My first job out of college was working as a courier for China’s biggest national transportation company, which at that time served as an agent for the United Parcel Service. My office was on the 12th floor of the first skyscraper in Shanghai that housed the first wave of some of the Fortune 500 companies. The job was deeply dissatisfying, and I grew restless. I remember one day sharing laments with a fellow recent college graduate working for a neighboring company. He asked me what I wanted out of life, and my reply was: “I want all the material trappings, plus visits to the Carnegie Hall.” He was floored. A year later, I became one of the 30% of the applicants lucky enough to get a much coveted student visa from the U. S. Consulate. To come up with my first semester’s tuition, I exhausted my parents’ lifetime saving, which took an unfavorable hit when the official exchange rate adjustment caused the local currency to depreciate 20% without warning just two weeks before my trip to the US. At one time, I had seventy five cents in my bank account after paying for my tuition and rent and investing in a ten-year-old Cavalier so that I could work off-campus. After I graduated, I sold my Cavalier, bought a one-way ticket to California, paid my dues, worked my way up and never stopped relentlessly bettering myself.
At a family function a few years ago, I met a compelling, elegant Dr. Richard Rice, an ivy-league educated psychiatrist and sculptor, who 50 years ago went through the same struggle I did. In 1904, his grandparents, who were Jewish and not wealthy by any means, had the foresight and tenacity to escape Ukraine and Poland to reach the US. Had they stayed, they most likely would have perished during the Holocaust. His father owned a small clothing store. Growing up in Miami, where his fellow school children were into crocodile and snake, he was decidedly different. His mom urged him to attend the prestigious University of Pennsylvania, and he knew he had to fight for his chance to get in. He was a top ranked swimmer in the state of Florida, smart, hard-working, and had excellent grades. He demonstrated the same feistiness as his grandparents did and won himself a scholarship to UPenn. Most of his UPenn classmates came from rich families, and he really wanted to fit in with his fraternity brothers. During one college football bowl game season, he returned to Miami, sold peanuts and soda at the Orange Bowl, saved enough money, and bought himself a brand new Haspel suit. According to Haspel’s web site, “for the last century, Haspel has defined a uniquely American style, pioneering the seersucker suit and making preppy looks de rigueur at Ivy League campuses throughout the country.” He thought that with the addition of the suit, he would feel better about himself, only to find out that the father of one of his classmates actually owned the Haspel company, which made him feel worse. Fifty years later, Dr. Rice now has a thriving practice, a Harvard-educated architect wife, two high-achieving sons, and when I met him, was going to have a re-union with his former classmate Mr. Haspel – life really has a way of coming to a full circle.
People from all over the world – some even risking their lives – come to America to seek economic prosperity and political freedom. I submit that America still offers more mobility than any other industrialized nation. If you work hard and apply yourself, upward mobility is within everyone’s reach.
To be continued…
** With special thanks to Dr. Richard Rice, who graciously gave me permission to utilize his story “anyway I see fit.” Your story personifies the tenacious, individualistic, pragmatic spirit that makes America America.