Shock and awe in West Texas

August 1988. I had just stepped out of the academic department chair’s office with things to ponder. “You’d be a good doctoral candidate,” he said. I was flattered but was also taken aback. I never considered getting a Ph.D. after earning my master’s degree. Doing so meant more than following a different career path. I’d have to stay in West Texas for the next four years or more.

It’d been exactly one year since I took a huge leap into the unknown by halting my budding professional business career for graduate studies in a foreign country. It was the biggest adventure of my young life – a chance to experience the world beyond hearth and home and to face it alone. West Texas was 1,000 miles away from anyone I knew in California; 13,000 miles from home in Manila. If I was to survive, I had to use my wits. If I was to thrive, I had to listen to my inner voice.

My wits had been challenged for a year.  I was recovering from the shock and awe engendered by my first encounter with the place. My plane landed in Lubbock on a continuous transit from Manila through Palau, Guam, Hawaii, San Francisco and Dallas – without my luggage, shipped to an unknown destination by either Continental, United or Delta Airlines. That fate could be cruel so early in my adventure was shocking. That luck could turn around quickly, when my worldly possessions were found (in Denver!), was awe-inspiring.

Equally shocking was the scorching heat of the West Texas summer. The fire within to explore the area was snuffed by the furnace-like winds. But August heat eventually gave way to September warmth, October cool, November chill and December cold. The changing of the seasons was awesome for a child of the tropics like me.

Initial excitement turned to depressing homesickness as the novelty of West Texas wore off. Its isolation from the rest of the world became shockingly evident – a five-hour numbing drive to Dallas and a 12-hour time difference with Manila. Expensive weekly phone calls from family had to be well-timed. Scant news about the world in the local media were relished. Savoring the delights of big city Dallas was out of reach for a penny-pinching graduate student.

Once I accepted this gulf between the world I once knew and my new universe, I learned to cope. I was awed by the locals’ friendliness and generosity toward strangers. “You need a ride to the airport to pick up your bags?” a neighbor asked. “Feel free to use my TV when I’m not here,” my residence hall roommate offered. They extended the hands of friendship without any expectations of return. A blast of searing hot wind stung my face as I exited the college building. I’d been given a chance to find out more about West Texas and America. My inner voice begged me to take it. I did.

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