It’s a Friday in February, and I’m standing in Kowloon Park off of Nathan Road, watching Jamie running from play set to play set, whizzing down slides, swinging from swings, twisting dials and knobs and over-sized tic-tac-toe Xs and Os. No one, when they found out we had three kids, said to us, “Oh, you have to go to Kowloon Park! It’s a great park!” This is surprising because Kowloon Park is, indeed, a great park: set smack dab in the middle of the busiest part of the peninsula, it’s a world unto itself. You can see the skyscrapers, sure, but they might as well be a thousand miles away for all they impose their presence amidst the tall green trees, the cobbled walkways bordered with flowers, the mazes, the sculpture gardens, the pond full of flamingoes. There’s an aviary there, with parrots the size of chickens and these crazy double-beaked birds—the second beak inverted on the first—that simultaneously fascinate and horrify me.
And there’s a huge playground. Which Jamie is now making the most of, trying out every climbing wall there is, straddling the bouncy animals and cars set up on over-sized springs. Every 10 minutes or so he’ll circle back to where I am, trying to see if I’ll give him more candy. It’s the week before the Chinese New Year, you see, and every third stall at the market overflows with bins of candy wrapped in red, yellow, and green foil. Before leaving Tai Po that morning, Jamie and I had stopped at our favorite dried fruits stall and bought a pound of mixed. Now we’re working our way through the bag, trying to remember which ones are fruit-flavored, which are salty, which can hardly be called “candy” they’re so much like dried pork.
I hate playgrounds. This is one of my many weird, childhood associated quirks: I hate playgrounds, I hate circuses, and anything vaguely resembling a day camp sends me searching for a noose. I’m not sure why this is, but I suspect I was the sort of child that didn’t respond well to being pressured. And playgrounds, with their bright colors and faux castle mini-architecture, seem to scream: “This is fun! Have fun! If you can’t have fun here, you might as well hire a lawyer now, because sooner or later you’re taking a high-powered rifle to work!” I just can’t take it.
Today, though, I’m perfectly happy to be at the playground with Jamie. Earlier that morning, we’d gone to the Hong Kong History Museum and learned about the opium wars and the Japanese occupation. Now, we’re at the park, ignoring the winter gray sky by pretending we’re pirates or airplane pilots, or gorillas, or whatever image it is racing through Jamie’s head. In another few hours, we’ll stroll north along Nathan road, into the Jordan area, which will be an absolute blast. Eventually Jamie will fall asleep in the stroller, and I’ll push him along the moist sidewalks, beneath neon signs fighting the gloam to announce “Man Paradise: Enjoy Yourself,” and “Cyber-Sauna.” For the life of me, I have no idea what this last one means, but it sounds like a great way to get electrocuted.
I will buy some T-shirts, stroll through an old-fashioned Chinese department store searching for a chess set with real stone pieces (no luck; nothing but plastic). I will buy some pastries for an afternoon snack, and get one of those tea/fruit drinks with the little black jell-O things in the bottom (just as confusing as the cyber-sauna, though hopefully less deadly). Eventually, the sky will begin to darken and the streets will fill with people hurrying from work to the nearest MTR station. And Jamie and I will head for home, satisfied with our day.
When my host institution asked me to take on some additional duties, I agreed to do so under three circumstances: I would be appropriately compensated, I would have enough staff, and I could maintain a flexible schedule. I didn’t need this work, after all: I already had a job. And I would be an idiot to pull my family up, drag them half-way around the world, and spend all my time in an office, leaving 10 months later having seen only a tiny bit of Hong Kong. I had no doubt I could complete my work: I’m an efficient worker—OCD can be useful that way. And as long as all my work got done, I saw no reason why I shouldn’t spend some time exploring this particular corner of the world.
So once or twice a month, Ellen would go off to swim and Jamie and I would head out into the city, armed with a red stroller, a bunch of granola bars, and at least one peanutbutter and jelly sandwich with the crusts cut off.
We visited Tai Wai and the Hong Kong heritage museum, where we learned about Cantonese opera; we went to Chi Lin Nunnery not once, but twice, drawn by the amazing architecture, the lush green ponds, the low chanting; on the Island, we spent a morning in the Tea Museum, then spent the afternoon in Hong Kong park, where we saw pelicans the size of ponies with flexible beaks that they could turn inside-out over their own heads—a skill, I realized watching them, that I’ve always wanted for myself.
We spent one very rainy Monday riding the trolley cars as far east as we could before lunch, then as far west as possible in the afternoon. This last one had long been a fantasy of mine—I love the double-decker trolleys, with their veneered wooden trim, their narrow staircases, their single-paned windows that keep out the cool breeze but not the rain. And it was fun, though I have to admit that after a while the hard plastic seats got a little old.
That this year has been a real gift is obvious. That one of the most important ways it’s been a gift was by giving us another son perhaps requires a bit more elaboration.
Part of what I’m talking about is simply age related. Jamie was 32-months-old when we arrived in Hong Kong. He would walk, talk, and—well, that was pretty much it. Personality wise, he was cute and funny, but essentially an animated loaf of bread. During our time here, he passed from baby to toddler, shifting from object to subject: there was a real human being in there, and watching him emerge was a blast.
So that’s part of what I mean when I say that being in Hong Kong gave us another son. But there’s this other part, too:
I was 41 when Jamie was born. Ellen was nearly 40. In educational terms, he was what could be referred to as an “unintended outcome,” which is to say that he happened, yes, even if we hadn’t necessarily, um, planned for him to happen.
This is not to say that his outcoming, so to speak, was necessarily a bad thing—on the contrary, unintended outcomes are often the things that instructors most enjoy about their classes. This is just to point out that we’re neither Catholic nor gluttons for punishment, nor getting any younger or more energetic. We are, on the contrary, incredibly lazy and incredibly practical when it comes to things like, oh, being able to sleep at night, not having more kids than we can afford to feed, and not attending high school graduations at an age when, as you’re heading out of the house, your wife turns to you and says, “Did you bring the extra batteries for your hearing aid?”
But these things happen. And of course, within a year or two of Jamie’s being born, we decided we might as well give up pretending he didn’t exist and actually love him.
Joke. Seriously. Sorry, grandma.
In actuality, of course, we were smitten the minute he emerged from the womb, pink and gooey and looking vaguely miffed. Nonetheless, it’s worth pointing out that, for some large portion of his first few years, we occasionally forgot he existed. This isn’t to say we were horrible parents: we never left him in the car at the end of a long day of running errands; we fed and clothed him, cuddled with him before putting him to bed; he’s the only of our three children to whom we sang lullabies every nights, something for which he will likely never forgive us.
But the reality of our lives was that we already had two children. And they kept us very busy. Particularly as one of them was a Lucy.
You heard me: when faced with Will’s math homework, Jamie’s fascination with the bubbles coming out of his nose, and Lucy’s crawling onto the kitchen counter to get the butcher knife so that she could use the handle to knock the matches off the top of the refrigerator, and, it’s not hard to imagine where we put most of our attention.
As it turns out, ignoring Jamie seems to have been a pretty good parenting technique. The fact is, he the most independent of our kids, insisting at the age of three that he can brush his own teeth, that he can make his own PBJ sandwiches. He already knows how to turn on the VCR, where to find the spring water in the refrigerator, and how to make a nice roux for the Thanksgiving gravy. The day he disassembled our malfunctioning vacuum cleaner and reassembled it perfectly, Ellen and I looked at each other, wondering why we hadn’t been smart enough to ignore the rest of our kids as well.
So beyond getting to know the little human Jamie is becoming, we’re getting to know the little human we’ve been ignoring. This was particularly true for Ellen, of course, who spent roughly 167.5 out of 168 hours a week in Jamie’s presence: he came with her to the bus stop with Lucy and Will, to the grocery store to get mango juice, to the temple to, well, see a temple, to the malls in Sha Tin and Kowloon Tong to pick up clothes, or good bread, or cheese. They went to the playground together almost daily, ate lunch together always, cuddled at night before he went to sleep.
I, meanwhile, got whole days trolling around Hong Kong, chatting to the little blonde head in the stroller below me, listening to his questions: “Can we take a taxi, can we?” “Why can’t we take a taxi, why?” “Can I have a snack, can I?” That I never had this kind of opportunity with the other two kids goes without saying: when I’m in the States, I occasionally avoid my 1-hour commute by working at home, but then I’m forced by a tight teaching schedule to actually work, rather than searching for the best dumpling shop in Lexington Virginia (a search that would, trust me, take a very long time). The result of all of this was that I got to watch as my little loaf of bread developed a personality.
And what a personality. If Will is the kid most likely to marry a fundamentalist Christian who won’t let us see our grandchildren, and Lucy is most likely to get a tattoo before the age of 10, Jamie is most likely to become a professional surfer who accidently invents something that makes him a trillion dollars, which he then blows throwing a big party for all of his friends. Jamie goes with the flow. Sure, on occasion he gets a little huffy with his sister (like, for instance, after she pokes him six times with a sharp stick), but even on the rare occasion where his eyes become rimmed with red and he unbuckles those huge lungs of his and bellows until the mortar falls from the bricks, within a minute or two he’s over it and has moved on to the next thing.
And he’s funny. On father’s day, I went to the pool with the kids, then worked out for an hour, trying to shake off some of the stuffed duck we’d had for dinner the night before. Back at the flat, I stretched out on the couch and closed my eyes. Will curled up by my legs, book in hand, so quiet the only time I knew he was there was when he turned a page. I was just drifting off, when I felt someone climb onto the couch alongside my torso. I kept my eyes shut, hoping whoever or whatever it was would go away and let me sink into oblivion. No such luck, though; whatever presence this was remained beside me.
I opened my eyes.
A pair of gigantic blue pupils hovered inches from my face.
“Heh!” laughed Jamie. He was grinning. “Heh heh!”
Jamie still doesn’t talk much. When he does, he’s still a little hard to understand. And he has this weird linguistic hitch, which sounds vaguely French if you ask me, of repeating his question words. Most of the time, truth be told, he communicates through clicks and giggles, like an insane R2-D2.
“Hi,” I say to the gigantic blue pupils.
“Heh!” he says again. The skin around his eyes is crinkled.
“I’m trying to sleep,” I say.
“Hee, hee!” he says.
“You’re cute,” I say.
“Huh, huh, huh.”
“But I’m tired.”
A huge, bemused grin. He’s staring into my eyes intently, as though watching his reflection in my corneas.
“So maybe you could go away?”
He flat out laughs.
Other times, he’s funny without even trying. There was the rainy Monday morning in January, for instance, when he and I took Will and Lucy to school. Just before leaving, I checked my computer and discovered that the Packers were losing to the Cardinals in the playoffs by something like 27 points at half-time.
It was not a fun morning.
It got even worse when Jamie and I returned to the flat to discover that Ellen was still swimming and I didn’t have my keys. It was pouring rain, maybe 40 degrees out, and we had a good 45 minutes to wait.
Later, Jamie said to Ellen, “Why did Daddy say ‘God damn it,’ why?”
And just last week, he asked her, “Why did Daddy break the umbrella? Why?”
Then there was the time, maybe a month ago, when Jamie discovered Lucy in the bathroom, attending to private business. He was, himself, in the midst of a good streak with potty behavior (don’t ask), and had just that day received a lot of praise and a handful of M&Ms and Tic Tacs, in the vain hope that these would induce him toward a repeat performance for the next—well, for the rest of his life.
Discovering Lucy on the toilet, the door opened, he shouted down the hall, “Lucy’s pooing!”
He glanced at her, making sure he had his facts straight before delivering another update: “It’s really amazing!”
And he’s smart, our little guy. The other day he and Ellen were on a double-decker bus, riding down to Central. Halfway there, he turned to his mother and said, “Is this the 307?”
Ellen nodded, impressed. They’d only been on the bus once before, as opposed to the 26 and the 275, which we take roughly 6,211 times a week.
Jamie thought for a minute, then said, “Is it yellow?”
Ellen had to pause. She couldn’t remember. “We’ll have to wait until we get off,” she said. “Then we can see.”
They rode for another 20 minutes or so, passing cranes near the harbor and brightly painted apartments and office complexes. Eventually they came to the eastern tunnel and went under, then rode along the north edge of the island to Wan Chai. Reaching their stop, they descended the stairs and climbed out into the humid, June air.
Ellen paused, taking a moment to get her bearings. But Jamie stepped further along the curb, leaning forward to see the front of the bus.
“It is yellow,” he said. “And it’s the 307.”
As good as his memory is, he’s soon to be in for a bit of a shock: in slightly more than a month, we’ll pull into the driveway of our blue house on Houston St. in Lexington Virginia. Unlocking the door, we’ll step into a living room hasn’t registered on his 44-month-old brain. He won’t, to put it another way, remember his own home, his own room, the bathroom where we hang his monkey towel.
He knows it, too. We were on a bus the other day, heading down to University Station to catch a train that would take us to another train that would take us to—I don’t even remember where.
But there we were on the shuttle bus, and Jamie was quizzing Lucy about this fictional “house” thing he’d been hearing so much about lately:
“Do we have horses,” he’d say, “do we?”
“No,” Lucy would say.
“Do we have kitties, do we?”
“Do we have birdies, do we?”
“Outside we do. But not inside.”
“Do we have tape?”
“Yes, we have tape.”
“Do we have scissors there, do we?”
So he’s unfolding. Sometimes his tone of voice is surprisingly grown-up, not unusual for third children, I assume. The other week Lucy did something that mildly annoyed him, and he marched around for half-an-hour, saying, “Lucy: I am very angry. Lucy: I am very angry with you.”
A lot of this is just imitation, of course: these are words his mother would say (as opposed to his dad who, well, you know . . . ). And a lot of what he does these days is imitation. He has learned from his brother and sister, for instance, the fine art of bug spotting: walking down the hill to catch the 26 every morning, he’ll sit in his stroller, pointing to this butterfly or that spider or that creeping, crawling snail.
He especially loves the snails, especially the tiny ones, loves to hold them on his finger and let them crawl towards his palm. One day, we walked all the way down the hill, got on the bus, rode it to old Tai Po, got off, strolled to the meeting place for the shuttle bus, waved off Lucy and Will, then turned around, strolling up Kwong Fuk Road to our favorite newsvendor, where we picked up a copy of the South China Morning Post.
After that, we trundled across the intersection, ducking up the pedestrian walkway to Jamie’s favorite little playground. I grabbed a custard bao along the way, and stopped at 7-11 to fill up my Octopus card. Then I came pushed Jamie’s stroller up the ramp to the playground, and urged him out.
He didn’t move.
I waited a moment, wiping the sweat off my brow, and looking around. As usual, the benches around the play area were filled with old men chatting in the shade. Two or three of them had their socks off, their feet up by their haunches.
“Jamie,” I said, “time to go play.”
Again, he didn’t move.
“Jamie,” I said—and then stopped. Leaning over, I tried to get a better angle on his right hand.
“What is that?”
He gave me a sidelong glance, not guilty, more concerned with not moving too much. “A nail.”
And sure enough, perched on his finger, was a tiny snail, the size of a bug.
“Where did you get that?” I said.
Again, that sidelong glance. And then he turned back to his treasure, gave one of those clicking giggles. “It’s mine,” he said. “Mine.”