Looking out over Idabashi in Tokyo

Winding roads

In the month of March I am mostly confused about location.

In a Shanghai hotel room an old friend brings me medicine in between naps. His daughter laughs at her reflection in the mirror while we chat. I’ve been sick for days and seen little save this room in between factory visits. The company is welcome and the medicine better than my homemade solutions.

A few days later I see a super hero movie on the US naval base in Yokosuka. I’ve never been on base before and the experience is strange. Sitting in a theater having paid $2 for tickets feels both familiar and surreal. It is strange to be in Japan and yet surrounded by Americans, especially after two weeks in China. Afterwards, wandering around Idabashi with my friends, I am so grateful to be back in the suburban depths of Tokyo. Sub-urban is a claim that can only be applied to Idabashi when it is placed next to Shinjuku. In some ways the duplication of train stations, shops, conbinis and aparto towers feels like it’s own culture, a form of topography and living for which Americans have no language. Sub-urban then only in hierarchy not in density.

In Las Vegas a few days later I look out from the thirty third floor at empty patches in the city’s expansion. Whole blocks skipped, still raw desert, surrounded on all sides by cul-de-sac housing tracts. A depressing view of car culture and relative waste that I don’t know well enough to imagine living in. Or to imagine feeling trapped in.

Sitting at a bar in downtown Las Vegas arguing about transparency and expectations I realize how much of our conversations are also about location. Much of the conversation, scattered over several weeks and countries, is about cities, housing, variations of living. So too is much of our conversation about our hope for the future, and many of our questions are about how places shape people.

It is a perfect if confusing way to spend several weeks, well-suited to this site save for the lack of writing.

Casual beauty

Descending through the clouds into Shenzhen on a Sunday afternoon, the gift of flight overwhelms me. In a window seat on the left side of the plane as we fly south my view is of the edge of the continent. As we descend into Shenzhen the approach route gives me a view of most of the city and some of Dongguan.

It is a flight I’ve done several times, and one of my favorites. The southern China coastline is a mishmash of islands and man-made structures, ports and refineries mixed with huge cities and apartment complexes. On a good day the border between Shenzhen and Hong Kong comes in to view, as do some of the islands surrounding. Today, amid a gaggle of puffy white clouds, my view is clear, unobscured by the wing. I can see the sun’s reflection on the water and clouds, the scale of Chinese cities, and the ocean. As with all flight it’s a reminder of how small each of us are and how beautiful the world is.

As we turn and head west over Shenzhen, starting a loop that swings west, south, and finally east again for our landing on the southern edge of the city, I see Chang’an district below, and the hotel where I will spend the coming week. Our turn is quick at this altitude, and I cannot find the factory that brings me here. I see the complex in the hills that has no lights and mystifies me, but not long or well enough to discover its purpose. We pass directly above it.

Air travel is a gift, I have said, as have many others. Swinging low on this approach I remember another reason why: flight is a view of the world’s beauty that can be hard to see from the ground.

Torn between

On the road again life is a procession of transportation, offices, factories, and hotels. In between each new step is a moment of carrying gear, of lugging duffle bags out of taxi trunks and yanking them off of conveyor belts, of carrying samples up chill concrete stairs and sorting them into piles based on vendor on hotel beds. Re-packing after one night in a Dongguan hotel I realize how many of the possessions spread out around the room were bought specifically for this life. This bag, bought for carrying across the Mexican border with shoes inside. The other bag, bought to be a one bag carry all for a trip to Japan. This clothing specifically chosen for weight and the ability to wear it multiple times without attracting attention. Jeans for their comfort when slept in on trans-Pacific flights. Laptop charger combined with phone charger to minimize cabling, and the cabling itself extra long, to support strangely-located outlets in hotels and airports. A toiletry kit that does not get unpacked at home, in a light weight bag from Tokyu Hands. Click pens that do not explode when pressure changes, which have replaced the Uni-balls I used to carry. A custom-made wallet for passport and larger Chinese bills.

Standing nine stories up in Chang’an, packing at eight am after swimming, my focus on gear suddenly becomes clear. So much of my life is spent moving that I have re-configured almost everything around it, often without notice.

Later, in a hotel in Shanghai for most of a week, I begin to unpack into the life of a resident. I build small habits around the coffee shop, a breakfast spot, and the comfort of a fixed hotel room. Clothes are hung rather than draped on furniture. Shoes have a spot by the door. And the lights, music, and heat are all configured for residency rather than taking whatever comes in a more transient style. Here, finally, I do laundry, and I consider how few items have made this journey with me.

At home in San Francisco, in our one bedroom with it’s limited closet space, we debate furniture. More than a year now and still no table other than in the kitchen. We have a sofa, a large purchase by both standards, bought as a wedding gift to ourselves. We have a chair, and some lights. Plants. Art. Enough, really, to fill the small space. And yet often, lying jet-lagged on the bed, I wonder what we really need, what of these belongings we’ll take with us when we leave. The three legged chair, bought as a present a few years ago. Clothes, though not all of them. Bags. Electronics, in some minimal form. And books, letters, and art, the daily acquisitions of long distance friendships.

The balance is between a garden and a backpack, between a nice library of books and an iPad instead of a laptop, between pants for every day and an “every day” pair of pants. In my desire to live with less, to travel more, is a limit on how many things I am willing to have at home, how much time and energy I have to build one.

Sitting on the roof of our apartment building a week later, as the sun sets behind the Sutro tower, I wonder if this debate is honest. Watching Tara play the guitar, watching Mr. Squish sniff the strawberries, would I really rather have less? Could I possibly handle any more time on the move?

And out of all this optimized carry is anything as important as these few minutes a day on this rooftop, watching each other relax as the sky goes orange?

The answer is obvious and demonstrates why I shouldn’t bother accumulating stuff in the first place. Living with less is just a matter of living where we are without concern for what might be, without investing emotions in belongings.

Because the people and the animals are more mobile than any minimal set of items, and they’re what I’ll be taking with me, wherever is next.

Industry worlds

Saying goodbye to a job so often means saying goodbye to a group of people, to factories, trade shows and entire industries. In one act, signing the next contract, I move from someone who flies southwest to El Paso several times a year to someone who will probably never do that again, who will soon go months without flying domestically. After spending the first week of August in Salt Lake for a couple of years I do not go, and only realize the change from a friend’s Instagram, viewed via VPN while in Dongguan. Unlike Salt Lake, Dongguan does not have an outdoor park concert series, where I lucked into the National in twenty thirteen.

As a teacher years ago my life was driven by students’ schedules, by my contracting company, and by the needs of other teachers. In Tokyo, as in Shanghai, these requirements represented both many of my waking hours and much of my mental processes. I learned to plan lessons, to trade classes, to pull forth answers from shy but eager children, and temper the rambunctious nature of 6th graders.

These skills have come with me through the past decade to San Francisco. The people have not. Save a few, old roommates from Tokyo with whom I still adventure when able, and fellow contractors from Shanghai who likewise moved on from the profession, I no longer speak to anyone from those jobs. I do not know where those fifth or sixth graders are, who they have become. I hope amazing people, the foundation of modern Shanghai. They are after all twenty two.

Their teachers, my former colleagues, I wish well also, and hope they have received better working environments, more support, and an increase in wages. I remember wearing winter jackets in the the chill concrete rooms of that first Shanghai winter. We worked with sore fingers, all of our joints going numb as we filled out student evaluations, graded homework. From that year I have no contacts, and even the school addresses are fading, save for an elementary school on Sinan Lu.

More recently my clothing industry colleagues and vendors, from the first years of factories, remain on the periphery of life. Occasionally we find one another on LinkedIn, or in person, but mostly I walked out of that life when I moved back to the States, and my colleagues have remained where they were. The few I do keep track of have moved similarly to myself, from one industry to another until we are more at home in the strange international circle of Shanghai than in any particular company or factory. These friendships are the best parts of life, those who I have known for years and trust, whose recommendations I use in my more recent jobs. They’re who I have dinner with when alone in the city for the weekend, whose houses I stay at when booting up new production lines.

And this movement of professions continues. Just a year ago I worked closely with a man who ran an outdoor gear factory in a small Chinese city, with a metallizer outside of San Diego, and a family-run maquiladora in Juarez. In January of 2014 I spent several days measuring blankets on the floor of an Otay Mesa warehouse with a man close to my own age who had walked across the border to meet me. Each day we would have breakfast at IHOP, mostly coffee, and begin our measurements. One month later I had a new job, and our relationship passed on to a resume note, to a memory.

Moving from one city to another requires so much change. A new grocery store, a new ultimate team, a new apartment and neighborhood. Changing industries does much the same, removes the support network or renders it less valuable. By taking the new job or moving to the new town we so often say good bye to what we know and to the people we’ve worked so closely with. Passing through factory towns on my way to a new vendor in Ningbo last year I realized I probably couldn’t find the offices I used to visit in Shaoxing, Hangzhou, or Ningbo. Could no longer even recall all the products I’d come this far to source, all the weeks I had been on the road.

Crossing the Yangtze by ferry in December of twenty thirteen I knew it was probably the last time I would make that journey, and sat on the railing the whole time, trying to take it in. That’s the difference with these changes now, I remember the earlier ones and am more able to see them coming, to try and hold on to the feeling of each accidental place I will most likely never see again.

Walking borders

I get out of the taxi on a highway offramp. The driver, from Dongguan, doesn’t want to be on the surface streets of Shenzhen. After a week on the road I don’t mind, and I shoulder my backpack and duffle. I weave through stopped traffic to the curb, following it down to ground level. The border is less than a hundred meters away, a large building that houses Chinese customs connected to a walking bridge across the river to another building that houses Hong Kong customs and the Lok Ma Chau train station.

I’ve walked further to borders.

Carrying gear through traffic on the surface street I pause on the dotted yellow as cars start to move and pass on either side. It’s an action that would cause problems in San Francisco or New York but here, like so much of the world, is simply part of crossing the street. Three cars later there is a gap and I am on the far sidewalk. Five minutes later I’m in line for exit customs. Five minutes after that I look at the river that separates Shenzhen and Hong Kong. Like always it makes me realize how small the differences are between places and how much impact they have on our lives.

Borders are largely artificial. Yes, the river forms a nice demarcating line, like the Rio Grande between Texas and Mexico, but the differences in income, opportunity, language and safety are not caused by the river.

On the train into Hong Kong the air is already slightly better. Pollution does not respect borders, but the sources of it do. Hong Kong’s air has worsened over the last decade due to its proximity to Shenzhen, Dongguan, and the whole Guangzhou region, but it’s still better than those cities. So too is the food, Internet, and transit, not to mention salaries. The effects of man. Housing is more expensive though, so many Hong Kong residents have started living in Shenzhen, commuting across the border to take advantage of the artificial cost disparity.

Walking this border is new to me. I first crossed it on foot less than a year ago, though the lines and shops have grown familiar with frequent repetition. Without an electronic ID card I have to wait in line, unlike my commuter friends. It’s still an amazingly efficient border, on both sides. Hong Kong customs are rightfully considered a model, fast, well-organized, and simple to cross. Being a trading port and an international hub requires good customs, I think.

Less than one year. Surprising to me, as it feels like much longer. Fourteen times at least. First with others, colleagues and factory representatives. Then by myself, often met on one side or the other. And now, in a taxi I found, dropped on the off ramp from the highway.

The borders we cross say a lot about our lives. As a boy from upstate New York, the frequency with which I walk the Hong Kong Shenzhen border serves as a shorthand explanation of my job, checking factories and working on manufacturing problems. It also outlines another, more common border I frequent: that between San Francisco and Hong Kong, delineated by airports and the Pacific. This border, seemingly unremarkable, is of course the slowest to cross, and the most expensive. Impossible on foot, or as a daily commute.

Two years ago my border crossings were very different, the product of another job, another life.

In that life I stepped out of the minivan into the harsh light of a Juarez autumn. I carried less, just my backpack, and walked faster through traffic, uncertain of its comfort with mid-stream pedestrians. Hawkers on the corner offered beads and newspapers. The footbridge, a couple hundred meters ahead, arced up over to the U.S. border beside the bridge for cars, jammed and barely moving. Without me onboard my host could avoid this line, using his express pass to meet me on the other side. By walking four hundred meters I saved us each an hour or more. It was an easy trade.

That border changed my travel strategy, led me to the single backpack packing method I use everywhere now. It also taught me that the strangest feeling a border can bring is that of having to ask to be let back in to one’s own country.

So much easier, less stressful, and faster, to ask for permission to enter Hong Kong.

The walking borders of my life two years ago were all between Mexico and the U.S. Mostly El Paso and Juarez, but also Tijuana and San Diego, after long days on the road. Those trips, a staple of my 2012 existence, have disappeared from my life entirely, replaced by Shenzhen and Zhongshan, by so many evenings in Hong Kong. In some ways it’s a direct exchange. I have traded the hot summer afternoons in Mexico, the air dry, for Hong Kong’s humidity and Dongguan’s pollution. Walking back from where the car traffic became impenetrable, almost a mile from the border in Tijuana, to my rental car on the other side of the US border, heading to San Diego airport, flying back to SFO, all that has been replaced by a car ride to Lok Ma Chau, a walk across that bridge, a train ride to Yau Ma Tei, a train to HKG, a flight to SFO. Longer, but much the same. Travel necessitated by sprawling supply chains that are themselves created by the artificial borders I cross.

What would I have said, at twenty, if told that fifteen years later I’d walk the border between Shenzhen and Hong Kong a dozen times a year? Would I have been more surprised to know that at thirty three I’d spent months in Juarez? I suspect that twenty year old would be surprised by both, and then by neither, because he too was always seeking adventure, seeking to understand new things and to learn new places. He would be surprised at the specifics, at this afternoon’s offramp stroll. The general picture, of a life on the go, crossing borders on foot for money, would seem entirely appropriate. Or perhaps that’s the present talking, aware of all the strange jobs and odd decisions that brought me here. Perhaps that boy of twenty would doubt this future’s existence entirely, knowing little of Mexican factories and less of Chinese customs.

Either way, I’m glad to be back in Hong Kong, one border closer to home.