Today, as the escalator slowly descended down to the ground floor of the Time Warner Center, the giant wall of glass opposite of me started emerging, revealing views of red bricks, Columbus Circle, and a tower of sky. I have stood on this escalator many times and seen this view many times, but today somehow it made me feel breathless. Perhaps it was a faint and young sun ray of early spring, or a wind that ruffled the leaves, or a feeling of disquietness from within that sped up my heart rates. I know that the moment I leave New York, this will be the scene that I remember and associate with all that this life stands for--youthfulness, ambition, a feeling of liberation.
Second year of law school kicked off to a rough start: classes that failed to inspire, stressful journal edits, a life routine that did not get me out of bed in excitement, and Mug heading out west in the middle of it all. Like a ship out at open sea amidst multi-winds, I felt lost and purposeless. My fear soon materialized: that I would become another one of those lawyers who complain about ruthless billable hours and carry briefs to the courthouse without ever taking the stand and banging on the podium in hopeless advocacy. That I would do good but not outstanding work, be a pleasant colleague but not one that skips down the hallway in delight. I guess it is the ordinary fear of ordinary people: that we'd be lovely but unremarkable.
Two weeks ago, for a random paper idea, I connected with Jerome Cohen, eighty-two years old, a professor at NYU, former clerks for two giant Supreme Court justices, Earl Warren and Felix Frankfurter, the first U.S. legal expert in Chinese law, in particular Chinese Criminal Procedures, and former teacher of the current Taiwanese president Ma Ying-jeou (who attended NYU as an LLM student in 1976). To my surprise, Cohen was beyond excitement in welcoming me to his office, decked out with photos of him shaking hands with historical men like Zhou Enlai, Ted Kennedy, and Henry Kissinger. In a husk voice, rough from age and experience, he said, Vietnam is a legal gem because despite its fascinating legal heritage from China, France, and the U.S., it remains untouched as the world has rushed to China. You, he pointed at me, can have a long, fulfilling legal career if you choose to. And there, that April afternoon, sitting in his office in Vanderbilt hall, I blinked and felt as if the world had zoomed out like on a Google Earth snapshot, out into the universe. Space was dark and studded with unknown galaxies. I felt special that one of those unknown galaxies could be mine, and yet ashamed that the benefit of the doubt had been voluntarily given solely based on my nationality. Hey, my old lawyering professor shrugged, your nationality could be used against you, might as well use it to your advantage. And yet the moral conflict kept me up at night. Because once you have worked so hard for something, the worst possible thing to happen, worst than rejection, is a judgment that your achievement is not on the merit. And yes, I know that part of what we've accomplished is how far we have traveled, not just where we end up. But regardless, I wonder if those who benefit from affirmative action have suffered from the same self-doubt, that ironically we have to go extra far and satisfy a higher burden.
Later that week, I met Frank Upham, a professor on Asia's rule of law and resident expert on Japan at NYU. To my astonishment he revealed that he had traveled to Vietnam in 1969-1970 to report on the Vietnam War as a journalist for TIME magazine. His daughter now serves in the Peace Corps in Africa. I don't worry much about her, he mused, because I know youth and idealism can rise to the occasion. And I wonder, there and again, if I am young and idealistic enough.
Alina Das, a clinical professor who runs the Immigration Rights Clinic at NYU, certainly is. The IRC, in which I hope to participate next year, represents immigrants at risk of deportation or detention due to past records. We could not possibly lose, she said, bright eyes, because that would be unbearable injustice. You know, it's okay to talk about where you come from and your background, because in this line of work much of the battle is to connect and gain trust from the clients. And just like that, my moral conflict was lifted, because the occasion legitimately called for a personal narrative.
When I was young, Jack London, together with Alexandre Dumas, was a favorite. His major work The Call of the Wild about a husky who found himself in the city and longed for free running in snow fields then captured my budding love for adventures, and unbeknownst to me, associated the wilderness with home. Because the hustle and bustle of New York demand full attention, I have not had a chance to feel homesick for a long time, until I remembered Buck the husky, and suddenly longed to listen to Hanoi Season Without Rain at midnight in New York. And there, as the melody struck, my unknown galaxy became wild and vivid. I felt young and crazy again, as if I were there up on the podium, banging my fist in front the judges, swimming hopelessly. And that, that was the call of the wild. I know then I must at least try to have this long, happy, fulfilling legal career that Cohen himself has lived. That I must never become an unhappy lawyer because Upham looked at me and said, kid, you have lived through some amazing things. That it would be heartbreaking to be ordinary, and I would sooner die from my own moral conflict than to live it.
So much for random thoughts on an April night. And as always, it's time to prep for oral argument tomorrow...