Studying abroad can change one's perception of a nation and its people. ASSOC PROF DR TEH YIK KOON of Universiti Sains Malaysia, who studied at the University of California on a Fulbright scholarship, recounts a humbling yet enriching experience.
I WAS one of the fortunate recipients of the Fulbright Scholarship last year. Many Fulbright scholarship holders are given the opportunity to acquire knowledge in their areas of specialisations at prestigious universities in the United States.
However, the primary objective of the Fulbright Scholarship is to promote goodwill and understanding between the people of the United States and those of other countries.
Senator J. William Fulbright, the founder of the scholarship programme, believed that through educational exchange, people of different nationalities and cultures would better understand one another. He believed it could, and would, help prevent future wars.
In other words, Senator Fulbright hoped that the scholarship would promote world peace and harmony.
During my five-month stint in the US, I stayed at Westwood in Los Angeles and was hosted by the Centre for Southeast Asian Studies and Department of Sociology at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA).
I wish to relate my Fulbright experience and how well I was treated by the Americans, as I believe it will promote good relations and understanding between Malaysians and Americans.
I must admit that before I landed in LA on Sept 1 last year, I had the impression that Americans were pro war and anti-Muslim, and that LA had a high crime rate.
But on my very first weekend at Westwood, I witnessed an anti-war protest by a large group of people of all “colours”. Anti-war rallies were held in different parts of the States, and many UCLA staff members and students joined in the protests. Some even travelled to different parts of the country to lend their voices to the protests.
I could not help but be touched by these Americans' sincerity in trying to stop the war planned by the Bush administration.
As for anti-Muslim sentiments, there was certainly nothing of the sort while I was at Westwood. Muslim students whom I spoke to told me that they felt safe and knew they could rely on their fellow students for help should anything “out of the ordinary” were to happen.
And the crime rate? Interestingly, as a criminologist and a sociologist who is usually rather cautious of her surroundings, I felt very safe in Westwood and many other places I went to. For a start, I did not have to worry about how I should carry my handbag, unlike back home where snatch thefts are rampant.
People in LA know what places to avoid, and there are not many. Policemen are quite visible in Westwood with their regular patrols. UCLA even has its own police department!
On the academic side, my colleagues at the Centre for Southeast Asian Studies, where I was based, made me feel welcomed and were very helpful in giving me information on who I could contact for my research.
The Fulbright coordinators were always working to make sure that we “Fulbrighters” enjoyed our stay and had opportunities to experience American arts and culture.
The libraries at UCLA are a great source of information as one can find almost all the journals in the world (some dating back a few centuries), and the latest publications.
I made sure I attended all the talks and forums on the latest research topics and issues that interest me. One such forum was on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
The two professors who spoke, a Palestinian and an Israeli, gave very interesting insights into the issue. Both ended up saying that the Palestinians and Jews want the conflict to end as soon as possible but that negotiations are delayed by politicians. They said the Palestinians and Jews are willing to share the land and co-exist peacefully.
All this exciting exposure to knowledge, people and ideas was made possible by the scholarship provided by the Americans.
I have met many kind and helpful Americans from the day I landed in LA until the day I left, on Jan 31. The manageress of the apartment I stayed at, for example, made sure I had everything I needed; the church I attended said they were there for me should I run into any problem, and friends, including fellow Fulbrighters from other parts of the world, gave me a happy and memorable time in California.
Potluck parties were quite common and though I've never been known for my culinary skills, I think I didn't fare too badly.
During the Christmas and New Year break, I had the chance to travel in California with an aunt, who came over from London, and a fellow Fulbrighter. An American friend made sure we had all the relevant maps, mapped out the places we should visit and even rented a car for us at a very reasonable price.
California is a very beautiful and diverse place. Certainly, it was a learning experience for me. I was particularly impressed by technological advancements, the preservation of national parks, and the work culture over there. Public transportation, for instance, is cheap, efficient and punctual.
There's a lot Malaysia can learn from the Americans. We should not judge or condemn them based on the actions of their President.
It is frustrating enough for many Americans that their voices and protests are not heard by their President. One even told me how upset she was that democracy seemed to have gone out of the window in the US.
In conclusion, the American Fulbright scholarship has not only given me a chance to be up-to-date in my area of research and specialisation, but also to see and learn new things, meet and understand people, perceive things in a different light and, hopefully, be a better person.
Even though I led a relatively “simple” life – no television, radio, telephone or car – I was very happy during my stay in California because I was surrounded by warm, genuine and sincere people.
I thank the Fulbright authority for this chance in a lifetime and, hopefully, I will never forget the lessons I've learned. My very best wishes to the Americans.