"Navigating the Waters: From Manila to the US" by Marco Aventajado

March 13, 1988 was the day we moved to America. Although it wasn't my first time in the country, that date was the beginning of my journey through the American school system. Those eleven years filled me with a lifetime of great memories.

When touching down at JFK school was the furthest thing from my mind. I had just graduated from grade school in Manila, Philippines and was looking forward to a great summer which included my 13th birthday. I would be a teenager in America. Hicksville, Long Island, NY was half a world away from the country where I was born. I didn't know at the time how much I would make the most of being in a foreign country.

The first thing I realized was that school started in September and not in June; the traditional start of classes in the Philippines. Therefore, I had an extended summer break of SIX months! My parents, in their infinite wisdom, sensed my upcoming prolonged idle time and suggested that I ask my dad's friend for a summer job. My Uncle Rick, who was not a relative but such a close family friend that we gave him that honorary title, agreed and gave me the position of Assistant Warehouse Manager at a "salary" of $50 a week. I was happy to work for him at his car accessory company which imported aluminum wheels from the Philippines, sport steering wheels from Italy, and racing seats and cleaning products from Germany.

The summer went by quickly and I was busy boxing orders that would be shipped to different cities around the US and Canada. Sometimes, I would accompany my uncle on delivery trips around Long Island and New York City. These trips were my introduction to the world of talk radio. Our delivery van only picked up AM radio and was always tuned to 660AM (before it became WFAN). Alan Combs was my favorite afternoon host and always had interesting guests on the air. The most striking was George Washington America. He had a very American name but a distinctive Middle Eastern accent and I remember thinking to myself "Only in America."

As the school year came closer my parents decided to put me and my older brother into Holy Trinity High School, a Catholic school in our town. My parents didn't even consider the local public school, Hicksville High, even though Billy Joel went there. There was some debate about my placement as the school system in the Philippines is different from the educational structure in America but I tested into the 9th grade at the High School level. My first day was a big deal for me because it was my first experience at a co-ed school. My previous school was an all-boys Catholic school where we wore school uniforms. At Holy Trinity we wore our choice of shirt and tie or, more accurately, my mom’s choice.  Having my brother there with me took some of my nervousness away but it was still there. I was the stereotypical new student on his first day. It took me several tries to open my locker, a new concept, and I was totally lost looking for all of my classrooms. My saving grace was that most of the other freshmen were in the same boat as I was so I didn't stick out very much. I felt very shy at first but I was so amazed by the diversity of the students around me. There were Caucasians, African-Americans, East Asian-Americans, and South Asian-Americans. I thought to myself that I should be a little bit more outgoing and introduce myself to my new classmates. However, each subject had a different group of students in it which made forming relationships more difficult. At my old school we had a system where students were grouped by levels based on our grades and would move from class to class as a group so we had lots of time to get to know each other. In the classroom I quickly found that my background was an advantage: "based on my experience in the Philippines and Asia…" which no-one could dispute because I was unique in that aspect. Many of the students had cultural reference points, so the discussions were engaging and often eye-opening.

The toughest part of my school day was lunch time. Lining up for food wasn't new to me but when you exited the line and stared at the big expanse that was the lunchroom and the sheer number of students who inhabited it I was overwhelmed. I had no idea where to sit or who to sit with! It wasn’t quite so bad that I had to lock myself in a bathroom stall to have lunch (as the new kids do in the movies) but I did eat by myself and leave as quickly as I could. The library became my sanctuary during lunchtime periods and "Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego" became my dining companion. I have enjoyed computer games since we got an Apple II in the early 1980s so I found the escape to be comforting and familiar. During my second month in Holy Trinity I met John, my classmate in “Music in Our Lives"; the course for students who didn't play a musical instrument. John and I had the same lunch period after the class so he thought we should eat together. That was a relief as Carmen wasn't so elusive anymore and the game was getting boring.

Eventually, I became more comfortable in my new school and with my American classmates. However, sometimes I would still be the new kid from the Philippines. Once, when it started raining hard while I was at school I asked my classmate Bryan: "You think they'll let us out early because of the rain?" Getting out of school during torrential downpours was a normal occurrence in my old life, especially during monsoon season. Bryan looked at me like I was crazy after I asked my question. "Because of the rain?" he responded in confusion. Sure enough, the clouds cleared up ten minutes later and Bryan tapped me on my shoulder. He pointed to the window and said, "What rain?"

Another cultural difference came into play when I had to resolve a conflict. I was getting constantly teased by my African-American classmate Antoine.  I was really angry that nothing I did seemed to lessen his taunts and was fed up. Back in Manila, the normal and expected course of action would be to stop Antoine’s behavior through a fist fight. However, in the US a fight was a punishable offense which would send you to the principal’s office or give you “detention”. “Detention” is somewhat like classroom prison where a teacher is your warden, you are forced to study silently, and it goes on your school record. I was deterred by the potential punishments for a long time but one day Antoine’s antics were too much to bear any longer. One day, I ran after Antoine in gym class and threw him against the wall. He crumpled after the impact. Our gym coach whistled and said "Do we have a problem here?" To my surprise, Antoine said "no, sir", to our coach and "what did you do that for?" to me.  Needless to say we became friends after that and more often than not he was on the receiving end of the friendly ribbing.

Fast forward ten years and I had an economics degree from SUNY-Stony Brook in New York and an MBA degree from Hofstra University. I felt lucky to have been schooled in America but I decided that I wanted to come back home to the Philippines. I gave back, in my little own way, by teaching in an MBA program at the University of the Philippines for five years and at De La Salle University's MBA program for another five years. My experiences in the US made for great discussions and examples in the classes.

Looking back at my educational experience in America, the main thing that I learned was that I should respect who I am and my culture. America is so culturally diversified that being Filipino was an advantage. I could truthfully say "based on my experience in the US and the Philippines…" Having an international education made me unique. 

© 2012 StudentRoads by Marco Aventajado. All rights reserved. Do not reprint without permission.

Marco Aventajado lives in the suburbs of Manila and is one of the pioneers of the poker industry in the Philippines. He has helped several local organizations through his series of charity poker events. Marco's wife is named Ginger and he has two children; Joachim and Anxela.

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