Tears streamed down my face as I bid my family, friends, and homeland good-bye on the afternoon of September 18th, 2013. A friend, Lae Annie, and I were leaving Pohnpei, our island home for the past 18 years, to study abroad at Walla Walla University in Washington.
I was excited yet terrified to be leaving everything I knew and loved behind, but I had to if I wanted to complete my life goals. A wise uncle of mine had told me when I was younger, “When you graduate high school, go to America and study hard so you can come back and make Micronesia a better place.” And that is what I intend to do.
A month before, I had attended pre-departure training at the Migrant Resource Centre. They taught us how to fill out travel forms, the importance of keeping all documentation on us at all times, and to never surrender your passport. We were also told to have the address of the person we would be staying with and their phone number. All of these instructions came in handy during the trip.
After saying our final good-byes, we passed through screening and boarded the plane without much fuss. Twenty-four hours later (including getting lost in Seattle airport for a while) we finally made it to Walla Walla, Washington. As soon as we stepped outside the cabin door, Lae Annie and I were struck by the cold weather. It was freezing!
If I could go back in time, I would have made sure to bring gloves and a thicker coat with me. I was naïve to think that a thin sweatshirt would keep me warm. We are islanders: just because the Americans were walking around in shorts and t-shirts does not mean we could. Because we did not cover up properly, my friend and I developed eczema on our hands.
Our friends met us at Walla Walla airport and took us to see our new college. When we got into the car, our driver shot me a strange look. “Teddy, I can’t drive until you have your seatbelt on,” the driver said after a moment of silence, giving me a pointed look in the rearview mirror. “Seatbelt? Oh… Oh!” I exclaimed. Embarrassed, I quickly buckled the strap over my chest.
Even though we had gone over the road safety rules during the pre-departure programme, I had completely forgotten that it is the law to wear a seatbelt in the States. Just today, my friend scolded me for not putting on my seatbelt when we drove to a nearby city. It is easy to forget because I had gone nearly 19 years without having to wear one.
No words can describe the amount of culture shock you will experience when you first travel to the United States from Micronesia. Nothing could fully prepare you for it. Adjusting was a bit difficult at first. I craved rice like crazy and had to have my parents send me a care package. Dealing with homesickness was hard, but a Skype session with people back in Pohnpei always made me feel better.
I almost got run over by speeding cars a couple of times because I forgot to look at the crosswalk lights.
Also, I had to learn the hard way that some of the toilets in America have motion detectors. During my fourth week of college, I used a public restroom. All of a sudden, the toilet flushed when I stood up. I screamed. The paper towel dispenser was motion activated too, but I did not know this so I kept banging on it because I was clueless about how to work it. Luckily, another kind student, who I could tell felt sorry for me, was in the restroom and taught me how to dispense the towels.
It was all very embarrassing, but it was a great learning experience. Whether it be learning how to use the automated restrooms or what cottage cheese is, it all makes the experience of studying abroad memorable.
I honestly do not think I would have acclimated and adjusted as quickly as I did if I did not attend the pre-departure programme and put myself out there to make new friends. And I’d like to think the people I have befriended in the U.S. have learned from me as well. As one of my fellow Micronesian friends who is studying in New York told me, “Most people in America haven’t heard of the FSM, so you basically become a walking geography lesson when you meet new people.” And that rings true. Be willing to share with others about your island roots.