William Turkington was a student of my JOUR330 (Newspaper and Magazine Feature Writing) class for spring 2017 semester. In this class, every student must report and write one query letter and more than 10 feature stories in different genres. Each story must not exceed 500 words. Then the student must expand whatever story of their choice into a polished, ready-for-publication long-form magazine article of 1,200 to 1,500 words.
Turkington came to my attention because he is a superstar on the rise.
Like me, Turkington is an immigrant. He came from Malaysia and is a sports broadcasting major at Western Illinois University (WIU) Department of Broadcasting and Journalism. The seemingly taciturn young man can speak English, Mandarin, Malay, Penang Hokkien fluently. I once chatted with him in Chinese in front of the whole class. No one in the room understood what we were talking about. His mandarin fluency really surprised me.
What surprised me most are his reporting and writing abilities. Actually he is one of the best student writers I have ever taught since I came to WIU six years ago. I am not saying his writing is perfect. Like most students in this class, he often fails to describe what main characters look like and at times cannot resist the temptation to take sides in the story as if he were an editorial or commentary writer. Except that, his reporting was very thorough, his observation was very insightful, and his writing was nearly impeccable. After reading his feature stories, I can’t help crying, smiling, laughing or wondering how powerful words still are in this world increasingly dominated by excessive video images and superficial information graphics.
I believe Turkington will go far. He will probably become another alumnus-turned Pulitzer Prize winner (already four Pulitzer Prizes are proudly associated with our great department). Or he will probably become another alumnus-turned Emmy Award recipient (already four Emmy Awards are proudly associated with our department).
With his permission, from today on, all William Turkington’s assignments written for my feature writing class are published here in installments. Today you will read his first-person story expanded from a shorter version. The first-person story usually involves something dramatic occurring to the writer, which makes the use of first-person singular appropriate.
Below is the full text:
To Greener Pastures
By William Turkington
Today was the day. The day I had busted my behind for over a year for. The day my friends and I were excited yet sad to see. The day that I would fly off to the land of the free and the home of the brave.
This was the culmination of the first 19 years of my bi-national life. The son of a British-American father and a Chinese-Malaysian mother, the plan was always to have me finish high school in my mother’s homeland, and then spread my wings to the land of bacon and machine guns for higher education.
My father had lived with us for most of our time in Malaysia. But in 2010, due to financial circumstances, he had to return to America and hasn’t tasted Malaysia’s world-renowned cuisine since.
After graduating high school at the very top of my class, I went to work. Friends of mine joined me in doing the same. Most of us slaved away for a few months before figuring life out. Soon, some enrolled in local or foreign universities while others stayed in the workplace for a variety of reasons. But by August of 2013, the year after I graduated, I was the only one of my friends not back in school.
To say this was demoralizing would be a gross understatement. From the top of my class to serving tables at Chili’s, long after all my friends had found paths worth pursuing. But there I was, mopping dirty floors at 1 a.m. on Friday nights while my friends were enjoying their new found social lives with their new found college friends.
“When are you going to college?”
That was the question I came to hate. Despise. Loathe. Every time somebody asked me, all I could do was say “I don’t know.” And it killed me every single day to not know.
After 17 months of waiting tables, a glimmer of light found its way to me. The American embassy in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia’s capital, called the Turkington family. We were to present ourselves and the appropriate documents in two weeks for review. I requested a couple days off from work and was off to Kuala Lumpur, eager to see if my future was indeed taking shape.
The visit went smoothly. Our documents checked out and I walked out of the embassy an American citizen. The bi-national boy was officially, and legally (kind of), bi-national.
It was now the third week of June, 2014. I had four weeks to see all the sights, smell all the smells, and most importantly, eat all the food.
I started to take lighter schedules at work so that I could spend more time with my family and friends before I would fly off to try and fulfill my potential in higher education. We toured Penang like never before. The island was my playground, not one inch was left unexplored.
The days ticked by so fast I barely even noticed getting up every morning and going to sleep every night. My time in Malaysia, where I had spent the first 19 years of my life, was soon coming to a close. I was so unexposed to the world outside my little corner in Southeast Asia that I truly struggled fathoming what it really all meant. Was anything really going to change?
June 14. My last night in Malaysia. I routinely played basketball with my friends every weekend and was in charge of holding the ball we collectively owned. I went into my room to habitually play with the basketball. One problem, it wasn’t there. I had given it to my friend Jeremy during our last session because I could no longer hold it, for obvious reasons.
That was when it hit me. All at once. A tidal wave of feelings, emotions, and memories rendered me paralyzed for a moment, both physically and mentally, as I sat on my bare bed pondering all the decisions I had ever made.
Everything was about to change.
June 15. My room was empty, my life packed into two large suitcases. My time in Malaysia had come to an end. The half-American boy who had grown up on a tropical island for 19 years was going to make his way to the heartland of Midwest America.
I made my way to the airport at 6 p.m. for a 9:30 p.m. flight as to give myself ample time to say all my goodbyes. Without a return ticket, I had no idea when I would see any of their familiar faces again. Many of my close friends and family had made their way to the airport to say their goodbyes. I spent 3 hours talking to, and taking pictures with all of them.
9 o’clock. A voice crackled in the overhead public address system. A man with a distinct Malay accent made the announcement that my flight was now open for boarding. I gave everyone a last round of hugs before waving goodbye as I entered the gate that read “perlepasan antarabangsa” (international departures). My teary eyed-self took a deep breath before stepping onto the airstairs because this would, for the moment, be my last step on Malaysian soil.
As I left the warmth of my mother’s care for the first time in my life, I began the extraneous 28-hour journey to be reunited with my dad after 4 years of being apart. I made stops in Kuala Lumpur and Dubai before finally clearing customs and getting on a 14-hour flight to Chicago. The anxiety was excruciating. Was I actually going to make it? Did the 18 months of hard work truly come to fruition? For a first time air-traveler, it was all too surreal.
After multiple rounds of stale airline food, interrupted naps, and binge watching old television shows, I was in American air space. Soon after, the airplane began its descent. I had touched down in what would now be my new home.
I got off the plane and embraced my first steps on American soil. Shortly after, I got my luggage and went to the exit gate where my teary-eyed father was waiting for me. We embraced each other like long-lost relatives. When the sobbing was finally done, we headed to the car and decided on a Mexican restaurant where I’d have my first American meal.
I had made it. The chase for the American dream was on.