I first arrived in America on August 2nd, 1999 thru the Detroit International Airport with my family and my cousin’s family. Our two families decided to come together as batches of us arrived the previous year and the year before. I remembered that the airport looked dingy and it was busy. I couldn’t tell if it was late afternoon, evening or in the early morning. I just know it was all a doozy arriving to this foreign country that I have only known thru the Hollywood silver screen. When we arrived at the airport, we were rush to get all our luggages which every one of them where in a format of well packaged boxes. These boxes where fortified thru layers of tapes and packaging straps that we used for our own socks business in Malaysia. I did remember seeing a lot of Black folks in the Detroit Airport and one of them was speaking to my parents. It turns out that he is one of those “luggage attendants” attending us. He was very persistent with helping us to not get our boxes open for “inspection”. His fee is $100 cold hard cash and we end up having one box open because it does look suspicious that we have 16 of the same boxes with same packaging method, same brand and size. We eventually got to our next connecting flight to Atlanta, Georgia which is our destination. I remember it so vividly on that connecting flight, we were served with a cold sandwich. I was actually very excited to get a free sandwich, we normally will only get to eat anything foreign on our birthday. So I excitedly bite into it and then I ask my father why is it cold? He said that is how it is here. Believe me when I tell you that I have the most sorry sad eyes on my face. Welcome to America.
Just like many of us “Alien” immigrants that magically arrived into this country, our reason is simple to find a better life. Our story of how we became voluntary immigrants starts back around 1987 when my mother and her siblings decided to apply for US green card status. After a decade of waiting and forgetting, a big envelope from the US Embassy decided to show for us in 1997. In the big envelope, it is basically saying that you have 1 year to get your things together and respond back or losing the chance to live in United States of America. During this time, my parent’s socks factory business is running smooth and humbly profiting. The move to USA was mainly the discussion during the first parts of that 1 year time limit. My father doesn’t fancy coming and my mother loves the idea of being here. As for me, I like basketball and that is my life at that moment in life. I did ask a lot of questions regarding America and she “said” to me that we will have “Chinatown” and basically the same of what we have in Malaysia. Well, turns out good ole’ Georgia is completely opposite of what you see on the silver screens and what my mother have depicted incorrectly.
The Honeymoon Phase.
We finally arrived in Atlanta, Georgia after that awful cold sandwich provided by the airline. It was a long drive from the airport to my grandparent’s home in Marietta, Georgia. There we were met with all our other relatives that have came a year or two earlier before us. The first night in America is basically sleeping in front of the fireplace on the floor with multiple individuals. It might be a new thing to some but it’s on the regular for us coming from Asia. It’s like a slumber party but it’s long ass slumber party that doesn’t end on Sunday let me tell you. Everything is so new to me, the toilet configurations is new, home layout is new, what’s on tv is new and basically culture shock. I remember the one show that we watch that whole summer is Jerry Springer’s Show. That show is definitely a shock as I watch people running across the stage to beat this other person and then they all brawl. It sure provides a perspective to a new “Alien” in this country. My beginning issue is with the shower curtain and the tub situation. I didn’t know that the curtain needs to be inside of the tub but I left it outside so the water drains all over the floor. One other thing is that due to the amount of new “migrants” in my grandparent’s home, the toilet has to work a little harder than it was originally designed for. It was all a honeymoon until it wasn’t anymore.
I was 14 years old when I landed and by Malaysian standard, I am on my second year of high school there. So for those that doesn’t know how it goes, let me explain. In order for us to get admitted to a school as a “Alien”, we will need to be tested for our English proficiency and common sense test. I think I did alright on the test despite that I am a terrible test taker. Since I was born in August and this weird thing in US that kids born after that is a year younger, they wanted me to admitted into middle school. In my mind, I was telling myself hell no. Luckily, after some discussion and persuasion that I am eligible to be a Freshmen. Next is where we are staying directly impacts where we go to school. It was very hard to find apartments to rent when you are “Fresh off the boat”. Many wouldn’t want to rent to you or will ask for an astronomical price of deposit. We almost went to Cartersville High School because my aunt and uncle has a home in White, Georgia. Boy, let me tell you where that home is located…fuck if I know. I sincerely don’t know and only been there once. Just make sure you don’t have T-Mobile connection because the bars are none…in 2013. After some deliberation and such, we end up going to Sprayberry High School. I want to take the opportunity to thank you Buddha.
As our time of slumber party in the living room was coming to an end, we have to find a semi-permanent location to put our feet down. Good news is that we found an apartment complex that is decent and affordable which will allow us to go to Sprayberry High School. The bad news is that we have to cough up 6 months of rent for that 2 bedroom dingy condo. It is what it is. Luckily it was a safe spot and nothing bad happened to us while we stayed there for that 6 months. The bus picks us up to school every morning and we always sat at the front of the bus. Another cultural fun fact is that American kids likes to sit in the back of the bus. We Asians like to sit in the front because its quicker to get the hell on when we reach the destination. For me it’s because the cool kids are in the back and I have motion sickness so I have to be near the windshield so I can see where we are going. The first bus ride, I felt sick and almost regurgitated what I ate that morning. My cousin’s family stayed in one of the town houses in the same complex so we go there to hang all the time. It isn’t much but it’s home for now. In my mind, it wasn’t home until we have a TV and with no budget, we started what is commonly known as dumpster diving. We found this TV sitting next to the dumpster one day and we plugged it in. It will work for a few minutes before it goes static and we smack it on the side and it will continue to work. We watch Pokemon every morning. We also found lights and all kinds of things but mostly garbage. Life is full of adventure isn’t it?
The Bad News.
There has been a ruh-roh building since we arrived in America. My father was diagnosed with liver cancer in 1998. It was this one peculiar day when my father was just going about his day after lunch walking to his car when a motorcycle’s side mirror whack him right on the liver side of his abdomen. In the beginning, he shrugged it off as just pain but the pain lingered around and end up being on a surgery bed. In Malaysia, fortunately we have public hospitals and the unfortunate thing is that some of the doctors are not as experienced. It was just my father’s luck to get a team of inexperience medical professionals that decided to open him from under his chest all the way to his belly button. They believed that it was appendix stomach related but end up finding nothing and stitched him back up. Fast forward to 1999, he is diagnosed with liver cancer and the doctor recommended surgery to remove part of the liver with cancer. By the end of August-September of 1999, he was bloated in his belly and x-ray of the abdomen showing complete darkness could possibly means cancer have spread to all his internal organs.
The Silent Goodbye.
My father isn’t the type that will tell you how proud or praises “Good Job” type of person. So as we are settled in our little condo and have been to school for a week by now, it was time to say our goodbye as my parents will be flying back to Malaysia as my father wishes to be home. It was a gloomy school day, me and my older brother put on our backpacks and heads out the door. My father sitting on a metal folding chair by the front window just nod and looks away as we say bye to him. As I was walking across the grass area, I looked back to the window and see that the blinds have been opened slightly knowing that my father is watching us as we walked to the bus. It was the last time I saw my father alive.
Kids in America are very fortunate with their large school facilities, air conditioned and equipped with everything that is needed. The textbooks are free, the school bus are free and sometimes the lunch is free. In contrast, kids in Malaysia had it rough but because of that, we built strong characters. In the beginning of the school year, I was shock to see how wasteful American kids can be. For example, I see them scribble the whole sheet of notepad and rip it out and trash it. I was in shock as we were thought to be conservative with our paper, writing as neat and small as possible on both sides of the paper. One of my most memorable thing that happened to me is that a white kid sitting next to me ask where I am from and instantly ask if I lived on top of a tree or in a cave. It could be kids being assholes or because they were ignorant. We experienced discriminatory from the school administration as well during admission as they placed me into the lower level classes like Algebra I (Part 1). Come to find that Algebra classes that are divided up are for less intelligent kids aka dumbasses. Mr. Holt was my Algebra teacher and he always told me that I shouldn’t have been in that class. I remember vividly during one of the test, I completed the test and I thought I was the last one to finish but come to find that everyone around is still struggling to finish. As mentioned before, I am a terrible test taker and probably one of the dumber kids in my class in Malaysia.
As many of us “Fresh off the boat” fellows would have experienced the E.S.O.L. during their first year of arriving into the school system. For those that aren’t familiar, it is English Student of Other Languages. In that class, I was united with my older brother and my two cousins. We are also accompanied by students coming from Ethiopia, China, South Korea, Cambodia, Iran and Japanese. It wasn’t a particularly hard class but rather a gathering of all foreigners really. One of the things that makes American public schools great is the lockers where we can put our heavy textbooks there whi we go to other classes. My issue with it is that no one showed us how to unlock that lock which the dial kind you find everywhere. So I asked my ESOL teacher if she can show me how to use it and she asked the whole class if someone would like to show me how. A Japanese girl raised her hand and volunteers to show me. We walked to my locker and she showed me how to use it and during that time we were able to have some small conversation. I found out that she is from Shizuoka and her father is some executive that was assigned to Georgia temporarily. I don’t know why but I was attracted to her so each day I was excited to go to the ESOL class. In America, the high school classes here requires you to move around to different classes unlike Malaysia where the teacher is the one moving around to different classes. So I started to noticing her class routes and purposely try to go out of my way to pass her just to say hi. It was worth it just to see her smile. Silly me right?
As our lives begin to normalized day by day, the things back at home is starting to crumble. Communication back then wasn’t as fluent as it is today and all we have is a landline with call cards bought in ”Chinatown” aka Buford Highway. Thru those international calls, we get to hear how our father is doing and usually news is not good. In my mind, I have always think that my father is invincible and he will get thru this. One day while hanging out in my cousin’s townhouse, we hear a knock at the door, I was the closest to the door so I opened. I was met with my grandmother and my youngest auntie come bringing fast food fried chicken. From the moment I saw their faces, I know something is odd. They have just received the news that my father have passed away hence the fast food fried chicken which in Asia, we only get to eat it during our birthday or special occasions. Fast forward to few days later, we are on a plane with our grandmother heading back to Malaysia. It was all a whirlwind of confusion, sadness and tiredness which contribute to the dream-like reality of arriving to whole street filled with family and friends. We were asked to knee all the way to our father’s coffin. It is because we were absent during our father’s passing. I never had the chance to speak or see my father before his passing until I met with his coffin. There I cried profusely for the first time in a long time. I guess it was the only way for me to say my goodbye to my father for the very last time.
After a month of being back in our own natural habitat, it was time to head back to high school reality. Prior to leaving abruptly, my aunt wrote a few letters to our high school teachers so they are aware of our situation. Upon our return, I have to meet with my principal to discuss if we have to retake the classes. I was watching her face while she peel open our report cards, she was stunned to see that it is all A+ and over 4.0 GPA. Some would say that it is protocol but I would say it is discriminatory as she judged the book by it’s cover. Just like that, I was back in the same classes continuing my journey to my first semester in high school.
For a 14 year old fresh immigrant to a completely new country, I would say this is definitely a wild ride of a first semester. Now this may sounds like a doom and gloom beginning but that this is just a tiny little adventure I will be having in America. My mother stayed in Malaysia for a few more months to sell the socks business which my parents wanted to keep. Since my father have passed away, my mother have lost all interest in carrying this alone. We stayed in the apartment complex until the beginning of January of 2000 completing our lease contract. Fast forward to 2022, I have been in this country for 23 years, 7 years more than my own country of Malaysia. Now a United States citizen for many years, leaving behind our ”Alien” status. I have a whole lot more stories to tell about my upbringing in America so definitely explore here and stay tuned. Ciao.