students snaking through the auditorium floor in DC, singing, clapping and cheering. By the strength of our cheers and our laughter that dominated the halls, it felt like we invaded Washington. I saw old AFSer friends and met new ones, and together, relished spontaneous sprees on memory lane. Our elixir was the bash of reminiscences … our AFS world … groovy! It was there where I had my first real hard secret crush, a German student named Bernie, sandy-haired and hazel-eyed, who would sit on the side just staring at me, and who never adventured into striking a conversation with me. So, I never spoke with him. When I reached home in the Philippines after two weeks with relatives in Manila, a letter from Bernie was waiting for me. The letter was polite, kind, almost regretful yet hopeful. It was also mildly scented. I never answered him. And I don’t know why.