America was the land of opportunity back in the day, particularly for those of us who were born in the 3rd world countries. The US of A was recognised by fellow Taiwanese as the "children's paradise". For kids who perform poorly in the academics, the legend has it that there are other paths to channel their interest. As such, any parents with the means and desires will, almost without a doubt sent their kids to America: the "Beautiful Nation". A literal translation.
America did not disappoint. For someone who was at the bottom of the class, I found my way into La Guardia High School. The specialised school with an emphasis on music, art and performance, and made famous by the film FAME. After taking an elective in "Architecture Design", I was recommended by my teacher, whose name I have forgotten, to apply to a job at an architecture office. With a portfolio in hand, I went to the job interview. When asked to explain my work, I did not know what to say, except to point out what I had done and mumbled.
With much surprise, I was offered the position. So as a 16-year-old, I got my first office job at Baxt and Associates, a small 8 person architectural practice in NYC. I was given a desk, my own phone line, sitting next to the diazo (blueprint) machine. The after-school government + employer programme split the cost to pay for my $4.25 per hour salary. I worked Monday to Friday, from 3 to 6 pm for 15 months. I remember stopping by the hotdog stand for my daily sausage snack. It was my first step toward becoming an architect.
There I met wonderful architects Ben, Dick, Jonathan, Kelly; secretary Bronwen and others, who taught me how to pick up red lines, roll the pencil when drawing a line; how to take measurements on a job site; write proper architectural lettering and use the protractor to recreate curves. Of course, I also run errands and bought Ben, the boss his favourite seltzer everyday. Jonathan was the one who brought me to my first shoe shine and explained to me the importance of having well presented shoes.
As a parting gift before I went to RISD, they hand drew two gift certificates for me. One was for a helmet of my choice at a bike shop owned by Dick and Ben's friend in Brooklyn. Another was a $100 certificate at Charette, the now defunct art supply store in Providence. It was a memorable experience, they taught me not only the rudimentary knowledge of architecture but also how to treat people with respect, no matter how they look like, what age they are or where they are from.
I was surprised to find this picture on their website recently (the firm has been renamed Baxt Ingui). A picture which I took in 1990 with my Nikon N2000 film camera. I remember taking the shot from the street level on Park Place looking up the big office window. I also remember giving them instructions with hand gesturing of when the shutter will be clicked.
Is America still the land of opportunities that welcome immigrants today?