August 1990 “A big, red sun was setting over smoggy Bangkok as the plane took off — setting as my heart is sinking – wrenching pain to again leave and say good-bye to good friends, and to once again leave a beautiful girl behind. Parting with Nit for an uncertain future – am I making another mistake? At the same time still smarting with the awful hurt of losing Jessie the year before – shattering those dreams. When will I be able to settle on someone, to finally be content, satisfied? Wishing I had taken her with me when she so wanted to go… now just fond, bittersweet memories. Really wiped out, heart-broken, so tired of it all. On to Hawai’i – back to my own country; back to school. A timely change for this fried expat. Look forward now, and enjoy the memories.”
The beach was windswept, empty and stretched as far as the eye could see. A ferry was tied to the pier, but the passengers had long since disembarked. No one was in sight. Had she gone off somewhere? If so, how would she find my bungalow – she didn’t know where I was staying.
Suddenly Nit appeared from behind a sand dune, looking somewhat lost and alone. A small travel bag, black satin trousers hanging high and loose around her ankles, the wind blowing in her hair. I felt terrible. I was late getting to the pier, and had not been there when she arrived.
Our reunion was tender, but somewhat dampened, as I was to leave for school in America the following week. Nit and I had been living together in Bangkok for nearly a year, and we had been preparing for this for some time. There were plans for her to follow me to Hawai’i, but as is so often the case, plans fall through.
We didn’t know it then, but this beach holiday was to be our last one together. One week later I would leave, and that would be the last I would ever see her. It still rips my heart apart to think about it. Distance and too much time apart spelled the end, and she eventually married someone else in Thailand late the following year.
In August, I began my Master of Public Health (MPH) studies at the University of Hawai’i, School of Public Health and moved in to an apartment with three other students – one was a friend from my Samoa days. He had been a Peace Corps Volunteer when I was there with the YMCA, and invited me to join their Hawai’i household. What a privilege it was to have the time, resources and purpose to tie together some of my ‘real world’ experiences in a comfortable academic setting, which helped make sense of it all, as articulated and validated in research and stimulating discussions.
It was to be another jam-packed year of incredible highs and some intense lows – the heart-wrenching parting of friends, some wonderful reunions, and riding an incredible wave since arriving in Honolulu – turn right for the University, turn left for the beach.
Indeed, it was a significant year of transition returning to ‘civilization’ after nearly a decade living in the comfort of the outside world. But Honolulu was a beautiful, clean, modern city with a friendly, relaxed atmosphere, a perfect climate, and mostly Asian and Pacific people living in the beautiful Hawaiian Islands. I was stayin’!
So it began – my tumultuous re-entry into the Western world as this ‘primitive man’ so to speak, prepared to ‘leave the trees’ – as illustrated in a typical Far Side cartoon panel showing a cave man clinging desperately to a tree at the edge of the forest as a truck stood by waiting – presumably to take him to the city.
Again, I was in for some of the highest highs and lowest lows as I entered my graduate program at University of Hawai’i School of Public Health. Not least of which was an insidious ‘reverse culture shock’ that eventually materialized, as I was faced with an American culture I could no longer relate to, nor easily return to.
I had chosen Hawaii partly because it was the only school of public health in the country that didn’t require the Graduate Records Examination (GRE) for admission, and feared I was not likely to score well after nearly 10 years away from school.
As it turned out, I received an academic scholarship from the State of Hawai’i to finish my MPH degree. And, at the bidding of several of my professors and former development colleagues, I applied to the East West Center, a federally funded research center on the university campus for a scholarship to pursue my doctorate. After all, four more years in Hawai’i sounded pretty nice, with fully funded research that would probably send me back to one of the Asian countries I had been so sorely missing.
Actually, I had applied for an East West Center Graduate Degree Fellowship once before — for my Master’s program, but missed it by one place. Out of roughly 600 applicants each year, typically only two are chosen in Public Health – and I came third. But my professors encouraged me to re-apply for a grant to do my doctorate – which I did, and again received a rejection letter. Incredibly, my application had actually been lost and not even considered by the selection committee – and they would not meet again until the following year.
Amazingly, and at the urging of one of my professors, the committee broke protocol and reconvened to review my application – and soon after, I received my acceptance letter and continued on to complete a doctorate in Public Health – fully funded for four years, with research support in Thailand on the topic of abandoned children and HIV/AIDS.
On an unbelievable roll – that first year in Hawai’i was like riding a huge wave. Absolutely loving all the fresh and stimulating activities with barely a spare moment to sit and reflect on it all. Biking to the beach for a swim each morning at 6 AM, to school for breakfast at 8:30, and then back home to collapse at 11 PM.
But all the while, missing my Thai girlfriend Nit more than ever, and still hoping she would be able to come to Hawai’i. But her commitments at home, coupled with time and distance were making that dream harder to hold on to. Nit spoke almost no English and had never traveled overseas, which made the long trip seem even more daunting.
Meanwhile, a steady stream of demanding academic responsibilities and social commitments at school filled my days and nights, especially after being elected School of Public Health Class Chair.
A full schedule of fun-filled but exhausting social gatherings included plenty of good food and drink, hiking, biking, swimming and barbecues on the beach — I could barely keep up with it all.
And all the while, feeling the intense impermanence of life – distant friendships, relationships, endless experiences.
But how to hang on to it all?
Stay tuned for ‘Back to School: Alaska (Part One)’, coming soon!