A friend once told me that every time he flew over New York City, his heart dropped. When my turn came, I was waiting for mine to do the same — and boy, did it. Peering through the aeroplane window, the city’s vastness was unfathomable. With my eyes opened, nervousness took over: I realised everything was at my fingertips, and that the world truly was my oyster. This city had a magnetic energy, and I felt insignificant and small. It was a refreshing feeling, but I was also naïve to the challenges I would soon face.
Most people romanticise a city they have always longed to live in — New York was it, for me. As a teen, watching a documentary on Andy Warhol’s beginnings as a fashion illustrator was my trigger. If I wanted to really be amongst it, I had to relocate: I needed to be immersed in it. Ironically, there was something beautiful about the idea of being a struggling artist in a big city, and despite the small niche for fashion illustration, I knew I had to take the risk. I wanted to make my mark, I was extremely passionate, and my head was racing with possibilities. It all seemed so simple.
Before I left home to chase this dream, I was lecturing fashion illustration. I was fortunate to have my mentors support my big move and connect me with The Academy of Art University in San Francisco. As a result, I managed to get a one-year ‘J1’ work visa. Though it wasn’t quite New York, the opportunity was too great, and off I went. Here, I taught fashion drawing to freshman classes for a semester and worked alongside one of my greatest idols, Gladys Perint Palmer, an extremely influential fashion illustrator. The experience was rewarding and immensely challenging.
I adored the job, and after the first semester, I was torn as to whether to stay, or leave everything for New York, where I would be starting from scratch with no job, friends, or accommodation. Expressing my doubt to Gladys, she told me something that has stuck with me to this day: “Everybody knows good from bad, but New York knows good from great.” That settled it. I packed my bags and left for New York.
On a professional level, I simply wanted to ‘make it’; I had dreams. But aside from that, I wanted to grow personally, too: I wanted to do it on my own, and see if I could support myself — a large part of me simply wanted to find ‘me’. I had never flatted before, nor held down a proper full-time job. I was thrown into the deep end — and I liked it. The fear was exciting and the culture shock was enlightening. Everything was in my face: the people, the energy, the pace… and the competition.
However, after 3 months of searching for work, rewriting cover letters, moving from apartment to apartment and trying to make friends, New York broke me. Nothing was simple: anything that required two steps in New Zealand required five more steps in New York. Everything took longer, and there were 50 times more people applying for the same jobs, the same apartments, the same visas — everyone was fighting for the same thing. It felt like for every 100 jobs I applied for, I received about five replies. It was probably one of the most stressful times of my life to date, mostly because I felt alone. Not only was it taxing, it was depressing.
I was hard on myself, but eventually these challenges became normal. I came to terms with the fact that things in New York took time. In the end, finding an apartment that I could call home took a full year. I moved six times before that, and believe me, my room certainly didn’t have a window that oversaw the Manhattan skyline, as I’d dreamt. Searching for apartments on Craigslist was… interesting, to say the least. Friends of friends and Facebook pages for foreigners residing in New York became my preferred method to find sublets. I would sublet for 3 months at a time (getting my name on a lease was tricky because I had no credit). However, being a nomad was surprisingly fun. I managed to live in three different neighbourhoods, which taught me a lot about the vibe I responded to. Moving in a cab with my three suitcases became a ritual. I finally settled in Clinton Hill — tree-lined blocks and brownstone living was for me.
As for the subway, I was bad with navigation to begin with, so it took me a while longer than others to get the hang of it. I would always accidently catch express lines, and end up somewhere way uptown or downtown — but to pass the time as I made my way back on track, I would just sketch the interesting people I saw on the subway. I never used Google Maps — I just spoke to people when I was lost, and in doing so made friends. I was surprised how welcoming New Yorkers were: everyone was willing to help out, make me feel at home, or invite me to a party.
Being poor wasn’t even an issue — there was always a way I managed. ‘Hustling’ became my favourite word, because that’s exactly what I did. New York is wonderful in the sense that inspiration and food are cheap. I could eat tacos for US$6, and inspiration was on the streets for free.
My sketchbook captured all my highs and lows. Over the course of my settling in, the New York fairy tale quickly vanished, so I had to constantly remind myself why I was here. I learned to hold my head up, and not be shy — people sensed vulnerability. I quickly realised that building connections and relationships were more important for my survival than my master’s degree, and that talent would only get me so far — I had to sell myself. People here really knew how to make a statement, be bold and dress the part. I was brought up to be humble, to think that saying I’m brilliant at something may even come off cocky. But here, it was a necessity. I learned to believe in myself, and manifest what I wanted.
I finally decided to become an intern. At first, I couldn’t get over the fact I was interning at this stage in my career — until I met people with doctorates doing the same. My first internship was with Abby Lichtman, a start-up textile design company. Abby’s whole ethos was to hand-draw prints — a stark contrast to the commercial computer-generated work one sees at textile shows. An average day involved creating and painting, then using the heat press machine to place prints on to fabric. We would then go to design houses to showcase the season’s collection. Abby taught me that finding a commercial gap with my skill set was possible, and helped land my first paying gig in New York, as an assistant textile designer — a role that taught me that the film The Devil Wears Prada is indeed based on reality. It tested my will, patience, purpose, and my relationships with people, and taught me to be tough.
After 8 months, my visa was about to run out, and I was nervous. I heard about the ‘O1’ artist visa (a 3-year permit designed for anyone in a creative field). I approached a lawyer about it and after 3 months of prepping my portfolio and organising reference letters, I applied for the visa and — just in the nick of time — I got it. I felt extremely fortunate to have bought myself some more time in the city.
As fate would have it, around this time I met someone at a dinner party, who mentioned her brother was an illustrator too. I met up with him over coffee and found out he was one of the illustrators at Ralph Lauren. Little did he know, I’d had my eye on that job since my university days. He saw my work and loved it; he said that if anything popped up, he would put my portfolio forward. Just a month or so later, I was at Ralph Lauren being interviewed, and I landed the gig. Things may not have moved as fast as I would have liked, but it was worth the wait. Almost 3 years later, my love for New York still remains. It’s one of those places one has to love if they want to live in it. Visiting this city and living here are entirely different things. I have realised the struggles people face to be here, and the work ethic people have — many holding down three jobs to make it happen. All said, it makes me strive: the energy doesn’t slow down, so I know I had better keep up. For those whose idea of success is to have a home by the age of 30 and live on their own, this isn’t their scene. But if the ideal is to experience, learn, stumble and fall, and perhaps even make their dreams come true, this is the place.
New York is on a different time schedule. Things take longer — and not just apartment and job hunting. It’s normal to be single at 37, to still be discovering one’s passion at 30. Although I turn 28 soon, I feel like I’m 18, learning every day. Moving to New York was much more difficult than I expected, but I have reaped some great rewards, made some talented and driven friends, and get to draw every day for a living. I am so thankful for all of that. I don’t know what the future will hold, but for now, New York is where I call home.
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