Odds & ends

Odds & ends


Me with my mom in our ancestral village.

(1) I was literally born on the streets of rural China to peasant parents. (My mother was walking to the hospital but had to give birth to me midway on her trip on a cold and dirty road.) The irony is that my name, “Kai” (佳),  is a homophone for the word “street” (街) in Cantonese. The unsanitary conditions did, however, build up my immune system well.

(2) When I arrived in Canada (age 4) from China, I was entrusted to carry my family’s electric rice cooker (a status symbol for peasant families from rural China) while passing through the airport. Whilst carrying the pot, I tumbled all the way down a descending-escalator — the first escalator I had ever seen in my life. (I don’t recall how the rice cooker did, but I do remember eating rice made from that pot as a child, so I must have did a decent job protecting it.) I had cuts and scrapes all over my face from the fall. As a result, I had a phobia of escalators until age 12.

(3) My first arrest, at the age of 16, was a result of a shoplifting incident at a downtown mall in Toronto that snowballed into a bloody affair. When confronted by two buffed security guards outside the store after my deed I panicked and ran. I was caught after a chase of about 100 metres, but not before I put up a valiant fight. When I was finally wrestled to the ground the guards beat me with their heavy duty flashlights and caused a large laceration on my head. I was then brought into the mall security room in handcuffs. When the police came to take me to the station they were stunned to see how roughed up (black eye, ripped clothes, bruises, etc.) the guards were and remarked to my captors, “You let that little guy do that to you?” Nevertheless, it was I who spent that night in jail (in the head trauma unit) with blood caked in my hair.

(4) I was held in Toronto’s West Detention Centre upon my first arrest. My bail hearing was at Old City Hall. At first I was scared and felt out of my element in detention, but it turned out that I knew half of the other inmates held with me. They were primarily childhood friends and friends of friends. Having spent time in detention also gave me street credence amongst certain crowds. I came to realise that closed custody (i.e. jail) acts more like a networking session than any form of punishment/determent for law offenders.

(5) I used to frequent a Vietnamese coffee shop in South Riverdale which was a popular hangout spot for local youth gangs. I had several memorable incidents at this establishment and I was soon well known to the owner — he respected/feared me for the trouble I brought there. I first gained notoriety at this place when I — at the time totally removed from the gang culture — went inside the shop to confront a group that had threatened some of my friends. It was a tense standoff in which I entered armed with a meat clever, baseball bat and several knives on my person in case the group tried to attack me. A rival gang was just outside and was my backup. A brawl was avoided that day, although I did become enemy number one to the faction inside. A year later I was involved in a fight inside the premise. In that fiasco, I ripped the stairwell banister off the wall when I had delivered a jumping kick from the top of the stairs. Police were later involved and took photos of all the regulars as part of the investigation.

(6) As a teenager, I was once chased, along with a friend, by 10+ guys with baseball bats down a deserted road in a rural outpost of Toronto (by the zoo). My friend hid himself in the trunk of our car. I jumped inside the back seat of the car and nearly had my head smashed with the bats, but was saved by the car window, which shielded my skull! We got out of that situation thanks to the exceptional driving skills of my friend who was waiting in the car for us.

(7) After my second arrest, the Crown — based on the advice of my social worker/probation officer — recommended 6 months closed custody (i.e. jail) for my offense. My lawyer vigorously fought that by obtaining character reference letters for me. We appealed to teachers, work managers, etc. including members of a church I used to belong to. I was turned down by an old Sunday school teacher. Nevertheless, the judge did side with me and I was spared hard jail time in favour of community service.

(8) When I had tried (for the third time) to re-enrol at Riverdale Collegiate (a high school near my parents’ home in Toronto) the vice principal in charge of my file asked me, “How many credits did you get last year (at another school)?” I answered, “None,” to which he replied: “That’s right! The day you get back inside this school is the day I quit. Now get the $%^ out of my office!” He then threw my transcripts on the floor and told me to never come back. I eventually returned to that school, about two and a half years after this incident, because the vice principal had cancer and was on sick leave for the academic year.

(9) As a teenager I dropped out of high school and was arrested twice (no criminal record by the grace of Canada’s Young Offenders’ Act). I eventually went on to finish high school at age 20, after having bounced around five different schools. At the nadir of my teenage years I ate food that had been tossed away by others and endured a brief spell of homelessness in my first year of university.

(10) I chased someone, whom I thought was an assassin trying to hurt my family, with a loaded handgun, only to find out later that the “assassin” was just a random shoplifter who had ran through my backyard — fleeing from the police (but not known to me at the time) — on the same day that one of my family members was assaulted (and fit the profile of the attacker). Luckily I never shot that guy because there was, unbeknownst to me, a cop that followed me chasing this person (and I was on probation at the time). Anyhow, I tired after chasing the guy for only 500 metres and lost him when he hopped a fence — cinematic chase scenes are totally unrealistic!

(11) I was an avid, competitive runner as a young adult. I began running because I was unable to catch a criminal that I had pursued through my old neighbourhood (see item 10). I began training after the chase and six months later I ran in the Ontario high school cross-country finals and was the MVP for my team. I also ran to and from work (about 10 km) as part of my running regiment; it helped to save on streetcar fares at a time when money was tight. I credit running with turning around my life.

(12) I was accepted to Princeton’s economics PhD programme on a full scholarship straight from my undergraduate studies at the University of Toronto. I had done exceptionally well at the U of T, including having impressed a Harvard-trained professor who wrote a letter of recommendation for me for graduate school admissions. This professor was known in the economics community as one who rarely gives positive recommendations, but had done so for me on account of my stellar performance in his classes. We also bonded over the fact that we had both been poor immigrant children who grew up in the same neighbourhood in Toronto.

(13) When Ben Bernanke left Princeton for Washington DC in 2002, he gave me with his fish tank. I raised many a fish in that tank. This prompts the question: Why didn’t the press interview me to get the inside scoop on the direction of monetary policy in the United States? I was also fortunate enough to have had Alan Blinder — former vice chairman of the US Federal Reserve — on my PhD dissertation committee.

(14) Back in 2002 Google was at Princeton recruiting for the then-start-up company. They saw my resume online and invited me for an interview on campus. These went very well and they flew me the next week for a final round interview at their new Mountain View headquarter (the Googleplex). I was not really interested in the role (generating revenues for their search tool) — thinking I would pursue a more traditional career for someone with an economics background — but happily accepted an all-expense-paid trip to California. If I had joined, I would have been among the first several hundred employees at the company — a time when employee compensation included a significant equity portion.

(15) In my third year as a graduate student at Princeton I answered a job ad seeking a research assistant for a junior professor that was looking to write a book. At the time the phenomenon of outsized pay packages of CEOs was nascent. Although the topic was garnering some media attention, it was without any rigorous numbers to add flavour to the debate. The professor had compiled an extensive dataset on CEO pay packages and wanted to document with hard data the pay-without-performance phenomenon of executive compensation. I worked for about a month on this project before deciding to resign, worried that it would be too distracting towards finishing up my PhD. It was then that professor enticed me to stay on board by offering to make me a co-author of the book instead. In spite of the offer, I still declined. About 2-3 years later the book was published and had become a media darling and I saw the professor and the book plastered in all the financial media (WSJ, FT, CNBC, etc.). That professor was later offered a position at the Harvard Business School.

(16) I have a collection of free books given to me from Paul Krugman from the days when he was my PhD thesis adviser. Most notably, he lent (gave) me Mundell’s classic 1960s textbook on international economics, which apparently is no longer published. (Mundell was awarded the Economics Nobel Prize in 1999.) I reckon that textbook has appreciated in value since Krugman won the Nobel Prize (2008).

(17) In the latter half of my time in Manhattan I lived in a boutique apartment building in the Flatiron District. The building interior design was done by Jade Jagger and so happened to be popular with models and celebrities. One of my erstwhile neighbours was a Victoria’s Secret supermodel (Miranda Kerr), who at the time was dating and would later marry (and then divorce) an A-list Hollywood actor (Orlando Bloom). Myself not being interested in celebrity gossip did not know their backgrounds and had chatted casually with both on several occasions before finally realising who they were after a friend gave me the scoop. It also happened to be that my landlady was a celebrity; her being a supermodel who (inter alia) was on the cover of the 2005 Sports Illustrated Swimsuit edition. I discovered this fact only after having received a letter in my mailbox which was addressed to the occupant. It turned out to be fan mail with her Sports Illustrated photos inside along with a request for an autograph.

(18) I learned how to ride a bicycle at age 37. Growing up it was a secret which I was very ashamed of. No one taught me as a child and it was otherwise expensive for a family like mine. By the time I was a teenager and had more control and means in my life, I was held back by the embarrassment of lacking a skill that most people take for granted as a rite of passage of early childhood. Not knowing how to balance on two wheels was traumatic to my social well-being. I was unable to socialize and bond with friends through much of my life because of my limited mobility and me wanting to hide this fact (thus leading me to shun many social interactions). I eventually acquired the skill when I had access to an empty car park where I could learn without the gaze of people around me.

(19) I grew up a fan of (ice) hockey, but did not play much until I moved to New York, eventually joining an organised team for the first time in my life there. Oddly enough, after having moved to Dubai a few yeas later I ended up playing more hockey and significantly improved my skills. My old beer league in Dubai consisted of many players who had played pro, semi-pro and/or major juniors or some other competitive level. Nevertheless, I was the second-leading scorer on my Dubai team in my third year. (Opposing teams usually concentrated their efforts on the top players, so I had a lot of room to skate; plus I had good chemistry with my linemates.) The irony is that after leaving Dubai to go to Montreal, I ended up playing less frequently and less gracefully than I did in the Arabian desert!

Strolling through the city (Toronto, 2010).  Photo taken by Dave Chan (www.davechan.ca).