Unforgettable – my first week in America

It was the mid-60’s. An era marked by tension over the Vietnam War, the gloom over young lives lost in the battlefields, the infectious rigor of drummed up peace movements, the heightened clamor for civil rights, flower children with beads around their necks and colorful bands on their hair, and peace signs everywhere.

That was the time I came to the US for a year’s stint as an American Field Service (AFS) scholar and exchange student to Pennsylvania.  Starry-eyed and full of expectations tinged with anxiety, I stepped off the Pan American plane from Manila, and at San Francisco airport, extremely amazed how 15 hours of travel took me to the opposite side of the globe.  That was my first travel outside of the Philippines.

A bus load of teenage exchange students from the Philippines and other countries of Asia was transported to Stanford University campus for a 3-day orientation. That bus ride was magical during that August early evening.  Silhouettes of tall buildings dramatically marked the San Francisco skyline, and lights of houses on the hillsides sparkled like fireflies. We were mesmerized. I remember exclaiming – isn’t that the acropolis? Remembering of course my lesson on Greece and its history.  Those who knew what I meant chorused – oh yes, like the acropolis.  Yet none of us had been to Greece.  But we felt we were in Greece.  Was this America?  Silly, yes of course, our chaperone said, and she drew our attention to the hazy blue of the bay to our left, with glittering lights on the far shore.  Ah, the Mediterranean, a few of us remarked.  So that was it – San Francisco was like Greece … a strange first impression for me and some others in the bus. Unforgettable first impression!

I hoped for a prolonged bus tour that evening.  Didn’t want the magic to end.  Just like being in a roller coaster ride without the speed, our adrenalin ran high on the excitement totem pole.  Here we are, our lady chaperone announced, as the bus stopped in front of one of three-story twin buildings on the Stanford campus.  I had heard of Stanford University before, without the full understanding of its international stature and prestige in the educational realm.  Little did I know then that Stanford University, my first accommodation in America, would be my employer many decades hence, and Palo Alto in California, my second home.  So here I am, immersed in an enjoyable recollection of my wonderful year in America as a teenager, especially those first days spent in Stanford and my arrival in Pennsylvania.

Though full from dinner on the plane, we partook of light meal before proceeding to our assigned dorm quarters.  We were tired, but also very hyped.  Sleep evaded us as we continued to chat with new-found friends.  Funny how youngsters can be silly.  We asked ourselves, when we return from a walk on campus, how would we know which of the twin buildings was our dorm. The boys in our group were housed in the other twin building. This must sound ridiculous – but yes, there were a few girls in our group that mistook the other dorm as theirs.  They went in and walked the corridors until confronted by the boys who made fun of their innocent mistake. Innocent?  Hmmm … not sure.

At seven in the morning, we all were up and ready for our first full day of adventure in America.  When you’re a young exchange student in a strange land and in a different culture, you think every day is an adventure.  And that’s exactly what I felt.  The beauty of it – I found that everyone was so welcoming, so friendly, even so amused with us.  Maybe because we looked different.  Maybe because we were all so young and eager, perky, lively, hungry to learn, and yes, starry-eyed exchange students.  Maybe because, the world then was enamored by those who came from a different place and foreign tradition – maybe because the world then was not like one big community as it is now.  I honestly don’t know … but for sure, it was a grand time for us.  It was for me … unforgettable.

Breakfast at the dorm cafeteria was pancakes, sausages, jelly, apples and bananas.  Most in our young group were not coffee drinkers, so the orange juice bar was hugely popular.  After a chatty breakfast, we assembled in the community hall for our first orientation. The young speakers were volunteer college students from Stanford, and some West Coast AFS officials.  Life in the United States and culture in America – topics that were understandably of tremendous interest to us.  The open forums during the orientation always turned out vibrant and even funny, with questions that bordered on American teenage life and what to expect from living with American families, especially in terms of food, and dating practices (the boys wanted to know how to date American girls).  The orientation to me was interesting and helpful, but my excitement was meeting my American family.  I could hardly wait.

We had programs showcasing folkdances or songs of the region we originated from.  I was part of a Tinikling (bamboo dance) group that presented on the patio of the dorm.  This Philippine national folkdance never fails to draw amused and curious spectators, as it did that early afternoon on the Stanford campus.  We did not rehearse before the performance.  It seemed every Filipino student knew Tinikling, or had performed it before.  The dancers’ goal was not to get clipped by the poles or not get off rhythm and slip over the poles.  The audience’s eyes especially focused on the floor where the bamboos clicked, and the dancers’ feet leaped in perfect timing.  I remember the Tinikling dance to be the highlight and most acclaimed of the programs.  Our American spectators and exchange students from the other Asian countries begged to be taught the leaps and footwork. The learning lessons were cheerfully rowdy and chaotic.

The afternoon before we left for the airport to be flown to our destination in various states of the US, four of us who became close friends ventured outside the immediate vicinity of the dorm.  Positioning ourselves on the sidewalk, we waited for the right-looking car to signal for a free ride.  Careful not to use the thumbs up signal in a “wanton” kind of way, we waved to a light blue beetle bearing two young girls in school uniform.  I described the uniform to my daughter when I related the incident to her last year, and immediately she said, Castilleja school.  Of course, we didn’t know then.  The vehicle stopped.  The driver asked where we wanted to go.  We said, anywhere they were going to.  The American girls cheerily invited us to hop in.

Happily, all four of us young adventurers crowded on the back seat of the compact car, two seated on the other two. I was one of the two on top, practically my hands gripped hard on the side of the front seat to pull some of my weight off someone’s lap underneath me.  But it was a quick, joyful 5-minute ride to Town & Country shopping center just across the El Camino Real street bordering the Stanford campus.  Each of us ended up buying a pair of shades in that sunglass specialty store.  That was the extent of our daring adventure outside the Stanford campus.  But we were thrilled. We were grateful to those two girls.  Looking back, I should have gotten the names of those Castilleja girls.  They may still be in the Palo Alto area.  Wouldn’t it be a “riot” if we met and reminisced the adventure of those four giggly, naïve foreign exchange students who played hooky, and escaped the dorm chaperone’s purview to hitch a ride to old Town & Country just across the street?

Our flights to our respective destination were scheduled on our fourth day in America.  I was all jitters, though very much looking forward to meeting my new family.  Arrival at Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania airport accelerated my excitement and at the same time, resurged a sliver of anxiety, because I was going to finally meet the family that would adopt me for a year in a land still quite strange to me.  Strange, because everything seemed so modern, and big, and new, and different, having come from a third world country in the Pacific and an old-fashioned family seeped in cultural traditions.  Funny that when I stepped off the plane, I was clutching the neck of my string instrument called banduria, which everyone at home and my music mentor said I should carry with me everywhere I went.  Sure enough, it was always an attraction.  Though looking much like a mandolin, it had the most number of strings – 14.  I remember playing it at San Francisco airport while waiting for my flight. I drew a modest crowd, and everyone wanted to strum their fingers over the 14 strings.

So, with banduria in one hand and my overnight bag in the other, I walked in from the tarmac and immediately spotted a happy group of five, my new American Mom and Dad, their 14- and 12-year-old daughters and 11-year-old son. My heart jumped.  It was like I looked straight in the sun’s glare.  My eyes were blinded by bright, broad smiles from this family, a glowing picture of eager, warm faces that immediately created a loving impression in my heart.  It felt like I’ve known them all along, from the first time I received letters from them four months prior to my trip to the US.  They looked the way they sounded in the letters, sincere, kind and welcoming.  The thought flashed that the jitters I had in California were unnecessary.  Here was a lovely family that my instincts and perception told me would be perfect for me.

It was a simple spaghetti dinner that night in my new home on Beechhills, Jeannette, Pennsylvania, a rambling green bungalow half of which seemed to be hanging on the hillside overlooking a dense forest down below.  The conversations fringed on getting-to-know-you, or rather, getting-to-know-each-other.  Piles of questions never got full answers because the topics jumped from one subject to another in excited fashion – imagine six people around the table all rushing to offer information in a curious personal introduction of each one.  It was pure excitement so pleasurable — truly a family that got bigger by one teenager from a foreign land.  Their big surprise, I recall, was that I spoke English. I told them that in my Philippine family, we regularly communicated in English, not in the local dialect that I spoke with playmates and friends.  After all the cheerful and lively exchange, my family saw that I was getting tired.  So off to the bedroom that I shared with the oldest daughter.

The next day is one I shall never forget.  I got introduced to the neighborhood at a summer picnic on the wide expansive lawn at the back of fine bungalows on the hillside.  Lunch was prepared on a table covered with red, white and green checkered tablecloth, same colors as the abaca slippers I wore, the unexpected magnet of attention and curiosity.  Neighbors welcomed me with hugs and handshakes, and then stared at my delicate-looking, flimsy but intricate abaca slippers, worn on soft Bermuda grass moist with the morning dew.  I thought, hmmm … my third cultural show-and-tell in my stint as an exchange student (the first was dancing the Tinikling at Stanford; the second was playing the banduria at the San Francisco airport).  Abaca is fiber drawn from the Manila hemp plant especially grown in the Philippines’ Bicol Region. My slippers were a hit.  The American neighbors wanted to know where they could get them.  I thought, I should have brought pairs of slippers to distribute as gifts to these very welcoming, friendly and curious neighbors.

My whole year as a teenage exchange student in Pennsylvania was truly a blast.  I shall tell you more stories, in later blogs.  Those memories are special and precious.  Just maybe, sharing them will offer a glimpse of what the world in America was then, from a foreign youth’s eyes, experience and perspective.

Linda P. Jacob