Chapter 16

Hong Kong : 2004


The Airport Express doors opened onto a quiet and empty train platform with clean, glossy floors. Walter wheeled his bag out to the exit gates, where he saw his younger brother Emmanuel and Emmanuel’s youngest daughter April, now fifteen, waiting for him on the other side.

“Oldest Brother,” Emmanuel said in Cantonese. “How are you? Are you hungry?”

“No, at the airport I ate congee,” Walter said. He hugged Emmanuel and patted April on the shoulder. “How are you, April? How’s school?”

“Okay,” April said.

“Where are Mom and Dad?” Walter asked Emmanuel.

“They’re at home with Kitty,” Emmanuel said, referring to his wife. “Since you ate already, let’s just go home and rest, and then we can all meet Troy and Cherie at noon for dim sum.” Troy was Walter’s youngest brother, and Cherie was Troy’s wife. They had a son and a daughter, Thomas and Ada, aged fifteen and thirteen, respectively. Emmanuel had two other daughters, Emily, twenty, a student at Cambridge, and Allie, seventeen.

Emmanuel took the handle of Walter’s bag from him and wheeled it outside and to the taxi stand. A red cab pulled up, and Emmanuel opened the trunk and put Walter’s bag inside. April got into the back seat and sat in the middle. She took out her phone, a pink razor, and started texting in Chinese. Her father went around to the far side, and Walter went in after April and closed the door. Emmanuel gave the taxi driver his address in Cantonese, and then switched to English.

“Is everything okay at your company right now?” Emmanuel said. “All of our pharmaceutical clients are restructuring their sales and marketing operations. It’s good news for our life sciences division, a lot of interest in emerging markets from the big players now, but I guess that comes at the expense of somewhere else in the budget.”

Emmanuel was a management consultant with an international firm. He wasn’t stupid. He’d put two and two together. Walter suddenly buying a ticket to Hong Kong after what had happened on November 2? However, no way was he telling his younger brother that on the Friday after election day, Walter had been called into 220 South Wacker by Jack Jaffrey and Felicia Wright, Fenniskrante’s (black) senior vice president of Human Resources, and been “offered” an early retirement package.

“Oh, it’s just a lot of to-do about nothing,” Walter said. “It happens every six years or so. It happened at the beginning of the internet boom, and when the first big TV ads went on air. Everyone always goes into a panic—‘It’s the end! We’re obsolete!’ All of that Arthur Miller b.s.”

Emmanuel nodded and sat back in his seat.

Walter looked outside the cab window. They were stalled at a traffic light in Central, Hong Kong’s central business district. Plainly coiffed Chinese people in business attire waited at bus stops in front of ads for French perfume and Italian handbags. It was bright and sunny, seventy degrees Fahrenheit according to the flight attendant who’d announced their arrival that morning. If Walter took Fenniskrante’s early retirement package, which included a healthy pension and lifetime health insurance coverage, he could move back here and get a one-bedroom apartment on the same road as his parents and brothers. No more Chicago winters; no more shoveling a driveway caked in ice. The thought, for some reason, made Walter want to cry.

Although Troy was a trader at J.P. Morgan and therefore even more well-off than the solidly upper-middle-class Emmanuel, Walter’s parents, Orson and Patricia Choo, lived with Emmanuel’s family.

Emmanuel’s apartment was a two-thousand-square-feet four-bedroom, which was large by Hong Kong standards. The living room was quiet and empty when Emmanuel opened the door. He waited for Walter to go inside before following him with Walter’s suitcase. April quickly took off her shoes and hurried into her room.

“You’ll sleep in Emily’s room,” Emmanuel said in Cantonese.

He walked Walter down the hall, past the bedroom where April was sitting at her desk with her knees pulled up to her chest playing chess on her computer. Emmanuel pushed open the next door on the left, and put Walter’s bag inside. It appeared, not surprisingly, that despite the room’s official possession by the away-at-college Emily, Emmanuel’s middle daughter, Allie, had been using the room in her absence. The top of the dresser was filled with teenage girl cosmetics—dessert-flavored lip gloss, glittery nail polish, pop star brand perfume—and tiny photo stickers on the baby-blue plastic frame of an oval mirror on the wall showed Allie with two girl friends making silly faces.

The first round of difficulties with Marin had caught both Walter and Jinny off guard: Marin had still been an adolescent, only fourteen, when she’d begun sneaking out to rock clubs in Chicago. Only a year before, a typical Friday night had been a Disney movie and a chaste sleepover with two or three girl friends. Seeing how the innocence of Walter’s brother’s daughters had continued, uncomplicated, well beyond fourteen, Walter felt newly cheated out of his own innocence as a parent, felt newly justified in his anger at a universe that would not only rob him simultaneously of his wife and his daughter, but do so far more early than was fair.

And now, during one of the most politically conservative stretches of modern American history, when Republicans everywhere were gleefully checking items off protracted to-do lists scribbled down during those wasteful, shameful Clinton years, a bunch of smarmy liberal operators had somehow worked the system—Walter’s system, the system-lover’s system, not theirs—to rob him early of his career.

“Mom! Dad!” Emmanuel shouted in Chinese. Walter’s here!

There was some shuffling of house slippers, Emmanuel moved aside, and the pink and white faces of Walter’s parents peeked into the bedroom. One look at their faces, still the most familiar in the world to him, and Walter was immediately reunited with that version of himself that was a son, not a father/widower/manager. This moment of reorientation was as bracing as physically turning around 180 degrees in a single step.

As Orson and Patricia came into the room and embraced Walter happily, he could see that the transformation that had begun with his parents’ slow move into the middle class during the 1970s, and that had accelerated upon Walter’s father’s retirement and the onset of Walter’s mother’s menopause, was now complete. Gone was the spoiled daughter of a Sichuan official, who’d resented her lower-class husband for the loss of status and material comforts she’d suffered upon marrying him, and who’d spent endless hours maliciously picking apart the more fortuitous circumstances of those of her former classmates who’d also come to Hong Kong. In her place was a doting grandmother whose wicked sense of humor was used only to diffuse, never to create, tension. Gone was the self-loathing and thin-skinned shipping supervisor who’d buckled under pressure. In his place was a sunny-eyed dispenser of practical wisdom and dedicated cultivator of chi.

Orson held his hands palms side out in front of Walter’s face. “Do you feel that?” Orson asked in Cantonese. He grabbed his own wrist, his own forearm, his own tricep, his own side, and then swept over this progression of body parts again with a slow, elegant motion of his hand. “A river of energy.” He made a fist with his other hand. “Strong, like the Yangtze.”

Walter’s mother rolled her eyes. “The Yangtze doesn’t have to urinate every twenty minutes,” she said.

Emmanuel laughed and looked at his watch. “Let’s leave for dim sum at eleven-thirty, okay?” he said, tapping the face of his watch with the nail of his index finger and leaving the obsolete old people to talk amongst themselves.

Walter’s parents sat down next to each other on Emily/Allie’s bed.

“How’s work?” Walter’s father asked. “Still enjoying your responsibilities? Enjoy it while you can. Before you know it, your daughter will be taking care of you.”

Orson raised his eyebrows to indicate what he thought about Emmanuel’s show of authority.

“Marin...” Walter’s mother said. “Does your pretty girl have a new boyfriend yet?”

“Yes, but I don’t think it’s too serious,” Walter said.

“White guy, again?” Patricia asked.

“Yes,” Walter said.

“Someone from work?” Patricia asked.

Walter realized that he didn’t know how Marin and Charlie knew each other. He shook his head, No. “Friend of a friend,” he said in English.

“Not too serious is okay,” Orson said. “Become more mature first, before getting married. It’s better.”

Orson put his arm around Patricia, as if their current state of peace and genial banter were proof positive of this advice. In reality, they had married at nineteen in the chaos of 1947 and spent the next two decades inflicting every kind of unrealistic expectation and passive-aggressive hurt on each other that they could think of.

Still, Walter’s parents did make retirement look good.

If Jinny was still alive—and this was exactly the thought cul-de-sac Walter had been avoiding since his meeting with Jack Jaffrey and Felicia Wright. Since Walter had landed in Hong Kong it had started creeping up on him steadily, and he let himself drive into its seductive hollows now. If Jinny was still alive she’d have found a way to make it work. She would have known exactly what questions to ask Jack and Felicia to knock them a few notches down from their vantage of imperious compassion and get Walter the proverbial offer-he-couldn’t-refuse. She would have ranted and raved on his behalf the way it was impossible for him to do himself without sounding like a jerk. And finally, she’d have remembered all of the activities and topics that he’d showed interest in over the years but never picked up seriously due to lack of time. As it was, he’d forgotten. He couldn’t think of a single thing that he would rather do with the next eleven years of his life besides work.

And wasn’t that hilarious? Wasn’t that a fucking riot? Wasn’t that just the most pathetic thing you’ve ever heard? If Walter’s chi was ricocheting around inharmoniously right now, Walter’s parents did not do him the discourtesy of noticing. They were now discussing the best way for the six of them (Emmanuel, Kitty, April, Walter, Orson, and Patricia) to get to the dim sum restaurant.

Some kind of emotional jetlag was at work here. Night had fallen where Walter had come from, but in Hong Kong everyone seemed certain of the bright workings of their day.

On his third night in Hong Kong, Walter started dreaming in Cantonese. His thought patterns rearranged themselves into the dense syllables and crude grammar constructions of the language of his youth. In a dark room, a woman was telling him about himself. You in Hong Kong grew up. You three sons oldest. You twenty years old go America. You go University of Chicago study books. Your wife forty-five years old die cancer. Your daughter go Stanford University study books. Then she launched into a series of exclamations that weren’t angry, but very loud and emphatic and distressing all the same. You left Hong Kong! You not can come back! You not understand Hong Kong people! You not even understand your own mother, father, brothers! You not can come back! You want go America? You in America live! You in America die! DIE! DIE! DIE! DIE! DIE! DIE! DIE!

There were at least seven standalone die’s before Walter woke up in his little girl’s bed, sunlight backlighting and streaming in through low-threadcount cotton curtains. Seih-la, or “die, exclamation word,” was, in fact, a relatively mild swear word in Cantonese, the equivalent of “oh, shit” in contemporary colloquial English. Still, Walter needed a long, hot shower and a big cup of coffee to feel like himself again after waking up from that.

The rest of the week Walter fell into a mindless, repetitive lull of eating, mah-jongg, and transit. He obsessively replayed key phrases from the Jack Jaffrey-Felicia Wright meeting in his head as he followed one or more of his brothers, their wives, or his parents through Hong Kong’s morbidly crowded, exhaust-fogged streets and clean, incident-less subway system to this noodle shop and that afternoon tea place and pushed cold marble mah-jongg tiles around the table between hands (Jack Jaffrey: “You’re everything a regional sales manager is supposed to be;” Felicia Wright: “On a personal level, the thought of you leaving the fold is obviously very devastating for us;” Felicia Wright: “I think you’ll find the terms quite generous and in keeping with the quality of your contributions over the years;” and Walter’s favorite, Jack Jaffrey: “The final curtain call is always tough, really tough.”) Each night, Walter had another intense and disturbing dream that left him feeling like someone had reached into his skull in the middle of the night and wrung his brain out like a wet rag.

The election, the Dipentra launch, the D.A.R.E. bills, Stu Carroll and his number one ranking, Eric Mulrhony and his cologne... from Walter’s current vantage point, far outside the original context, all of the events that had led to the Jack Jaffrey-Felicia Wright meeting seemed like a season of a bad American sitcom. Embarrassing and populated by lots of loud Caucasians of inexplicable motivation, Walter wanted nothing to do with any of it these days. Easier to be what he looked like here—another Hong Kong Chinese in the crowd, shopping and eating, eating and shopping—and not let it get any more complicated than that.

The day before Walter’s flight back to Chicago, he met his youngest brother Troy, the bonds trader, in the lobby of Troy’s (slightly better and newer than Emmanuel’s) apartment building for an early morning hike up Victoria Peak. Troy, at six-foot-one, was the tallest of the Choo boys and the best-looking (although Emmanuel had been more confident with, interested in, and successful with the opposite sex in high school and college). Troy was wearing a baby blue T-shirt, dark-gray sweatpants, blue-and-orange tennis shoes, and some kind of elastic bracelet.

Forty-six years old, thick black hair curled luxuriantly over the youngest Choo boy’s brow. When he smiled, quotation marks appeared around the outer corners of his eyes, which said: underneath this pretty and accomplished exterior, I’m a soul in search of meaning. All of which meant that if Troy’s wife Cherie hadn’t been who she was (among other things, the fiercest litigator in Korplus-Wallem’s Hong Kong arsenal), many a J.P. Morgan junior associate would have been more than happy to play the May to Troy’s December any month of the year.

The weather was perfect for the ninth day in a row. Walter and Troy hiked along a narrow concrete path flanked by local botanicals—amaranth, bamboo, calendula—and to the right they could see the dense skyscraper forest of Hong Kong, the world-class city that had been slapped onto the side of a barren piece of rock with effort, Walter thought, not charm.

“I find that if I don’t take this hike every morning, I get very, very angry at work,” Troy said.

“Really? Why?” Walter was shocked. He’d never seen his youngest brother lose his temper.

“We keep bringing over all of these twenty-two-year-old Americans and Brits,” Troy said, “and for the first three weeks they’re eager to learn, they ask lots of questions, they’re scared of screwing up, but then, after they make a little bit of money, all of a sudden they think they know everything there is to know about currency and debt strategy and emerging markets. There is absolutely no respect for senior people who have been doing this much longer, and no respect for the big picture.”

It should have made Walter feel better to hear his suave, wildly successful brother, one generation Walter’s junior, voice the same frustrations that Walter had been having with his own profession, but it just annoyed him. Of course Troy’s young expat coworkers were like that. Why waste time sucking up to some cranky old Chinese guy when the system was fixed in your favor? If the market crashed again, it wouldn’t be the young gweilo Ivy Leaguers getting the boot. It would be the cranky old Chinese guy.

Sometimes Walter envied his brothers the unhyphenated sanctity of their existence as Asians living in Asia. However, Walter’s day-to-day reality was more honest. As long as America was the world’s largest economy, the Choos, no matter where they lived, were second-class citizens in that world.

“So just cash out,” Walter said, “I’m sure the kids’ college funds have plenty in them already, and Cherie makes good money. You can stay home and cook. Do tai chi with Dad.”

Troy laughed. “I think I’ll try to endure until Ada’s in college. That’s only five more years, believe it or not.”

They hiked single-file, Walter behind his brother, and talked about Allie’s college prospects, Marin’s job and boyfriend, Senator Obama, the real estate market in China, Troy and Cherie’s recent vacation in Sydney, and Orson’s and Patricia’s health.

They reached the roofed lookout point where they’d rest for a few minutes before turning back. They were on the south, sparsely-populated side of Hong Kong island. Sequins of morning light rippled off the cerulean-black waters of the South China Sea far below. A tiny red fishing boat idled along the shore.

Walter placed his hands on one of the columns holding up the roof and stepped his legs back one by one to stretch his calves. His body still felt capable and strong, far from needing retiring.

Troy put his hands on the back of his own head with his elbows sticking straight out like Dumbo ears. “Time to make some money,” he said, grinning madly.

Three hours later, Walter went to Causeway Bay alone to look for a Christmas present for Marin. The large mall called Times Square grouped similar shop types by floor. Walter took a tall escalator to the main lobby of the mall. He took an elevator to the electronics floor and went into the largest shop.

“NEW NEW NEW,” a sign above a case of cellphones said, “Unlimited Text-Call-EMail-VMail!! Easy HI-Speed Music-MP3 Download!! State-of-ART Touch-Wipe-Go™ Technology!! Starting HK$988!”

Stu Carroll had a Touch-Wipe-Go™ phone that he was obsessed with. When he’d shown off the touchscreen technology to Walter in the field one day, Walter had joked that “Touch-Wipe-Go” made him think of wiping after a shit. Stu had not found that funny.

Walter’s whole trip had been off. It had been a mistake to come to Hong Kong. Walter would have probably been better off having Thanksgiving dinner with Marisol and her family and then getting a cheap flight somewhere relatively warm—Memphis or Atlanta—and wandering around a strange city for a few days. However, if he could do this one thing, if Walter could just buy something, the right thing, a thing radiating newness, progress, and sophisticated yet economical utility with every chip and byte of its being, then he could hang onto that purchase like a life raft, and that life raft would drift him back to the smooth-sailing cruise ship of himself that he’d jumped from during the Jaffrey-Wright meeting in Chicago two weeks ago.

Walter walked to the wall to the right of the cellphones and picked up a hand-held video game device. He moved the cursor over the “New Game” button and pressed ENTER. An animated title slapped, letter by letter (gunshot sound effects punctuating the arrival of each), onto the screen: “ESCAPE FROM SLUM CITY.”

Then, a startlingly realistic animated image of a third world South American slum appeared. Latin-influenced dance music played as babies cried and a staticky radio proclaimed the government corrupt and the fate of Slum City uncertain. Walter pressed a button, and the machine gun whose barrel peeked out from the bottom of the screen emptied bullets onto a palm tree while the device vibrated violently, surprising and frightening Walter so much that he almost dropped it.

Walter put Slum City down and picked up an LCD screen the size of a photograph frame. It displayed the time in the upper-left-hand corner and a 3D animation of an hourglass emptying itself.

A very skinny sales assistant named, according to his name tag, “Pike,” came up to Walter.

“Turn it over,” Pike said in Cantonese.

Walter turned the device face-down and felt incredibly stupid looking at its ventilated back.

Pike laughed. “No, rotate it,” he said.

Walter gave the thing to him, and Pike faced the screen towards Walter and then rotated it 180 degrees. The clock rotated in its place, righting itself to the new orientation, and the hourglass also rotated in its place. The sand that had accumulated in the bottom of the hourglass now spilled out from the top.

“You can adjust the time here,” Pike said, indicating some small buttons on the side of the screen. “And you can change the hourglass from thirty seconds to one minute to fifteen minutes to thirty minutes to one hour. And this button empties the sand.” Pike pressed the last button and the sand’s spilling sped up, emptying the top into the bottom in a few seconds.

Walter shook his head, no. “I’m buying a present for my twenty-four-year-old daughter,” he said.

“What does she do? What does she like?” Pike asked. “Music? Movies? Games?”

Walter said, “She works in data analysis. Do you have anything for sleep?”

“Have, have, have,” Pike said. He walked Walter into the back of the store, alongside a sixteen-foot-long counter filled end-to-end with beautiful platinum-cased laptops with large high-resolution screens that flashed with animated pixel rainbows, fireworks, shooting stars.

Pike picked up a plastic white hamburger-shaped device. It was called “SONAPSE SWEETSLEEP 3000” and was HK$1,888 (approximately $240).

“This one is very good for sleep,” Pike said. “It uses a mix of active noise-canceling technology, sonic-therapy music and nature sounds, and humidity-normalization to create the ideal sleep environment. You just switch it on here thirty minutes before going to bed.” Pike pressed a white button that then glowed white. “They did research using the SONAPSE SWEETSLEEP 3000 with chronic insomniacs in Tokyo, Helsinki, and Los Angeles, and the SONAPSE SWEETSLEEP 3000 was 80% more effective at increasing both quantity and quality of sleep than a placebo pill and 15% more effective than the leading sleep-aid medication. It comes pre-programmed with thirty environmental combinations so that you can recreate anywhere in the world the sleeping environment that your ancestors evolved in.”

It was an impressive detail presentation. Fenniskrante quality.

“Your daughter is Chinese?” Pike asked.

“Chinese, yes,” Walter said.

“Okay,” Pike said, and he turned the device around in his hand.

Walter couldn’t see any other buttons on it besides the glowing power button. Pike pressed his palm down on the top hamburger bun, and the bun lifted up slowly on a spring-hinge. There was a small white button on a circular track inside. Pike slowly pushed the button around the track clockwise and on the bottom face of the top hamburger bun white letters glowed in and out, spelling a series of abbreviated place names: SCAND-A, E-EUR/BALK, W-EUR/UK, MEDITER-N, INDIA, and, finally, CHINA. Pike then pressed down gently on the button and then closed the top hamburger bun with a small snap.

Tiny holes in the perimeter of the hamburger patty started to emit a thin stream of sugary steam, choking Walter.

“That’s why you have to turn it on one half-hour before going to bed,” Pike said. “The steam turns off after normalization.”

Walter took a step away from it, nodded, and coughed sweet steam into his fist. Then, Walter heard the soft shivery timbre of locusts punctuated every so often by the watery croaking of a frog. They were joined by the reedy wheezings of some kind of flute.

“If you buy one for your daughter, I can give you another one for yourself for 30% off,” Pike said.

Desiring to know precisely how much he should be appalled, Walter did the math: that was about HK$3,200 for two; and HK$1,600, or $200-plus, each. Walter felt dizzy. He shook his head, no. “No, thank you,” he said in English.

“15% better than a sleeping pill, and no side effects!” Pike said, shaking the steaming hamburger at him. “And this will last you forever! You take the pills, they’re gone, but this one lasts forever!”

“No, thank you. No, thank you,” Walter said, backing away from him. The cratered surface of a moon moved slowly across the nearest laptop screen.

“This is the best sleep machine in its class! You can’t find a price this good anywhere else!” Pike said. “You’re crazy not to buy!”

Walter left the store and walked out to the mall, whose tiered circles of shops overlooking the red plastic cones and balls of the Christmas display on the ground floor now struck him as bearing a striking resemblance to a Dantean vision of hell.

There was no life raft for him here. He was sunk.