Not that it would matter. At two-and-a-half, his speech is so delayed that I actually contacted a speech therapist and had her come to the house to check him out. At first she didn’t seem phased by what she heard and saw.
“How much does he understand?” she asked.
“Pretty much everything.”
“Well, right before you came I asked him to put his cereal bowl back on the counter, pick up his teddy bear, and then go do some quadratic equations.”
“And he followed your instructions?”
“Well, he’s only two, so he doesn’t actually do math—but other than that he was fine.”
“Huh,” she said. Then she got his attention and asked him to repeat a number of words for her. He did fine with apple, chair, bike, and agoraphobia, and she started to pack up her things.
Then Jamie said, “Mope sumgul afid durmphop.”
So I got up and said, “Sure.”
“What did he say?” said the therapist.
“More raisins and peanuts.”
Her face folded in on itself. “Oh my.”
Let’s just say being surrounded by native Cantonese speakers hasn’t helped Jamie any. Or maybe it has: maybe he’s fluent and we just don’t know it.
It also doesn’t help that he’s so big. At two and three-quarters, his head reaches slightly above his six-year-old sister’s shoulder.
“Woah, he big one,” the cleaning women on campus will say. “He five?”
“No,” we’ll say. “He’s just two.”
“Just two?” They’ll give us a skeptical look, like maybe we’ve been sniffing the floor polish. Then they’ll lean over the stroller and grin at Jamie. “Say bye-bye? Say bye-bye?”
Jamie will just stare at them.
“Hello!” One of them will try. “Say hello!”
But all he’ll do is frown. Then they’ll glance at us out of the corner of their eyes, as though looking at bad parents straight on will turn you to salt.
With our English-speaking friends, this is the point at which we start making jokes: “Who knew drinking Drain-o was a bad idea in the third tri-mester?” Or: “I told you we should have let him breath more.”
In Jamie’s defense, he’s mightily talented in other ways. The other day I was coming back with him from taking Will and Lucy to school, walking down the hall toward the elevators, when I bumped into a friend of mine. Jamie was ahead of me, just about to round the corner, so I called for him once to slow down, then turned to my colleague. We’d barely had a chance to say hello when we heard a Ding! I took off. Fast.
He hadn’t actually gotten on the elevator, but man, did he look proud of himself.
“Tie slad smekfavin trglfumfn,” he said.
“You sure did,” I told him. “You pushed that elevator button, didn’t you.”
And there are other things, too, that let us know he’s happy: when we go out he insists on holding a water bottle, and is proud that he can twist the cap off and on again. This leads to other problems, of course. He’s only been potty trained since—well, maybe last week? Maybe? Fact of the matter is, if we don’t put him on the can every 31 minutes or so, he’ll be standing in a puddle so big people will glance at the sky and start reaching for their umbrellas.
Coming over here, we’d hope that Hong Kong followed China in the practice of letting wee ones wee anywhere, running around diaperless in shorts with no crotch. Turns out that’s not the case. Consequently, we know the location of every public toilet in Tai Po—and some that aren’t so public. I was out with Jamie and one of my colleagues not too long ago when he looked up at me and said, clear as day, “Hash potato.”
“Geez,” I said. “Didn’t you go before we left?”
Scooping him up, I hustled across the parking lot. “Where are you going?” asked Anita.
“There’s a bathroom in here,” I said, Jamie bobbing off my shoulder as I flat-footed it in my sandals.
Anita glanced at the door I was elbowing through. “This is a retirement home.”
“What,” I said, “old people don’t pee?”
Following me down the hall, she threw worried glances into rooms full of people so old and brown they looked like mini-Tootsie Rolls. “But this is a private place.”
Jamie’s face was oddly twisted, as though he were trying to hold it in but wasn’t sure he could withstand the temptation to just relax and flood the entire building. I tried the door at the end of the hall. Locked. I knocked.
“Wai Lam,” I hollered. “Is that you again?”
There was a muffled cry, then a flush. The bolt set back and an old man peered up at me, his skin soft and wrinkled, gums recessed, eyes watery and brown.
“Too many figs again?” I asked.
He nodded. Then he stepped into the hall, holding the door for me and Jamie. Anita just stared.
The amazing thing is, six weeks into our stay here, Jamie hasn’t had an accident off campus once. Sure, he’s peed and pooped in every closet, cupboard, underwear drawer, and bathtub in the flat. But we prefer to focus on the positive.
On the 26, Jamie likes to buckle himself in. Will and Lucy both have octopus cards, multi-use money cards that you can fill up with as much as you want. All you have to do, then, is flash them at the scanner on the bus, at the MTR, or at the grocery store, to pay for whatever goods or service you’re purchasing. Once Jamie realized the older two both had one, he insisted he get one as well. So Ellen found some old paper card sitting around somewhere and put it in a little wallet for him.
Now, when Will gets on the bus, he’ll flash his card and the meter and the meter will go “Beep!” just like at the grocery store when they scan food at the register. Then Lucy will get in and the machine will go “Beep!” again. Then Jamie will get in, wave his card, and Will, Lucy, and I will shout, “BEEP!”
The Hong Kongers think we’re crazy. Oh well. Wasn’t like three tow heads and a big bald white guy were going to blend in anyway.
There are some downsides. Some days, you just know he’s sick of being in the stroller. You know this, because when you get him home after a long stint just sitting there, sweating in the sun, he’ll run around the apartment going. “AAAAA-AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHH!” at the top of his lungs. I think he gets his subtlety from me.
And sometimes he receives just a little bit too much attention from the Chinese. Oh, sure, there was the day on the MTR when some girl gave him a piece of chocolate, then refused to share any with Will or Lucy. But a lot of times some old lady will just stick her face down by his and yell “Hello!” nineteen times, right in his face, really loudly. Then she’ll grin, and wave, and do it again until his lower lip comes out about six inches and we know he’s about to burst into tears. Some of these ladies are crazy. Some of them are just a little too friendly. All of them need to do something about that halitosis.
But even the unwanted attention has its upsides. The other day, Jamie and I went into the General Education office to say goodbye to Man, the secretary who’d worked there since I’d arrived, and who was taking a job with the government. Man had taken me into town my first full day here, dragging me from shop to shop so that I could pick up plates and forks and scrub brushes and sheets and other things I would need to have in stock before Ellen flew back to the States for her father’s funeral. I hadn’t even been in the country 24 hours at that point. I’d just found out my father-in-law was dead and that I would spend the week we’d planned to explore together taking care of three kids in a country I didn’t know, where I didn’t have a car, couldn’t speak the language, and hadn’t yet located a really good dirty martini. All while my wife flew back to the States and had to cry on someone else’s shoulder.
Needless to say, I was a mess. But Man was not just patient, she was helpful and thoughtful and she didn’t laugh when I fell asleep in the middle of a store trying to decide which brand of asbestos-laced plastic spoon to buy for the kids.
Anyhow, on Man’s last day I made a point of going into the GE office to say goodbye to her. When I entered, Man rose from her desk behind the counter to see what the gweilo needed this time—possibly advice on what kind of garbage can to buy? Or maybe help deciding which ice-cube tray would best serve his family?
“Hi,” I said, speaking slowly, because I still wasn’t sure how good her English was, and I find that talking to people as though they’re recovering from botched brain surgery really helps build relationships. “Is this your last day here?” I ask, pointing at the floor in case she thought I meant someplace else by “here.”
“Yes,” she said, giving me that fixed smile that many Hong Kong women use when faced with western eccentricities.
“I just wanted to come in and say thank you,” I said. “You’ve been very helpful to me.”
“You are welcome,” she said.
“Very kind,” I said.
She nodded, still smiling that smile.
I touched my heart. “I really am grateful.”
“Yes,” she said.
“In fact, I wanted you to have this.” I handed her a miniature replica of Michelangelo’s David that I’d carved from antique ivory that used to belong to my favorite grandmother. “I made this for you.”
She took it and looked it over, not quite sure if she should sniff it, chew it, or use it to spear me.
“And this,” I said, handing her a check for 13 million dollars, US. “I was going to use this to get a liver transplant—but seriously, you’ve been so helpful.”
Taking it from my hand, she was just about to put it on her desk between the stapler and the paper clip holder, when Jamie made an indistinct sound, somewhere between a burp and the Russian translation of “Arugula.”
“Oh!” said Man, thrusting her head over the counter. “Is that Jamie?” Her face glowed. Glowed.
Overall, I think Jamie’s doing just fine, even if he can’t tell us so. Or even if he can tell us but we think he’s just having a really good bowel movement. When we walk down the hill to catch the 26 to school, the security guards all like to say good morning to him. Sometimes he’ll just grin and look away. Other times he’ll return the greeting. “Cho sun!” he’ll say. “Cho sun!” Then he’ll run a few feet in his sandals, hollering “CHO SUN!” until Lucy and Will pretty much fall down laughing. We’ve actually missed the bus because of this.
And he has other ways of expressing himself. Last weekend, after Will and Lucy ran their 3.5 K race around the peak, we took the ferry to Discovery Bay on Lantau Island to visit some friends. We went to a nice place for lunch, right on the beach, and had a great meal that the kids really liked. But even so, the grownups got to talking, and the kids got pretty bored and frustrated. So after we paid the bill we went onto the sand and let them run around a bit. This was as stupid idea of course: it was 35 degrees Celsius out there, so they started to sweat. And when you sweat and you’re on the beach, it’s not too long before you look like human sandpaper. Which I can’t imagine is particularly comfortable. I took the kids over to the beach shower and tried to clean them up, but between the squirming and the fine grain of the sand, nothing helped much. Frustrated, I walked back to the adults, leaving my little grit monsters to deal on their own.
And deal they did. By the time I sprinted back to the shower, Will and Lucy were wet, but Jamie was soaked. Frustrated, I picked him up and marched over to Ellen. “I give up,” I said, thrusting him toward her. Then I went and sat down. Ellen walked him back to the shower, scrubbed him up as best she could, then brought him back and stripped him down before changing his clothes
And that’s when it started.
It wasn’t a dance, really. It was—revenge. He was angry, and he’d been repressed all day, and this was his way of showing us that. Albeit with a sense of humor.
Clothes off, in nothing but his underwear, he started to dance. Fists plugged the air. Hips wiggled back and forth. Eyes shut, lips pursed, he looked like Mick Jaeger trying to pick lettuce from his teeth with his tongue. Ellen eventually got him in shorts, but he pulled them back down and kept going, throwing his sister and brother into fits, cracking up our friends, and causing passersby to wonder if they should call the police, or maybe an ambulance because clearly he was having some sort of seizure. But he just kept going, eyes squeezed shut, hands out and flying every which way, shouting sometimes but mostly just pinching his lips around his tongue, concentrating to whatever symphony was echoing through his head. He was—how do I say this?—hilarious. And beautiful. So beautiful.