There and Back Again

I quit Harvard seven years ago, after completing my freshman year, to become a fashion model, I did so to escape the entire mental process. The monumental intellectual confidence which I'd towed into the Yard at the beginning of Freshman Week had flaked, chipped, and then crumbled to dust during the following months. Rejection from a freshman seminar, encounters with disdainful professors, mindboggling conversations with Presidential scholars, along with the first C-plus of my life, had the combined effort of linking thinking and misery together in my mind.

Through the discipline of studies, the experimentation of relationships, and the ardency of radical feminism, I had been searching for an "answer"--a sense of purpose and direction which would make it possible to wake up each morning feeling strong and optimistic instead of inadequate and terrified. But immersing myself in academics, love and ideology had not led me to the grail. My Korean parents waxed Confucian whenever I cried on the phone to them, imploring me to look "within" for the answer. But for some reason, whether it was because I had spent too many years watching Johnny Carson, or because my Fioruccis fit too tightly, or because of my pigpen in Weld, I saw only a void when I looked within. Ralph Waldo Emerson, had he shown up when I really needed him, would have set me straight by saying, "Do not craze yourself with thinking... Life is not intellectual or critical, but sturdy. Its chief good is for well-mixed people who can enjoy what they find... without question... We live amid surfaces, and the true art of life is to skate well on them," But, exasperated from trying too hard, I packed a suitcase and took my troubled mind to Europe instead.

As a struggling model in Paris, I experienced the futility of trying to apply New England rules of good behavior to the wrong environment. All of the by-then ingrained qualities which had made me a teacher's pet in prep school--discipline, organization, punctuality--were spurious currency in a community fueled by spontaneity, in which models wandered into shootings late and relied on after-hours socializing to advance professionally. Rejection as a model cut more deeply than rejection as a student because it was myself--my face, my figure, my smile--being rebuffed, sometimes tactfully, often abruptly, on a daily basis. I eked out a living for several months, feeling insignificant and doomed. Without a backlog of experience to reassure me that my smile had not vanished for good, I learned exactly how difficult it can be for a young person to accept failure philosophically.

The Parisians themselves helped to twist my fruitless venture into a routine exercise in humiliation by placing me at the mercy of either their effusive kindness or blackhearted contempt. One garrulous shopkeeper held me captive with a rapid-fire series of cheerful comments and questions, most of which flew past my comprehension. A neighboring grocer whacked my hand and swept me out of the store when I squeezed a tomato. The fact that I was unable to find simple and moderate good-naturedness among the Parisians left me Jangled and teary-eyed at the end of each day.

My own inflexibility simply pushed matters to the extreme. I isolated myself even more by refusing to practice my high school French on sympathetic Parisian ears. And I completely ignored the reality of the Paris modeling scene by maintaining a barrier between my work and private life, thereby infuriating my agent. My negativity was reflected in a recurring vision of neutron bombs landing on the city, preserving its art while vaporizing its citizens.


Still, the experience managed to provide one eye-opener. A French magazine flew me to Lebanon to shoot a fashion layout. A kindly, graying interpreter named Lulla welcomed us to Beirut at our hotel, one of the intact few. The nearby Holiday Inn, in contrast, had been gutted, sandbagged and turned into a multi-level parking garage for combat vehicles. Lulla lived by herself in a spacious but dilapidated apartment in the center of the city. When I asked her about the small holes that riddled her blinds, she explained matter of factly that snipers were still active at night even though the civil war had formally ended the previous year. She continued to sleep in the hallway for fear of bullets, and the 10 days she spont with our group at the hotel was her first opportunity in several months to eat full meals and to take showers. The Lebanese people in general were astonishingly magnanimous, even mirthful, amid the postwar rubble; but Lulla was tired and alone. En route to the airport on our last day, we wound through Palestinian refugee camps and verdant fields pierced by the sound of artillery practice. I listened unblinkingly as the old women urged me to center my life around a devoted husband and family so that I didn't end up forsaken like herself. The predictability of her advice was irritating. But her sorrowful goodbye and the haggard, living example she provided tempered my extremist aversion to the idea of marriage and a family. Lulla's predicament enlightened me to the fact that, for all the polemical feminist literature I'd digested since I was 12, my harsh beliefs had essentially taken shape within the safe and cozy confines of a happy middle-class suburban household. It struck me, many years later actually, that radicalism is a privilege which most people haven't the right to abuse.

Frazzled and fed up after six months in Paris, I finally decided to return to the States, I made the decision one sunny afternoon, treated a friend to an enormous last supper on the Left Bank that evening, and showed up at DeGaulle airport the next morning, 50 francs short of plane fare. I wired home for money.

As I agonized at home in Rhode Island over the grand alternatives of returning to a mediocre school experience or counting failure as a model in one more city, my grandparents phoned. For the 20th time since I'd left Harvard, they deluged me with dire predictions of what kind of future lay in store for a college dropout--no job, no money, no place in society, no friends, and, of course, no respect from Korean relatives. I was galvanized. School was definitely out of the question. I moved to New York immediately.

Manhattan was the perfect antidote to Paris--lucrative and enjoyable from the very first week. And in further contrast to laissez-faire France, the chew 'em up, spit 'em out nature of the fashion business in New York demanded discipline, organization and punctuality from a model. More significantly, however, after my hapless period in Paris I had resolved to stop sabotaging myself with sullenness and instead to practice stretching out a smile, no matter how I felt inside. A silly idea, perhaps; but looking back, I believe it had a catalytic effect on the people around me, which in turn made it easier to feel somewhat positive and flexible for the first time in my life.

Whereas Paris had been a Core course in failure, New York gave me a glimpse at the outer limits of ambition and success. Most of the energy which I encountered was youthful and venturesome. But, as one might expect, some of the striving was sustained by less appealing qualities. An extreme case was a vulgar Citizen Kane whose quiet dinner party I attended one summer evening. I was greeted at the entance to his Park Avenue estate by an armed bodyguard. Placed there for protection against a vindictive ex-wife. The host led the several of us on a tour of his urban Shangri-La, which included original chefs d'oeuvre and a movie theater. He caressed his showcase items, among them a photograph of a Chicago building he owned, as he lovingly recounted the steps leading to their acquisition, and their costs. Some of the rooms, most notably a child's den, were dark and half-furnished. By the time dinner was served, my feet ached, the sycophants had shifted into high gear and the evening had acquired a deafening hollow fine, leaving me with the impression that certain kinds of success make failure look downright edifying by contrast.

Some of the individuals whom I met through work in New York and Los Angeles--soap actors, centerfold models, "jiggly" actresses, makeup artists and hairdressers--altered my thinking more positively. Although many of them conformed to unflattering stereotypes, up close a surprising number conveyed an intelligence and integrity which were otherwise undetectable. What made their virtues even more impressive was the lack of ostentation with which so many of them handled their careers, despite the intense public interest and scrutiny they aroused. Behind the lightweight images were often levelheaded hard workers who convinced me over the years just how unreliable appearance is as a clue to underlying character.

Yet however much my own attitude towards models and actresses had been enlightened. I still had to contend with the assumption on the part of people I met and men I dated outside the business, that stupidity was a prerequisite for a modeling career. At one point, though. I had to ask myself if I really had the right to feel indignant about being treated like a dumb model, because there was a growing ring of truth to it. I had left high school at 16, a voracious reader Now, at 23, I hadn't read through a book in years. The realization that a transitory stage had turned into a way of life brought on a panic and depression which my grandparents could never have induced, and which kept me indoors for several weeks, with little incentive even to wash or eat. I had once read somewhere that each newly acquired piece of knowledge etches a fresh wrinkle onto one's brain. With horror, I visualized my cerebrum as smooth as a baby's bottom. I had obviously been fooling myself, to believe that I could escape from thinking without effacing my self-respect in the process. Once my fit of self-contempt subsided, I took steps to register as a sophomore.

After having spent six years away from the classroom, the first weakness I noticed in formal education was the way it trains young minds to see the world through the processes of categorization and idealization. Admiral Hyman Rickover, father of the nuclear submarine and a prominent critic of the American educational system, visited our sophomore tutorial last year and emphasized the fact that history texts make past events look like the products of superhumans and rigid ideal, when in reality most were the result of a fluid mixture of chance and compromise made by people much like ourselves. He hammered into us the need to distinguish between books and life when trying to learn about the world.

The danger of formal education eclipsing real life was personified for me during my first year back by a trio of graduate students whom I shall refer to as the Three Blind Mice.

The first Mouse, a student in the Russian Studies department and a fervent socialist, seemed capable of discussing only leftist politics, and displayed a conspicuous lack of curiosity about thinking and lifestyles different from her own. She lived and breathed socialism, yet when I suggested that she put her extensive political knowledge to practical use by working in government, she decried such work as "opportunistic" and stated emphatically her intent to remain in academics. When I asked her what appeal an ivory tower life held for her, she replied, "I want to be paid to think." It seemed to me a highly aristocratic (and opportunistic) notion for a socialist to have.