I can fall sleep anywhere
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March 7, 2005 San Jose, Costa Rica

It's downright a talent, if I may say so

People who know me, especially those who have traveled with me, know that I have this unusual talent of falling asleep anywhere, regardless the conditions. Insomnia is but a rare experience for me. You may recall the 28 hour bus ride from Costa Rica to Panama where the people in the bus accused me of being unconscious the whole way. They were just tired, hungry, and jealous! Well, here's the secret unveiled. The truth of the matter is that I have had a lot of training in this area since I was a baby.

The houseboat days

I lived in a houseboat in the harbor in Hong Kong the first three and half years of my life. Mind you, this is nothing like the houseboat in which Don Johnson in Miami Vice lived. My memory of living in the boat is at best very vague. The boats were tied together to minimize the movement. Toddlers and dogs alike were tied to a rope so that they wouldn't fall too far into the water by accident, which in itself could be a threat should one of the boats catch fire. I do know that I had my first brush with death while living in the boat. I once fell off the boat when I was about two. Fortunately, my father was home at the time and retrieved me from the bottom of the harbor.

While I was in grade school, my father took me back to that harbor in the summer to teach me to swim using another family's boat. My memory comes mostly from these days. The boat was made out of wood, with the canvas as awning/roof (or whatever the appropriate word for the cover of a boat might be.) There was one big area that functioned as the living room, dining room and bedroom. Everything took place on the floor level, so you either squatted or sat on a small stool. The clearing was maybe only a few feet, so no one could really stand up straight inside the boat anyway. The kitchen was at the back of the boat, where there was invariably a cage of live chickens. Also at the back was the bathroom. The bathroom was really just an opening. Everything goes directly into harbor, along with the chicken droppings.

When my father taught me to swim, he tied me to a rope and threw me into the water. If I didn't surface after a while, he pulled me out. Then this repeated until I learned how to stay afloat. Looking back, I can say that I basically learned to swim in the sewage. That was the norm and everybody did it that way. What didn't kill you only makes you stronger! My grandfather was a fisherman but my father worked for the Royal Hong Kong Yacht Club as a boatboy. The biggest danger of being the offspring of a fisherman is not the sewage swimming, rather, it's illiteracy. It's difficult to go to school when the boat is 200 miles out at sea, you know.

The government then decided to expand the Royal Hong Kong Yacht Club and we were promised a not yet available highrise government apartment. We went ashore to this temporary housing and waited.

The not-so-temporary temporary housing days

I was ready to go to kindergarten after we moved ashore. The cabin that we had was wood framed, and the roof and sidings were sheet metal. There was no running water, no electricity, and no bathroom. There was a little kitchen outside. Inside, we had two beds and a chest. There were ten of us when we moved in. I was the fifth child of six children. There were my parents, an aunt and her adopted daughter. My younger brother was born when we lived there. We ended up staying in this place for five and a half years.

The cabin was hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It leaked when it rained. The children evacuated to the relatives' highrise apartment whenever a typhoon (hurricane for Atlantic) threatened Hong Kong. In the summer, my father and I, being the only males, slept outside in a canvas bed under the sky. We practically went camping at home. To these day, I have little interest in camping and sleeping under the sky. Been there. Done That. Too many years.

I had a happy childhood. I didn't feel that I was deprived. The kids in the neighborhood were always available and outside playing. My cousins lived right next door. I learned how to pump a gas lamp to life when I was very young. In fact, when I went camping in high school, I was the only kid in the group who knew what to do with the lamp. One of the neighbors had a generator and a TV. He ran a little TV business at his home. It cost 2 pennies to watch one show, and 4 pennies bought me a day pass when I had the time and money. I was a big fan of the Japanese monster TV programs. And they were SO real! To a large extent, I can still be very gullible in certain areas even to these days.

We got electricity during the 3rd year while we were in the cabin and we got our first black and white TV - a hand-me-down from a relative. The importance of having a TV was that it took me outside of my little world. I got to hear dialogs that never happened at home. I saw places that I couldn't imagine. We were busy making ends meet. My father worked in the Yacht Club. My Aunt's daughter worked in a factory. The rest of us were making plastic flowers at home. We made these Christmas wreaths, millions of them every year. And I kept wondering who were buying these millions of silly plastic thing. Imagine my surprise and joy when I first stepped into a K-mart in 1989 in Dallas and saw the darn thing on sale. It solved a 20-year-old puzzle for me!

We used kerosene for cooking. My mother kept the kerosene and the drinking water in the same kind of glass bottles. One time I bought some candies and picked up the kerosene, thinking it was water, and proceeded to gulp it down. Boy, did I get sick? The neighbors suggested eating pears as a detoxifier. I ate all the pears in sight and went to bed. My little brain and body went through a lot of trauma at an early age, that probably explains why sometimes I behave as if "my cheese had slid off my cracker".

It was in this place my parents and my aunt planted their own social security plan. The three of them would put me in their lap (they didn't do this to the girls), often when no one else was around. Then they asked me if I was going to feed them when they got old. I was programmed to answer 'yes'. That answer triggered the all important follow-up question, "what will you feed me with?" "Rice and meat," I would say. Then they were satisfied, until they felt insecure again. And we repeated this small yet important episode. It wasn't until years later that I understood the significance of this scenario. They were worried, understandably, about their lives when they got older and wanted to make sure that I understood my responsibility as the first son. They are illiterate; growing up during the Japanese occupation years and being children of fishermen deprived them of the chance to be educated. They didn't see any other hope then. Social security was almost nonexistent at that time. A son was their only tangible hope and asset. But they almost ruined their plan.

My mother was pregnant again while I was in the second grade. They teased me that if the baby was a boy, they wouldn't need me anymore. And they repeatedly asked me what I would do when they baby came. They knew they were teasing me and they thought my reaction was funny, but I wasn't so sure. I already watched a lot of old black and white kung-fu movies by then and learned to pack a small suitcase in case I needed to leave. And I said I would move in with an uncle of mine. Of course it didn't happen. But I assure you that it wasn't funny for a 2nd grader.

Five years and eight months after we moved in the cabin, we got notice from the government that our turn for a highrise apartment was up. I just finished the 3rd grade. And I have had a wonderful early childhood.

Moving up in the world

Moving into the highrise was like winning the lottery. It was raining the day we moved. We were allotted the top floor of a 16 story building, two interconnected units (2 bathrooms!!) with a full harbor view and the whole Kai Tak Airport was in sight. The 11 of us moved everything we owned into the apartment, and we inherited a bunk bed from some relatives and the place was still empty. We didn't know what to do with the space. All the relatives who came to visit couldn't believe how spacious our new home was. No more leaking roof. No more typhoon evacuation. We had reliable electricity, running water, and we had toilets, TWO of them. We were beside ourselves with joy and pride. Then I started the 4th grade.

In math lessons, we learned area measurements and our homework was to measure our homes. Mine totaled 400 square feet. That included the kitchen, bathrooms, and everything else. There were no bedrooms. It was the first generation efficiency apartment, if you will. The only privacy one got was when one was in the 2x3 bathrooms. As in the cabin and in the boat, you couldn't ask people to turn off the light or the TV or shut up when you wanted to sleep. You lay down, closed your eyes, and you entered into a different stage of consciousness. Years of training! Four hundred square feet was not bad at all. I remember thinking back, the cabin must have been 100 sq. feet or so for us to feel like we were living in a castle in this 400 sq. feet apartment.

As I went through high school, the family grew again. My aunt's adopted daughter got married and moved out. When their was baby was born, the family moved back in while waiting for their own apartment allotment. It happened also to my 2nd sister. The result was that at one point, there were 17 of us living in this place. It was a bit crowded but nobody went berserk. Along the way, I also lost my bed. Throughout high school and beyond, I slept on the floor, using some TV/refrigerator cardboard boxes as padding. It was a slumber party every night. It could get cold in the winter, but I still managed to sleep really well most nights. The TV was only 3 or 4 feet away. The light was on most of the time. The neighbors were only a few feet away, sharing a long common hallway. I could fall asleep in the middle of 2 mahjong tables. Now, that's talent, if you know how much noise the tiles and the people can make. Looking back, I don't particularly recall having problems with sharing 2 bathrooms among 17 people. We all knew our time slot and it was like clock work.

By the time I left Hong Kong for America, we were down to 7 people in the apartment. It felt kind of sparse!

You slept through what?

I had an eardrum operation after high school. No surprise there if you recall my swimming lessons! The doctor decided that local anesthesia was adequate for the job. So, he started to cut and I could hear the cutting but not feeling anything until the blood got to the neck and I felt how cold it was. The three hour operation went on, and I got bored. Guess what? I felt asleep. For a long time! When the operation was over, the doctor had to wake me up and said that nobody, ABSOLUTELY NOBODY, had fallen asleep while they were being cut open. I was his first. And probably the last.


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