Friday, August 25, 2017

August 25: An Anniversary

August 25, 1974, 43 years ago today, I arrived in Green Bay, Wisconsin, to attend university there. I was 18 years old.
A year prior to that, my mother, stepfather, and I had left Sri Lanka.  We went to Malaysia, first, to visit family (my stepfather's cousin lived there) and friends, and stayed there for several weeks.  Then, we flew to Hong Kong to visit more family (one of my stepfather's sisters and her children, and one of his nieces from a different sister).  Then, we went to Taiwan to visit another of my stepfather's sisters and her family, and yet another of his nieces who was the sister of the niece in Hong Kong).  While we were in Taiwan, my mother was offered a position at one of the universities there to teach English for a term.  So we settled down in Taipei for a few months.

After my mother's contract ended, we went back to Hong Kong.  My mother would teach English there for the next 4 years (my mother had teaching certificates from Britain and Hong Kong was still a British colony at the time). While we were there, I was offered the opportunity to attend university in Wisconsin and a tuition waiver scholarship, so I accepted the offer.  Well, actually, my stepfather said we'll discuss it and my mother immediately said, "She's going" and that was that!  The decision had been made; there was nothing to discuss!
I had exactly two weeks to prepare for my trip, which included being able to show we had US$2,000 in a checking account as collateral before the visa would be granted.  We didn't have that much of money at the time (we were not allowed to bring out any money from Sri Lanka, at the time) and there was no time to get a loan!  My mother took her jewellery in a paper bag and showed it to the visa officer, who issued the visa without a word!  Later, my mother would pawn her jewellery to raise the funds that were needed; when my stepfather's sister found out, she gave my mother her children's college money to redeem the jewellery, with the understanding that my mother will pay her back in monthly installments. I had one week after getting the visa to book a flight (I couldn't buy a ticket until I had the visa), and get myself ready!  I also needed to bring another $2,000 with me to pay for the deposit on housing, registration fees, and various other expenses.  The fact that we had very little money at the time was an added challenge.

But, my mother was determined that I would go to the US to attend university.  We managed to obtain the funds we needed and I was outfitted with adequate clothing, other essentials, and a brand new, portable, manual typewriter.  My stepfather's sister gave me some warm clothing, an alarm clock, and two one dollar bills should I need to buy something at the airport, and a dime for a phone call. The Cashiers check for $2,000 was obtained and my mother put it in a plastic bag which she sewed to the inside of my blouse so I wouldn't lose it and no one could steal it!

And, on August 24, 1974, I boarded a plane to come to the US.  It was the first time I had ever flown anywhere on my own.  From Hong Kong to South Korea, where we found out that my travel agent hadn't booked me on the connecting flight!  I was taken aside to be searched thoroughly and all I could think of was not making the connecting flight because that would mess up all the other connecting flights!  But, I was finally allowed on the connecting flight which took me to Honolulu, which was my port of entry.  The customs people there gave me a hard time because I had some chocolates and a couple of other food items with me.  I remember telling them it was to keep me fed until I was able to buy groceries at the other end. 

Then, from Honolulu to Los Angeles.  Where I had to find my way from the international airport to the domestic flights terminal.  Which was in another building.  And I had no idea where to go.  I found an airlines counter, but there was no one at the counter.  As I stood there, wondering what to do, a gentleman approached me.  I had seen him before, in the plane, with a lady and a child who I assumed were his wife and baby; so, when he asked me if I needed help, I said yes.  He led me out of the terminal, through a dark parking lot, to the other terminal where there were airline counters with people working behind them!  Looking back, I marvel at how trusting I was to follow a stranger like that! 

Then, it was a wait of several hours until my next flight.  I had eaten lunch on the plane, but now it was evening.  But I only had the cashiers check for the university and the two one dollar bills and the dime my aunt had given me, and I wasn't going to spend them.  I ate the crackers I had with me and waited.  My next flight was from Los Angeles to Chicago.  I boarded the plane sometime around 11:00 p.m. - too late for them to serve dinner on the plane.  I arrived at O'Hare Airport at 5:00 a.m. - too early for them to serve breakfast on the plane!  There was a 3-hour wait at O'Hare and then, I boarded a plane to Milwaukee and, from Milwaukee, an even smaller plane (there were, I think, some 6 or 8 seats on the plane!) to Green Bay! 

My stepfather had cabled the university with my flight information, asking someone to meet me at the airport, but they hadn't got the cable and so, no one met me at the airport.  Half of my luggage, too, was missing!  One suitcase had made it on the plane with me, but the second suitcase, with my new typewriter and several other items, was missing!  So, I filled out the missing luggage claim forms (the airlines eventually located my suitcase and forwarded it to me, but it had been broken into and items, including my typewriter, were missing) and used the dime I had to call the university.  Within the hour, someone came to the airport to pick me up and take me to the campus, to register me, and get me to my student apartment (they didn't have dorms at this particular campus, at the time; they had contracted with a private company to provide student housing, which consisted of apartments).  Eventually, someone suggested lunch, and I had my first hamburger at the cafeteria.  In the afternoon, I was taken to the bank to set up an account, so I could cash that cashier's check, then, to the grocery store, and back to the apartment.  None of my roommates were there, yet, so I was on my own.  I remember cooking some hot dogs for dinner and not even being able to eat them because I was so tired and jet-lagged! 

The next day, I was asked to come in for some placement tests.  What tests?  No one told me anything about tests!  LOL.  I was to be tested in English, math, science, and social studies.  I was never very good at math, so I didn't do too well on that and was placed in Intermediate Algebra.  Social studies was only a little better, as it was mostly about American history, and I knew some, but not a lot.  I did better in Science - enough to get 6 college credits for it!  And I did really well in English (although they didn't give college credits for that), scoring the highest of all the incoming freshmen, that fall semester, much to the surprise of the campus administration!  How could a foreign student score better on English than anyone else?  Well, I had grown up in a former British Crown Colony, English is one of the three official languages there; my parents were British educated, and I was bi-lingual in English and my own language.    Of course, I had to relearn how to spell and pronounce certain words and learn to say cookies instead of biscuits and so forth.   But I managed to surprise everyone with how well I spoke English. 

My stepfather and mother immigrated a couple of years after that.  They found Wisconsin winters to be too cold, so they moved to Florida.  I joined them there, after I had finished my studies, then, we drove across the country to California.  I went back to Wisconsin for my graduate studies, but came back to California, afterwards, and here I've stayed.  I can't imagine settling down elsewhere, but I know I'll be able to, if I need to. 

43 years have passed since I arrived in this country!  At the end of this month, it will be 44 years since I left Sri Lanka. 

Today, I went to the office.  My gardener friend was tidying up the garden when I came home.  I felt too tired to do much in the evening, other than watch some TV and exchange some messages with family in Texas.  Apparently they are not in the direct path of the hurricane, but are anticipating flooding.  My friend R called me and we had a nice chat. 

Today, I am grateful for:
- Being offered a scholarship to attend university
- My mother's willingness to let me go and make it happen
- My stepfather's sister and family doing what they could to help
- The confidence of youth which enabled me to venture out on my own
- All the blessings of the past 40+ years!

How was your day?  What are some of the special anniversaries of your life? 


  1. What a lovely story. Thanks for sharing. Chris M

  2. It is so lovely of you to share this Bless and what a fascinating story.
    I can't imagine how you must have felt travelling by yourself all those years ago.
    You've made a great life for yourself and your daughter and should be so very proud.
    Happy anniversary. X

    1. Thank you, Jules. My mother asked me if I was afraid to go by myself and I told her no, because, if anything happened, I could speak the language!

  3. That was one incredible trip you took to eventually end up here. I think you said a key phrase--"the confidence of youth". Sometimes ignorance is bliss and allows us to do things we might not ever do otherwise.

    I'm glad your parents were able to immigrate so you could be together. Have you visited much back in Sri Lanka?

    1. Thank you, Live and Learn. I have visited Sri Lanka a few times, but I haven't been back since 1990.

  4. What an interesting read Bless and what an independent young lady you were with a very forward thinking mother :) Amy is thinking of university that's 1.5 hours away by train and that seemed a long way until I read this.

    Mark says Uni isn't just about education although obviously that's the main point of going, but about learning life skills that a lot of youngsters don't seem to have these days and I have to say I agree with him.

    It's amazing how little they can actually do for themselves. The way they think is completely beyond me. Not much forward planning if any, just taking each day as it comes, which is fine but some things need to be planned and organised don't they.

    Did your family plan to leave Sri Lanka or was it purely to visit family and then job offers for your mother and step-father meant you just didn't go back? And have you ever gone back to visit since? You can rely on me to be inquisitive can't you lol. xx

    1. Thank you, Suzanne. Yes, going to university is a whole life experience. I think going away from home is very good for teenagers and young adults, as it encourages them to become independent and "grow up".

      My family planned to leave. They left on what was known as an "exit visa" at the time. They wanted to come to the US, eventually, but their papers took a long time due to some complications. In the meantime, we traveled. Yes, we went back for visits, several times, in fact. But I haven't been back since 1990. I don't know if I will ever go back, now. I wanted to take my daughter for a visit, after she graduated from university, but she wasn't interested in going.

  5. What an amazing story of your journey here to America. You mentioned your step-father and mother were not able to join you for a couple of years. Did you have other relatives here to fill in the void? It certainly must have been difficult for you.

    My own journey to this country was one I undertook at age 18 only knowing one person here, the man who was to become my husband. I missed my home and family. In those days it was very expensive to make an over seas phone call so that didn't happen very often, letters weekly were how we kept in touch. Like you I look back at that time and think how brave I was and I also had bags of confidence and absolutely no fear!

    The other special anniversaries in my life are 1) getting married, birth of my children, wedding of 2 children, birth of grandchildren and one sad one the death of my beloved sister.

    It would be interesting to hear about how you adjusted to your American college experience, perhaps on another blog post.

    1. Sandy, you were very brave, too! And those are some very special anniversaries, even the sad one of your sister's death.

      No, I had no family where I went to university. My sister was in California and my uncle (mother's brother) and his wife and two daughters were also in California, but I was in Wisconsin. My sister and my uncle didn't even know that I had come to Wisconsin until much later. There were no other Sri Lankans in Green Bay. But there were about 4 Indian faculty members and their families and they included me in their get togethers and introduced me to a few other Indian families in the neighborhood.

      Yes, international phone calls were very expensive. I, too, wrote weekly letters to my mother and stepfather. My stepfather saved every letter I wrote to them! I found them among his papers after he died. Each has been dated when received and he has made some notations in the margins! I have two folders of them, but I haven't re-read them. I should read them one of these days, but I know I'll probably cry!

      Yes, college days were quite the experience! But I enjoyed it all, for the most part. Definitely another blog post! :)

  6. I think there is something strange about a woman who doesn't remember dates or honour special anniversaries. That would be me. I was notorious for never remembering my wedding anniversary. My husband always did, but not me. One year I forgot my own birthday. If you asked me when I started working for an employer, or even how many years I worked for them, I couldn't tell you. It just never seemed like important information to me. Since retiring and then making my own cards, I have at least written down the dates of birthdays on my perpetual calendar. I have been trying very hard to honour other peoples' special days. But it is something I have to train myself to do. It was fun reading about your experiences leaving your country of birth to start your new life.

    1. Ha, ha, Susan, I forgot my daughter's birthday, a couple of years ago! I mentioned it to her the night before, but when I called to say good morning on the day of, I completely forgot! Until she reminded me! I was undergoing chemo, then, so I get to blame it on chemo-brain! But the truth is, I'm always forgetting the birthdays of friends and family! You'd think I'd learn to write down the dates, but I don't do that, either!

  7. Wow.. how amazing.. You were and are a very brave lady.. I was scared to death, just reading this So proud you made it safely to the college. .Got to finish your degree and happily settled in California.

    1. Thank you, Judy. It's funny, but I was never afraid to venture out on my own like that, back then. :) Hope your granddaughter will also enjoy her college experiences. Has she started classes yet?

  8. I really enjoyed reading about the complicated journey you undertook to Wisconsin. I think travel is a good way to gain confidence. My mother put me on a train from London to Doncaster when I was 7 years old, to be met by my aunt and uncle with whom I was to spend a week or two. This happened again in subsequent years. I was never afraid to travel alone and in some ways now I find it a challenge to go on a journey with DH, rather than separately, as I often used to take a different route, using points or a more economical flight, to join him on a business trip. I also made many trips alone to the UK to visit our parents when he wasn't free to come, so I developed my own ways of coping with travel and it is amusing how different we are at times.
    However, the most momentous journey I ever took was with DH, the day after our wedding. We left England at Dover, watching the white cliffs recede, on our way to the place where he had his first job for one year. We sat on the ferry eating our first lunch as a young married couple. As things turned out, we never lived in England again, although we returned many times, immediately before and after we came to Canada. It was a happy journey, as all the fuss and concern that a wedding involves was successfully completed, and now we could relax on our own!

    1. Bushlady, that was a rather momentous journey you took, too, as a newly wed. Interesting that you never lived in England, again.

      Travel does help to gain confidence. I see it happening with my daughter - she still doesn't like to fly, but she's getting better about sitting in a plane for several hours at a time. And she is able to find her way around an airport without any problem.


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