Monday, October 11, 2010

DAY 7 & 8: Leaving Washington DC to St. Louis, Missouri



DAY 7: Preparing for our fellowship

After nearly a week of orientation in Washington DC, it’s time for all of us to be deployed to our respective state hosts. The Indonesians are going to Mississippi, the Filipinos, Atlanta and Malaysians to St. Louis. Just as I was getting used to living in Washington DC (and of course with still so many more places to explore; the Smithsonian museums in particular, but who’s keeping count, eh?), it was time to leave and I was feeling rather melancholy. The good news is, we’re coming back after 4 weeks.

We spent half a morning with Kristin at the Club Quarters Hotel conference room. She briefed us on our respective fellowship schedules and miscellaneous assignments we’re expected to do during that period of time. Then, we were off to Capitol Hill for a quick tour.


Top left: On the way to Capitol Hill through an underground tunnel for staff.

Top right: The delegates taking pictures of Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s entrance to Congress.

As usual, I was not disappointed although it was crowded with visitors and we had to rush through the tour. The highlights were definitely the 15-minute video called E Pluribus Unum, Latin for “One From Many” (found on the US 1 dollar bill) and the inside of the Rotunda (see picture below) which took my breath away. The video seeks to illustrate the historical background of the American Congress (House of Representatives) and its significance.


I thought the video was insightful and inspiring at the same time. If there’s one thing I’m learning from the Americans; it’s that they do know how to run a fantastic campaign and to “sell their products”. By the end of the video, I was convinced that the American Congress is the greatest democratic institution and serves as a strong and proud model for the rest of the world despite being told by many, how disappointed and upset the Americans are with their present Congressmen and women. I believe their success lies in two main factors; lots of money and getting the best team to run the campaign.

I then went to the new US Supreme Court which was originally housed in Capitol Hill. Unfortunately, it was closing in 15 minutes and I had to rush through the whole building. I thought I could squeeze the national zoo on the way back but instead I went to watch a new documentary called Waiting for Superman by the same producer that did An Inconvenient Truth. The documentary is about the declining quality and standard of public schools in America.



Above: The US Supreme Court. On the top front of the Greco-Roman building, it’s written Equal Justice Under Law.

I could see that the American audience is more interactive than in Malaysia. They would respond to what’s being presented in front of them on the silver screen. For example, the audience applauded, expressed their disgust and sighed out loud at appropriate moments throughout the documentary. They were appalled to see thousands of children being entered into lottery  so that they would stand a chance, regardless of how remote it may be, of getting into a good school with very limited spaces. While I acknowledge that it’s sad state of an affair, I couldn’t help but think how Malaysians have been robbed of a good education for decades and nobody would have dared to make a documentary about it if they are not prepared of the possibility of government reprisal.

When I was waiting for my popcorn before entering the theater, the guy behind the counter asked what movie I was going to watch. As soon as I said “Waiting for Superman”, his reaction was, “Oh really? Why?!!” Taken aback, I asked whether there was something wrong with the documentary. He looked around and once he was satisfied that no one else was around, he slipped a printed piece of paper to me and urged me to read it. As it turned out, the paper is Rick Ayers’ criticism of the points asserted by the documentary. You can read it here. And this is what I call a healthy and robust democracy – allowing people to express their point of views and then to have others rebut it based on facts, research and study. And, nobody dies from this.

For our last night in Washington DC before we return again in 4 weeks’ time, Rajiv and I hit Adams Morgan. It is a vibrant area where the clubbing scene is. The roads were filled with people ready to party all night long. There was also a bunch of people protesting against the International Monetary Fund (IMF) while being observed by policemen. We went to have dinner at an Ethiopian restaurant. Since I lived in Ethiopia for almost a year, I can tell that the food is not as authentic or delicious as the real thing, but it was sufficient to remind me of a place I once loathed in the beginning and learned to love in the end. (The injera still looked like folded tea towels which made me laugh.)

Day 8: Living like a VIP in St. Louis

Upon arrival at the airport, we were greeted by a tall, handsome and well-dressed man, and a jovial and warm woman. Michael McMillan, License Collector for the City of St. Louis, and Charlotte Ottley, Michael’s assistant, will be our hosts for the next 4 weeks.

When we finally secured our luggage and stepped onto the tarmac, I was stunned to see a long black limousine waiting for us by the sidewalk across the street. The first thought that came to my mind was this: “How on earth are we ever going to live up to this?” You see, Michael, Charlotte and two more individuals from St. Louis who are yet to be identified, will be visiting Malaysia in December. This is part of the ACYPL exchange programme.

I was rather distracted by the whole “grand gestures” (Benedicto will smile if he reads this) that I failed to notice my surrounding. I definitely notice the number of whiskey carafe in front of me and the fact that Charlotte and Michael were sitting way at the back that it was probably impolite for me to raise my voice so that I could talk to them.




I was also stunned when I saw our accommodation for the next 4 weeks. We were all placed in a double bedroom suite at the Marriott Residence Inn and since I’m the only woman, I get a whole suite to myself. Not only that, Charlotte had prepared a welcome pack for each of us and I must confess that tears came to my eyes as I opened the bag that is filled with all sorts of wonderful girlie stuff. I told Michael that I felt as if I’m in America’s Next Top Model and he laughed. All in all, Michael and Charlotte’s generosity  and hospitality were beyond comparison and nothing that I have quite experienced before.

We had a few hours of rest before being picked up by a polite and nice gentleman named McFarlene Duncan. McFarlene works in Michael’s office and he was to accompany us to a black tie fundraising event for the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity of the Epsilon Lambda Chapter of St. Louis at the Marriott Hotel at Union Station. I must confess that I was dreading it, especially when I was ill prepared in the wardrobe department. Thankfully, my turquoise silk kebaya was a huge success as I received appreciative comments by the women there. Everyone looked dignified and handsome in their tuxedos and evening gown. Michael of course, looked dashing and I smiled when I saw this video on You Tube.

Now, if you really know me, you’ll also know that I’m actually shy and uncomfortable in formal and high society-type events. I’m especially bad when it comes to striking up interesting conversations, networking with important people and putting a spotlight on myself so that I’ll get noticed. I tend to shy away from this but I’ll always remember what Mom tells me, “As an adult, you’ll need to learn to do all sorts of things which you don’t like. It’s called responsibility.” The other thing which I constantly tell myself is to always give something a chance before making any conclusion and as it turned out the night was fun, interesting and I was glad that we were invited to attend.

We were honoured to meet so many interesting people and with those who received awards for their contributions to their local communities. I learned a lot about the American culture of fraternity and sorority. I also learned about how people do fundraising event and above all, I learned that all African Americans can sing (not that it’s a secret if you watch American Idol but I just didn’t know how many they would be).

I don’t know what to expect come Tuesday when we finally start our fellowship. I must confess that I wait for it with great anticipation but not without trepidation. It seems that people here have such great expectations of us and I hope we won’t disappoint them.

Thank you Michael, Charlotte, McFarlene and everyone else who have welcomed us to St. Louis with style, warmth and kindness.

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