My American Dream
Since childhood America has captured my imagination. She has been my distant dreamland… a land of fairy tales. Then one day pretty much like a fairy tale my dream became real. This is the story of my American dream.
November 1976. I am excited as my company sends me to Jakarta to attend a short course. This is my first overseas trip--an unexpected, wonderful gift.
It is in Jakarta that I meet Emil J Burcik, our instructor… an American professor… middle-aged, stocky and friendly. My association with him and the fellow Indonesians excites me, and in a short time we all become friends. The two weeks of class passes like a flash of light. But what stands still, frozen in time, is the last evening.
Professor Burcik invites me for a drink. We sit and talk about things and as it gets late, I take my leave. Professor Burcik stands at the door as I walk towards the elevator.
“Listen, will you be interested to study in the US?” He asks me the most unexpected.
I take a few moments. “I do not think I can afford it.”
“I am not talking money. Would you like to come to the US?”
“I would love to.”
He pulls out his wallet and finds a business card. “Get in touch with me when you return home.”
I thank him but do not make much sense as to what it all means.
Nevertheless, I write him on my return. He writes back and sets the wheel in motion. Months later the postman delivers me a mail… an acceptance letter from Pennsylvania State University. It is for a Masters programme with a half-time assistantship. I cannot believe my eyes. Is it a dream? The sudden fear of loss grips me. I remain awake all night living and reliving the excitement of this precious gift sent down from heaven.
Fall 1977. I arrive at State College and begin to discover the man who has just changed the course of my life. His affection for me becomes evident not only to me but even to my fellow students. If I am a leaf, he is the trunk; if I am a child, he is the father. My fellow students refer to him as my 'old man'.
And then there is another interesting development that takes me to the core of an American family. I meet my host family the Schwartzs Dwight and Wilma, and their son and daughter. In no time I am a member of their family, as Dwight and Wilma embrace me as their child. During the summer holidays they take me to Oklahoma to meet their extended families. I fall in love with these rural people. For many of them, I am the first foreigner they have ever met.
It takes me a year and a half to finish the masters programme. I think of finding a job but Professor Burcik wants me to do a PhD and suggests that I do so through another university. He calls someone at the University of Texas and once more gets the wheel moving.
In late the spring of 1979 I hit the road for Austin. First I meet Professor Robert Schechter, my new supervisor. He is humorous and with his wit comes his boisterous laughter. I like him instantly. He introduces me to Dr Larry Lake, who is to be my co-supervisor.
Then there are four other persons who come to my life during this time. First is a fellow student Robert MacKinnon; a tall, well built young man with a lot of sense of humour. Bob and I start sharing an apartment. His personal life touches me as we share our joys and sorrows. We soon become great buddies. I still have to find yet another man who is so blind to colour, race, and religion.
During Christmas break (1980) I visit home and, guess what? Before I know it I find myself married--an unexpected, arranged marriage. On my return I find it hard convincing Bob of my new status. The real evidence comes a few months later when Bob drives me to the airport to receive my bride.
Earlier, one afternoon of late 1979 my phone rings… a female voice. She introduces herself as Sheila Stanley. She phones me regarding my letter published in Time.
Sheila is a UT sophomore Business student, a devout Christian, loving and always happy with 'whatever Jesus wills'. During our first meeting she talks about her physics class and the professor who recently moved from Princeton.
“What's his name?”
“Is that John Archibald Wheeler, the guy who worked with Einstein?”
“Maybe, she ponders, “On the first day in class he brought three framed photos. One of them was Einstein.”
The following week I phone Professor Wheeler to make an appointment. We go on to form a friendship that continues during my stay at UT. I have yet to find another humble man like him.
The fourth person I come to know is Daniel Davis, the second person to change the course of my life. If Professor Burcik changed it in my outer world, Dan did it in my inner. I owe it to Sheila for introducing me to Dan.
Our first meeting takes place in a country club, where Dan runs his Sunday church service. I find him deeply religious, a persuasive speaker and preacher who captivates his audience. My association with Dan leads me to think about my own beliefs, and I embark on a comparative study of world's religions and philosophies. Dan and I are to follow our own hearts but we remain true to each other as men, as friends, as brothers.
The summer of 1982 brings me close to finishing my PhD. During one of the busy days, I receive a call from Canada. Professor Farouq Ali (one of my professors from the PSU days) is on the phone. He tells me that he has just returned from a consulting job in Saudi Arabia. The organisation there is looking for a researcher and he has spoken to them about me. They are keen, I have a job if I want it.
My plan is to continue living in the land that I have come to love… the land that continues to stimulate my outer and inner worlds but the wheel had already taken a turn.
In the fall of 1982 we pack our things and board a plane. I leave behind my long-cherished dreamland. My departure is as unexpected as my arrival the only difference being that I entered America as a foreigner and now I leave it as an American an American by nurture. I leave behind my family and friends just as I did it when I left my native land.
To stay on course with my dream-trail I have to cut the story short as to what happens in the ensuing 25 years.
January 2007. We are a family of six living in Australia. Our first child was born in Bangladesh. In late 1987 we followed a friend of mine, Chung-Shou Chen, to Australia. Our second child was born in our new home in the following year. By the end of 1990 we were packing again. This time we headed for Sultanate of Oman. It was in this beautiful land that we were blessed for a third time. Our family of five returned to Australia in early 1995, and in the following year an innocent looking, little, playful puppy became our sixth family member.
Life is a journey that never stops. In 2005 I traveled to United Kingdom, intending to relocate the family in this historical land. After more than a year it became evident that it was not to be destiny's plan.
Destiny has taken me to distant lands. It has given me the opportunity to meet diverse people and make new friends. However, my bond with America is to remain as it has always been. Why would it not when it has brought so many treasures to my humble home Burcik, my 'old man'; Dwight and Wilma, my host parents; Dan, my spiritual brother; Schechter, my caring shepherd; Sheila, my loving friend; Lake, my venerable teacher; Wheeler, my twinkling star; Bob, my best buddy ever. And then there are others too -Linda, Bradley, Frank Reudelhuber, John Frisch, and Paul Gilmer. To most I still write, others continue to stay in my heart and mind.
I am indebted to the land where I now live and the lands where I have once lived. They all have enriched me in one form or the other, but it is to the land of my ancestors and the land of my dream that I owe the most one nourished my soul and the other shaped the course of my life once and for all.
For every pleasure there is pain just as for every light there is a shadow. It is always painful when someone you adore does not live up to your expectations.
In recent years the US appears to have lost her moral ground and her stature as a world leader. The American dream that was once a beacon for millions the world over appears to have diminished and her image as a great nation is tarnished. It pains me to see how the world's opinion (and, sometimes, even my own) of the US has changed for worse. With my pain my dream begins to take a toll.
It is unfair to judge a nation, particularly, her people based on external events only. To me, America at its core still stands as a great nation--a nation that nurtures freedom, human dignity, human rights and rights of other nations. And, above all, she respects Mother Nature that nurtures us all.
For every light there is a shadow and for every shadow there is got to be a light. Some see shadow; some see light. But to be truly fair one has to see both… simultaneously… as one piece.
America has reached a watershed. Can she overcome her political setback, regain her strength and return to the position she deserves? Surely she can.
The strength of a nation does not lie in the hands and minds of its government, nor in its military might, wealth, or in the size of its land. It belongs to the people as to how they perceive things.
We as nations, societies, and individuals expect others to have faith in our faith, think as we think, do as we do, live as we live, behave as we behave and even to speak the language we speak. We also fail to see that we are no different from each other. We fail to recognise our own reflections. We simply miss the mirror.
Also, it is inherent in human nature that we all tend to believe in our own superiority and infallibility; to see good and evil as black and white, two separate entities, not realising that, like light and shadow, good and evil are not only entwined, but sustain each other. We view an event in isolation as we fail to see it in overall scheme of things. We avoid asking ourselves: How do we know that imperfections that we perceive in others are not due to our own imperfections? How do we know that we are not accomplice to the action we condemn? We have too much ego to be aware of our own shadow, and, above all, we claim that we know Truth without questioning that being under its spell how could one ever know Truth.
Philosophical speculations might not solve problems, but they can point to the direction where problems have their roots. It is difficult to imagine: How does a nation become strong without first recognising its weaknesses? If a nation fails to win her battle against perceived external enemies it is because she fails to see the enemy within, let alone winning it over. It is not easy (albeit difficult) to win over such a battle. But if there is one nation on this earth that can win such a battle, it is America.
I cannot afford America losing the battle for this will lead to a tragic consequence. The death of a dream.
Tohon is the author of The Landscape of a Mind,
Athena Press, London, 2005.
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