This article appeared in the UM Law Faculty's annual magazine, VOX.
“Eh, remember to show the hot chicks there that Asians are just as good. Oh, and don’t forget our souvenirs, or no notes for you!”
Yes, true to the spirit of the uber cool legal profession, even a law student’ parting words to a friend shall never escape from tongue-in-cheek sexual innuendos and a scheming slice of what we call - a contractual exchange of “consideration”. And so, armed with my mates’ motivating mission for the manhood and the electrifying libido of a young man’s dream to travel the world, this clumsy lad boarded the next flight across the Pacific Ocean to a bizarre land where: everything seems twice as large, cars run on the right lane and millions watch a game called “football” when they obviously use hands.
I was posted to a state named South Dakota, where the only thing significant to the world here would be Mount Rushmore; the famous hill where the faces of George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson and Theodore Roosevelt were carved. (And no, I’ve been there, and there’s no legendary city of gold called Cíbola like you saw on National Treasure, so snap out of it) The other fitting description of the state would be: grassy plains, corn, cows and…more grassy plains. No kidding. Anyway, my designated institution was Augustana College, (fondly known here as “Augie”) a private, liberal arts college affiliated with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in the sleepy town of Sioux Falls. Yes, I know, even comparing Hitler and Gandhi wouldn’t resonate a larger contrast than Augie and the University of Malaya – the irony of experiencing this in a so-called first-world and liberal nation like the USA was painfully obvious at times.
Because some genius at one point decided that American undergrads couldn’t handle the oh-so-complex dexterity of the law, the next closest major I could register was Government & International Relations. The liberal arts education was a particularly exciting concept for me – the belief that a maximum lateral-based academic exposure, instead of focusing on a few, produced the finest graduates. Yes, I took classes for my major such as American Government, Humans In Conflict and Politics In A Diverse World; but I also gave the cocktail some pizzazz by adding Microeconomics, Psychology and (to my Mum’s bellicose laughter) Social Dancing. Thus, my foray into the (to my Mum’s suspicious dismay) very un-Asian style of education begins.
Even though I had to slog my way through bone-chilling -10 degree Celcius cold from my dorm to classes every day (while looking in astonishment at random white dudes wearing T-shirts and shorts), I was thrilled at the challenge of steep learning curves ahead. I loved the devilishly intellectual plays of Socrates and Greek philosophers of the ancient times. I loved the heroic battles for the freedom of man in the American Revolution. I loved the unorthodox predictions a real-life Sovietologist had on Russia under Putin. At every nook and corner, refreshing perspectives and stunning facts were barraged into what would seem like an increasingly empty vortex of my mind. Yet, in peculiar jolts of connectivity, your brain subsequently form neurotic linkages between the subjects here with the far-reaching realm of the law: price-discrimination control via the Sherman Act in Economics, mental state of criminals in Psychology, separation of church and state in Philosophy, the rule of law post-Arab Spring in International Politics and ground-breaking Supreme Court decisions in American Government. Lessons in Law & Society classes back home come rushing back, as I appreciated the tremendous role a legal education can help you manoeuvre through other complex disciplines – and even guide the mind to new directions.
As nerdy as I might sound, wicked adventures outside the classroom were a norm during my stay. Augie has a very lively performing arts and musical scene for students to chill out. Almost every week, you would either have the Theatre majors tickle you with dark humour at the Edith Mortensen Centre or the Northlanders Jazz Band playing some soulful blues at the community hall. Celebrations here are such a blast too: home-made turkey during Thanksgiving, white-faced vampire at the Halloween Party and snowball skirmishes during Christmas. Sports being a big thing in American college culture, I had the time of my life trying out (and getting my sorry butt kicked) in Dodgeball, Laser Tag, Mud Volleyball, rock climbing and snooker with my American counterparts. As to why I don’t even look a tenth as drop-dead hot as Matt Damon upon coming back, go blame the dining hall staff for that sumptuous orgy of pizza, fries, buffalo wings, milkshakes, spaghetti and other calorie-generous American cuisine has to offer.
On weekends, I volunteered myself to participate in community service. The first place I devoted my time was at the Refugee & Immigration Center of South Dakota Lutheran Social Services. Unknown to many people, thousands of refugees like the Burmese, Bhutanese and Sudanese here were forced to flee their country of origin due to either political persecution or war, leaving their loved ones behind. In a move to ease their transition to a new life in the Midwest of America, I was part of a team that taught them how to operate a laptop, create an email address and speak English. When you take the effort to speak to them personally, their eyes show a sunken acceptance of God’s fate; yet you cannot miss that sparkle which reflects genuine appreciation and a desire for a better tomorrow.
The second place I volunteered was at the Royal C. Johnson Veterans Memorial Medical Center. Here, former American soldiers who had served in World War 2, the Korean War and the Vietnam War undergo medical treatment or seek social support groups. It was truly an honour listening about their combat missions abroad, yet it was also particularly heartbreaking to see some veterans having lost a leg, gasping for air or clinging on to a life-support machine. Yes, the media out there often criticizes American military involvement in many geopolitical combats abroad, but we don’t often remember how thousands of American families are prayingevery single day for their sons to return safely and the role of past warriors that fought bravely for the free and democratic world we now inherit. It is as raw and real as it gets, and I often felt extremely humbled at the presence of these people who had gone through so much in life.
Ultimately, it was the relationships with new-found friends in America which contributed many happy adjectives inside my daily diary. My friendship family was the Mullins, the father being Professor Michael Mullin of Augie’s History Department. I truly miss his intriguing stories on Western civilization, horse-riding lessons at his farm house from his beautiful wife Carol, as well as talking Mandarin with his daughter Rachel (confusing her with a smattering of Cantonese, Hokkien and Bahasa Malaysia here and there) who recently got back from China. That aside, Augie has an amazing array of 95 international students from more than 30 countries. Being a small and tight-knit campus community, I always manage to have amazing chats with people of diverse origins across the globe. Be it the stories of the Arab Spring from a Jordanian, Aung San Suu Kyi’s democratic struggles from a Burmese or how a German friend’s grandfather killed a hundred Russian conscripts with a machine gun, every conversation was like a missing page of history.
And then, there were the travels. A passion of mine, where no amount of words could describe how it shaped me in so many ways. I’ve sung campfire songs in the eerie dark amidst wolf howls at the Black Hills. I’ve participated in ghost-hunting missions at creepy Old Salem with Ms. Dian Shah, with no weapons but the undying belief that even the supernatural fear lawyers. I’ve entered the very first Starbucks in the world in dear old Seattle, realizing that it tastes the same anyway. I’ve biked across the Golden Gate Bridge of San Francisco, and wondered how it would look if painted purple. I’ve drove to Googleplex and Stanford University in Silicon Valley, but smacked my head in regret as the dark eluded me from seeing what I expected to see. I’ve set my foot on the Walk of Fame in Hollywood, ecstatic with the handprints of Harry Potter casts yet bewildered as to why they even have a space for Twilight actors. I’ve spent a whole day at Universal Studios, and couldn’t believe it when I passed through the set of Desperate Housewives, War of The Worlds and the Jaws series. I’ve been to Las Vegas, and realised amidst the aura of lust and greed that the title of “Sin City” is merely an understatement. I won’t pretend I hadn’t experienced my fair share of ups and downs. But hey, you’ve got to have both dejection and joy; or you might as well have never travelled at all.
At the end of it all, rather than feeling glorious that half your bucket list has been ticked, the awareness that this huge world has so much to offer really dwarves you to tiny proportions. My time in America has been, more than anything else, a lesson in humility and humanity. Humility because I’ve stepped in awe into the best universities in the world, met the most intelligent professors ever and appreciated the wonders of a capitalistic-driven intensity for innovation in American society. Humanity because I’ve discovered that we all crave for a love and a peaceful world; regardless of whether you are Latino or African, young or old, refugee or non-refugee, handicapped or able-bodied. I’m truly grateful for both the liberal-arts exposure which really does hone the critical mind, as well as valuable life lessons from the school of hard knocks and travels.
Here I am, back in Malaysia, reminiscing of the good old times. It still seems too surreal for me, at times. Out of the blue, I would miss tomato sauce and call the toilet a “restroom”. I still avidly follow the Republican primaries, hoping that Obama trashes whichever Tea Party fanatic that gets chosen anyway. Occasionally in Constitutional and Administrative Law classes, a delusional guy at the back would shamelessly throw an American concept or two in the air. I guess, the United States has indeed occupied a special place in my heart, something which will remain for a very long time.
Oh, my mission? Well, my friends still ask disturbing questions on virginity and sex. But at least I had pre-planned my retaliation - by buying them symbolic purple LGBT shirts and uniforms of Alcatraz Island prisoners, which they’re too self-conscious to wear as souvenirs anyway.
And that’s how lawyers play the game, even when you’re on break for 5 months.
Wei Jiet is a proud recipient of the Global Undergraduate Exchange Scholarship 2011-2012, an exchange program funded by the US Department of State for a diverse group of emerging student leaders to undergo a semester or a year of study at a U.S. College or University. He just might be an FBI agent secretly funded by “Western organisations” to infiltrate and topple Malaysia’s government through undemocratic means, as claimed by certain sources recently.
By: WeiJiet (UGRAD 2011/2012)