when the dust clears

Words about and images of matters political, social, and military

From the BXP photo archives: Harlem, 2004; Taiwan, 1987

with 5 comments

Development and Finishing Institute students learn dining etiquette at the Plaza Hotel, New York City, 2004

Development and Finishing Institute students learn dining etiquette at the Plaza Hotel, New York City, 2004

Rose Murdock started Harlem’s Development and Finishing Institute in 2002 to teach African American girls and Latinas (and later boys) etiquette and comportment. Bourgeois? Bien sûr! But Ms. Rose had no time or patience to indulge in debate. Her philosophy: Girls of color need every arrow in their quiver to succeed professionally and financially, from working a salad fork to speaking on the phone with a college recruiter or potential employer. Period. I respected that, though I did find the focus on the salad-fork side of things a bit much. Of course, Emily Post would have cringed watching me tuck into lunch.

The school is still up and running.

School boy in an alley, Taipei, Taiwan, 1987

School boy in an alley, Taipei, Taiwan, 1987

As I did years later in China—and everywhere else I have visited—I strayed from the main streets to learn and photograph. The boy had been tossing a rubber ball in the air but stopped when I approached. He faced me and posed. I made an exposure. I waved. He waved, and scooted off.

My ability to walk backward and speak passable Mandarin landed me a job as a legal proofreader in Taiwan, fresh our of college, in 1986. I had spent the summer of my junior year giving campus tours. My only takers on one dreary day in Providence, RI, were a family of three. Dad was a senior partner in a Taipei law firm; I was graduating with a degree in East Asian Studies. We chatted. He gave me his business card, told me to get in touch. I began pushing a pencil for him just a few months later.

The job entailed sitting in a cubicle at the back of the sprawling offices of Lee & Li Attorneys at Law, Monday through Friday and half of Saturday. My neighbor there was an elderly and flatulent translator.

I knew little of international law—Lee & Li’s core practice—and during the first couple of months managed to excise perfectly fine legalese from documents written by L&L’s U.S.-educated Taiwanese lawyers.

I had time on my hands, but I was duct taped to my admittedly comfortable chair. My workload had lightened after they hired another American proofreader. Plus, most of L&L’s attorneys spoke English fluently, so I wasn’t able to work on my Mandarin very much. I got quite good at the NY Times crossword puzzle in the International Herald Tribune. I also managed to work my way through an armload of novels. (Web surfing was far in the future.) And I lived for lunchtime at the cafeteria in the basement of the Formosa Plastics Building, L&L ‘s headquarters. Every day the steam table sagged under trays of scrambled eggs and tomatoes, various seaweeds, chicken and pork chunks, crunchy stir-fried veggies.

I had committed to a two-year term, but I had realized I was not lawyer material. I left after six months for the grand tour of Asia I had mapped out between puzzling and reading—China, Mongolia, the Soviet Far East, and beyond—only to get laid low by giardia in Nepal. That’s another story.

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5 Responses

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  1. I had no idea you spoke Mandarin. Or lived in China. Or had giardia. You are a bundle of mysteries inside a bundle of mysteries my friend. :o)

    Maisha

    2013/02/20 at 18:59

    • Thank you, Maisha. Giardia is a mystery I could have done without. Amoebic dysentery is another. Seriously, something magical (almost) always emerged from such unpleasantness. Spoiler alert: Stuck in Pokhara, Nepal, alone & with bacillary dysentery, I had to walk several miles to a health clinic to purchase my own meds. On my way back, head-light and dehydrated, I got lost. (I get lost often.) I stumbled onto/into funeral procession. A son had lost his father and was preparing to incinerate him on a funeral pyre. He invited me to join, watch, photograph. Folks were sad but also tremendously open to me. I have no sense of direction, but I have luck—and perhaps an angel or two.

      bxpnyc

      2013/02/20 at 22:48

  2. Thanks for re-sharing these images and memories of your journalistic start (by way of that first desk job in a far flung land). I too learned the art of backward walking while giving college tours. And we seem to have found one of the few professions where it comes in really handy! Always important to look back, in order to look forward. LOVE the Plaza pic!

    Meryl Levin

    2013/02/20 at 22:19

    • Thanks, Meryl. I recall our backward walks at the head of rallies and phalanxes of NYPD riot cops. Yes, more Plaza pix.

      bxpnyc

      2013/02/20 at 22:51

  3. i love these photos!

    jennifer

    2013/02/21 at 14:49


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