Marco Werman: When you first arrive in another country, you see things with fresh eyes, don't you? And sometimes the ways of the new country may be a mystery to you. That's some of what we're hearing in our "First Day" series in which immigrants recall their first days here in the US. Today's installment comes from Cheng Imm Tan as a student from Malaysia in 1978.
Cheng Imm Tan: When I arrived, touched down in Philadelphia, my friend picked me up and dropped me off at my host parent's house. The striking thing I remember was they showed me my room, a few minutes later the wife of the family came upstairs and said "would you like some supper? We have some supper cooking and we're ready to eat." I said "oh, no, thank you. I'm not hungry," and she said "are you sure you're not hungry?" I said "yes, I'm really sure I'm not hungry, thank you so much," and she said "okay, we'll see you tomorrow then," and she went downstairs. I looked at her back as she was going down the stairs, I was like "what?" I was starving. In my culture, you never let anyone go to bed hungry, you never let anyone come into your house without eating anything. You always, always, always feed them and they always protest and you always insist that they eat and this is a ritual. They'll protest many times and eventually everybody eats. I went to bed that night hungry.
The next day, my host family took me to the dorm at campus and dropped me off and I decided I wanted to take a shower, so I went into what they showed me was the bathroom but there was no shower. So I went into the bathroom and looked at the tub and looked around and I thought "I don't see any drains," and then I thought "hmm, that's funny. Where does the water go?" In those days, in Malaysia, the way we would take baths is there would be a big tub of water that's made of concrete and you open the tap, you fill it with water and then you would just scoop a pail of water, pour it over you, onto the floor and there are drains and it's a wet bathroom and that's how you would take a bath. But I thought "well, you know, American higher technology. There must be some way the water drains out that I don't know about."
There was no pail, no bucket to hold the water so that I could pour it over my body, so I went to my room and I had a mug, I took my mug, I went back in the bathroom, opened the tap and let the water drain into my cup and then I poured the water over me slowly, as much as I could and I started soaping up and taking my bath. I heard a knocking on the door. A voice said "Cheng Imm, why is there water flowing out of the bathroom?" I stopped. I said "water? Flowing out of the bathroom?" Then I realized that there was no drain, so I quickly finished up, dried myself off, opened the door and we laughed about it, mopped up the place.
When I reflect on it, it makes me laugh but it also makes me think "wow, wouldn't it be nice if somebody knew enough to orient us a little bit more?"
Werman: Cheng Imm Tan survived her first days in the US and settled here in Boston where she's known for her advocacy for women and immigrants. As the founding director of the Mayor's Office of New Bostonians. Found out more about her and hear more stories from our "First Days" series at PRI.org/firstdays. You can also join the conversation on Twitter. Just use the hashtag, #firstdays.