Pixels & Fajitas: A Tale of Growing Up on the Internet and Chili’s

When I was young, young enough for the Internet to have solidified itself into something worth taking up space in our lives and before its unfortunate evolution into a machine made to reinforce ideas of late capitalism, I prayed to nothing else but our Internet broadband modem.

When I was nine and the stranger came into our home to install the modem, an altar made up of cables and the black rectangular box was set up next to our home computer (which in itself was already a holy thing to me, this screen projecting endless possibilities for me to jump into and explore). Before this altar existed, all we could do was go on the pre-installed platforms and games on the computer. You know, Purble Place and all that. It was the best thing ever back then, I kept myself busy for hours on end making cakes and matching the colorful, blobby characters’ faces and clothes. These little blobby characters and the neon pixels kept me in good company. 

When the altar was set up, everything changed. Something big happened, I had no idea exactly what but to me back then, the man who came to set things up and all the cables and the box was like a fantastical angel that came into our house and opened up multiple doors towards impossibility made possible. Obviously now I can explain what happened and what changed. Physics and technology of course, not a biblically-inaccurate angel coming into and settling in one’s home. 

My mother was the first to use the computer when the altar was set up and when everything was ready to be used. She tested things out, clicked open a new button at the bottom of the screen and it opened a window, a window that to my understanding was a place where you could ask for anything and it will always give it to you. Like a prayer instantly granted, whatever it is. 

Soon after, with my mother’s permission, I was already sitting in the chair, my eyes darting back and forth from the altar beside the computer and back to the screen when I searched something up on the Internet browser. I wanted to understand what miracle it did; how it did it. But there wasn’t much to witness, only the blinking of the tiny green lights on the rectangular box like it was communicating silently with the computer. I soon learned that these tiny blinking green lights were something I could depend on, that everything was OK. My mother told me to always look out if the lights turned red or worse, if the lights were all turned off. When that happened sometimes, my heart would sink and I would go running to her in the kitchen or in her room to tell her what happened. It was like a modern version of a little daughter looking out for the family’s cattle and reporting back to the father if she spots an oncoming storm in the distance. My mother would come see what’s wrong and fix it, maybe the cables got tangled or it just needed a quick restart. If it didn’t work, then she’d call someone and with the phone pressed to her ear, her two hands would do what the savior on the other end of the line told her to do, and the light would turn green again. A little prayer granted, always.

With blessings from the altar and the blinking green lights, I explored. I made a Facebook account, a Twitter account, a YouTube account. I watched endless videos on YouTube. I played online videogames, downloaded a bunch more of them to my mother’s annoyance. Sometimes I stumbled upon places I shouldn’t have stumbled across. I had no idea that this place was capable of containing so much violence and horror at once. I had no idea that what I was looking at would change my perception of the almost-sacred place my life depended on, but I knew better than to keep staying so I said a little thankful prayer to the red button I could hover over and click in an instant to exit out of that. 

Not long after that, I found a place, a space that I could inhabit and meet people and lose myself in for hours and hours long into the night. It was Habbo Hotel, a virtual world similar to Club Penguin but better, in my opinion. Once again with blessings from the altar and the green lights, I created an account and jumped in.

So much of my time was spent exploring the Hotel and making friends. It felt so surreal that I was talking to a bunch of other people from the other end of the globe. There were so many rooms to explore, so many creations that I just spent my time gawking at wishing I could create something like that too if it weren’t for the in-game currency system and having to buy coins with real money in order to purchase the rooms and furniture. 

I remember talking to my real-life friends about it, about this world. I was talking about it like how a demented person would talk about this place where humans can fly and fishes can talk if only everyone would believe him. I wanted to have someone else experience it because, for lack of other words, it was so much fun. Eventually one of my friends was convinced and I told them what to do, how to sign up and where to meet me. Meet me at Roxie Hotel around eight tonight, OK? I told her, referring to one of the rooms in there that we could meet up in and I would show her around. I felt so grown-up saying that, like we were actually planning for a rendezvous at a real place that night and I was going to bring her around and show her the nooks and crannies of the city. It was the closest I got to a life with texture at that age, having this secret place I could go to with a whole other secret life that I only share with those who want to experience it too.

As I spend more and more of my days in the Hotel, I couldn’t help but notice the amount of users in the game dwindling. There were times where I would go into different rooms and find nobody but my own avatar with my hideous hair and clothes (thanks in-game currency system). After doing some digging, I discovered that many of the users were migrating to what is called Habbo Retros. They were essentially private-hosted Habbo Hotels, the best part being there were no in-game currency system and even if there was, users would get free coins sent to their accounts on a daily basis. That is all to say that users could focus on creating rooms and making friends without worrying about the hierarchy created by having or not having coins. There were a bunch of these Retros being run, some of them only had a handful of users and some more than others. But there were only a couple that were famous, such as Habplus (they eventually shut down in 2013 to my dismay) and Fresh Hotel. Once again, I created a new account and before I could load my avatar on screen I was already thinking of what I could build with all these coins I now have.

I would say those were some of the best times of my life, the days turning into nights turning into late nights where I would stay up and log onto the Hotel. I had comfort in my anonymity, I made up a fake name and identity, or most of the time I had no identity at all, just a single avatar spending hours building her own houses and diners (always a favorite of mine to build). I made friends from the United States, the Philippines, United Kingdom; lines criss-crossing each other across the globe. We created a chat room on Tinychat and turned on our cameras to talk to each other, knowing well that the chat room was open to the public and there were a bunch of other strangers with their cameras and mics turned off, either joining us in the chat or just there lurking and watching, probably. I still get mad at myself at times for even doing that, with how young and vulnerable I was at the time, late at night with my mother asleep being exposed to random strangers with my camera turned on like that. Still, it was a blessing I stuck to my fake name and identity. I only existed there, and if there was danger it couldn’t follow me back to my real life. I felt safe enough, I guess. But I was having a good time, and that eclipsed the sense of danger. 

My years from then on were defined by my time in the Hotel. I got more of my friends to join me on there, and every evening after school we would go on there before dinnertime. With our fake names and identities we would go around, meet new people, build rooms together, get into relationships. When I say get into relationships, I mean it in the most superficial way. It was just a term we put on when we met a boy on there and there was even a modicum of interest between us, mostly just because of the fact that we were girls and they were boys and we talked for a bit. Then there comes the famous question: Do you want to be my girlfriend? Of course we said yes, with our superficial understanding of love and relationships. Nothing blossomed from the relationship, it was just about asking each other how their days were and what they wanted to do (most of the time just to hang out together in whoever’s house looked nicer). There were no clear rules of breaking up however. You just knew you weren’t a thing anymore when you or the other person don’t come online much anymore or when you don’t talk to each other anymore, and that was it. So really, imagine how many boys me and my friends are still technically in relationships with to this day, the bond not technically broken by a clearcut “I don’t want to be with you anymore.” That’s certainly a really funny way to see it.

Mostly though, even with all the surface-level relationships we had on that place, we still made memories doing things with each other: building, chatting, meeting others, fighting. We fought sometimes, accusing each other of copying houses and rooms, of trying to steal each other’s boyfriends. Under our fake names, we fought like little girls but the next day in school we laughed it off, reminding each other of how stupid our little feud was. It was like we were merely playing as these movie characters. That was how we created fun in our lives, how I spent my childhood away from the real world with all its disapointments and inside this world of flying humans and talking fishes.

I have recently been thinking about spaces — more specifically the spaces we inhabit during childhood. My own experiences of childhood spaces are extensive, my vocabulary of them made rich with my family’s having to constantly move houses. The memories I made in each of the houses I lived in was sufficient enough for me to have said I had a great childhood, but the only problem was, just as I was about to get comfortable in a house, just as I was done setting up my roost, we would already be up and moving to a different place. My perception of time depended heavily on the houses we moved into and out of. I find myself even to this day recalling specific periods of time in my life according to which house I lived in, my time and memories pierced by them. 

I didn’t have a stable, unmoving place where I could place my memories in like a wooden chest with neat drawers to organize everything in. All my memories are scattered across the city and towns, a part of me here and another over there. I needed something constant in my life, a place I can return to indefinitely and still find myself there. 

Habbo Hotel was one of them. It was where I could still go on and find remnants of my childhood spent online. As for a space in the physical world, I didn’t have to look any further than the most conventional space I could find as somebody who grew up being fed with love for food and dining spaces: the Tex-Mex restaurant Chili’s

It was such a special restaurant to me, my earliest memories of good dining were made there. It made for a special occasion when we went there, especially at a time when my mother was still working for the Embassy, which meant she traveled a lot and came home late after dinner parties and galas. This meant she couldn’t cook a lot of the time and we would rarely eat together as a family. So to me, going to Chili’s was special, it gave me excited jitters.

My mother enjoyed being there as well, she would remind us time and time again that this was where she would always hang out after work with her Swedish colleagues from the Embassy. She would point to the bar on the other side of the room, and I would turn my head to look at all the grown-ups sitting up there nursing their drinks. I felt envious, I wanted to sit on that high chair too and do grown-up things like slowly sipping my drink and talking about important grown-up things with my grown-up friends! 

But she wasn’t here with her colleagues, we were a family so we sat further away from the bar in the vinyl booths. The smiling staff would hand me their activity sheets and crayons, and I would complete it before they sent our orders. I always got the chicken tenders from the kids menu, my mother the chicken fajitas and my sister the Chipotle chicken tenders. I would immediately finish my tenders because I wanted to get to the best part: my mother’s fajitas. 

I loved the fajitas so much. I couldn’t get one for myself because I was small and I couldn’t finish it on my own. Plus, kids have to get from the kids menu, right? But my mother always saved me half of her fajitas. She’d eat her portion and all the vegetables before cutting up my portion of the meat and slide the cast iron dish to me. I would dig in, giddy with excitement that I have a full grown-up dish to myself. It was almost like a reward for having gone through the chicken tenders from the kids menu. As I ate, my eyes would constantly turn to the huge glossy red chili sat on top of the booth seat dividers in the middle of the restaurant. It was like a monolith to me. It was as sacred to me just as much as my altar of cables and Internet modem were. 

Sometimes our experience of dining together as a family would be pierced by the company of a man I only remembered as Uncle Ray. To this day I have not the slightest idea of who exactly he was in my mother’s life, only that he was a Scot a decade or two older than my mother working in oil and gas in Sarawak who occasionally traveled to Kuala Lumpur, and when he did my mother would accompany him to bars and they would talk for hours. I believe they were very good friends, my mother had so much in common with him in terms of conversation, and he was very nice to me and my sister

When he was there, me and my sister would sit in the booth closest to the bar while my mother sat with him at the bar. I would eat my chicken tenders, this time with no chicken fajitas to look forward to. I was furious at him for this but all the anger seeped away when he brought us to Kinokuniya upstairs and asked me to choose a book, any book that I’m interested in. 

I was very shy around him. He was very much like a stranger to me, a good friend of my mother who nonetheless was a stranger. There was one time when we all managed to get a seat at one of the tables with the high chairs and he sat with us. We went to the bookstore first before lunch and while my mother and sister went to the shoestore to get a new pair for me since the straps of my shoes broke, I was left alone with him. I guess my mother wanted me to bond with him more when she could have just brought me along to buy the shoes. 

He tried to make conversation about the book I just bought — or rather that he bought for me. It was one of the books in the Rainbow Magic series, a favorite of mine back then. I brought it out of the paperbag to show him, happy we finally have something in common. But I was still very timid, and when he asked me to read a chapter from the book for him, I froze. What felt like hours went by where I would be holding the book in my hands and him waiting for me to finally read it out. In the end, he told me that it was OK, that I could read to him and impress him with my reading skills some other time. I was relieved and smiled at him, happy he understood me. 

That was how it always was. Such a simple place that at this time would be considered a typical place to dine in with its constant birthday celebrations in every booth left and right and the signature waft of the smoking fajitas swirling through the restaurant everytime a waiter carries it out on the big black tray. But for me personally, there was something to it everytime I returned there. The place is a little brighter now after they renovated it, all the tables are closer to each other to cater to more diners, and the red chili is gone. 

But somewhere in the little corners of the place, the football match playing on the TV, the waft of the fajitas, the high chairs by the bar, the evergreen rock music, and most importantly me and family occupying one of the booths amidst the many, were the memories of everything, an accumulation of my childhood all in this one space. A sacred space to me and for me to return to. 

Written by: Natasha

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