Thursday, December 17, 2009

An ode (sort of) to the everlasting appeal (kind of) of the boa

It’s Friday morning and I’ve just seen Will and Lucy onto their shuttle bus.  I consider just crossing the street and taking the 26 back to school, but it’s sunny and warm and it’s been a few days since I’ve had anytime to wander around, so I stroll up Kwong Fuk Road, glancing in shop windows and just generally enjoying not being in an office designing powerpoint slides for a workshop I have to run next week. 

I’m vaguely hungry, and tempted to go into one of the bakeries you find every 20 feet or so in Hong Kong, but since moving here 4 months ago, I’ve gained 300 pounds, so even just looking at a custard cup makes my good old Midwestern guilt meter kick in. 

And then I see the steamed buns. 

Now, I should tell you that the first time I had boa dim, I was disgusted:  steamed bread?  Wet buns?  (Quit snickering!)  No flakey crust baked to a crispy golden brown?  None of those little hollow spots, so perfect for storing butter?

And I would eat this why?

The first taste basically lived up to my expectations:  boring.  Bland.  Chewey in a snap-back-in-your-face kind of way. 

And no butter.  Let’s just build the little bun-sized coffins right now, and get it over with. 

Then a few weeks ago I was faced with one of those Chinese breakfasts that consists of greasy noodles cooked with garlic and sinewy ham and—what do you know?—suddenly boiled bread didn’t look half bad.

And frankly, upon this second tasting, I actually found myself sort of satisfied:  sure, it was kind of chewy; sure, the texture was neither as crispy on the outside nor as fluffy on the inside as I would have liked; sure, the waitress looked at me like I had just ordered flambĂ©ed baby when I asked if there was any butter in the house—but aside from that, it tasted kind of good, like bread dough tastes just after you’ve added just enough flour to make it stretchy and just before you put it the oven.  Not bad at all, really.


And now, on this particular Friday, I’m standing in old Tai Po outside a boa dim shop.  There’s a line of people gathered around a large, white, industrial case with glass doors that slide open when you tug on the thick aluminum handles.  Inside, there are three or four metal shelves, on top of which sit a selection of buns:  some white, some pale green, some round and smooth, some twisted and grooved with a gathered crest at the top, some with meat sticking out of their sides.

As I watch, two women serve a line of customers:  one takes their coins and tosses them into a cardboard box on top of the boa box.  The other takes the order, reaches into the case to retrieve the bun, and slides it into a plastic bag, which she then hands the customer.  Every time she opens the door, a blanket of steam rises into the cold morning air.  In the half-minute or so I watch, ten or eleven customers shuffle their way through the line and leave happy, bun in hand.  Clearly this is the place to be. 

When the line thins, I step forward and lean in for a closer look.  I know this will hurt my macho quotient, but frankly, I’m intimidated by the buns.  There are just so many of them.  What if I get the wrong kind?  What if, in ordering, I commit some egregious cultural error—ordering the Buddhist bun, or the I hate Americans Bun—that brands me forever as a social reprobate?  What, in short, if everyone laughs at me? 

Then I see that across the top of the case stretches a double row of small red stickers, each listing the name of a bun and its cost.  And they’re in English:  Lotus Paste, Sesame Paste, Red Bean, Mushrom, Green Tea, Chicken, Pork and Leek, and many, many more.

I examine my options, not sure where to begin.  Beef curry?  Sausage? 

And then I realize:  I am looking at my destiny.

It’s true.  My entire career as a writer, I have searched for something that is truly mine.  John Updike wrote about suburban angst;  Tim O’Brien’s got that Vietnam War thing; one guy I know blogs just about street food—presently he’s working his way from Beijing to Singapore eating nothing that isn’t sold on a sidewalk.  Another blogger (see the link, above) write about being the only woman in a family of five.  Bill Bryson writes about, well, everything—and seems to get away with it, the bastard. 

But me?  I’ve got nothing.  I’m just a bald white guy from a nation of bald white guys, with no particular distinguishing characteristics—or material. 

Until now. 

Now, standing amid the noise and clutter of a Friday morning in Tai Po, steam rising from the chest/cabinet bun thingy in front of me, I know who I am.  And why the good Lord put me on this earth.

Boa Dim.

I will write about boa dim as no man has written about boa dim before.  I will dwelve into its innermost secrets, savor its most bizarre variations, travel to the remotest corners of the New Territories in search of its most fascinating and often only rumored varieties.

I will become one with the boa. 

And, clearly, I will write lots of dramatic one-sentence paragraphs about it. 

I glance up.  The woman who takes the money is looking at me, face placid.  I straighten, hand her my HK$3.5.  Then I turn to the woman who hands out the buns.  She, too, is looking at me, her face that determined mask of neutrality that the Hongkongers do so well when faced with one as bald and pasty as myself.

“Yes?” she says.

And then, in the confident, resonant voice that can only come from a man who knows his place in the universe, I open my lips and speak the two words that will shape my destiny:

“Sweet potato.”


It’s purple.  I forgot about that, that they have purple sweet potatoes in China.  Even so, I bite into it.  Soft.  Slightly moist.  Very chewy.  But tasty.  It has that dusky, mildly earthy taste that makes sweet potatoes so delicious.  Strolling toward the stop for the 26, I chew slowly, happily.  Once I swallow, I bite further into the bun, searching for the flesh of the potato I know will be in the center.  When I find it, it’s hot and soft, like a purple mashed potato. 

Waiting for the minibus, I work my way through the boa, suddenly happy about the day, about work, about my life.  No longer will I have to labor in obscurity, an unknown blogger in a universe of bloggers. I have found my muse.  I’ll milk—you heard me:  milk the boa for all it’s worth.  I’ll write about the boa and write about the boa and spread the gospel of the boa until the farthest corners of the universe echo in praise of steamed bread.  I’ll get to meet Oprah.


Only, I won’t.  Because by the time the 26 finally comes and I’ve pretty much finished my sweet potato boa, I’m sick of the damn thing.  Or more to the point:  sickened by the damn thing.  Because man, those things are sweet.  Whoever though of putting yams in a boa must have been married to a dentist, because that’s like adding brown sugar to a jar of honey. 

And man, those things are big!  Or not big really, but filling.  Or dense.  Or whatever it is that makes you feel like you’re going to hurl after eating just one of them.  The whole ride home on the 26, I keep one hand on the grip in front of me, trying to keep my churning stomach from churning even more as we skid around corners and roar past taxis.  The other hand I keep over my mouth, just in case my first hand doesn’t do the trick.

When we arrive back on campus, I’m as purple my boa and swearing to high heaven that never again—NEVER!—will I eat another &*%# boa, sweet potato or otherwise.  I mean, seriously, they could put Gillian Anderson in a bikini with 30 million dollars and a Pulitzer Prize for literature in the middle of a boa, and I wouldn’t take a bite.


Except maybe I would.  Because now, two days later, as I write this, I find myself thinking back to that steaming white case/trunk boa thingy, that busy street corner with those eager crowds, that semi-surly woman taking my money and the other, equally, semi-surly woman reaching in through the steam and pulling out a big white lump of wet dough.  And I find myself thinking:

Mmmm . . . sesame paste . . .


Sunday, December 13, 2009

The Birthday Party

         Our kids hadn’t been at their school too long when we started to hear the rumors.  I was lying in bed with Will one night, asking him what his favorite part of the day was.  I do this, because Will is definitely a glass half full kind of guy, and if you just ask him how his day was, you’ll get a list of grievances half a mile long. 

That particular night, he paused a moment then said, “Nothing, because of Leyton.”

It took me a minute to figure out that Leyton was a person.  “What about Leyton?”

“He’s always kicking me,” Will said.  And then he went on to deliver a list of perceived slights by this character Leyton, who apparently found it funny to step on the back of Will’s shoe as he was getting on and off the bus, or to kick him in the shins when they were playing soccer during recess. 

Later, I mentioned this to Ellen and she seemed surprised as well.  Neither of us had ever heard of Leyton.  The next night, I asked Will about him again and got the same catalogue of grievances. 

“Did you tell your teacher?” I asked. 

“Uh-huh,” he said.


“She just said to try to ignore it,” and then he spun into some vague answer that I couldn’t quite follow. 

“Did you try asking him to stop?” asked Ellen from the next bed, where she’d been cuddling with Lucy and obviously eavesdropping.

“I told him it hurt,” Will said.

“Did it help?”

Will gave a groan that said, clear as day, “Of course not.”

“Did you try kicking him back?” I asked.

“Paul,” Ellen said from the next bed.

“Well,” I responded.  “What’s he supposed to do, spend all year getting bruised?  The teachers aren’t helping.”

“That’s not the answer,” Ellen said. 

“Yes it is,” I whispered in Will’s ear.  “Give him a good shot, right in the shins.”

Then the next night, I had another thought:  “What’s Leyton do after he kicks you?”

Will sighed.  “He laughs.”

“A mean laugh?”

There was a pause, then Will said, “Not really.”  Another pause.  “More like he thinks it’s funny and thinks I’m going to laugh too.”

Ah . . . memories of third grade came back, when I had such a massive crush on Laura Rich that I did the only thing an eight-year-old boy could do:  I hit her with a stick. 

“Maybe he wants to be your friend,” I said to Will.

Even in the dark, I could feel him staring at me like I was insane. 

“Seriously,” I said.  “Try being nice to him.  Play with him.  See what happens.”


That was the first clue.  The second came when we were meeting with Will’s teacher for our annual conference.  “Will’s one of the best behaved students in his class,” she told us.  “I sometimes worry that he doesn’t get enough attention.  You know:  because of the other boys.”

We must have looked at her blankly, because she frowned, then went on.  “Not that they’re that bad, mind you.  Not bad enough that I qualify for assistance,” she continued under her breath.

Ellen leaned forward.  “I’m not quite sure we follow.”

Will’s teacher sighed.  “Take Thomas, for instance.  He’s very smart.  Very smart.  And most of the time he can control his temper.  But say the wrong thing or catch him in the wrong mood, and WHOOMP!  Next thing you know he’s ripped off all his clothes and he’s trying to bite anyone he can get his teeth on.”

Twenty minutes later we were in the Lucy’s classroom, meeting with her teacher, when she named a classmate of Will’s:  “And I’m sure you’ve heard about Mark.”

Ellen and I gave each other a glance.  We were still spinning from Thomas the naked, flesh-eating nine-year-old. 

“Um . . .” I said.  “Not really.” 

And she went on to tell us about how Mark’s mom was sick with cancer.  We’d heard about this, about how she’d had to fly back to Malaysia for treatment, about how Mark had missed a few weeks of school.  Lucy’s teacher, though, gave us some new details, however—like how, for instance, Mark manages his anxiety by goading all the girls on the playground to beat him up. 

You heard me.  All of them:  older, younger, Anglos, Asians, didn’t matter.  He’d prod them until they were good and angry at him, then let them pile on him and stomp the living whoop out of him.  Including Lucy.

“We just keep an eye on him,” Lucy’s teacher said.  “Mark’s very smart.  We all understand he’s going through something difficult here.  But we keep an eye on him.”


Everything really fell into place when Ellen bumped into Leyton’s mom one day at a PTA meeting.  In recent weeks, Will had stopped mentioning anything involving kicking, and has even mentioned Leyton’s name in the context of having fun at recess. 

Ellen mentioned the latter to Leyton’s mother, who looked slightly pained.  “I hope he’s behaving?” she said. 

Of course, Ellen said.  And then Leyton’s mother went on to explain how this was Leyton’s third school in four years, how it was the only one he liked—scratch that: the only one he didn’t have fits about going to. 

When Ellen reported all of this to me that evening, we spent a minute or two staring at the kitchen floor, trying to figure out what was going on.  Then, just like in some crappy movie starring Nicholas Cage, all of the pieces shifted into place:  Leyton, Thomas, Mark, the small class size, the high male-to-female ratio, the repeated comments we’d heard from parents about how they’d chosen this school because the academics weren’t so cut-throat.

“Wow,” said Ellen, breaking the silence.  “We’re sending our kids to a school for troubled boys.”


Not really, of course:  as far as we know, no one's pulling switch blades or selling crack next to the water fountain.  And we’ve yet to learn of rubber bits in the mouth and electrodes to the temples or secret “time-out” rooms from which students reappear, pasty and thin, six days later. 

 It’s more a place that attracts kids who aren’t very happy in typical, ultra-competitive HK schools.  The academics at our kids’ school are tougher than at any school we’ve ever encountered in the States—Will regularly comes home with four sheets of complex multiplication or division problems, all in addition to English, Putonghua, and the rest—but they’re nothing compared to some private schools that’ll kick out a third grader for failing to delineate Pi to the 15th decimal.

But even so,, all of this caused us to start being hyper-vigilant—or paranoid, if you prefer.  If Lucy was in a particularly barometric mood one day, I’d gently ask if anyone had touched her someplace they shouldn’t have.  To which she’d respond by giving me a weird, frowny look, before running to her mother to ask if Daddy had had too much caffeine again.  If Will came home and mentioned that one of the boys—Mark, it turned out—had pulled up pornography on the classroom computer, we were quick to assign it to the nature of the school, rather than to the that nature of nine-year-old boys with access to a computer and a four-letter word for the female bosom.   

And when Will came home, two weeks before his birthday, and declared that he wanted to invite a bunch of boys over for a party, Ellen and I nearly knocked each other over inquiring who, exactly, he meant.

“Steve,” he said. 

“Great,” we responded.  Steve had already been over for a play date, and had impressed us by not only carrying his used dishes to the kitchen counter, but polishing my black work shoes and rocking the baby to sleep. 


“Fantastic.”  The son of the one of the professors on campus. A nice kid. 


Dandy.  Gordon did archery with Will, and was as polite as the Dickens.  And we all know how polite Dickens was, especially when he first cheated on and then abandoned his wife and the mother of his children to run off with her sister. 

“Oliver,” Will continued.

Never heard of him.  But as long as he cleared the criminal background check, fine. 


“Are you sure?” Ellen responded.


“I don’t know,” I said.  “I think four is just dandy.  Maybe we should stick with four?”

“And Mark,” Will concluded. 

Ellen and I glanced at each other.


But what are you going do?  These are your kid’s friends, after all.  And as messed up as some of them might be, my guess is none of their dads keeps a blog. 

So we put the invitations in the mail, strapped bars across the windows, and hired seven security guards to spend the afternoon sitting on the patio. 

Just kidding, of course:  these days everyone e-mails invitations.

The party began with a treasure hunt.  My idea.  Ellen wanted to contain it to our flat, but I had other plans.  Borrowing from Mr. Blain, the kids’ charismatic but fanatical physical education teacher, I was going to run those six boys (Oliver and Peter couldn’t make it) all over campus, wearing them down to submissive little lumps of clay. 

Standing outside our apartment on the eighth floor of the building, I went through the list of rules: 1) Stick together; 2) Be careful; 3) Collect all the clues so there’s no litter; 4) Do the clues in order; 5) No snorkeling. 

Blank stares. I felt my face begin to burn. 

“What’s snorkeling?” asked one of the Chinese boys.

You’d think after four months in this country, I’d know better than to try a joke with a cross-cultural audience.  Especially one full of nine-year-old boys. 

Then I realized someone at the back was, well, if not cracking up, at least snickering.  “Snorkeling,” he said, when I looked at him.  “It’s funny.  We’re not going swimming.”

“What’s your name?” I asked.

“Mark.”  He was handsome, with clear eyes and a broad face.

I gave the rest of the gang a significant look.  “Mark,” I said, “knows enough to laugh at my jokes.  Mark gets extra cake.  Learn from Mark.”

The first clue sent them down to the playground outside the building, where they found a mathematical equation that ran them back up to the third, then the fifth, then the eleventh floors (I’d forbidden using the elevators; I’m sure Mr. Blain would have approved). 

Every clue they found, Leyton would insist, “We need to go up on the roof!”   Then he’d scrambled up the green railings that rim each floor of our terraced building, and start to make his way to the terra cotta tiles of the floor below.  Every time, the rest of the boys called him back and they continued with their hunt. 

When, after the eleventh floor, they needed to hustle back down to the tennis courts, I figured I was safe, and lagged behind.  Five minutes later I arrived outside the courts to find Leyton two-thirds of the way up the chain-link fence protecting the grounds, the rest of the group trying to guide him down. 

“Just jump,” someone said.

“I can’t,” said Leyton, fingers locked to the fence.

“Why not?”

“I’m afraid of heights.”

After the tennis courts, it was back up to six.  Then back down to the swimming pool.  As they searched the bleachers for the next clue, Mark threw me a sidelong glance.  “I bet we have to go up again after this.”

“Clever boy,” I said.  Then sent them back up to 12.   After that, it was down to two, then up to seven.  There, sweaty and red-faced, they discovered that the last hint sent them back to our flat.  They banged through the front door, the whole lot of them insisting they wanted water, cake, and a nap, not necessarily in that order.

Lunch was a quiet, albeit surly, affair.  Afterwards, enough of them woke up to have a rousing balloon fight on the terrace.  And they seemed to enjoy the game Ellen had organized for them involving blow torches, straight razors, and life-sized Gang of Four blow-up dolls. 

The part that really got me, though, was when it came to the presents. 

To begin with, there was Mark, who brought his gift in a shopping bag.  “We weren’t able to wrap it,” he said, matter-of-factly.

I was about to make some sarcastic crack (I enjoy being cruel to children) when I suddenly remembered:  Mark was the one whose mother had cancer.  Cancer that was bad enough that she’d flown back to her home country to get treatment.  I closed my mouth.

It was a wonderful gift, actually:  four historical action figures, all generals of a sort—Jeanne d’Arc, Napoleon, Zhang Fei, and Guan Yu.  Plus a professional quality sketch pad and colored pencils.  We’d had to leave Will’s art supplies in the States when we came over, and I knew he’d missed them.  I wasn’t sure if Will had mentioned that to Mark or not, but after watching this kid in action for two hours, I was sure there wasn’t much he didn’t pick up on. 

Then there were the cards:  most of them were handmade, and they were elaborate.  Gordon’s, for instance, featured hand-drawn pictures on the front and back as well as the inside flap.  The note itself, written in precise handwriting in 17 different colors, said:

Dear Will:

Happy Birthday!!!  You one of my best friends at _____ and you are the first classmate to invite me to a birthday party in this school.  I’m so happy that you invite me to your birthday party.  I’m glad to meet you.  I wish you have the best birthday ever. 

And then it was signed and dated. 

Sure, there were hitches.  Thomas didn’t so much give Will his gift, as open it himself, then sit in a corner and read it for ten minutes before reluctantly handing it over to our son.  Following that, he spent most of the rest of the party playing with one of Jamie’s toy planes, flying it around the room, muttering about Kim Il-sung and Pyongang.  He mentioned 1959 as well.  I still haven’t figured out what that was all about.  I’m just happy he kept his clothes on and didn’t eat anyone.


That night, lying in bed with Will, I asked him what his favorite thing that day was.

“My party,” he said. 

“What part?”

He paused for a second, then said, “The presents.”

“Not the treasure hunt?”

Under the sheets, he punched me in the hip.  “Dad,” he said, turning it into a seven-syllable word, “that treasure hunt sucked.”

I laughed.  Then I took a deep breath and asked a question that’d been nagging me all day. 

“Does Mark ever talk about his mom?”

Will didn’t say anything for a moment.  Even though it was dark, I could feel him staring at the ceiling. 


“Does he ever talk about how she’s doing?”


Now I didn’t speak, not sure where to go from there.  Will lay silent for a bit, then said, “But we know she’s dying.”

I looked at him.  “How do you know that?”

 He named one of the teachers, who’d mentioned it in the context of talking about her own family, a number of whom had died from cancer.

“Are you sure?” I asked.  “I mean, about Mark’s mom.  Because you know, sometimes things get mixed up when one person tells another, then that person tells someone else.”

“No,” he said.  “I heard it.  I was there.”

I thought about this for a bit.  Then I thought about Mark, his intelligent eyes, his bright laugh, the way he glanced down for a moment—but only a moment—when confessing his unwrapped gift.  And I thought about how, exactly nine years and two days ago, I’d held Will in my arms for the first time, feeling the bend and flex of his ribs as his tiny lungs drew in air and then let it out again.  And I thought about how, at that moment, these words had entered my head, in no particular order:  Holy crap.  And:  Wow.  And:  Oh my god.  And:  I can’t believe he’s mine. 

And I thought about how, at that moment so long ago, it had never occurred to me that I might possibly not be around to see him play in his first baseball game or go to his first prom or register his first sax solo or wax his first car or graduate from high school or get married or have kids of his own.

Or turn 10.

And then, if there’s a word that’s stronger than “cling,” and darker than “fear,” and purer than—what? “Fire”? “Water”? “Hope”? “Blood”?—If there’s a word that’s all these things but even closer still to the bone, then that’s what I did that night, in that room, with my son, in the dark, exactly nine years and two days after he was born. 

Thursday, December 10, 2009


        We’re on the bus, and Will is reading.  Will, he of “Blew-27-strawberries-all-over-Mommy’s-car” fame, Mr. Can’t-keep-his-lunch-down-over-a-speed -bump.  So, of course, we ask him to put the book away.  And he does.  Sort of.  Well, not really, but he puts it on top of his backpack, and that’s the same thing, right? 

Except when the book slides off the backpack, and disappears into the bowels of the bus.

And Will forgets about it.

And so do we.

Until we get back to the flat. 

Fortunately for us, this isn’t the first time we’ve left something on the 26.  Indeed, one might argue we’ve become a family of losers:  at least twice now Ellen has even left the bag containing her wallet, her ID, her credit cards, her maps, her—well, everything.  Each time, we asked our upstairs friend Valerie, who’s a native Hongkonger and can sound impressively intimidating in any language, to call the bus company.  And each time, shortly thereafter, we’ve received a phone call from the Security Office on campus, telling us that a driver’s just dropped off Ellen’s bag—or the stroller, or the milk, or Jamie, or whatever—for us to come pick up. 

So when we lose the book, we simply call Valerie, who calls the bus company and does her usual sailor-in-need-of-a-caffeine-fix imitation.  Then we sit back, and wait for the call from the Security Office.

Only it never comes.

Now, there are a few things you need to know.  For one, this isn’t our book.  Books were too heavy to bring over from the States.  No, this book belongs to my host university’s library, which has the most astounding collection of children’s literature you’ve ever seen.  And man, doesn’t the library know it.  Seriously, you’re only allowed to check kids books out for a week.  And four days after you check it out, you get a “Friendly Reminder” via e-mail telling you that, yes, you may have just borrowed X book titles just a few days ago, but if you don’t return this book in three more days, the library will own your butt. 

And they’re not kidding about the own part:  I’ve always complained that the Lexington VA library is fine-happy, desperate to supplement the pathetic budget the city council allows them by nickel-and-diming every six-year-old who keeps a copy of See Spot Run half a day too long.  But at least in Virginia, it literally is nickels and dimes you’re fined.  At my Hong Kong university, you’re fined HK$5 per day.  Now granted every US dollar equals 5 HK dollars, but if you do the math, this still means that you owe roughly 70 cents per day for each book that’s overdue.  And when you consider that we have three kids of three different ages and that it’s not unusual for us to check out 10 books per kid per week, well—one day’s worth of overdueness for one week’s worth of books, and there goes college for the kids. 

Second, I should mention that this is a hardcover book.  Which are expensive, of course.  Third, it’s a hardcover book in English.  Not surprisingly, English text novels are not actually printed in Hong Kong.  Which means, of course, that it was shipped over from the US or Canada or England or some other native-English-speaking country.  Which means, of course, that this book likely costs roughly the same as my Mac, my VW, and our house.

Okay, maybe not that much.  But seriously, it’s the sort of thing where if we made Will pay us back by giving up his weekly allowance, he’d be sending us HK$20 checks long after Natasha Obama finished her third term as President of the United States of America and the Mars and Venus Annex. 

The next week, we ask Valerie to call again.  She does, then shrugs.  “I guess someone must have took it,” she says.

Ellen and I look at each other.  We’d planned on spending the Christmas Holiday in Vietnam, but now we’re wondering if we need to cancel that and put a second mortgage on our house. 

After Valerie leaves, Ellen says, “I wonder what happened?”

“Someone must have looked at it, figured it was only a book, and threw it away.”

“It has the name of the university on it.  Maybe they returned it to the library.”

I think about this possibility.  The thing is, the Security Office is right next to the bus stop.  To drop something there, the driver only needs to walk two dozen paces.  The library, on the other hand, it halfway across campus.  As far as I can tell, the drivers barely have time for a quick pee before they need to get back on the bus and start their route all over again.  I’d never seen one eat lunch, have a drink, or even smoke a cigarette.  So sprint a quarter mile across campus to hand deliver a book some idiot kid left behind?  Not hardly. 

Then I think about my own suggestion:  I see someone picking up the book, glancing at its scuffed appearance, the Dewey decimal band on the spine, the dull picture on the cover.  I see them thumbing the uneven pages, glancing at a chapter or two.  Then I see them toss the book sideways into a rubbish bin.

“No,” I tell Ellen, shaking my head.  “We’re screwed.  It’s a book.  They know it’s not ours, not a personal item.  No one cares about stuff like that.”

After that, we did what anyone would do in similar straits:  we hired a computer hacker to break into the library system, erase our names from the borrowers list, and expunge any clues that the book at ever existed.

Okay, no, we don’t.  But starting on the 22nd of November, the book’s original due date, we keep renewing it faithfully every seven days, in hopes of some miracle—or at least the possibility that we can leave the country before the library discovers that we never returned it. 

We also stay away from the library for as long as we can.  I’m not sure why this is.  I supposed we just feel sneaky and disgusted with ourselves, like a man who gets drunk at the Christmas party and kisses his secretary, then can’t look his wife in the eyes for the next three years. 

Finally, though, Will has gone through every book he owns and a bunch that belong to Lucy that he hates—Esmeralda the Emerald Fairy anyone?—so he and I trudge down to the library and take the elevator to the third floor where you can find every series in the world ever published for kids between the ages of 2 and 20.  It’s a regular El Dorado, as far as my kids are concerned. 

The second we arrive, Will starts wandering his favorite aisle, picking out whatever catches his eye.  I move one aisle over, remembering Ellen’s idea that maybe it was time to introduce our son to C.S. Lewis.  As I’m running my finger along the shelves, trying to remember what comes first, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, or The Magician’s Nephew, a vaguely familiar green cover catches my eye. 

I straighten, then bend my head sideways so I can read the author’s name. 

“Will?” I call.  No response at first, so I say, “Who wrote that book you left on the bus?”

“Erin Hunter?” he says.  You can hear just a hint of tremolo in his voice—more than once in the last few weeks Ellen and I have hinted that a few more strikes like leaving a million-dollar book on a bus, and he might just find himself being traded for a player to be named at a future date. 

I pull the book off the shelf.  The cover shows a bunch of cats looking astrophysical and other-worldly. A science-fiction book about cats?   I glance at the title:  Warriors. The name doesn’t ring a bell.

“What was it called?” I ask. 

Again there’s that pause, the mild fear almost tangible.  “Warriors,” he says. 

I flip the book over, glance at the back cover, I don’t know why.  I think about all the bus drivers we’ve encountered in the four months we’ve been here.  They’ve ranged from the indifferent to the surly.  I’m sure the pay isn’t crap, and the rumor is that the Triads still have a pretty hefty hand in the operation of this—and most other—modes of HK mass transport.  A few weeks ago, Ellen boarded the bus with all three kids and had to listen to the driver berate her for 20 minutes as he drove along, throwing glares at her through the rear-view mirror.  She never was able to figure out what she’d done to enrage him so. 

“No,” I say, out loud.  There must be more than one copy of this particular book at this particular library.  When Will had started reading Hunter, I’d Googled her just out of curiosity, and had been surprised to discover she was both prolific and popular. 

I turn to the back inside cover where they kept the check-out and return tag.  Running my finger down, I pause at the last date:

22 Nov. 2009.

Sunday, December 6, 2009


      Every once in a while when you’re traveling, you stumble across some site or point of interest that is so beautiful or noble or awe-inspiring or just unutterably, breathtakingly astounding that words—and, God-willing, your bitchy, sarcastic sense of humor—simply fail you.

The Giant Buddha is not one of those sites.

What, you ask, is the Giant Buddha? 

Well, it’s kind of technical and difficult to explain, but what it comes down to is that it’s this Buddha, see?  And it’s really really really big.  So big, in fact, that some might call it giant.

I could tell you more, but that’s all that you really need to know. 

Situated on Lantau Island, the Jan Brady of Hong Kong islands, the Giant Buddha was dreamt up by some religious folks—I’m guessing they were Buddhists—who visited some other places (Taiwan, Mainland China, and Des Moines, Iowa) that had these really really big Buddhas, and these people thought, “Dang, that’s cool.  We need to get us one of them there giant Buddhas.”   So they came back to Hong Kong, did some serious fundraising, and built themselves the biggest, bad assedest Buddha they could. 

Now to be entirely fair—and for the moment, mildly reverent—the Buddha itself is pretty cool.  Looking at his calm face, his grounded body, one hand gracefully extended, you sense serenity.  And surrounding him are a dozen or so statues of female figures making offerings that are so beautifully done that they cause you to pause a moment and consider the nature of reverence and sacrifice. 

And the setting of the Buddha is astounding:  to get there, you have to take the train out almost to the airport, then take a cable car for twenty minutes, up one side of the island, across a small harbor, over the peak, and down the other side, the mountains and sea and sun and sky opening up in front of you in a way that is seriously awe-inspiring.  And then as your cable-car lowers over scraggy hillsides and rocky waterfalls, you look up and think—not a little ironically—Jesus Christ! What the hell is that?

For there, on the horizon, a huge figure cuts a silhouette against the pale sky.  And I do mean huge.  Think, Kirsty Allen on steroids.  Or Rosie O’Donnell as a Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade Float.   Except more religiousy, with fewer strings and no Hostess Cupcake in her hand. 

For a moment, everyone in your car is dumbstruck.  The kids stop beating each other with the $40 balloons they made you buy while waiting in the huge lines; you and your wife stop arguing over whether or not it was worth it to get the “Crystal Cabin” deluxe package (it is, no matter what she says); the young Chinese couple you’re sharing the car with stop snogging long enough to get some air and stare, chapped-lipped, out the window. 

It’s magical.  Really it is.

Until you get out of the cable car, stroll through the obligatory cable-car gift shop (who can blame them for trying, right?) and into—well—


I kid you not:  same fake, white-walled, pseudo-old-country villagey buildings full of overpriced authentic Chinese crapola gift shops; same popcorn and cotton candy venders; same lousy restaurants with waiters and waitresses wearing polyester recreations of ethnic costumes from 300 years ago.  It takes you a good twenty minutes to make your way through this garbage, prying your kids away from the stores selling authentic Giant Buddha rubber-band guns and semi-authentic Giant-Buddha-arm-in-arm-with-Jesus computer mouse pads. 

Once you make it to the other side, sweaty, tired, and ten pounds lighter in the wallet area, you’re rewarded with—well—

A small monastery full of Buddhist monks going, Holy crap, what happened to our vision of a nice peaceful retreat, a quiet place to meditate and focus on our practice and our religion and making the world a better place? 

Sure, there are alters, and sure there’s incense burning.  And sure, there’s booth after booth of vendors selling white people who don’t know Buddhism from  Bartles and James giant wads of incense to light and burn and then—what?  They don’t know, because they’re white people raised Lutheran in South Dakota, where incense is what you use to hide the fact that you were smoking pot with your buddy Larry from your parents and that rat-fink of a sister Emily, who, first-chance you get, you’re gonna give an Atomic wedgie for making you miss the basketball game last week by narcing to your mom about the pack of Marlboros hidden behind your desk, which really isn’t fair, because they were Larry’s to begin with and you were just keeping them there because Tilly, Larry’s girlfriend, is trying to quit and you sort of have a crush on Tilly and keep thinking maybe if you’re nice enough to her then when she finds out that Larry gave Mandy Davis that huge hickie last summer, then maybe, just maybe, she’ll . . .

Well, you get the point. 

The one thing that makes this all worthwhile is that it causes you to think about what would happen if, some Sunday in South Dakota, a bunch of Asians burst in St. John’s Lutheran during the late service and started snapping photographs while Pastor Jeff passed out the communion wafers.  It’d never happen, of course, because Asians generally have more respect when they’re guests in other countries, but it’s a nice image to just hold in your head when you’re tempted to ignore the “Strictly No Photographs” sign and snap a quick shot or two of some old bald headed monk silently praying to his god amidst the circus-like atmosphere of the Giant Buddha. 

If you want to experience something sincere and quiet and meditative and, well, Holy, then go to the Man Mo temple in Old Tai Po.  And leave your damn camera behind, and for god’s sake, button up and don’t go in there with a whole big group of fat people wearing purple.

But assuming that’s too remote for you—most HK tour companies actually think Tai Po is in the PRC—then take the MTR to the Diamond Hill Station, get out, and take the escalator toward the mall.  When you arrive at the garage level, take a right and follow the sidewalk curving left along to the intersection.  Cross the street when you get a chance, then go under the big highway overpass.  Go up the big stone stairs, take a left, and .  .  .


Well, the Chi Lin Nunnery is one of those things that really requires as few words as possible.  But you’re stuck with me, so here goes:

Everything here is designed to make you pause and—well, just pause.  You stroll in through huge wooden gates under a heavy timber roof that frames a brick square.  Somehow the sky looks different when you’re looking at it from under that roof:  it’s bluer, bigger, higher.  Skyscrapers are visible from almost everywhere, but only over the slanting, Tang Dynasty-style roofs (think Kung Fu Panda, minus the Panda, the Tiger, and the Kung Fu), making them seem inconsequential.  The main courtyard holds four Lotus ponds rimmed with bonsai trees, the water is green and dark, and looks full of life.  There are no benches:  what monks you see move slowly and steadily, hands behind their backs. 

What’s crazy about this place is that even white people from places like, say, Boone, Iowa, where “Eastern religion” refers to that Methodist church out on Old Highway 30—even these folks can stand in this courtyard silently for all of five seconds and get it—and I mean really get it, deep down in their bones—the way the structure of the building is meant to connect the sky to the earth and the earth to the sky and the soul to the universe. 

It beats the Crystal Cathedral any day, that’s for sure. 

The inner courtyard is smaller and warmer, more intimate.  In sharp contrast to the monks at the Giant Buddha, one of whom threatened me with a shotgun and a “Right righteous HK ass-whoopin’,” (his words, not mine), the nuns at Chi Lin are quiet and gracious, smiling even.  One of them gave Jamie a small cylindrical pendant, then one to Ellen and me, telling us it was for luck.

The day we were there, the nunnery was filled with visiting monks offering gifts to the sisters—a hand-made banner, a small golden carving.  They all smiled at Jamie and tried to get him to talk.  Jamie returned the favor by giving them his “cross-eyed” look:  eyes slitted, lips pursed, fists clenched by his jaw.  We have no idea why he does this.  But it makes monks laugh, so it’s probably okay. 

The nunnery is so beautiful that you think nothing can match it.  And then you take a stone bridge across the street and enter the nunnery’s gardens.  An acre in size, the garden is centered around a huge pond containing Koi and a bridge to a golden pagoda.  There are bonsai gardens, with graceful trees rooted beside striped stands of petrified wood.  There are purple blossoms and combed beds of sand and a vegetarian restaurant with a sheet of falling water in front of its plate glass window.  From nearly every angle, you can see skyscrapers shooting into the air.  Rather than ruining the sense of calm and solitude in the garden, though, they reinforce it.  You appreciate the order and peace more for being reminded of the chaos and construction just a quarter mile away. 

One of these days I’m going to quit watching Hong Kong’s version of The Price is Right, get off my butt, and do a little research about religions in southeast Asia.  And when I do, I’m guessing I’ll find that Buddhism places an emphasis on deliberateness. 

Case in point (real Buddhists always say “Case in point”):  stretching around the huge pond in the middle of the garden is a rim of flat, white, oval stones.  The thing is, these stones aren’t just every which way and hodge-podge (real Buddhists always say “hodge-podge”).  No, these stones are layered in careful rows, one over another at an angle.  They’re beautiful.  But of course you know that to get them that way, some dude, probably the chief peon’s peon, spent days—weeks, even—placing those rocks down, one by one.  And then the next row.  One by one.  And then the next row. 

And the weird thing, as you look at those rocks and think about being the sucker who had to put the down, is that you get it:  you understand, perfectly, that this deliberateness is, if not meditative, at least contemplative.  That the rhythm of selecting a rock, placing it, pausing, selecting another, placing it, pausing—that all of this must have been less of a burden than a means of breathing more carefully, of seeing more carefully, of being more carefully.

Or maybe not:  maybe laying out those stones was just a pain in the butt.  I’m a Lutheran living in Virginia, for Pete’s sake—what do I know from rocks? 

But I don’t think so. 

Friday, December 4, 2009

Random things your mother would rather you didn't know about Hong Kong

  • You know you’re in a Hong Kong meeting when everyone sits down and you hear Ka-chunk!  Ka-chunk!  Ka-chunk! going around the table.  The current fashion in HK women’s watches appears to be large-bejeweled watches with a masculine, oversized design.  What you hear is the sound of every woman in the room un-strapping this behemoth from her wrist and depositing it on the table top.
  • In Hong Kong, phone numbers have 8 digits.  As far as I can tell, there are no area codes.  But you know what?  I’m surprised every day. 
  • Chinese vampires hop.
  • Mandarin and Cantonese use the same written form, which consists of, more or less 5,000 characters.  The assumption is that a child needs to know 1500 characters to read a simple book.  Because learning these are so difficult, literacy in China comes  roughly 2 years later than in other languages. 
  • When you go into a men’s bathroom in Hong Kong, you’ll find three kinds of, um, disposal systems:  urinals, western sit-down toilets, and squat holes. 
  • There are 56 ethnic minorities in mainland China.  In Hong Kong, there are native Hongkongers, Filipino helpers, gweilos, and gweipos. 
  • You can have McDonalds delivered in Hong Kong.  The delivery people drive around on little red motorcycles, with red storage boxes on the back that bear the phone number of the local Mickey D’s, and the word, “McDelivery.”
  • I struggle with breakfast in any country—very little appeals to my taste buds at that time of day.  But I struggle even more in Asia, where almost anything counts as breakfast:  runny congee with chicken, steamed bread, plain, or filled with egg-y custard, oily noodles with mushrooms, or tuna fish sandwiches. 
  • You’d think that the views in Hong Kong clear up when the weather cools off, but actually, the opposite happens.  When winter comes, the winds stop blowing in from the sea, and blow down from the north instead—bringing pollution from the mainland with it. 
  • The MTR, Hong Kong’s rail system, transports 4.1 million passengers a day. 
  • The carbon footprint of the average Hongkonger is 80% of what it is for a member of the European Union, and one-third of the footprint for an American
  • In Hong Kong, when you hand someone your business card, you hold it with both hands.  Generally it’s presented with a small bow as well.  And when you accept a card, you do not simply stuff it in your wallet.  Instead, you look at it, then place on the table in front of you.  It would have been nice had someone told me this three months ago. 
  • Chinese Universities generally require @170 credits to graduate as opposed to the typical US requirement of @120.  Of these 170, 60-70 are for courses in “Political Education.” 
  • Everyone in Hong Kong—everyone:  grandmothers, judges, wine connoisseurs, two-day old infants—knows how to spin a pen by flicking across the top of your hand.  And they do it.  Regularly. 
  • Amongst the official-type people who develop probability models for Hong Kong, there is only one point of absolute consensus:  a Pandemic, similar to the 2004 SARS outbreak or worse, will strike Hong Kong again. 
  • Since 1979, the average yearly temperature in Hong Kong has risen by .27 degrees Celsius per decade. 
  • Hong Kong yoghurt tastes better than US yoghurt.  It’s not so sweet, and just plain yoghurtier. 
  • Walking around the malls in Hong Kong, you’ll see a poster of a young man and a woman gazing at each lovingly—over surgical masks worn to prevent passing germs to one another.  You’ll also see, in random spots in random hallways, small electronic machines that dispense an alcohol-based liquid you can use to sterilize your hands.  I’m not basing this on any hard evidence, but after a swift start to swine-flu season back in September (26 students at my school contracted it in less than a week), it H1N1 appears to be more or less under control here—as opposed to the States, where I keep hearing about schools closing down and whole families being sick for weeks. 
  • I’ve been seriously disappointed at the number of Hongkongers who’ve mistaken me for Bruce Willis.  At last count, the number is about zero. I mean, what good is it being bald and white if you can't capitalize on someone else's craggy good looks? 

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Jamie 2: Another Grandparental Update

       It’s one of those conversations you avoid as long as you can.  Finally, though, Ellen and I waited for a night when Jamie went to bed early, then led Lucy and Will into the living room and sat them on the couch.

Once they’d quieted down, we took their hands, looked them in the eye, and told them we loved Jamie more than them.

They both frowned.  “Are your sure?” Will said, “Because I thought you loved Lucy best?”

“Yeah,” his sister piped up.  “You always said I was your favorite.”

“That’s right,” Ellen said to Lucy, as I stroked Will’s cheek (being the first child is always so bittersweet.), “we used to love you best.  But now we love Jamie more.”

“But why?”

“He’s squoodgier.”

Will’s frown deepened.  “That’s not even a real word.”

“Yes it is,” I said.

He peered into space, thinking deeply.  Then he shook his head.  “No it’s not.”

Ellen cut in.  “Honey, it may not be a real word, but it’s a real emotion.”

“What’s it mean, then?”

Ellen and I exchanged a glance.  I shrugged. 

“It means we like to hug him more,” Ellen said.  “That he’s so cute, you just want to pick him and smoosh against you as hard as you can.”

“I can be smoodgy,” Lucy said. 

“Squoodgy,” I said.


Will had returned to his book.  I poked him with a sharp stick.  “Pay attention, son,” I said.  “This is important.”

“I don’t get it,” Lucy said.  Her forehead was red.  “You always said that I was the cutest.”

Ellen leaned in and gave her a kiss on her fat little lips.  “That was before, sweetie.  Things have changed.”


“Evolution,” said Ellen. 

“That’s right,” I said.  “Survival of the fittest.  Just like Darwin said.”

“I hate Darwin,” Lucy responded.

“That’s because you didn’t read him carefully enough,” Ellen told her. 

“Jamie’s just so cute,” I said.  “With his little butt.  Have you seen him in his pajamas?  I mean, have you really looked at him in his little pajamas?”

“He walks on his toes,” Ellen said.  “Follow him when he walks down the hall sometime.  He’s just the sweetest little thing.”

“Especially in the dinosaur pajamas,” I added.

“He can’t even talk,” Will said, without looking up from his book.  I craned my neck to glance at the title.  Das Kapital.  Huh.  I didn’t remember getting that from the library. 

“Yeah,” Lucy said.  “He says ‘ladder’ instead of ‘water.’”

“And you used to call your polar bear ‘Dapple,’ because you couldn’t pronounce it correctly.”

“Until you lost him,” Lucy said. 

“You were 20 months.  Old enough to be responsible for your own possessions.”

“Jamie poops in his pants,” Will said. 

“Now see,” I said, “that’s exactly the kind of comment that loses you first place in your parents’ hearts!”

“But he does,” said Lucy.  “He knows how to do it on the potty, but instead he’ll go out on the patio, poo it in his underpants, then walk around the house with his pants dragging down.”

“It’s actually pretty funny,” Will said.  “He waddles.”

“Jamie’s just really really cute,” Ellen said, stroking Lucy’s brow. 

“Says who?” she responded.

“Only about 7 million Hongkongers,” I said.  “Haven’t you seen how much they like to pick him up?”

“And get their picture taken with him?” Ellen said.

“They like to get their pictures with me too,” Lucy said.

Ellen frowned.  “That’s just because they think you look like a little Loni Anderson.”

“Who’s Loni Anderson?” said Lucy.

“Only the greatest actress of her generation,” I told her. 

“Does this mean we get to stay in Hong Kong when you guys leave?” Will asked.

I glanced at Ellen.  “We’re not sure.”

 “It depends on the tickets,” Ellen said.  “If they’re too expensive, we might have to leave you both.”


Okay, so I’m guessing that you know by now that none of this really happened. Certainly, if the unnecessarily cruel dialogue with the kids didn’t give it away, then the comment about Loni Anderson would have.  Because everyone knows that Joyce DeWitt was the best actress of that generation—I mean, seriously, to hold your own against Suzanne Somers?  Not just anyone could do that. 

Getting ready for this, my second round of self-indulgent, shmarmy, totally hetro-centric grandparental updates about the kids, I struggled to find some organizing moment around which to center my discussion of Jamie.  Nothing seemed to work. 

Sure, he’s still struggling with the where-to-put-the-poop question (big hint:  not someplace that causes your pants to slide down);

Sure, he’s taken to sneaking out from his nap, into Will’s and Lucy’s room, gathering all their stuffed toys, and bringing them back to his bed; 

Sure, we’ve now realized that he thinks “Cho Sun,” is less a morning greeting than the name of every security guard on campus;

And sure, he’s obsessed with airplanes.  Ellen and I spent an hour last night discussing whether or not it was appropriate to “disappear” Richard Scarry’s “A Day at the Airport.” 

But seriously?  The main thing about Jamie right now?  Is that he’s just so damn cute.  I don’t know what it is.  Maybe it’s just that stage, that moment, those few short months where he’s exiting babyhood and entering personhood.  The baby fat is disappearing, the vocabulary is expanding (though it’s still incomprehensible).  His eyes are focusing more—when he looks at you, he really looks, and when he asks you a question, he’s really asking it. 

But mainly, it’s that walking down the hall thing.  When I follow him to the bathroom, watching his little arms swing and his little bounce on his toes and his little butt in those dinosaur pajamas, he’s just so—so—sooooooooooo cute. 

Sorry.  Particularly for those of you who don’t have kids, don’t want kids, or generally prefer kids spread on toast with a little grape jelly. 

But when all is said and done, the take-away message of this post can be summed up in a single, old, Anglo-Saxon word: