Twenty years ago, towards the end of May 1989, I went to the USA to begin my university education.
It was also my first visit to the land of opportunities, and the first time I was so far away from home.
My port of entry for my virgin trip was Los Angeles, but thank goodness, it was only a port of entry because for reasons I haven’t bother investigating, I just didn’t (still don’t) like that city at all.
I remember a good friend who was studying in Fresno came down to meet me at the airport and how, I was stuck in LAX for close to three hours because storing my extra luggage turned out to be such a nightmare.
Then we were off to Inglewood, where I would experienced, on my very first night in a foreign land, the never-ending siren. I guess I was half-expecting gunshots at night too, but then, luck was not on my side.
I also remember going to my first Vietnamese restaurant in Monterry and embarrassing myself by not leaving a tip.
Three days for a layover in LA LA town before I made the memorable trip to Missouri was about right.
In no time, I said goodbye to California and was eastward-bound.
First, it was either Denver or Salt Lake City, and then I was off to KCI or Kansas City International.
Imagine how tickled I was, to be landing in an airport bearing same initials as me.
That night, I spent the night in Olathe, Kansas, in a motel in the middle of nowhere.
In the morning, the Greyhound took me further east, along I-70. I knew from the map that Columbia, Missouri, is about 2.5 hrs away, but that day, that relatively short journey seemed to take forever.
When my bus pulled in at the Greyhound station, that feeling was just so magical.
But why Missouri? Many concerned friends and relatives have asked. But more importantly, where is Missouri?
“Isn’t Missouri just a river?”
“You are going to Columbia U right?”
Argh yes, Missouri is a river but it is also a state, and I was going to University of Missouri-Columbia, not Columbia University.
Within a day or two, I became a matriculated college undergraduate, a pre-journalism newbie at the famed Missouri School of Journalism, the world’s first, if not the best.
My first class in college was Political Science 101, where I learned one of the most important concepts, and is – as long as there are two people, there will be politics.
Soon, it was fall, and soon, I experienced my first snow storm.
Soon, I was hanging out with photographers, wannabes; and soon, I was mediating political debates between Mainland Chinese and Taiwanese.
The following year, I started volunteering at the judging of the Pictures of the Year contest and learned a great deal just by sleeving the slides and listening to the comments from the judges.
And meeting the great photographers in person was always a treat.
I remember very well the afternoon when Michael Winokur and I “accidentally” walked into a lunch at an obscure restaurant on I-63, the one with the Cadillac frontage.
And before long, we were talking about our dreams with Susan Smith, a senior editor from the National Geographic magazine; Karen Kasmuski, a world-renowned documentary photographer; and Ken Lassiter, a senior executive of Kodak, who was the company’s liaison with technical societies, trade associations, educational institutions and non-profit organizations in the photographic community.
The next day, Bill Kuykendall, then-director of the Missouri photojournalism sequence, called me at home and asked if I was going to the Picture of the Year award ceremony at a very posh country club.
“But Bill, I was not invited,” I told him.
“Now you are,” said Bill, now a teacher in Maine and West Virginia.
I remember having to ask my Korean neighbors, the Kims, to give me a ride to the club, a place which I didn’t even know existed. I was so delighted that I didn’t even think about the trip home.
Before dinner, Mr Kodak came over to me and complimented me for having a nice necktie; and I remember sitting at the same table as Dick Doughty, a graduate student who was already quite famous.
After several speeches by the winning photographers, who have all flown in from different parts of the world to receive their awards, suddenly, I heard my name being called and I was to step forward.
In one of the best nights in my life, I was honored with a Kodak Professional Scholarship, a rather prestigious one and only one was awarded per year at my school.
Needless to say, I had to give a short speech and at that very moment, all the dots connected.
Not only did Kodak give me the much-needed fund for that semester, they also provided close to 100 rolls of color slide for a project I pieced together to document Singapore.
Towards the end of my first photo class, I ran into Bill in the hallway and he asked whether I would be interested to be a photography intern at The Hartford Courant, one of the best photo newspapers in the world.
Now who would say no to the Courant, an award-winning newspaper that serves most of Connecticut, and one famous for its long-term photography projects?
So off I went that summer, living it up in New England, and making the occasional weekend runs to the Big Apple and spending whatever paltry sum I was making as a lowly intern on what else but photography books.
My boss at the Courant was Randy Cox, who when asked what he expected of me as an intern, hesitated for a few seconds and then said, “learn to play office politics.”
Of course, nobody believed whenever I told them that, but it was true.
And that, I can assure you, is probably the most important thing I learned that summer.
Then it was back to school.
Of course I also remember walking into Neff Hall one February day and immediately recognized a very familiar face, surrounded by two of my close friends in college – Vincenzo Capone and Andrew Locke.
That face was none other than the legendary Eugene Richards.
The next thing we knew, we were invited to a private party reserved only for winners, where the three of us, probably the most shabbily dressed, got a preview of the exclusive photojournalism fraternity.
And there were many more people and incidents that never left my mind.
Like, do I dare forget my famous shouting matches with Mary Beth Meehan, especially when one of them involved a very important issue – the difference between cyan and magneta?
No, of course not.
Or how about David Sterling calling some German woman at a lab, to warn her not to mess with the Chinese guy (me, that is)?
Then, there was this memorable incident – of me crashing Kevin Dilley’s beloved car, because I was so dumb that I forgot to pull the hand-brake when parking on a slope.
What about the long drive I took with Adele Chavez down south, to meet with Vi Edom? We went to lunch at the town cafe and some old folks came up to me and asked if I was Korean or Japanese?
And when I said ‘Singaporean’, they followed up with a tougher question, and that was if I was the guy on Channel 48. (she was probably referring to Martin Yan, the celebrity chef)
Adele, with her long beautiful hair and exotic look, didn’t escape their scrutiny either.
And how could I forget John Blodgett, who kept me company on some of those hazy gloomy summer days of 1992. Now didn’t we talk about making a movie called “The Summer of 92”?
And then, there was Peter Wiant and Motoya Nakamura. Now, what happened to our Tiger Photo?
Motoya, as some of you will remember, inspired my short story Becoming Capa.
I could go on, but I think better stop before I start tearing. Also, I really worry about forgetting some names.
But any reminiscing about my Missouri days would be incomplete without a mention of a certain birthday party.
Facts are a little hazy since we were all a little intoxicated by alcohol and sadness of having to say goodbye.
But it was sometime early July 1992 and they were celebrating Matt Campbell’s and my birthday.
It was along College Ave, in the apartment of Jennifer Parker and Steve Shelton (no, they were not dating, at least nobody ever told me).
Someone fired some fireworks across and landed them near some frat house.
And then the police showed up and some of us were sure we were getting into trouble.
But Scott Serio just walked calmly and whispered some niceties into the ears of the men in blue.
And then they left.
I think Scott told them it was the birthday of some very special people. I really don’t know.
And not surprisingly, Scott became a police officer, in Baltimore, home of the famed Homicide series no less.
Now that was some finale, wasn’t it?
Now how do I end this note?
Because part of me want to go on and on and put on record the people I appreciate, the people I want to say have an impact in my life, the people I have no problem calling ‘buddy’.
I can’t end, so, I will leave it to you to fill in the gaps of your memories of Missouri.
It is my 20th anniversary. So is yours.
Have a good one.