From a young age, I experienced many moves. The first international move, which took us from Sugar Land to Hong Kong, took place in 1994. The listing agent working on behalf of my parents came by our house. I remember my mother and father handing over the garage door openers to the realtor — various details were to be hammered out before their first successful listing.
The realtor asked me if I was excited about the move. I responded, “Yes,” in that eager way that children do.
“You’re so lucky to be going there. Have fun in Hong Kong,” she said.
What followed was an experience similar yet different from life that I had seen in the United States.
In Hong Kong, we lived in an high-rise apartment building nestled in Repulse Bay. Our address: 101 Repulse Bay Road, Repulse Bay, Hong Kong. I liked this place because it was located by a beautiful beach. Our balcony overlooked the beach and the bay. The school that I attended, Hong Kong International School, was also housed in a tall building. Hong Kong had long been developing skyward, whereas the city of Houston continues to sprawl out to this day.
We owned a car over there, but seldom used it. When I accompanied my mother on shopping trips, we would take a double-decker bus to the market, or walk over to the Welcome nearest our apartment building. The pungent smells of the market were unmistakeable: I would catch whiffs of that same sort again when we lived in Kuala Lumpur some years later.
It was at that point in my life that I first started stealing, a most pernicious pastime that I did not fully shake until the senior year of high school. On shopping trips to Welcome with my mother, I would stop by the various vending machines, filled with brightly colored little toys that appealed to little boys. It became a habit to ask her for some change to put into these machines, such that I might exchange the coins for a bouncy ball or another trivial thing.
These machines were rewarding because you never quite knew what you were going to get.
I was also quite fond of Kinder Eggs. For those who aren’t aware, these are milk chocolate eggs — approximately the size of a real egg — wrapped in a thin layer of foil. Within each Kinder Egg is a small prize for the lucky consumer. I loved Kinder Eggs even more than I enjoyed the toy vending machines, though you certainly wouldn’t find a bouncy ball inside of a Kinder Egg.
My mother was responsible in denying me some of these pleasures. The Marukawa bubble gum that I favored for its cloying sweetness and real fruit flavor, bags of Lay’s potato chips, and other snacks sometimes found their way into her shopping cart, but sometimes I would be left for want.
So I started getting sneaky. My mother kept her black leather purse out of my little arm’s reach, within a large closet. I found, however, that I could climb the shelves without so much as making a noise. While my mother was napping, I would stealthily retrieve her purse, extract from it some money, and then return the lightened purse to its original place.
I would take this ill-gotten money to the store, where I would use it to pay for the treats that I wanted most. Once, I came back home with a mostly finished bag of potato chips. My mother asked, “Where did you get those potato chips?” and I told her that I had bought them from Welcome. She must have noticed that money had been vanishing from her purse, but left that matter alone for the time being. To my credit, I believe that I reduced the frequency of my visits to her purse, or perhaps they were curtailed by my mother’s remarkable ability to make things disappear from my prying eyes and climbing hands.
My father got involved after I started getting clumsy about cleaning up after myself. At home, I had access to a small desk, which I would use for my writing and reading. I had gotten into the habit of lifting those 25¢ packs of Wrigley’s chewing gum from Welcome and leaving the foil on my desk. Evidence of my thieving activities was piling up. One day, my father confronted me about the chewing gum. Where had it come from, he asked? How was I, a little boy, getting chewing gum?
I admitted to him that I had been stealing the chewing gum from Welcome. My father was disappointed at me, but I don’t recall him ever beating me over this. He may have slapped my hand, but corporeal punishment — unless it leaves scars — tends to fade fast from my memory.
I do vividly recall him taking me down to the Welcome with my half-consumed package of Juicy Fruit, requesting to speak to the manager, and having me apologize to the man for what I had done. I felt ashamed and unsure of what would come as a result of my transgression, but the manager kind of smiled at me and told me that it was okay, though I shouldn’t do this again. I was entirely relieved when he offered me a pack of gum — this I wasn’t allowed to take. By the spring, I had gone back to surreptitiously picking the ears off of a milk chocolate easter bunny while my mom wheeled her shopping cart down another aisle.
One very interesting thing about Hong Kong International School was the fact that, while there, I learned of stories from the Bible. From a young age, I had been exposed to Christian church life. The time at HKIS was a continuation of that experience.
In class, I was surrounded by a fairly diverse group of children. There were expatriate families from all over the world. We had little desks which were pushed together in clusters of four, a scheduled nap time, little books to read, and really nice teachers. Recess was awesome: the teachers could always find me playing in the sandbox with my friend girl Holly Y. I made friends and had a jolly good time.
One of my closest friends was Yaariv R, a boy from Israel. He wore thick glasses, which made him stand out amongst the other children. Another was Robert N, a little white American boy. He also wore glasses.
My mother would attend my school events. Those were the only times that I would see her wearing lipstick. I remember her just being there, sometimes, with other parents. We have many photos and videos from that time, and they’re quite entertaining to watch for me, even though I’ve seen them so many times before.
Life in Hong Kong was remarkable because I remember there always being so much to see and do. There was stimulation all about us. It was a sensory experience that I am glad to have had at that young age. To wake up one morning and look out at the ocean from the balcony to catch sight of a massive junk, floating serenely out in the bay, was a treat which I will never forget.
To write so much without mentioning my father is kind of odd, but I suppose it’s to do with the relative amount of time that I spent with each of my parents at that time. What I knew was that he had a nice-smelling office very high up in a building called Central Plaza. This building was especially beautiful to walk into at Christmas time. In that building, there was a vending machine, from which I scored at the very least two grape Fantas.
My father was also involved in my schooling. He saw to it that I became a Tiger Scout in the Cub Scouts of America. Together we engaged in all manner of activities, including an overnight campout. He told me that he made the arrangements for our Den during that year’s overnight campout. I can hardly remember it now, but at the time I think I was beside myself with enjoyment.
We shared a lot of good times together as a family. Frequent outings to the beach, the swimming pool, and repeat visits to Ocean Park fill my childhood memory. I enjoyed sleepovers at my friends’ homes, and it seemed that there was no shortage of wonderful people in my life. There were some scares: my little baby sister once wandered out too far into the surf and found herself being sucked away from my mother, my brother, and me; our maid had a fainting episode, which alarmed us and led to her going back to the Philippines for some months; and I got separated from my parents at Toys ‘R Us at least once.
At that young age, there were plenty of firsts to be remembered. In 1995, my father took me to go see the USS Abraham Lincoln while it made port call. The Nimitz class aircraft carrier was magnificent; the crew referred to it as a floating city. Massive elevators carried entire aircraft to and from the flight deck. That visit also started a lifelong fascination with aviation.
My family left Hong Kong in 1996, a year before the British crown returned it to the People’s Republic of China. The next stop: Shanghai.