“Where?” my eight-year old son asked.
“Kowloon,” I told him.
“Geshundeit,” said my daughter.
Hong Kong, of course, is a very popular tourist destination. As a result, there are dozens of pamphlets and hundreds of websites dedicated to its charms, articulating what they are exactly, and how to use Hong Kong’s fantastic bus and train system to find them. I have inherited many of these pamphlets from a friend who was here last year, and I’m fairly adroit at using the internet.
But what fun would that be?
Instead, I toss a couple granola bars in a backpack, toss in a rail map, throw my youngest into an umbrella stroller and get on a train heading south.
“Why this way?” my son asked.
“Because,” I replied.
“But what are we going to do?” Poor kid takes life very seriously. The sort of person who can’t enjoy watermelon because he’s so busy picking out the seeds.
“Why the ancient Hong Kongers used to sell their eight-year-olds into slavery.”
That got me a look, and then he rose from his seat and moved further down the train, settling in next to a nice-looking woman in a red sweatshirt who, I’m sure, he was hoping would take him home and adopt him.
My plan wasn’t very complicated: we came to Hong Kong to be in a big city, surrounded by people and traffic and tall buildings. Never mind that by some twist of fate we ended up living at the most rural campus in Hong Kong, a site that made our hometown in a Virginia county of 33,000 look downright cosmopolitan. Now we were in Hong Kong. We were going to see tall buildings.
The funny thing about the MTR, the Hong Kong train system, though, is that their maps don’t really clarify where all the action is. Never-you-mind: I had good instincts; I would use them, just like my hero George W. Bush.
“Why are we getting off here?” my son asked when we followed the crowds off the train. I noticed that he and the woman in the red sweatshirt had parted rather slowly.
“Because this is Kowloon Station,” I said. “Kowloon is where all the tall buildings are.”
“I don’t see any tall buildings,” said my daughter, who clearly needs to learn more respect for her elders.
And indeed, as I looked at the parts of Kowloon revealing itself to the open-air station, there were no particularly tall buildings.
“We need to get back on the train,” I said.
The next time we got messed up wasn’t really my fault. They’d changed the line routing in the year since my map had been made, and what used to be the end of one line was now part of another line entirely. What a person was supposed to do was get off the old line, step across the platform, and step onto a train shuttling to the new line. I know this, because when we stepped off the first train, everybody moved en masse across the platform and onto another train. Plus, there was a young woman standing there holding over her head a 3 x 4 foot purple sign that read: “Passengers for the East Tsim Sha Tsui embark here.”
I froze. I stared at the map in my hand. I stared at the map on the wall of the station. I stared at the woman holding the sign, at the sign itself, and at the train car full of Chinese people watching this tall, bald man with three very blonde children, wondering if he was insane or just simple.
Finally, a chime sounded, the doors of the car closed, and the train pulled away.
“That was our train, wasn’t it.” It was less a question than a statement. Who would have thought an eight-year-old could sound so mournful?
“Yes,” I said, “but don’t worry: there’ll be another one in—“ I glanced up at the digital arrival board “—37 minutes.”
Okay, so it wasn’t that bad. Only 12 minutes actually, which was still 6 times longer than any other train we’d ever waited for. Making it worse was the fact that it was now nearly noon, a dangerous time for a family full of hypoglycemic children. Just to make sure—and since we had the time anyway—we went up the escalator and asked a man in a uniform where to get off to see tall buildings.
“Where you want to go?” he asked.
Nowhere, I told him. Anywhere. Just some place with tall buildings.
He looked at me carefully, then down at the children, obviously checking for signs of abuse. Then he named a station, one down line, where, he said, there would be tall buildings.
Finally off the train, we were faced with nine different possible exits from the underground. Tired, hungry, sweaty, and worried that my two-year-old’s bladder was being tested to the limit, I chose an exit at random. I can’t say I was surprised when we emerged to a mostly empty street with no tall buildings, no restaurants, and concrete barriers ensuring the only way to cross the street was to go back down the stairs we’d just come up and take an underground sidewalk. Which we did.
It was raining when we emerged, only lightly, but raining nonetheless. The kids were quiet now, their cheeks red from the heat, their foreheads pale with hunger. We stumbled along for maybe half a block, at which point we looked down a side-road and saw a classic Hong Kong vista: a narrow street shadowed by tall buildings, neon signs glistening over double-decker buses, bamboo scaffolding, and crowds of people. There it was: Eldorado.
We couldn’t go there, of course, because of the concrete barriers. And of course we would’ve been there already if, upon emerging from the MTR, we’d simply turned right instead of left. Feeling a bit like George Constanza, who eventually figures out that the only way to succeed is to ignore his every natural impulse, I looked down at the kids. They were all weeping silently. Or maybe it was just the rain. We moved on.
Eventually we saw water. “Hey!” I said. “Look! Water!”
“Dad,” said my daughter, who’d begun to gnaw her thumb. “We’re hungry.”
“What do you say, Will,” I asked my oldest, “want to see the harbor, or go get something to eat?”
He just glared at me.
So we trudged on. Eventually we were able to actually cross the street, and wandered through throngs of Hong Kongers who’d obviously just dined on succulent steaks and chocolate flambé dribbled with raspberry sauce. We reached a corner. I stopped. It was now 12:43. I was sticky with sweat, my head light from lack of food. All pretense of being a super dad, much less a passable dad, is gone. I dropped a few choice words that my kids had heard more and more since their grandpa died, and turned to my eldest: “Straight, or to the right?”
He looked at me. “Huh?”
“Straight or to the right. Where do you think we’ll find food?”
He looked at me again. Then he considered the options. His sister, who had begun to chew her baby brother’s juicy fat hand, watched him carefully.
“Straight,” he said.
“Straight it is.” And on we went.
Now I know what you’re thinking: what a brilliant father. What a profound man. Have we discovered the next Buddha? What better way to raise children, to expand their horizons, develop their sense of self and their place in the universe, by allowing them to make decisions, to shape their interactions with the world.
Well, okay. But what I was actually thinking was: “You think you’re so smart, you little bugger, why don’t you make a few decisions and see what it’s like to fail?”
And for a while we did fail: we stopped at two restaurants, one crowded and filled with Chinese people eating things we couldn’t recognize, the other an overcrowded Japanese place where a bottle of water cost roughly 1/3 of my grant. Finally we ended up under an overpass of sorts, and I’d just decided that now is the proper time to teach my children dumpster diving, when my daughter said, “What about in there?”
She was pointing to a mall, a huge squat building with a glass front. We enter, and even from the street level we can see the food court on the third floor. I look at the kids. “What do you think?”
They nod, glassy-eyed and salivating.
We take the escalator up and stop at the first place on the edge of the food court. It’s Thai and looks relatively normal, by western standards. I order Thai Chicken with rice for the kids, and a beef noodle bowl for myself. The chicken ends up being on the bone, sliced with a huge cleaver so that the morrow is exposed, but by then it’s too late and I just grab the two trays and follow my kids as they push the stroller through the food court looking for a table. We finally find a two-top in a corner, and huddle around it. My daughter, who’s almost six and slightly more adventurous than her older brother, takes her chopsticks and pulls off a piece of the chicken, which—I now realize—is cold and looks almost raw. She pops it in her mouth and chews.
“Delicious,” she says.
“What’s this?” my eight-year-old says, pointing with a spoon at something on their tray.
“Yeah, but what’s in it?”
I lean over the toddler, who’s on my lap pulling noodles from my steaming bowl with his bare hands and stuffing them in his face. I can’t tell what’s in the kids’ bowl. It looks like chicken broth, but what are those two square things at the bottom?
“I don’t know. Celery?”
“It looks too big for celery.”
“You got me.”
Then, my son who would eat nothing but bologna and cheese sandwiches every meal for the rest of his life if you gave him the chance, took a sip of the soup. “It’s good,” he says.
Mine isn’t really, but I don’t care. It has protein and after a couple spoonfuls we all feel better. Afterwards, we hit the bathrooms and have a pee and don’t even get upset when the man tending the stalls yells at Lucy for some reason we can’t understand, but that obviously has to do with the solid platinum tiles surrounding the sink or Elvis having shaved there once.
We’re just heading back to the way out, when my daughter points up a pair of small escalators. “I want to go up there.”
I stop. “Why?”
I hesitate. I don’t see the point, myself—who wants to spend all day in a mall?—but then, it worked to follow Will’s directions for finding a place to eat, so what the hell.
“Okay,” I say.
We go up. It’s a hotel lobby. The kids are on their way back down in an instant and I’m about to join them when I glance out the door and notice a few small tables with umbrellas on a brick terrace. I call the kids back up (they nearly crush an old lady with a wide black hat as they run up the down escalator) and the four of us step back into the August heat.
And it’s amazing. We’re up maybe five stories over the water. Below us are ferries and waves and boats of all sizes. And across from us—holy crap, across from us is one of the most amazing sights I’ve ever seen in my life: Hong Kong island rises up out the water, tall brown mountains with silver skyscrapers in front of them. Back in March I was watching some program that named the top ten skylines in the world, and Hong Kong’s was number one. And now I see why. There’s steel and glass and neon and water and rock and sky. And all around on both sides, stretching off into the distance are big rounded mountains sticking up out of the South China Sea. It was so beautiful—so shocking, so different from southwestern Virginia—that it makes me laugh.
“Look!” my daughter says.
“I know,” I grin, feeling like the best dad in the world. “Isn’t it amazing?”
“A pigeon!” she says. And then both she and Will crowd around some poor gray bird nearly dead from heat stroke, and take 58 pictures of it with their digital cameras.
But never mind. It's awesome. It's cool. It takes the air out of my lungs, I'm smiling so hard.