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.

(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) 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.

(6) 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.

(7) 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.

(8) 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. 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.

(9) 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 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!

(10) 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 9). 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.

(11) When Ben Bernanke left Princeton for Washington DC in 2002, he entrusted 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.

(12) 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.

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

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