Saturday, July 15, 2017

From Longaniza to Hot Dog Part 3. A Life Changing Question

I arrived in the United States from Venezuela where I had a short visit with the family of a friend after the six week training course I attended in Sao Paolo, Brazil in November of 1974.  I was stopping at the United States to visit a friend and a cousin before I make use of my air fare back to the Philippines to tour Europe. I would then upon returning to the Philippines apply what I learned in the course if applicable.

I do not remember at what port of entry I entered in the US this time around. The only thing that I could recall was I had to take a train to New York City to visit a cousin.  On my way to the Big Apple, I heard that the train was stopping at Washington DC.  I was surprised that the travel agent did not make Washington DC my first stop.  I decided to change plans and stop at Washington DC instead.  I called my friend who was a graduate student at Howard University with whom I was supposed to stay with at Washington DC. I notified her that I was arriving that day and that I would meet her at the Sheraton Hotel.  I waited for an hour for my friend who arrived later explaining she was in the other Sheraton waiting for me. It was winter then. She arrived with her coat on while I had an oversized black one my host in Venezuela lent me which I covered with a yellow and black poncho I purchased in Brazil.

We went to her apartment at S street located just past the embassy row and at the start of the not so pleasant area of the city. We sat on the floor of her large kitchen with the green flowered curtains rather than at the cute bistro type table and chairs she had. She prepared a lavish dinner of steak and corn and we drank orange juice.  While eating she asked a question that I found surprising for her to ask in the middle of a meal. She paused and asked me "Are you happy where you are in your life?" I do not remember exactly what and how I answered her question.  The next thing I knew she was on the phone the next morning calling the Chairperson of the Chemistry Department of the George Washington University.  She bravely asked if they had an assistantship available for me for the coming winter semester.  The chair said they might have one available since one of the graduate students was going to give  up her teaching assistantship to concentrate on her research.

The chair invited me for an interview the next day.  He and another professor asked me questions and that was it. I got the assistantship. There was one hitch though.  I needed to change my status to a student visa or F1 status and to accomplish this I have to exit the country. But which one? The choice was easy. Canada. It was the closest one to the US.

First I left for New York to visit my cousin as planned. It so happened her father-in-law knew the Philippine ambassador to Canada who might be able to help me.  So I left for Ottawa the capital of Canada where the Philippine embassy was. At the airport, a Filipino couple on the same flight asked where I was staying and when they found out I did not have any they generously offered me to stay at their apartment. My mother's prayer was working.

When I got to the American embassy I learned that in order to change my visa to an F1 status I have to change my official or government passport to an ordinary one. To do so meant asking the permission of my office in the Philippines where I worked to change it.  I already notified them of my assistantship and I requested them to help me change my passport status.

I figured that the wait for the change of the passport would take time and decided to look for another place to stay.  I found a youth hostel by the lake which was frozen in the cold Canadian winter. I remember calling and asking if they have a place to store my things and the person on the phone mentioned I could put them in the cell.  I inquired what he meant but the person did not elucidate.

When I arrived at the place, I saw a door marked prison and I was confused. I inquired inside and I asked if I entered the wrong place. Well it turned out the youth hostel is located right where the old prison was that closed since it was not according to code.  I did not mind staying there despite its history. The cost was only two dollars a day which would not take a toll on my pocket money just in case it would take a long time for the change of my passport to take place.

The bunk beds were along the corridor outside the prison cells that were concentrated in the middle of the dorm. These were the cells the person on the phone was referring to where one could store ones belongings.

There were only a few occupants on the floor for women.  Two were from Argentina and I distinctly remember they were taking so called cellulose pills that swelled in their tummy so they would not get hungry. Another resident was a weird one that looked like she was stoned. Aside from them, the dorm was practically empty with a lot of unoccupied bunk beds. We ate our breakfast at the basement kitchen and left the dorm for the day which was the rule and came back at night. To while my time, I visited all the museums in Ottawa.

One day I heard the footsteps of several people coming in in droves. I could not believe my ears when I heard some of them speaking in Tagalog.  I later found out that the Philippine Canadian youth exchange program participants were staying at the hostel.  Was I happy for their company and for me to be able to speak my language.

Days turned to a couple of weeks and I still had not heard about the status of my passport.  The office I worked at was having a reorganization at that time I was requesting for this change thus any action probably laid unattended on somebody's desk. In desperation, I boldly decided one night which was day time in the Philippines to directly appeal to the commissioner of the agency.  I changed several dollars into quarters for the long distance overseas call to be used on the pay phone in the youth hostel.  This was in the seventies so no cell phones yet existed and pay phones were everywhere. The conversation took longer than I expected but I was ready with all the coins I needed. But there was a problem, I filled up the pay phone I was using. The operator calmly advised me to move to another one fortunately located close to the youth hostel.

Christmas was fast approaching and still no news was in sight about my passport.  I decided to call a former high school classmate in Toronto and requested if I could stay with her family. That was what I did during the holidays while waiting for my passport to be changed.  I do not know how I was able to remain optimistic that this would occur and in time for the start of the winter semester at George Washington University. But I was. It must be my mother's prayers. One day I finally got the news from the Philippine embassy that my official passport had been switched to an ordinary one.   My F1 or student visa was then processed by the American embassy.

I found myself in January of 1975 in graduate school as a teaching assistant at the George Washington University. My trip to Europe had to wait and so was my return to the Philippines.

I had thought of going to graduate school but never expected  it to happen this soon and in the middle of a trip.  Thanks to my friend asking that life changing question and doing the legwork for me.  I am also grateful for the opportunity afforded me by George Washington University and my office in the Philippines as I went with the flow of the events. There were challenges along the way which I was able to surmount thanks to the generosity of my family, friends and even strangers. Though I never answered my friend's question directly, my heart and mind were open. My determination to overcome the hurdles, in retrospect, show I wanted that change to move forward to fulfill my dream. It just took another person to initiate it with a question. And I might add a lot of my mother's prayers to get some problems solved on the way to fulfilling it.

Note:  This is Part 3 of the series From Longaniza to Hot Dog which recounts my immigration to the United States from the Philippines. You might want to read the following:

From Longaniza to Hot Dog Part 1 Brooklyn and Sao Paolo
From Longaniza to Hot Dog Part 2 Muito Obrigada and Baden Baden

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