Growing Up Geek: Richard Lai

Welcome to Growing Up Geek, an ongoing feature where we take a look back at our youth and tell stories of growing up to be the nerds that we are. Today, we have our very own Senior Associate Editor, Richard Lai, who also happens to be the Editor-in-chief of Engadget Chinese.

I've come to the point in life where I stop paying attention to my age, though it's still fun to make people guess it for their reaction -- you'll find out after the break, but here's a hint: I've spent the same number of years in both Hong Kong and the UK, plus a couple of years in Australia. Such a combination has turned me into a Chinese guy who speaks both British English and two Chinese dialects while holding an Australian passport; but I tend to skip all this and say that I'm a spy with many gadgets.

According to my Tiger Mom, my first encounter with gadgets started as early as at the age of two -- I somehow managed to ceaselessly destroy home telephones at the time, thus forcing my folks to opt for the cheaper models. It's rather ironic that I'm now the one who owns the most number of phones in the family. At some point around that age I also accidentally killed my father's tank of koi carp by feeding them washing powder, but 'tis a story for another day.

Surprisingly, I don't think said mischief shaped my interest in gadgets later on. It really all started with our new life in Australia when I was four, and my uncle there happened to have a Nintendo Entertainment System. I still remember the "wow" moment when I first saw this gray box and the pixelated plumber on the Super Mario Bros. cartridge. Thanks to the lack of game-saving ability, my determination to uncover all the secret boxes and chambers quickly led to my first pair of prescription glasses.

Did I mention I have a Tiger Mom in the house? TV gaming consoles were forbidden in our household since we moved back to Hong Kong two years later, so really, the slim Xbox 360 I acquired last year is my first-ever TV console. Not that I get much time to fully appreciate it these days, anyway. Despite the seemingly strict rules, I still managed to get my hands on a couple of Game Boys and Digimons throughout my Hong Kong childhood (anyone remember the pencil trick for speeding up Digimon growth?), along with a Panasonic SJ-MR200 MiniDisc player and a whole stash of Pokémon cards while I was at high school (OK, I did scream a little when I pulled out a Mew from a packet). Needless to say, some of those toys required a lot of persuasion and promises of good grades, though the Game Boys came from a very kind family friend who also happens to be a super geek fan of many gadgets.

Thinking about it, we didn't have a particularly rich collection of gadgets, nor were my parents passionate about electronics. The most impressive piece of tech back then would have been my father's mobile phone -- it's rather amusing seeing how he went from a massive brick all the way to a small candy bar over the years. I think he still keeps his first ever Motorola handset in his office for showing off, if not for self defense (admittedly, I was too frightened to touch it when I was tiny, fearing I'd drop and break it). Don't be mistaken, though: I definitely didn't get my nerd genes from my old man -- this dude doesn't even have a computer on his office desk, and he can only just about use a mouse. It was only last year when he showed interest in the iPad, so I got the couple each an iPad when Apple started clearing stock for the iPad 2.

I guess my lust for the latest and greatest gadgets come from my competitive nature, and the fact that I've always been able to quickly figure out how to operate them or set them up without looking at the manual -- it was (and still is) pretty satisfying when this happened, especially in front of impressed adults back then. There's just something about cables and graphical user interface -- they rarely get in my way (except for that one time when I poked my finger into an Australian wall socket), but for the same reason, I'd spend hours fiddling with the troublesome gadgets and software installations before giving up.

Alas, I didn't quite have the same determination with my studies in my first year at high school, and looking back now, the various aforementioned distractions were no doubt part of the problem, and I also discovered PC games that year. The outcome of this was my parents sending me off to a boarding school in the middle of nowhere, aka Wiltshire in the UK (near Stonehenge, if that rings a bell for anyone). Thank goodness that I was able to fly back home two or three times a year then, because the countryside offered little more than grazing cows and the occasional fertilizer stench to kids trapped within the campus. In my first couple of years there, the closest I got to some new technology were the Royal Air Force jets roaring over us every now and then.

Of course, I didn't really hate the countryside nor the school. In fact, that special place offered many opportunities for me to show off my nerdy side in various ways. Most notably, I was one of the few kids in my first year there to possess a digital camera (a hefty 1.3 megapixel Fujifilm FinePix 1400 Zoom), and quite naturally, I became a general photographer for my schoolmates to document some skateboarding, pranks, birthday bumps and parties. In the later years I became our school magazine's photographer, so I was able to borrow the more powerful and eccentric Nikon Coolpix 4500, and then I eventually convinced school to purchase a Nikon D50.

While I was off my photography duty, I also built a couple of websites: one for the beekeeping club (yes, I was in it too; that's how awesome the school was), and one for our senior boarding house. Just last week, my brother asked where I acquired my HTML skills, and all I remember is that ever since I received my first laptop -- a bulky but tough Fujitsu LifeBook C2010 -- I started fiddling with FrontPage (come on, who hasn't?), until I got fed up with the limitations and migrated to Dreamweaver. I didn't take any lessons except for the few times when I asked an IT teacher for some advice -- the dude was even kind enough to give me a one-to-one crash course on making simple Flash animation.

On top of that, I gradually became my schoolmates' and teachers' go-to guy for all computer related problems. My proudest achievement was beating a technician at getting a projector to talk to a laptop just moments before we were due to perform Les Misérables in London's West End. Might I add that we were the first to perform a school production of said musical, hence the invitation to perform in London for one night -- I played the farmer who kicked Jean Valjean off his farm, though thinking about it, I should've pushed for a rice paddy field while I was at it.

It may sound like I had a clean record at my boarding school (and I wasn't even going to mention me singing tenor in the choir), but allow me to share my darker moments there. Leaving the few fights in the early years aside, at some point in my final year I "needed" to get around the ports to access the Internet from my dorm (hey, I needed my daily dose of Engadget before bed), and let's just say my operation might have involved a wireless router, a surprisingly effective self-made "WindSurfer" antenna booster, plus a couple of HomePlugs. Oh, I got caught red-handed alright, despite the fact that I hid everything nicely inside a computer tower in the boarding house's computer room -- ironically, the technician who spotted my rig were there to work out how to enable Internet connection for our boarding house's isolated internal network (which was mainly used for Counter-Strike from time to time).

It was a rather awkward conversation with the deputy head master, especially since I was also the deputy school captain or something like that (no, not the Zac Efron kind). Anyway, I got away with just having my connectivity gear confiscated, and I managed to behave myself for the remaining months in that school year.

Engadget and similar tech blogs weren't enough for me -- I also wanted to touch the new gadgets, but thankfully, I was still able to keep myself up to date with the few trips back to Hong Kong each year. Over time, walking around the computer malls in Sham Shui Po and gadget shops in Mongkok became a habit of mine (and eventually I would extend my coverage to Shenzhen's Huaqiangbei), so my friends and relatives learned to come to me for shopping advice. I, on the other hand, looked to a computer-related course at university, thinking some coding and circuit building would suit me well given my unhealthy obsession with electronics.

Oddly enough, I ended up enjoying the photography club and writing for our student newspaper more than the course itself. I should've seen this coming -- I had already spent two summers as an intern soldering countless prototype circuit boards for some car audio head units, and that was quite possibly the most boring thing I'd ever done. Sure, the course at uni was much more than that, but similarly, I quickly lost interest while staring at circuit boards and codes for hours in the labs. Too bad I didn't heed the advice of one of the engineers at the company: he plainly told me to pick any course other than electronic engineering to avoid being stuck in his seemingly boring job (his words, not mine).

Don't get me wrong, though, I thoroughly enjoyed the company of my awesome (and super bright) coursemates at uni, and they were the ones who actively encouraged me to throw myself into Engadget. Coincidentally, the rare opportunity arose twice for me: one from an open call for a London editor (which I didn't get through), and another from a brief meetup with ex-Senior Editor Thomas Ricker. Eventually, I would quit uni for this job; and that, my friends, is how you seriously upset your Tiger Mom and Tiger Dad.

Do I have any regrets? Only a bit. I should've checked the male-to-female ratio when picking university (no offense, Imperial College London). As for this job, I don't think I can get any geekier given my circumstances (though it still feels good to know vaguely what Fourier transform's for and how FPGA works), not to mention that I get to lay my hands on some products well before my envious friends can. Well, the small proportion of friends who care that much about gadgets, anyway.

Richard is currently based in Hong Kong, surrounded by a vast range of gadgets and delicious food. On Twitter he's @richardlai, but be warned: he does tweet a lot. This guy's also just turned 24 today.