The last place I wanted to spend a year was Hong Kong.
I'm sure that comes off as being spoiled, but I cannot speak Chinese, don't like overcrowded cities, prefer to breathe clean air and think Chinese food is a great take-out option, but only in moderation.
In fact, truth be told, I had no desire to spend a year anywhere besides Pittsburgh. I take that back. You could drop me off at any corner cafe in all of France, hand me the International Herald Tribune and a double espresso and I'd be in heaven.
But my wife, being the persistent, insistent woman that she is, had her own agenda, and frankly, she wore me down to the point that I relented to spending a year in one of the world's most populated, expensive and polluted cities.
For Franny, it all made perfect sense. In Hong Kong she would be close to her sources of supply in China that manufacture the children's books, toys, premiums, pet products and housewares she designs and imports to the United States.
For me, the decision wasn't as cut-and-dried.
My family has lived in Pittsburgh for eight generations and, call me unadventurous, but for my purposes, Pittsburgh is still quite livable. Besides, I'd been to Hong Kong numerous times previously in the same importing business as my wife and, as far as I was concerned, I had done all there was to do in Hong Kong. I'd been up to the Peak lookout to witness Hong Kong's spectacular skyline, shopped at Stanley Market, taken the Star Ferry and eaten at the Jumbo Floating Restaurant in Aberdeen. I'd even conducted business over tea at the Peninsula and been fitted by the tailors in the Mandarin Oriental Hotel.
More compelling to me, though, was the argument that living in Hong Kong for a year would be a beneficial experience for our three teenagers. They could find out what it was like to live in a foreign country, immerse themselves in a different culture, learn a new language and gain a more worldly view and an appreciation for what they have by traveling to other Asian countries where food, water, fuel and shelter are considered precious.
But it wasn't until I sought advice from my minister, who advised me that it would be good for me to pull up at least a few of my roots, that I agreed. Deep down, though, I was hoping that the whole idea would die of its own weight.
After all, Franny would have to get the kids enrolled in Hong Kong schools, locate housing and secure work and study visas. She would have to find and train someone to manage her local office and find a family to rent our house. In fact, the to-do list turned out to be endless before getting on the flight overseas. I would have thrown up my hands, but, remember, my wife is persistent and insistent. Before I could say "fortune cookie," in August 2004 we were on the 27th floor of a high-rise apartment building, overlooking the business district, called Central, and Victoria Harbor.
Sulfur-laden air from neighboring Guandong Province in China drifts down the Pearl River and mixes with the emissions from local coal-burning utility plants and the fumes from 110,000 heavy and light trucks running on cheap diesel to create what is politely called a "haze" that engulfs Hong Kong.
On some days, its tallest building, the 88-story International Financial Center, was no longer visible from our apartment. It was difficult to keep up with the maintenance on the filters in the air conditioners, and it wasn't long before I showed up at the emergency room of the Adventist Hospital and was prescribed inhalers for my asthma.
But, clearly, I've gotten ahead of myself. Upon arrival in Hong Kong, everyone had something to do but me. Franny went to her office in Hong Kong or ventured deeper into China to check on the production of her merchandise. Our daughter Natalie got busy choosing from a list of enticing courses offered to visiting students at Hong Kong University and was soon being privately tutored in Mandarin on a regular basis. And our two youngest, Julia and Chas, started 11th and 8th grades respectively at the Canadian International School of Hong Kong.
Me? The nonworking spouse, homemaker, Mr. Mom? After waving goodbye to the departing school bus, I bought the South China Morning Post at our corner newsstand and made a 10-minute walk to the nearest Starbucks. Having been a regular at the coffee shops in Pittsburgh on most mornings, I sought the comfort of familiar surroundings from which I could try to get my bearings.
What to do? What to do? What's a guy to do in Hong Kong for a year? I've always liked writing, so I chose to pretend I was writing a regular "column" -- what I called a dispatch -- to family and friends every two to three days just to see how long I could keep it up. Not having a house to maintain and having fewer distractions afforded me the quiet time to sit undisturbed at my laptop.
My material was the sights and sounds of the city, starting with the difficulties of hiring a maid with whom we could communicate in a common language. The idea of these dispatches was to describe experiences I never would have had in Pittsburgh, such as negotiating getting a haircut and manicure with only the most meager facility in Chinese, consisting of "please" (mgoy) and "thank you" (mgoy).
Thus challenged to know even basic phrases or how to count to 10, I thought I should also commence weekly Cantonese lessons. Soon enough I could buy a newspaper, ask how much things cost, request a cheaper price, give a taxi driver basic instructions and order my usual at Starbucks. (Yaht boyee, gafay, mgoy, peng si yaht yeung.)
What was scary was when a clerk actually thought I was fluent and replied to me in Chinese, going on and on about this and that while, of course, I didn't understand a single word. So I just reverted to "mgoy," hoping that they had just finished complimenting me on my proficiency with the language.
Not having a car (only 6 percent of the people in Hong Kong do), we went everywhere by public transportation or walked. Near our apartment building, the Park Towers, were restaurants, my laundry, hardware stores, grocery stores and open-air fish, meat, flower and vegetable markets.
I often stopped there for one of my favorite after-school snacks, fresh mangoes imported from the Philippines. With very few expatriates in sight in our neighborhood of Tin Hau, we felt as if we were experiencing authentic Hong Kong.
When we did have contact with expatriates, it was often at the numerous cultural performances, live concerts, dragon boat races and other sporting events we attended.
One such event was the Hong Kong Rugby 7's, the culminating tournament that involved 77 teams from around the world.
As the venue for the most social occasion of the year, Hong Kong Stadium is transformed into a scene resembling a cross between the old Rolling Rock races and a Steelers playoff game. When our daughter Julia showed her colors by sporting an American flag on her cheek, she got a taste of exactly how other countries feel about United States foreign policy. "Go back to Iraq, ya' damn Yanks," one fan shouted at her from the crowd. That's one way of gaining a worldly view.
Since we were going to be spending a year in Hong Kong, I thought I would have business cards made. I would need a Chinese name to print on the reverse side. Over lunch my friend, Raymond Cheng, dubbed me "Tse Duk Laye," which, he said, means "profit by giving away." He told me, "Your name says that you might help build a school, care for people, forgive people, pay your bills on time and teach your children well."
Proud and excited, I arrived home in time to share it with my wife's colleague, Cathy Wong. Despite my Chinese tutoring, I must have used completely incorrect intonation, because she said it came out, "When are you going to die?"
I was just slightly better at learning how to cook with a wok than I was in the language department. At least I had been smart enough to buy a Chinese cookbook that was printed in English before I left Pittsburgh. I'm glad I did, because the million-dollar apartment we had rented didn't even come with an oven. I also gained an appreciation for dishwashers, because the apartment didn't come with that, either.
When we were finished hand washing and drying the dishes, we had time for scenic hikes and afternoons at the beach. Hong Kong may look as if it is all glass, steel and cement, but actually it is 60 percent parks and nature reserves. The children even started surfing, and we took sailing lessons on a 45-foot sloop, sharing the shipping channel with freighters, barges and hydrofoils.
For indoor sports, it was ice hockey for Chas. As pleasant a surprise as it was to find out that Hong Kong had a thriving hockey league, it was equally satisfying to see enthusiastic but well-mannered behavior by all of the hockey parents.
On the more adventurous side, we tasted mooncakes made with lotus paste during the Mid-Autumn Festival, went to the Happy Valley racecourse and knew all the local spots for checking out the latest in copy watches, copy handbags, copy DVDs and video games. For exercise, Franny loved getting up early to join her Tai Chi and fan dancing classes in Victoria Park. Natalie accelerated her fluency in Chinese by volunteering to teach the children of incarcerated parents at the Beijing Sun Village in China.
One day Chas came home from school and said, "Dad, I need a cow eyeball for science class."
Now, normally a kid will come home from school and say he has a project due the next day which, if you're lucky, involves a glue stick, blue marker, shoe box or a copy of Time magazine. But Chas said we had to find an eyeball they could dissect the next day.
I like to imagine this happening in Pittsburgh but, being in Hong Kong, all we had to do was find the right butcher at the wet market in North Point and say "ow ahn" (cow eye) while pointing to our own eyes. In an instant the butcher reached above him to unhook a small plastic bag containing two eyeballs. A pair sold for $1.50.
When the children had their school vacations, we also took full advantage of Hong Kong's strategic location as an Asian travel hub and went to 13 countries during the year, thanks to an around-the-world fare we had secured through All Directions Travel in Pittsburgh (412-566-1710). Among the countries we visited were Madagascar, Bhutan and Sri Lanka, where we happened to be during the tsunami, but that's a different story. And for their class trips, Julia's junior class explored New Zealand for a week, and Chas and the eighth-graders saw the sights in and around Beijing over a three-day period. I can think of only one significant drawback as a result of all of this travel, and that's the baggie full of foreign change that will sit in my bottom dresser drawer in perpetuity.
I might have missed the rest of my family more had my mother not come to join us on three of our trips.
What I did miss, though, were seeing blue sky, having fresh green grass under my feet and being in my seat at Heinz Field during the Steelers 15-1 season. I did catch one Steelers game on TV and discerned that one of the main advantages of being in Hong Kong is that, with the 12-hour time difference, "Monday Night Football" conveniently airs live on Tuesday mornings, so you can actually stay awake for the whole game.
I admit I started off as the reluctant traveler, set in my ways, unwilling to make a break from my comfortable habits of Pittsburgh. But, in the end, I learned I could retain part of my routine and still seek new adventures.
For instance, I put my interest in video production to use in producing a short video titled "Made in Hong Kong."
And my background in business enabled me to teach a short graduate level course in Risk Management and Problem Solving to middle managers at a components factory in China. Had I not lived in Hong Kong, I might never have learned that the most valuable jade is the color of mutton fat.
As difficult as it was to pack up and move the family overseas, maybe we happened to be in Hong Kong at just the right time, right after the respiratory ailment SARS was in the news and before the avian flu reaches pandemic proportions, if it ever does.
It has occurred to me that the enthusiastic welcome we have been receiving since our return reflects the fears and concerns that family and friends may have had for our safety.
So, in response to people who ask me what our year was like, I offer that it was interesting, difficult, fun, challenging, fascinating. I suppose I would do the same thing if I were reliving the same decision of whether to go all over again. I would hope that if the clock were turned back, I could be more gracious to my wife by displaying a greater willingness to go in the first place.
As for the future, if invited to Hong Kong, I'd be happy to visit any time and have an official 13-course dinner with the friends we made. I just wouldn't want to live there -- again.
(Charlie Stewart is a freelance writer now back in Squirrel Hill.)