“Oww!” she howls.
“Will!” I say. “What are you doing?”
“She pinched me first!”
I turn to Lucy, which isn’t easy in the back of a tiny green taxi with an almost-three-year-old on your lap. “Lucy, did you pinch him?”
“But he hit me!”
“Will! What on earth?”
“She had her hand under my bottom!”
“Lucy!” At this point Ellen kicks in from the front seat, where she’s been frantically looking up the word for “beach” in the English-Cantonese dictionary so that she can explain to the driver exactly where we want to go. “What have we told you about touching people there?”
“But you and dad—“ she begins and I interrupt.
“If you guys are going to behave like this, we’re going to turn this car around and go straight back home. Then you can both sit in your rooms all day while your mom and I go do fun things.”
“What about Jamie?” Lucy asks.
“He can do fun things too.”
“But he pinches.”
“And touches bottoms,” says Will.
“You guys!” I almost roar but not quite. The taxi driver gives me a look—opaque, yet judgmental—in the rearview mirror. “If I have to say this one more time . . . “
And then I leave it at that. Which is a joke, of course. Because in the 50 minutes we’ve already been en route to Sai Kung—15 on a bus, 30 on a train, and now in a taxi—I’ve already said this 6 times. On the bus it was about their fighting over the front seat; on the train it was about their using the support poles like a stripper, swinging their legs around and around. In fact, we’ve been doing a lot of threatening lately. It’s like suddenly the perfect children we knew in the States—we actually attend church with them fairly often, and have gotten to the point where we can leave the duct tape and staple guns at home—the perfect little darlings that all their teachers write us notes about, are disappearing. Just a week earlier we’d Skyped with ours and our kids’ best friends back in the States, and been struck by the contrast between their side of the camera and ours: their kids sat quietly in front of the computer, asking questions and listening to the answers, replying thoughtfully when we asked about school or swim team. Our kids squirmed and pinched and made rabbit ears and talked over each other and didn’t listen to anything anyone else said. Eventually we had to pull two of them out at a time, and rotate them in so that everyone could have a decent conversation.
And that’s just the beginning, really. The other day Ellen and Lucy came home from Lucy’s After School Activity (baking), and Lucy was sent straight to her room for the rest of the day. This is not something we do often—in fact, in the nine years we’ve had munchkins in the house, I can only remember it happening three times, and two of them were for me. But apparently Lucy had spent most of the journey home doing exactly the opposite of what her mother had asked her to do. In Lexington, where we live in the States, this isn’t such a big deal: the biggest threat there is being nudged by a lazy dog laying down. In Hong Kong, though—and even Tai Po—the consequences for not paying attention to Mom or Dad could be devastating: two weeks ago, in the middle of a busy MTR station in the Central district, Lucy hauled out her Octopus card and went through the turnstiles herself while we were busy getting Jamie out of his stroller. Five more feet and she would have been down the escalator, and I don’t know how we would have found her again. And she did this despite the approximately 2,478,592 times we’ve told her, “When we’re in a crowd, stick with us.” We’ve even said please.
For the rest of the taxi ride, the kids are pretty good, less because they want to be than because I’ve sandwiched myself between them, making a point of throwing an elbow or two as I did so, because yes, I did learn my parenting skills from Charles Barkley.
When we finally get to Sai Kung, it’s a delight. There’s a huge harbor filled with boats of all shapes and sizes, from massive blindingly white yachts to a scull maybe twenty yards long with nine pairs of rowers, each with a paddle, stroking in synch. My favorite were these relatively new looking house boats that’d been designed to look like Chinese junks: dark wood, high prows, cabins with narrow windows. If I were a billionaire and didn’t spew my lunch every time I stepped on water, these are exactly the kind of boats I would buy. I still might, only with a double-sized toilet for easier aim.
For HK$10 each, (about a buck thirty), we take an old ferry to the beach. One of the many things I love about Hong Kong is that they’ve managed to keep so many of the old forms of transportation. Sure, they’ve torn down whole blocks of old buildings and replaced them with stunningly ugly high-rise flats that look exactly like the stunningly ugly high-rise flats right across the street. But on the way from your stunningly ugly high-rise flat in Hung Hom to your stunningly ugly high-rise office in Wan Chai, you can take a classic, coal powered Star Ferry, just like the ones your grandfather and his mistress used to take all those years ago. These are wide and airy, with a huge 10-foot circumference chimney in the middle, making you feel like fiddlers and Irish dancers will show up any minute. Even when the harbor is rough, these ferries make you feel somehow warm and safe.
And when you get off the ferry, you can get on a classic, double-decker, trolley car just like the one your grandmother and her lover/gardner took after she dumped your grandpa’s sorry ass and took up painting, gourmet wines, and men 20 years younger than her, not necessarily in that order. The trolleys are skinny—only three seats wide—and cozy, with low ceilings and narrow staircases. If you’re lucky enough to get the front seats on the top floor, you get a view of the city that is, I’m sorry, but there’s no other word: delightful. Almost dizzyingly so. You’re one floor up, lifted above the onrush of passersby and trucks and taxis. As a result, the pace of Hong Kong seems to slow down and you can actually take things in, the lines of tall glass and steel, the rich and stylish in their cashmere and diamonds, the expensive cars sliding inches from each other in the narrow streets.
The Star Ferries and the trolleys are all wonderfully clean and well-maintained, and all of them are kept in vintage condition. The seats are smooth and wooden, the sashes varnished pine, the ceilings also pine, also varnished, sometime in a herringbone pattern, sometimes not.
Similarly, the ferry we’re on now is ringed with wooden benches and trimmed with shiny old pine. The air is thick with the smell of diesel—which, in this context, is more nostalgic than gagging. There are blue ferries and yellow ferries, and you have to be sure to remember your color so you can take the same company back. At the front of each ferry hangs a tire so thick that it must come from a dragster: when the ferryman reaches the dock, he nudges it gently, then throttles the boat forward, holding it flush against the concrete, so that passengers can step from the boat, onto the tire, then onto the wharf.
We cruise past the yachts in the harbor and around a bend, and then come up to Trio beach. Ever seen one of those commercials where thick palm trees lean over white sand, with waves crashing beneath an impossibly blue sky? Well, this was just like that. Except for the waves. And the palm trees. And the sky is sort of hazy, more in a humid way than a polluted way, but it definitely isn’t blue, much less impossible.
The sand, though, is white and fine. And geez, it’s a nice beach: isolated, almost empty. The water’s cool and relatively clear by Hong Kong standards, dropping off quickly so you can swim to two anchored rafts. Which we do. And we collect sea glass. And shells. I spend as much time as I can underwater, completely submerged and not feeling sweaty for the first time in 2 months. Will has his goggles with him and he spends all day face down in the water, collecting cool shells. When we finally leave five hours later, he’s actually paler than when he’d come.
But we’re not there yet. First we have to eat lunch, then we have to lather each other in sun screen. Lucy fusses over lunch, taking longer to eat a peanut butter and jelly sandwich than humanly possible. Seriously, a quadriplegic sloth would have been faster than she was—and still had enough time leftover to write me a letter about insulting the handicapped, not to mention sloths.
Other than that, though, the day is splendid. There’s a breeze, the other people on the beach are nice, the water feels good. We even go upstairs to the snack bar to get some ice cream.
Which, of course, is where the spaghetti hits the fan.
I don’t know what I was thinking, buying them a Fanta. There is so much wrong in that simple phrase, “a Fanta.” The “a” for one: why would I buy one soda for two kids? Then there’s the bigger question: why would I buy soda for our kids? I mean seriously, these are kids who were raised in such a Little Home on the Prairie dork-fest way (A dad who teaches Dickens, and a mom who edits semi-colons? Did they ever have a chance?)—these kids were raised in such a dorky way that they still believe that the worst possible punishment you can receive is to not be allowed to read stories before bed. Really: they get to keep their allowances, we let them have their supper, none of their stuffed toys are banished to the closet. But no stories!
So soda? Not in our home. Not until last spring, when some idiot at some party somewhere gave them a root beer. From then on, every time we went to the grocery store, the gas station, a restaurant, anyplace where there’s a vending machine—even the health-food store where the only sodas are made from tree roots and the yellowish, pulpy berries imported from Bolivia—anytime, in short, that we went anywhere, it was all about the root beer.
And of course we gave in. Because we’re good parents. With no spines. Who like large dental bills and children with brown teeth.
Anyhow, there we are at the refreshment kiosk on Trio beach. All of the ice cream has run out. It’s the end of the season, so no point in ordering refills. Besides, most of the people on the beach are flabby gwilos and gwipos who don’t need any help from frozen dairy products. So I buy two bags of chips and an orange Fanta for Will and Lucy to share.
And then it begins.
“Will! I didn’t get any!”
“You had it for 10 seconds.”
“No I didn’t!”
“Well eight then. It’s my turn now.” Will has just touched his mouth to the straw when Lucy jerks the can away. “Hey!”
“That was ten. I counted.”
“You can’t count!”
To which Lucy responds only by planting her lips around the end of the straw and attempting to inhale an entire can of orange soda in one gulp.
“Lucy!” Will shouts.
“Will!” Lucy screams back.
Aaaaaaaaaaaagh! In an instant, the can is out of their hands and arching through the air. Whump! It hits the back inside wall of the trashcan and falls bottom up, leaking sugary neon orange liquid all over a discarded copy of the South China Morning Post.
They both look at me. So do the two Chinese couples at the tables near the balcony, their assortment of small children sitting beside them, quietly sipping some sort of sugarless fluid that actually makes teeth grow stronger (I think it starts with an “M,” but I wouldn’t know).
“What’d you do that for?” Will asks.
I hiss, “Because murder is illegal!”
They look at me, not quite sure how to respond. I give them each a tap on the shoulder, and we head down the stairs, back to the sand. Ellen gives me a questioning look and I just shake my head. I’m angry of course, but also embarrassed—for my kids, for myself. I think again about that taxi driver, and his face in the rear view mirror. And then I think about the driver of the bus, who glanced back when Lucy started to weep because Will could see the whole TV screen showing the view behind the bus, and she could only see 9 and 98/100ths of it. And I think about the people on the train who didn’t so much stare at Will and Lucy doing their pole dances as gaze disinterestedly in a constant, silently judgmental way.
Now it’s entirely possible that some of you might be thinking, “Oh puh-lease! Surely you care more about your kids than you do about the opinions of strangers?”
No, not really.
Actually, that’s not true. Of course we do: this is why we never stopped Lucy from going to pre-school dressed in seven different shades of pink, plaids with stripes, and shorts over tights—all on the same day. And this is why, when Jamie sometimes insists that we give him a little Pebbles pony-tail using a pink hair band on the top of his head, we do it.
But honestly? We do care what the Chinese think. Ellen and I have both lived abroad before and we’re both aware of the way Americans are perceived—sometimes justly, sometimes not—as loud and clueless and pushy and socially inept—and that’s just talking about Brittany Spears. Neither of us wants to reinforce that model and we don’t want our kids to either. More to the point, I think we both take pleasure in behaving in such a way that we’re able to stuff that stereotype in people’s faces. Talk about passive aggressive.
And too, remember where we live: in Tai Po we are usually the only white folk walking around. Talk about pressure. True, we’re not the only Anglos the Tai Puddlians will likely see that day (Yes, I did just make up that term), but at any given moment we’re the only Anglos at the market or in the park or waiting for the bus or sitting on the bus or eating in the restaurant or riding the train. And when the only Anglos riding the train include two kids acting like Demi Moore in that really bad movie where she flashes her silicon-stuffed chest, then we’ve got a problem.
That said, as someone gently reminded me the other day when I was whining about one or another of the little buggers, it’s all about how you frame it: is your daughter hyper, or just full of love and excitement? Is your son rigid, or just very comfortable with who he is and what his limits are? Is your wife unloving and cold, or just sick of you eating an entire chocolate cheesecake and then crawling into bed and murmuring, “My burps taste like marzipan. Wanna smell one?”
And when you reconsider this particular moment, this particular day, from another angle, what you get is two kids who like each other and trust each other and are excited about going to the beach and express all of this by—how else?—smacking each other on the arm.
But I have to tell you something: that sort of re-angling is good and easy when you’ve had a nice cup of coffee and you’re sitting in your nice comfy home with your favorite books on the shelves and your cat Barfy the Dog and your plants and everything else you’ve accumulated in the last nine years snug and safe around you.
And it’s entirely something else when you’re 8,000 miles from that home and sometimes just going to the grocery store and buying pork chops requires more psychic energy than you can muster.
Fortunately for us, there are moments like the following:
At 4:00 we start to pack up our stuff. It’s cooling off and the skin of our faces feels tight from all that saltwater and sun. After showers and changes of clothes, we call the blue ferry and take it back to the pier in Sai Kung. We walk around for a bit, checking out the restaurant options, then settle on Thai, as it’s something everyone likes. Sure enough, Will finds a chicken dish that sounds interesting and orders it. Lucy gets her usual Pad Thai. We order something simple for Jamie, I can’t remember what, something with squid and basil pepper sauce I think.
Anyhow, we’re munching away, everyone quietly dazed from a day in the sun, when a family of five walks into the restaurant. They’re Chinese, at least ethnically, but the two older kids—who could be twins, around 6 or 7—both speak fluent American English. They take the table behind us, and almost immediately the ruckus starts.
“It didn’t break,” a small, bold voice says.
My back is to their table, but I manage to catch a glimpse of a dinner plate laying on the tile of the patio.
“How many times,” his mother says, “do I have to tell you not to play with your dishes?”
“You never told me that.”
“Yes I—You know I—you know you shouldn’t play with stuff like that. Leave it on the table.”
“But mom,” he says, and I can hear his twin sister snigger, “you never told me that.”
“Nathan,” his mom begins, and then her voice fade, and we lose track of the conversation for a while.
I’m happily munching on Jamie’s spicy squid salad—after his eyes started to water and flames shot from his nose, he decided he didn’t like it—when I hear: “Get down from there!”
Will is staring over my shoulder, eyes wide, so I start to sneak another look, just as the father says, “Sit down in your seat! You know you’re not supposed to—“ and I turn around and think Holy crap. That kid is standing on the table.
“—stand on the table!” his father finishes.
Which isn’t entirely accurate. Actually the toddler is walking. On the table. With his feet. On the table. Past the butter dish. Toward the salt shaker. He couldn’t have been more than two—but even so. On the table.
“Thomas,” says his mother, “get down from there this minute!”
I glance at Ellen and she raises her eyebrows. I’m feeling a little smug inside, I have to admit. After all, my little angels are sitting quietly in their plates munching on their noodles and chicken and watching the drama unfold. True, they just spent 7 hours in the hot sun, running, swimming, diving, swimming, running. They couldn’t have been more lethargic if I’d dunked their little heads in Nyquil. But even so. They’re not walking on the table!
We finish our dinner, get the bill, and begin shuttling the kids to and from the bathroom, one at a time, before the long taxi ride to the long train ride to the short taxi ride that will take us home. I’m just squeezing the leftovers into my backpack, when I hear a loud POP! followed by the tinkle of glass over pavement. Behind me, there erupts a tumble of shouting, swearing, and crying.
“What happened?” I say to Ellen, who’s just strolled up and must have seen the whole thing.
She grips my arm, just above the elbow and shoves the backpack into my hands. “He threw a glass over the balcony,” she hisses in my ear.
“Who—? I—” I start to turn to get a better look, but she shooshes me and Jamie out of our chairs and in a moment all five of us are on the street. Behind us we hear scolding and arguing and a baby crying and two smaller voices pointing blame.
Ellen’s grinning. And I am too, I realize. Broadly. Almost painfully. We hail a cab and pretty soon we’re buzzing off toward Ma On Shan and the train station. I’m in the backseat again, and Lucy and Will are sitting dazed and exhausted beside me. On my lap, Jamie’s already almost asleep. The harbor is folding off into the distance on our right as the taxi picks up speed and a cool breeze drifts through the window.
“Hey,” I say to the kids. I want them to notice the deep violet sky, the crescent moon rising over the water. I want them to feel what I’m feeling right now—a sort of calm, buzzed satisfaction. “Hey,” I say again. But neither of them notices, their lids drooping, their bodies slack.
“You guys,” I say for the third time. Then I reach over and grab a bit of Lucy’s arm. And give it a pinch.