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Half a Year (and Half a Planet) Away from Home: My Impressions of the US as a Fulbright Agriculture Scholar
Thursday, 1 September 2016

I would have to admit that I was having second thoughts about leaving for the US for 6 months during the pre-departure orientation for Fulbright scholars last May 2015. This trip would be the longest that I would ever be away from home. I cannot deny that I enjoy travelling abroad but all my trips prior to this one rarely lasted for two weeks. The thought of living far away from what was comfortingly familiar seemed terrifying. I saw the months dwindle into weeks, into days, and into hours. I survived the ordeal of waiting through pure denial – pretending the whole time as if I weren’t going away. I decided that the only time I would accept reality was when I settled into my seat inside the Delta flight bound for Hawaii. As I buckled up, I resolved that I would deal with my uncountable fears of the unknown as they unfolded. There was no use frightening myself sick during that long flight.

No Different From Home

As soon as I landed, things didn’t look as bad as I had imagined them to be. Compared with the other Fulbright scholars who went to the mainland US, I may have had the easiest adjustment period. I arrived on 11 January, winter time by US reckoning; however, the local climate was definitely tropical and most of the vegetation and fauna were familiar to me. There were also things that felt I was back in my Baguio base: evening temperatures that dipped to 15 deg C (60 deg F) and people chatting in Ilocano in almost every bus that I rode. I frequently visited the Manoa campus of the University of Hawaii and it looked and felt like the Diliman campus where I had spent more than half of my life in. Even the students dressed not unlike UP students: shorts, shirts, and flipflops. I guess the only thing that reminded me that I was not in the Philippines was the sight of many people wearing the floral aloha shirts, a stereotypical depiction of the Hawaiian way of life that I initially and mistakenly thought was nothing but the fictional product of the media.

An Island of Many Flavors

Oahu is the most populated among the Hawaiian Islands. The interesting thing about the island and its inhabitants is the diversity of people one would find at every corner. There would always be that Hawaiian mother with her kids in tow at the mall, the elderly Chinese lady waiting at the bus stop, an Afro-American military man on his midday jog, the Vietnamese hairdresser at the local salon, the Filipino service crew people at McDonald’s animatedly chatting with each other in between shouts to the kitchen crew to prepare a Big Mac, the Caucasian couple walking their dogs in the early evening, the Latino teenagers getting off their school bus, and groups of Pacific Islanders having a barbecue picnic at the park. It is a wonderful mix of people and cultures. Although not unheard of in the Philippines, I liked the idea that I had an array of ethnic restaurants to choose from that were manned and run by people from these ethnicities. I even made friends with some of the owners as I tended to be loyal to a few food establishments.

However, I have always made it a point to try the most interesting food items on the island. Although I fell short of reaching my goal to try the top 50 things to eat in Hawaii, I definitely got most of them. From the local pork laulau to the Japanese nabe meal to the Vietnamese springroll to the Filipino adobo; from the Portuguese malasada to Matsumoto’s shave ice to Jollibee’s halohalo. I did my best to try everything.

Only three things can make me forget about home: fruits, nuts and cheese. As with all American states, these things were available at every grocery store and farmers market. After I ogled at these in a supermarket aisle, I looked around and my mind got boggled even further. The sheer variety of things on the shelves, counters, and freezers was enough to make the supermarkets – all supermarkets – my favorite places in every American city that I visited.

Options for Health

Because of the immense spectrum that food stores offer, I was faced with two choices: the path towards health or the path towards girth. My greatest fear about living in the US, based on my previous visits, was the 99% possibility of putting on more weight because of the temptation to gorge on my weak spots: desserts and snacks. The aisles and freezer bins were potato chip heaven and ice cream paradise, respectively. It was with an immense amount of self-control that I avoided these carb-lined death traps and went for the fruit and produce section, the organic juices racks, and the aisles filled with every imaginable flavor of hummus and guilt-free, fiber-packed, oven-baked, low-sodium, carb-reduced, vegetable-enriched, flax-and-chia-seed-infused pita chips. I restricted my indulgence of burgers and fries to a maximum of one visit per week, bought takeout meals so I could divide them into two portions, opted to walk for half an hour than pay the $2.50 bus fare, and drink water instead of soda.

Thankfully, my fear of gaining weight did not happen and the 10-lb weight loss was a big bonus.

Consumer Convenience

The one thing that I appreciated about living in the US as a scholar is the premium on consumer convenience – something that, I think, is still largely an alien concept in the Philippines. Almost every establishment has its own membership program that offers big discounts to its patrons. Service, at least in my experience, was almost always fantastic be it at a restaurant, a book store, or a retail outlet. There were usually a few staff members per establishment, but I got the assistance I needed every time.

I was also particularly thrilled about the convenience of cashless transactions everywhere. Sure we have credit and debit cards in the Philippines, but it was never at this scale and at this speed. Using a card at the checkout counter never elicited the exasperated eye roll of people in line behind me. I I never had to worry about leaving home with nothing but a $5 note and my debit card. I was also happy with how easy it was to open a bank account. I did not even have to fill up the form; the bank teller did everything for me – and the bank was inside my favorite supermarket.

Delivery trucks came on time as they indicated they would; returns of purchased items were honored without question; discounts were given for items simply because they did not have the color I wanted; buses came on time and provided easy access to the elderly and disabled; sales clerks promptly notified me of on-going sales and even went further to suggest largely unadvertised additional discounts. These are things I wish we had back home. They may not be unique to the US but they are surely lacking in the Philippine cities where I have lived.

Thinking Like a Local

I did have my touristy modes during my stay —  joining throngs of American, Korean, Chinese and Japanese visitors to the crowded Pearl Harbor, the outlet stores at Waikele, and the restaurants of Kuhio Avenue at Waikiki. However, I eventually found more joy by imbibing the mindset of a local. I asked long-time residents about their favorite restaurants, their favorite weekend spots, their favorite hangouts, their favorite food. It gave me a much better glimpse and feel of the local culture and vibe. When I stayed off the large malls, the long queues at Starbucks, and tourist-overrun Waikiki Beach, I found myself in quaint and tucked away restaurants and coffee shops, less crowded beaches that had whiter sand and bluer waters, more scenic walk paths and trails, and shorter queues to everything. I learned which food trucks gave more value for my money, which dessert places offered better options, which stores had lower prices and the freshest seafood, and which parks offered more interesting things to see.

Having the local mindset included seeing things with a new pair of eyes. I admit I have always hated tattoos since I equated them with thugs and drug use. I later realized that tattoos were more of the norm on the island and began to appreciate their beauty and their artistry. I would like to confess that I struggled at the thought of getting inked — not just a teeny weeny anchor discreetly placed on my wrist, but an entire mural of colors and island motifs covering my nape all the way down to my rear end. In the end, I had to give up the tempting thought since I realized I would be back in the Philippines soon where no 50-year old academic decides to get a tattoo so late in life.

Trips to the Mainland

I got the chance to see the mainland United States during my 6-month stay. I was in Seattle for a Fulbright enrichment seminar. It was my first experience of spring and the promdi (country bumpkin) in me loved it. In summer, I went on a city-hopping trip across the mainland to meet with long-lost friends and reunite with my family. I started in San Francisco, reached all the way to New York and Chicago, and had a quick peek of Portland. This trip finally demystified all these places for me. I now know that Las Vegas feels pretty much like an oven, that Chicago is not that confusing to walk around in, that Central Park stinks of horse manure, that San Francisco is still freezing cold on summer nights, and that Portland is a quiet, laidback city that I will want to revisit in the future. I am thankful that my Fulbright fellowship was able make all this possible.

My Lab Life

Doing research in a very busy US lab was a major adjustment for me. Although everyone was friendly and always willing to lend a hand, they were already up to their necks with their own research activities to be able to get out of their way to assist me for whatever I needed. Unlike what I am used to, graduate students and postdocs were very independent. As early as their first year in their PhD studies, they were given the liberty and the logistic support to explore almost any topic that piqued their curiosity. In my own experience, I did not get to do anything related to my dissertation until I had hurdled all my courses and passed my comprehensive exams. I noted that students were provided with a great deal of independence in the way they approached their research topic and I feel that this does the student good as he is left to figure out each aspect of the research on his own. There were weekly meetings where everybody reported what he or she was doing and everybody else was enjoined to make suggestions. There were hardly any hired laborers to do menial tasks in the lab – from fabricating larval rearing tables or drilling holes on the wall to the daily monitoring of various water parameters in the large outdoor tanks. Everybody pitched in the work: postdocs, students, volunteers, interns, and the lone visiting researcher from the Philippines. I guess this set up really works as long as the charge is led by a very enthusiastic and charismatic principal investigator which we fortunately had.

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The lab of my life. Extracting live tissue from corals for chlorophyll a analyses. (photo: Dr. Hai Long Zhou)

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Immersion. Getting ready to haul mulch with fellow Fulbright scholars from Taiwan, Italy and China at a lakeside park in Seattle. (photo: Fulbright Visiting Scholar Enrichment Team)

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One of the guys. The Gates Lab is all set for coral night spawning activity. (photo: Dr. Hollie Putnam)

I didn’t necessarily hit the ground running when I reached Hawaii. There were some unforeseen delays that happened in the first few months of my stay in Hawaii. As these were beyond my, or anyone’s, control, I was able to use to time to immerse myself with the activities of the lab. I learned a lot from this and gained favors from people who later volunteered to help as soon as I commenced my own experiment. These first few months allowed me to explore the countless possibilities that I could do to address my Fulbright research, pick out the ones I could bring back to the Philippines, and wait for the planets in my universe to align in my favor (I had a lot of serendipitous encounters with key people that led me to things I never would have had access to.)

Overall, I regard my stay in Hawaii as a rewarding, worthwhile, and enriching experience. The interactions with professors and students gave me a glimpse of the mindset of a US-based academic. I gained very good insights on how it is to lead a research group, how to collaborate with other institutions, how to patiently wait and spot mutually beneficial acquaintances, and how to keep one’s sanity when one is away from family and friends.  This is something I greatly encourage colleagues to experience and will not shy away from the opportunity to do it again.

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On tourist mode. (clockwise from top left) Getting a behind-the-scene tour of the Waikiki Aquarium in Honolulu by former colleague Mark Dimzon; Dusk at the usually crowded Waikiki Beach; In a privacy-devoid patch of shade at Hanauma Bay; Introducing a British friend to the wonders of Jollibee; Trying out the famous malasadas (Portuguese doughnuts) of Leonard’s; Smiles of relief after getting off a long queue for Matsumoto’s shave ice at the North Shore. (photos: Rom Dizon, Dr. James Guest)

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