Sketch of an Astronaut’s Son (1)*
Chris did not have the information to ascertain whether his family’s moving to the United States was an effect or a correlation of the events of June 4, 1989, in Beijing. Undoubtedly he re- membered it. It was on television, and it was in the newspaper. But it could equally have been for Brent, for whom their parents wanted to seek better medical treatment.
School ended in May that first year in Houston, in 1990, which was a good surprise. He received an A/B honors ribbon, which meant that he was not a straight-A student to start with in the United States. Nevertheless, it was an honor and he kept it, and he still has it.
Mom, Brent, and Chris took the first of many summer trips to Hong Kong – ultimately from wherever they were living at the time.
He probably did not have a good feeling about fourth grade. He got butterflies on the first day of school, when they were lining up to go to class. His teacher, Mrs. Bell, was a tall woman with a bad temper. She hugged her students, but he was scared of her.
Mrs. Bell would call him “Kin,” and he would wait to see if she would call Brent the same. That never happened. She seated him in a desk group of five students. Chris only remem- bered a blond girl who would play with her troll, paint her nails with a marker, and try to get his attention even when she was sick; a studio Mexican-American named Benjamin Moreno who threw the football well on the playground; and Piers Gonzalez, another Mexican-American with whom he made an art fair-worthy piece of fourth-grade artwork.
Mom, Jennifer, Brent, and he moved into their new home on Oakland Drive. It was a beautiful, new brick home at the end of the road, with an enormous backyard. The plan was to pave part of the backyard and install a basketball hoop.
The master bedroom was on the first floor and was never slept in. Mom would sleep with Brent in his room. Jennifer had her own room by the stairs next to the study. Chris slept first in Brent’s room until he worked up the nerve to be on his own in his bedroom. Spiders crawled in- termittently in the house, including into Brent’s bed that he believed was the only drawback to the home. Dad ended up never seeing the place or living there.
In school, things could get nerve-wrecking. But the rewards were great in retrospect. Chris volunteered to perform a solo rendition of the lullaby on the recorder for the Christmas concert. (Brent sang in the choir.) He drew well in art class and had multiple pieces of work ex- hibited. He missed math classes so that he could take ESL, and ended up in the school’s Writer’s Club (for writing a great essay) and the straight-A honor roll. Chris scored at least a year ahead
of his peers on standardized tests, leading the teacher to say that he could skip a grade.
On rainy days the teachers showed them videos of musicals, like Mary Poppins, the Wiz- ard of Oz, and The Sound of Music. Sometimes they watched (and re-watched) a baseball in- structional video.
Chris started at a new school in fifth grade, figuratively and literally. Colony Meadows Elementary was built, in a hurry, over the summer. It was not as if he did not have a good year at Quail Valley Elementary. He was the only student in class to get straight A’s – all the more im- pressive since he was taking ESL classes – and was asked to skip a grade. Mom decided against it, and the teachers assigned him to 5A – which had the biggest classroom in the grade and, if he was correct, the smartest students.
Colony Meadows Elementary was probably the best school that Chris attended from kin- dergarten through twelfth grade. The morale of the teachers in a new school was high. Students were smart. He remembered his homeroom’s door surrounded by a large number of certificates of students who obtained straight A’s. There were no ESL classes. In fact, there was not a single Hispanic or African-American student in his classes, except for a mentally handicapped black
child who sometimes took music and phys-ed with them. The cafetorium was large and clean and the food there was delicious. All of the books in the library were new. The school was in a good neighborhood, so children walked or biked to school in a swarm.
Almost every day, Mom would pick Chris up from school in her new burgundy Honda
EX, which retained its new car smell until they left Sugar Land.
Chris liked the school. His performance in fourth grade gave him the confidence to excel in fifth grade. Mrs. Andrews, his homeroom teacher, made them read good books. She encour- aged him to act, by making him performance in front of the whole grade. He had straight A’s while he was there. Chris may not have the awards showered on him like in the year before, but going to Colony Meadows Elementary every day and the satisfaction of being on top of the schoolwork seemed like a prize to him.
They moved to Edmonton, Canada, in December 2001. It was about three months into fifth grade. Chris might have had something to do with it. One day, coming home from school, Mom – before parking in the garage – dropped Brent and him off at the front door, which he pro- ceeded to break the glass part of when he tried to kick the door open. They did not tell Mom about it. But it set off a chain of events that led to security bars being installed behind the win- dows, which actually upset some neighbors, and her moving them to Canada – where presuma- bly neighbors would not show that you were unwelcome in the neighborhood by vandalizing
The summer before junior high began, Chris’ parents hired a tutor to prepare Brent and him for taking an exam to get into seventh grade French class. She was French, pretty, and wore more perfume than any tutor that he had come across. One time they drove her back to her apart- ment, and Dad said, in an otherwise silent car, “Say something to your tutor.” Chris learned the material and got a perfect score on the exam.
Junior high school was a contradiction. Everything was so different, yet he was there with virtually the same schoolmates as in elementary. The boys and the girls had separate phys-ed classes, with separate teachers. There was an additional literature class for Bible studies. We had lockers, shared probably because of the lack of space in the hallway. Playing outside during re- cesses and lunch was optional. But Chris recognized most of his classmates, whom he was intent on besting in school, along with all of the new students.
It was the first time that a phys-ed teacher saw athletic talent in Chris, while he was draining shot after shot from the three-point line on a high school sized basketball court after class (all those tennis ball throwing in their game room at home in Sugar Land, Texas, paid off). Mr. Anthony asked where he learned to shoot like that, and whether he had a basketball hoop at home. Chris said no. Mr. Anthony suggested that he tried out for the school team. Mom did not want to drive him to school for practice, ultimately, and ended a pursuit that could have been a real confidence booster in his adolescence. To this day, it counts among the best affirmation of his athletic abilities.
The next year, school finally rewarded Chris for being the singular smartest student in the grade. That was what he thought. The details were complicated, but Chris was supposed to have the highest grade in both classes combined. The fact that he didn’t receive the distinction, which he only found out in grade eight, served to show that, deep down, that group of Christians in Sherwood Park were unreasonable.
It was Chris’ last year at the Christian school, although Brent would stay for two more years. He was switching schools. Grandview Heights School, according to Mom, was a good school with an academic enrichment program. It also required an entrance examination, which he did not end up having to take – showing the extent of his academic powers. Grandview would be Chris’ stepping stone to Old Scona. He told Kiki Reed that he was leaving, sometime before or after telling him that his family was travelling to Europe that summer.
Kiki was one of the shorter boys in the grade, but he played sports well enough to be friends with Kyle Smith, Scott Bentle, and Hans Harismendy. He’d ask Chris to edit his writing and he’d ignore what he had changed. He ended up playing semi-professional football and, after he quit, teaching at SCA.
Chris’ family were the first in the grade to visit Europe. They visited Italy, Switzerland, France, and England. Mom bought him a knockoff Hard Rock Cafe T-shirt near the Coliseum in Rome. (Chris liked it a lot, and preferred it to the official T-shirts that he owned that were made from thicker material.) The presence of a McDonald’s at the Piazza San Marco was a strange sight. There was a giant chess board in a secluded park near our hotel in Switzerland. A friendly restauranteur spoke to him in French. They had their first dim sum in Europe in London’s China- town.
When Chris went back to Edmonton after the trip and started school (his admission was ultimately last-minute), he was anxious, as he always had been before school started since fourth grade. He brought Douglas Adams’ The Restaurant at the End of the Universe to school and re- membered reading it on the stairs outside the French classroom. The boys in his year were play- ing basketball on the kindergarteners’ hoops.
Wally Chiu was Chris’ first friend at Grandview. He recognized Wally from church be- cause of a birthmark on his chin. He was playing alone then, so Chris found it ironic that he was the one alone at school now and he wanted to play chess.
And Wally played chess. Chris watched Searching for Bobby Fischer the previous sum- mer on the plane and immensely enjoyed it. Chris played horribly, then he kept playing until he got better. Wally had an older brother and friends at school, but they spent almost every lunch hour that winter playing chess. He would show chess openings and puzzles to Chris, who in turn focused on learning and playing. They entered a city tournament around March, and, although Chris forget the exact score, he remembered winning a game and drawing one.
The school was dilapidated, the students were undisciplined, and the teachers saw little in Chris. The teachers separated the students into three groups for enrichment classes for one after- noon each week, and he was grouped with the worst students – students who did not understand science and resorted to talking in class. Teachers did not all wear shirts and ties, and no one
cared to come up with syllabuses. The halls and classrooms lacked carpeting, so the school was unnecessarily cold in the winter. Because it was a public school, the dress code was minimal. Students, the way Chris saw it, were demoralized and acted out by wearing athletic clothes when there was no phys-ed class, ignoring the teachers’ pleas to be quiet, and throwing pencils and pa- per balls around during class.
Chris’ grandmother died the next summer, and then they went to Disney World.
In between the two years of listening to uninspired teachers and doing schoolwork that was not given their due recognition, his grandmother passed away. They were in Hong Kong when her health suddenly deteriorated, and then the end followed. He would always remember her staying at their home in Twin Brooks and their regular visits to her apartment, which she shared with his ninth-oldest aunt, especially in the winter.
Chris regretted that there were not more ceremonies like the one he was invited to for the Gauss math competition. He went to accept a prize in 1995. It was an easy contest to place in; he admired Wally for writing a perfect paper that year. But the organizers and sponsors of the affair made a big show of inviting the winners and their families for a ceremony. Teenagers would get on stage and have their pictures taken, and the winners would be interviewed by reporters. Mom came along. Chris would have invited his family, aunts, and grandmother to future ceremonies like it.
Carrie, who came to sit in one morning in his class in eighth grade (which made his day), transferred to Grandview Heights School in grade nine. There was no doubt in his mind that she wanted what Chris wanted: a spot in Old Scona’s entering class in grade ten. She knew to get there, she needed to be around the best. To her, that person was him.
Chris was fine with the intrusion. He did not mind showing her that he was equally strong academically in a public school’s setting as he was in a private Christian school. She, on the other hand, was trying to replicate her academic success in a private school in a public junior high school.
Carrie and Chris should have hanged out outside school, but they did not. He joined the volleyball team and practiced chess with Wally and whoever else wanted to play with him. Chris placed in the top five in the second and last chess tournament he participated in (instead of crash- ing the provincial tournament – which he was convinced he was not qualified to play in – Mom and Dad took him to Disney World). Chris worked on the yearbook and played tennis with Wally, Stephen Chung, and Michael Bell in the autumn and spring. She, on the other hand, did very well in writing and French speech competitions. Most importantly, other students seemed to like her, and Chris was proud of her.
He made plans to get into Old Scona Academic High School in grade seven. Up to this point in his life, he had never looked three years ahead. So everything he did was reflexive. Chris did decently in grades eight and nine up through the admissions cycle. He hanged around people who were supportive of what he was doing – without necessarily telling them what his goal was. When the school told the class when the entrance exam was, Chris went and took it.
He received the phone call from Old Scona’s principal one afternoon. He told Chris that he was accepted to Old Scona and asked if he would accept the offer of admissions. Chris put him on hold and did a fist pump. He then said yes.
The joy of getting into his dream school went as quickly as it came. He was put on the spot by a teacher, who held no administrative position at school, to justify going to Old Scona. When he could not, she asked him to write a letter to the principal of Old Scona and decline the offer. Chris did, in the belief that she might lower his grades otherwise. He did not know if she gave the letter to anyone at Old Scona.
Many of Chris’ classmates ended up going to Old Scona – ten by his estimate. He was disappointed. In grade seven he envisioned Old Scona as a school where only the top student (singular) from each school whose students apply would attend. Ten was a large number by per- centage. Old Scona, after all, admitted only one hundred students that year. Certainly there was not a ten-way tie for the top academic spot in the grade. Nevertheless, it gave Chris great hope when he went to Harry Ainlay High School to know that Old Scona students were not academi- cally invincible. Many of his schoolmates from a year behind him also ended up going, most of whom undeservingly. It would not be until 2002, six years later, that someone in his extended family would be accepted to Old Scona.
As good a school Grandview Heights School purported to be, it expected most of its stu- dents to attend a mediocre high school. Harry Ainlay High School is, from year to year, the larg- est school in Edmonton and western Canada. Coming back from his last summer in Hong Kong before the 1997 handover, Chris was anxious to be academically productive. And he was.
Chris did what he thought was solid work. He won two math competitions on the school team, and placed fourth in the city in a competition sponsored by the Chemical Institute of Ed- monton. His former classmates from Grandview Heights School were nowhere to be found at the top. He had a renewed sense of confidence and affirmation of his view that Grandview Heights School was in fact badly run, had a sub-par faculty, and failed to identify talented students for special training (its raison d’être, as far as Chris was concerned).
His second most rewarding year in school thus far also marked the start of his academic decline. Chris was surrounded, at best, Old Scona rejects. He was around mediocre music stu- dents in junior high school who influenced him in taking up the saxophone in the school band in high school. He was around geeks who were not talented in the humanities (or math). He was around academic students who were not aware of contests, extracurricular activities, athletics, or a life outside school. He was around students who should have tried out for the school team,
though they might not have made it. Chris was optimistic nevertheless; he had nine good years of education and a life of uncertainty pushing and motivating him.
When Chris was seventeen, he visited Stanford for the first time. He didn't know how to convert his grades to a GPA, so he thought he wasn't in the league of successful applicants. He got an application package but didn't apply.
What Chris remembered about UC Berkeley was that you could teach your own courses as an undergraduate. The largeness of the campus awestruck him.
After all the years being connected to Houston, he finally got to visit its most prestigious university, Rice. Jennifer, Mom, and Chris went to a presentation, and that was his recollection of the school.
He applied to USC, Rice, Northwestern, the University of Chicago, Duke, UPenn, Cornell, Brown, and Boston University. He was admitted to two and waitlisted at Chicago. In hindsight he should've applied to all of the Ivy League universities and to premedical majors. He should have applied to Stanford and Georgetown – which were top schools whose names he recognized before all of the admissions brouhaha.
Chris applied to as many schools as he was allowed to in the UK and withdrew all of his applications when he accepted USC's offer. He wasn't competitive with his International Baccalaureate scores anyways. When asked to, he applied to and was accepted to the Faculty of Arts at the University of Alberta. He was too demoralized to apply to McGill, UBC, or Toronto – all of which recruited at his high school.
He scored a ninety-seven percent in his first provincial exam, in math, in grade eleven. To Chris’ knowledge it was the highest score in the grade. After, he decided not to be tutored – a mistake retrospectively. He needed the routine of doing math outside school, in addition to studying on his own, to do well in school. Chris ended up with an eighty percent in his final math course, which cost him his overall grade average and final honors with distinction.
The English teacher, now his counsellor, was as clueless in the admissions process to American universities. He said that Chris wasn't in the top ten percent of the students in his year – an important indicator of academic success in the US – unless the whole year of IB and non-IB students were included. This is normally how a student is assessed – honors and non-honors students combined – but he was not reassuring at this time of his high school career.
There were a lot of things he did not do in grade twelve. He did not apply to any schools in Canada outside Edmonton. He probably should have applied to the University of Toronto. Being accepted by it, which Chris would almost certainly have if he had applied as a business or mathematics student, would signal to his classmates, some of whom applied and got in, that he had academic abilities at the national level – if they did not already know from his competition results.
He did not apply for any scholarships, thinking erroneously that only the needy needed financial aid. Retrospectively, it was as important to win a scholarship in grade twelve as it was to earn honors in coursework. It would have been easy to win one, but he would have had to fill out the forms and go through the formalities. To his credit, the counsellor did ask Chris whether he was applying for scholarships, and he said no, because his parents were paying for college.
He also did not study for the provincial exams ahead of time. Many students in Edmonton knew that past provincial exams were for sale. Mom, or Chris, bought a stack of them, and he started studying too late to go through them. Neither did he for the International Baccalaureate exams, knowing now that he could in fact study for them.
He was thinking about college more than most of his classmates, who did not contem- plate the US or the UK as viable education options. He had to go through the package of stuff that Boston University and the University of Southern California sent him. At least several Brit- ish universities sent him information about living in their cities, after they gave him conditional offers. Chris was particularly anxious about the University of Chicago, which waitlisted him. He knew it was a different school than any that admitted him. But he sent its admissions office a
less-than-stellar course paper, and it ultimately rejected him.
In the thick of things that was the academic year, Chris neglected to ask anyone out for prom. In hindsight, it was an event that many of his classmates thought about for all three years
of high school. It was a regret that he did not ask a girl (most importantly, one from his school) to prom, because she would have signalled to his classmates of his social status in school – and he worked hard for social status in high school. It is like being accepted by the University of To- ronto that would have been an important academic signal to his peers.
Prom also showed Chris who his friends were. Some of his classmates, including those he socialized with outside school extensively, found dates on the down low. Some found dates from other schools. A group of friends who did not have dates ended up hanging out in a pool hall playing billiards.
There were things he did do right in grade twelve. He chose USC to attend in the fall. It was the best of the three schools that admitted him, still being in the period of his life when he was not aware of the importance of college rankings, admissions rate, and applicant statistics. It was in a large, warm city with lots of Spanish-speaking people – and it was a shorter flight to Hong Kong from LA. He was attracted, in any case, to USC’s honors business program and the Lloyd Greif Center for Entrepreneurial Studies.
He turned in an A extended essay on Hjalmar Schacht to the International Baccalaureate Organization, after working on it for a week. He joked for most of high school about how past science students from the IB program would spend two or three years working on their projects to earn an A that he probably could obtain working for a fraction of the time. And Chris did, and he still questioned how bad at time management those science students must have been.
Mom was non-chalant about his moving to LA. After spending the summer in Hong Kong, she – and the rest of the family – helped him settle in his new college environ. Chris walked in on his roommate, Steve Vuong, shirtless in a chair lounging with his mother, who was lying on his bed. It was understandable, since LA was a desert.
For the three years that the two interacted, all that Chris learned about Steve – not that he would not say more if asked – was that he was from San Jose. His parents were Vietnamese. He had at least one older brother, who went to Stanford, and a younger sister, whom he talked on the phone whenever he called home. And that Chris probably should have switched rooms and roommate that first chance he had.
Chris didn’t have prejudice against Vietnamese-Americans. In fact, he had a schoolmate at Colony Meadows Elementary who was Vietnamese and was a good student. He held, on the other hand, fixed but justified views about his relationship with Vietnamese people. They were a problem in Hong Kong in the 1980s. The radio broadcasted frequent announcements, in Viet- namese, to warn refugees to not come to the city – if their boats were close enough to pick up the radio signal. At the same time, Chris’ family taught him to appreciate Vietnamese food. He re- membered occasional trips to a Vietnamese restaurant that served hard-boiled duck eggs with half-developed fetuses still inside.
In Houston, according to his uncle, young Vietnamese-Americans were a gang problem, dealing in drugs and engaging in robberies and shootings. From what his cousins reported was in the news, Chris believed him. But, at the same time, he liked their food. At lunch on Saturdays or Sundays, he always asked to eat at a Vietnamese restaurant, where he would have beef rice noo- dle and salami.
He had a problem with Steve, because he was a loud, partying drinker who wanted to share the laptop and clothes. The dorm was small but he filled it with strangers or, when they were not available, his voice, which would be speaking to someone on the phone late in the night – when Chris would be sleeping. He would throw up in his sleep after coming home drunk, if he could not find the garbage can in time. He had, in essence, nothing to offer Chris.
Two projects were worthwhile to note when Chris first arrived at USC. He discovered the fraternity culture at the university, where around one in five students belonged to the Greek sys- tem. He knew what to say to members of a business fraternity, Alpha Kappa Psi, to get tapped.
He did not end up initiating, but a fraternity’s rushing process is a good filter through which the cool people are separated from the unpopular, the trusting from the cynical, and the disciplined from the wiry. International students were few in fraternities, and so were the financial needy by his observation.
He started on a transfer application to the University of Chicago, confident that he was inches away from the doors of the university the year before. It took him to Chicago, whose windy winter he finally experienced first-hand, for an interview, a mistake since he spent about fifteen minutes in the office of an admissions staff distracted by his computer bag and suitcase (Chris would have been straight to the Magnificent Mile then the airport after) and not being able to explain why he wanted to study there or name a professor that he wanted to study under. The transfer application process was like watching grass grow, with the deadline near the end of the academic year.
Mom fell ill a second time, adding to the loneliness from living so far away from Edmon- ton. Chris did not understand the implications at the time, but he had left Brent and Mom, healthy or sick, in snowy Edmonton. Through the whole ordeal, which included surgery, he could only talk to her over the dirty phone in his dorm room, looking at himself in the equally unclean mirror.
He set himself a goal that year: to get into Harvard Business School. Two things inspired him to do this. Steve showed him a copy of Robert Reid’s book Year One, which was about go- ing to Harvard Law School. Chris had no interest in studying law then, but the book gave him the idea of attending Harvard for graduate school. The second was a Daily Trojan article on Andrew Brown, an international relations and political science student, winning a Luce Scholarship to study in Indonesia.
Andrew was a fraternity man (a distraction, even though Chris was involved with Alpha Kappa Psi) with a 3.7 GPA (he could definitely do better). Andrew also planned to work at Gold- man Sachs, which was absolutely within his abilities (He was already contacting investment banks like Deutsche Bank for a job). To Chris, this fraternity man could be handily beaten by a Marshall School of Business Business Scholar who finished top of his calculus class the semester before. He was determined to spend the next four years racking up extracurricular activities (with progressing level of responsibility), an exotic combination of courses, and an important intern- ship or internships to get into those hallowed halls.
And possibly a prestigious scholarship like the Rhodes Scholarship en route.
In his freshman year, Chris also rediscovered his love for languages. He sat next to the vice-president of the Motion Pictures Licensing Corporation on the flight back to LA from Van- couver, who was generous with his advice (“Learn languages.”). He thought of French immedi- ately and took one more class than most students would.
He spent most of the second semester thinking of three things. The first is French, since taking a language tend to consume one’s thoughts. He had borrowed French texts and books ly- ing on his desk and would crawl to his chair to read a couple of pages whenever the mood struck. He was enjoying learning a language that no one around him was studying in university.
He was thinking about the distraction Steve, who was pledging at a fraternity himself and revelling in everything and everyone he was encountering, was giving him. He even thought it cool to comment on how pretty the girls in Chris’ former fraternity was. Because of his lifestyle, Steve’s sleeping patterns became erratic, enough so that they started alternating sleep in three hour blocks. Chris would find himself awake at three o’clock in the morning, hanging around the stacks in the empty Leavey Library with his laptop.
He was thinking about the pending transfer application to the University of Chicago. He had looked through the course catalogue that the school mailed him, imagining the courses that he would take next year. He was practicing in his head terms like “the quarter system,” the “Un- common Application,” the “University of Chicago Scavenger Hunt,” the “Rockefeller Chapel,” “Hyde Park,” and “the life of the mind.” To his annoyance, Dad asked about his application each time they talked on the phone, through his being rejected by the university.
Chris liked that semester, because he found that he had a talent for learning French, phi- losophy, and economics. French he has explained, but philosophy and economics were mysteri- ous subjects. Having taken Theory of Knowledge in high school and a course on ethics and jus- tice the semester before did not prepare him for a text like Meditations on First Philosophy. That he succeeded in understanding the basic concepts and did well in writing essays about it gave him tremendous confidence. It would have taken him forever to do the same if he had to come across it in the bookshelves of Leavey Library.
Microeconomics was well taught by a lecturer who no longer teaches at USC. The text- book was approachable, and lessons presented in lectures were fortified by comprehensive as- signments. The teaching assistant was helpful, and contributed to his getting an A in the course. Without doing well in introductory microeconomics, Chris would never have changed major that summer.
He set a higher goal for himself that year. He planned to complete the French and the Jap- anese language sequences. By June he was comfortable enough with French that he signed up for an intensive course in the summer. He also tested into second semester Japanese; in July he would also take a Japanese course.
That summer, apart from attending classes, Chris was in his new dorm room, meant for four people, downloading and listening to Japanese TV shows, Japanese music, French radio programs, and Bloomberg newscasts from Milan. With the weather scorching outside and the air conditioner turned on high, he dreamed of picking up more languages, studying and perhaps working abroad for a semester, feeding the hungry on Skid Row, and working in humanitarian aid in Africa for a career.
He was on a mission. He was taking double the Economics and Mathematics coursework to get himself into a graduate program in Mathematical Finance. He had planned to obtain a Bachelor’s and a Master’s degree in four years and see what graduate scholarship opportunities were available. He rented an apartment in downtown LA with a view of Staple Center and bought his first car. He interviewed for a position on the staff of the Daily Trojan and was of- fered the Managing Editor’s job. Life was going well enough that he was not thinking about transferring to another school anymore.
Then Mom got sick again and was operated on. Chris visited her in Hong Kong and went back to LA determined not to get into graduate school but to find work.
He interviewed at three companies and received internship offers at two, both of which were in California. At that pace, it was going to be at least another year before he would be fi- nancially independent.
Chris ended up interning at Enron, where Jennifer’s husband was a director in the risk de- partment. He regretted it somewhat. It was a job that he did not have to work hard or interview for. The work there was not particularly challenging, nor did it fit his course of study or his ca- reer goal. He was left alone by his colleagues for most of the summer.
By the end of his second year, he had met a handful of academic starlets. There were a hall full of Business Scholars at North Residential College with whom he lived; David Chow, a Norman Topping Scholar, from freshman writing; Vera, a Trustee Scholar, from Organizational Behavior; Sean Tran, a Coca Cola Scholar, from French III; Helen March (whom Chris had man- aged but did not actually meet), a future Truman Scholar, from the Daily Trojan; and Deborah Roberts, a future Fulbright Scholar, with whom Chris organized a conference for a semester. Having met and/or interacted with them, he felt that he could obtain a scholarship as prestigious as theirs.
Five years later, Chris was looking for an apartment in New York City. He used the com- pany Manhattan Apartments. Mom found online a realtor, whose two-storied office he went to. He had never heard of the company before, but from the size of its office, it was probably reputa- ble. The office consisted of desks pushed up against one another. Everyone seemed busy.
At a corner were several employees chatting, including the assistant who was going to show him apartments. As with any online realtors, there were more apartment listings than the company could put on their website. A woman sent the assistant to show him several units. He was black and told him took gigs as a DJ on the weekends.
The first apartment was a brownstone with exposed walls, on the ground floor of a build- ing with no doorman. A consultant lived there, and he was moving in with his girlfriend, who lived next door. “It’s the only reason I’m moving,” he said, typing on a laptop. There was a half second floor, which might have been the only shortcoming. It was where the bedroom was, and the bed was cramped. But the additional floor was the reason that the apartment had a high ceil- ing.
The offer price was fifteen hundred dollars, a bargain compared to the double Chris paid for an apartment in downtown Los Angeles when he was in college. The women he spoke to at the office, through the assistant on the phone, urged him to take it. The assistant thought there seemed to be nothing wrong either. But something told him not to take the apartment, and he did not.
Eventually they ended up at the Montana. If the brownstone represented what a New York apartment should be like, this was a clean, modern doorman building. It would do. But when it came time for a credit check – the rent was about three thousand dollars per month – Dad refused. It was half understandable. They did not live or do business in New York City, so they would not have a credit history to verify. And the management company of the apartment build- ing was too inflexible to accept cash. But Chris found Dad’s lack of an explanation a sign that distrusted him and his motives for moving to New York City.
In the meanwhile, he was living in a hotel room at Best Western’s President Hotel in Times Square. It was next to a Vietnamese restaurant, where he would eventually order delivery food from after he moved into a new apartment, and a deli. It was because of this deli that he be- gan an addiction to Saran-wrapped treats: chocolate cakes and banana bread covered in poppy seed, washed down with Pom pomegranate juice. It was in the theatre district, where he watched his first play at the Walter Kerr Theatre, Doubt.
But the district was not necessarily safe. When he crossed Eighth Street to buy something from the tobacco store, Chris would sometimes get accosted by black men asking for change. Granted, it wasn’t as brazen as a man on bicycle who would ride around South Central Los An- geles and lifted his shirt to passers-by, but these men were as direct and thick-skinned as any homeless man asking for money on the subway in New York City. Nevertheless, the One Train, which had a station close by, dropped him off at the university’s main gate on 116th Street. It
was convenient, since he would go back to his hotel room between classes for lunch, after which he would take the subway back to school. When he worked late, he would take a cab directly back to the hotel.
He was hoping to get university housing. Certainly an Ivy League university would have great living arrangements for its students. It was, as he could tell from the number of applicants, a popular conception. Housing assignment worked on a lottery system, which began online. It involved a lot of clicking on a Columbia website. The goal was to obtain an appointment time, with which he could choose an apartment.
He was shown three apartments, which were all in the same building. An economics PhD student and his Asian girlfriend lived in one. He was friendly but showed some reservation when he showed Chris around. Not that he had a say in his ultimate choice, but he moved to the next unit. A chubby, bespectacled man opened the door to the apartment. He was slightly creepy, and Chris asked to see the last one.
The apartment on the ground floor was empty. He took it, although he was taking a risk on who his future roommate would be. He was sold on not having a roommate for at least an- other two months. Having lived in a hotel room for two months, he was not ready to share his bathroom with another person yet. And the address was good fortune. The unit number was 1B (as in the number eighteen), in a building on Eighteen West 108th Street.
The apartment was inconvenient, though. It was fifteen minutes on foot to class. The neighborhood did not turn out to be very safe. His apartment’s windows had burglar bars. If the safety of a neighborhood can be gauged by its grocery stores, this neighborhood was probably frequented by criminals and populated by blue collared people. Finally, his internal alarm for safety went off when Chris looked at the broken playgrounds, the shops that were closed early at night, and the old cars driven by young people that blared loud music and needed repairs. He still had to go to school late at night, since there was no internet connection at home.
So a variety of reasons led him back to looking for an apartment. First, he left several boxes of belongings in a storage compartment in the neighborhood. His roommate, a University of Iowa graduate named Ethan, was nuts. Upon arrival, he very likely infested the place with bed bugs. When he brought in the exterminator, Ethan refused bug treatment (“I’ll take my chances.”). He brought at least two strangers to stay overnight in the span of a month, one of whom he called his “brother.” He would go to the bathroom, which was next to Chris’ room, too frequently and, by Columbia standard, was a bit of a dunce.
Chris went on to shuffle between a handful of hotels. He spent the longest time at the Grand Hyatt by Grand Central Station. He devoured countless plates of stuffed chicken breast with hard dinner rolls and steak. In the morning, he would buy cheap breakfast from the deli across the street. Scrambled eggs with cheese, sausages, links, pancakes, and soy milk. He also stayed an inordinate amount of time at Hilton, Westin, and the Marriott Marquis at Times Square. He ate pizzas from the restaurant on the corner of Forty-second and Eighth Street, and the fluffy pillows in the Marriott Marquis, etc. By the summer of 2006, it was obvious that he should not be in New York City. He was becoming a tourist. But Chris stayed.
A note: the staff of all the hotels he stayed at did not treat him better because he stayed there for a long time. They probably thought he was a businessman from Asia on a long-term as- signment in the city.
Chris moved into a four thousand dollar a month apartment called The Marc on January 1, 2007. The apartment search ultimately took one year and four months, and brought Mom, who paid the year’s rent in cash, to New York. It was very good indication that he should not be in the city when Mom was needed to come to find him a place to live. He should have found a place over a year ago, by himself or through someone else.
The Marc was filled with amenities. There was a large gym with trainers, which he did not use. There was a lounge with events for residents called the Marc Club, which he did not sign up. The supposed concierge services was unhelpful. One of the staff at the front desk was a loofy-looking Latino named Sergio whom Chris eventually avoided for two years and eight months. In any case, it become awkward handing his dirty laundry to the concierge. There was an East European doorman who reminded him of Chris Noth.
The apartment building was in the Theatre District, adjacent to Times Square. Across Fifty-Third Street was Roseland. The Ed Sullivan Theatre was on the same block. Chris never watched David Letterman’s show in person, but he sometimes stood outside by the exit in the af- ternoon, sometimes with a cappuccino in hand, to see who would go in or come out of the door. Central Park was minutes away, and he eventually spent many days walking in it. The Reebok Club, allegedly frequented by Shaquille O’Neal, was close by as well. When he inquired in per- son, its membership staff gave him a discount because he studied at Columbia.
(1)* An astronaut refers to someone from Hong Kong in the 1980s and 1990s whose children emi- grated overseas for political reasons on the lead up to the 1997 handover to China but who stayed for work and flew frequently to visit.