This story is by Alexandra “Jade” Goh-McMillen and was part of our 2016 Winter Writing Contest. You can find all the Winter Writing Contest stories here.
I arrived at Cascadilla Hall long before the start of classes because I didn’t know when classes would start. I was a nineteen-year-old girl, fresh out of undergraduate, from a small town in the Philippines where nobody who has a door bothers with locking it, and I assumed that small towns in the US must be the same way. And maybe they were… but university residences, as I learned, were not. I walked in circles around the building for a good two hours, maybe more, hoping to find a way in. Eventually, someone who’d already been living there and had a key showed up, and when I explained that I had a dorm space in the hall she let me come in with her. She even lent me a spare key so I could get myself set up.
Of course, I was totally clueless as to where to start on that front, having lived in dormitories in Manila for more than half my life. I had $200, saved up from my previous scholarship and exchanged into USD as soon as I landed in New York City, but how was I to know what that would buy? It could be enough for a year of school expenses when classes began, or it could be enough to buy a meal – or not even that! I decided at once that the first order of business was to find a store that had some familiar items and look at their prices, then come up with a more detailed plan.
As luck would have it, there was a corner grocery not too far from the residence. Immediately, I picked out the cheapest alarm clock I could find, because I was scared that whenever the first test of the year came around I would sleep in and miss it. Once I had put the plastic contraption into my basket, I started to explore the food areas of the store, and I was amazed by how cheap the chocolates were. But then, something else caught my eye: a can of peaches.
Peaches were really rare in my hometown, because they had to be imported from far away. I’d had them once before, for Christmas – just a little piece of one, since we’d had a can like the one in the grocery store to share between my mother, my four little siblings and me, and about fifty assorted family members. Candied peaches might not have been the most essential of foodstuffs, but I decided to buy them anyway, along with a box of chocolates, a can opener, and the alarm clock. All in all it cost about $10, and made a good two meals.
The alarm clock came in handy two days later, when I had to do the initial assessment test along with the other graduate students. It was long if not particularly difficult, and at the end I decided I was too hungry to start getting to know my classmates that day.
Close to the grocery store from the other day was a sandwich shop, and in the window I saw a sign about a $2 special on ham and cheese sandwiches. That looked good, so I sat down at the counter and ordered one.
“What kind of bread?” The server asked. That confused me: where I came from, bread was just bread.
“I don’t know,” I replied, trying to sound casual. “What kinds are there?”
“Wheat, rye, sourdough,” he started listing what I could only assume must have been kinds of bread.
“That one, please!” I said to one at random.
He nodded. “And what kind of ham?”
“I don’t know, what kind do you have?” I asked again.
He sighed. “Honey baked, rosemary, black forest…”
“Sure,” I declared.
“And what kind of cheese?” Part of me wanted to give up and just buy another box of chocolates at this point. Before I even asked again, he started listing cheeses. “American, cheddar, Swiss, Havarti…”
While I wasn’t entirely sure he hadn’t just started making things up by the end of that list, I was getting really stressed and said yes to a cheese at random to make the lists stop. It was a good enough ham and cheese sandwich, but it was profoundly not worth that long, nerve-wracking process.
The rest of my time at Cornell, I lived mainly on boxes of chocolate and the coffee and donuts served after certain lectures. I was drinking ten cups of coffee a day, and I’d never had caffeine before. That, combined with the fact that I was about the same age as the kids in the classes I was acting as teaching assistant for, created a running joke among the other PhD students about me being the local kindergartner. About halfway through the year they threw me a party and congratulated me on hitting puberty.
After exams, some of the undergraduate students invited me to a frat party and amused themselves by offering me Long Island Ice Tea. As far as I was concerned, it tasted just like ice tea, but after two glasses I could barely stand. Two of my students had to walk me home and tell me about it the next day.
They also taught me how to play Space Invaders: shoot all the barns. I always lost, and I was so confused, because I shot the barns very well and for some reason my students were sitting behind me and giggling the whole time.
A little while into my third year, a few of my classmates and I went to see the Rocky Horror Picture Show along with all the undergraduates whose tests and papers we helped mark. They were all in costumes, and of course, they threw all the rice and all the water at the teaching assistants. We went back to Cascadilla soaked, but it was the best movie I had ever been to. I wrote a letter home about it the next day, and by the time I made my annual Christmas call (a long process consisting of begging one operator to connect me to another operator to connect me to another operator until I found one that could put me through to Puerto Princesa) I still hadn’t stopped talking about it.
In fact, I still had the experience on my mind when my youngest sister started going to Emory University and I went to visit her. She said she had seen plenty of movies, but I was determined and I had a good counterargument.
“Emilia,” I told her, “movies in America are really different.”