A large Beijing apartment building half torn down

Repetition and growth

In the summer of two thousand seven lives a boy I will remember forever.

In the echoes of experience lie good stories.

In my memory this boy boards the train to Beijing on a Friday evening. It is summer, closing in on his birthday, and the sleeper cars are mercifully air conditioned. This train was new when he first moved to China, the car interiors a spotless white. The first time he rode it, in summer of two thousand four, twelve hours to Beijing was incredible, so fast. Three years later everything feels well-used, a patina of hand prints on each door handle and section of wall surrounding. This overnight train from Shanghai was an improvement on the fourteen or more hours and hard sleeper trains of prior years, of the late nineties and early aughts. In the present day the speed is not impressive; the current high speed line runs Shanghai to Beijing in only six hours. In two thousand four twelve hours seemed fast. By two thousand seven it had become routine, and whole new ways of life had been built around the overnight sleeper’s reliability. Families in Beijing could have one parent take a job in Shanghai, commute down Sunday night, head to work Monday morning, and run the reverse on Friday. They’d stay with friends or family on week nights and be home when the kids got up Saturday.

We never know what kind of life the future will support.

In two thousand seven the boy who boards this train to Beijing is preoccupied. He throws his backpack in his berth. When the older Chinese couple in his compartment asks if they can have the bottom bunk he acquiesces without thought. Foreigners prefer top bunks, they say, and he agrees. Foreigners do. They’re happiest when able to sleep. Chinese families prefer the bottom bunks in this small four bed compartment. More social, better for eating and chatting. The boy moves his bag up high and steps back into the hallway. There are small tables and seats at intervals that fold up against the wall when not in use. He squats at one, charging his phone off the outlet beneath.

We never know what kind of life the future will support, he thinks, scrolling through email on his Blackberry. This is a new technology, his third “smartphone” but the first one that supports work email, that is paid for by a company. He has had it since May, purchased in Los Angeles, and it is his favorite device ever. On this train though it will be a weight around his weekend adventure. He is heading north to see a friend from Hawaii who is in China taking classes for the summer. Despite the weight they will have an excellent weekend.

The train leaves promptly at seven oh five pm, and the phone starts ringing shortly after. It is a woman from Indonesia, someone he has never met. She wants him to guarantee a shipment of fabric from a Chinese factory that is sitting in port in Jakarta. The shipment is valued at fifty thousand dollars. And so they debate, on the phone, as the train moves out of Shanghai headed north. Through Jiangsu they debate who is to bear the responsibility if the fabric has an issue, and why the Chinese factory that made it can or can not be trusted. Fifty thousand dollars. The fabric is to be made into dresses, for delivery to his company in the United States. There is a deadline, a ship window, and he urges her to have faith, to make the order, to pay the Chinese supplier. Again and again she asks him to personally back the shipment. They have never met. In a year he will leave this job and return to the United States. They will never meet.

The phone call drops, it is two thousand seven and he is on a high speed train. Standing in the vibrating space between cars where he’s moved to have some privacy the boy stares out the window at the Chinese countryside. Already then he knows he will never forget this evening. A boy from upstate New York, not yet twenty eight, taking the overnight train from Shanghai to Beijing, spending the whole ride arguing with a woman in Jakarta over fifty thousand dollars. How did this become his life?

The phone rings.

In two thousand sixteen I stand outside a bar beneath a highway in San Francisco. It is eleven pm on a Wednesday. The phone number on the screen is long, international. I answer it.

On the other end is a man I will never meet. He wants me to guarantee some charges on a shipment. The container is sitting in the port in Mumbai. We debate dollars. Excuses are made. Clear the cargo, I ask. Send me receipts.

I start walking. Somewhere in the next two blocks we are cut off. For the length of one red light I stand on the corner of 14th and South Van Ness staring at the phone. I am thinking of that woman in Indonesia, fifty thousand dollars, and the train ride to Beijing in two thousand seven when the phone rings again.

“Hello,” I say.

In some moments the future feels like the past, imperfectly recreated.

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.

Injured travel

In a hotel room again he stretches before rising. These new actions have become a daily routine, the small pattern of curls and flexes that make standing without pain a possibility.

It is a Sunday in Dongguan, in Chang’an. In this hotel a week now he has become familiar to the staff, greeted no longer in the formal English of their training but in the Mandarin reserved for visitors from the north. They no longer try to stop him from taking coffee back to his room after breakfast. Like many foreigners here he is understood by his habits, a strange list. Cereal and coffee at breakfast. Then more coffee. Departs between nine and ten. Returns around 6. Laundry on alternate days.

In the afternoon he swims in the indoor pool, slow laps in a variety of strokes. Backstroke, measuring his place against the pool’s glass ceiling. Breast stroke, breathing out in small bubbles. Sidestroke, slowly, when his left arm is tired. Crawl only on the third day, gingerly. He moves cautiously, and holds his back frequently between lengths. Old, the lifeguard thinks, before returning to his other distractions.

Injured.

On other trips this man would have left, would have headed for Hong Kong on Saturday afternoon when work was finished. Would have spent the weekend in Shanghai with friends. Instead on Sunday he stays inside, stretches, swims, and drinks milk. Instead he is cautious with his body, avoids groups, does not drink alcohol in public.

These are the actions of recovery, of a human slowly remembering their abilities. In the morning he puts his shirt on backwards. Without pause he raises his arms, removes, reverses, and dons again. Only after does it strike him: a month ago he could not lift the left arm high enough to don t-shirts with both arms, nor bend it backwards to remove clothing.

All his small trials of stretching, swimming, and caution will one day pass. His body forgets quickly the limitations it learned reluctantly. Eventually he will have only vague memories of these days spent in Chang’an, too injured to adventure.

And scars.

As fast as possible

In the space of a week I go from Los Angeles and a pool to Petaluma, San Francisco, and Shanghai. Yangzhou, Changshu, and Tokyo follow before the string of airport initials and train station names reverses, leading me home in time for Christmas. With each step comes a greater sense of urgency, and a greater sense of exhaustion. Every vehicle and every contact is exhorted for speed. ASAP. Any phrase so often abused as to have a common acronym deserves consideration before use, in this case deserves preservation for the truly urgent moments.

How to tell what requires attention when everything is made to seem urgent?

Our lives are brief fragile things of scant import and dear value. They consist of years that can be counted with ease by children, of months tied together by weather, and of hours that seem to drift by with the Chinese countryside, in a state of waiting known as transit.

In the space of a week I spend forty one hours in motion and yet waiting, rushing and yet unable to move. In the space of a week I sleep in seven beds. At the end of it, waiting for the last plane, I try to clear my brain and add up the lessons from those miles, add up the value of the travel in a way other than the monetary cost or the hours.

I have had dinner with friends from all segments of life, from Tokyo ten years ago, Shanghai eight, Shanghai five, and San Francisco now. I have seen houses and children, girlfriends, and wives. In groups large and small, we have shared stories that will hold us together for another month, or year, or two, until somehow the world brings us to table again in the same city.

I have solved problems I am paid to solve, given support to those both up and down the chain of business from me. Listened to complaints, answered requests, provided explanations, outlined requirements. I have cleaned and trimmed and measured and folded and packed product in the kind of chill concrete building I try to avoid after Christmas 2007.

Do these things, done at questionable speed, make for a better life? They certainly do not help our shared environmental disaster. In fact, they are a direct cause, a product of the excesses of miscalculated transportation costs. What can I do to repair these damages? What can I do to make each hour both longer and shorter, both more memorable and less all-consuming? How can I continue to learn and work while allowing myself time for tasks that require mental focus and a single location?

These are good questions for a twelve hour flight from Seoul to San Francisco.

Small job, big world

In a photo from decades ago two men hang over the prow of a large ship, painting it while under way. In white t-shirts and dark pants, some twenty feet below the deck, they eptiomize so much of the world to me. Long after the source of the photo has disappeared, I see them, tiny figures against the hulk of steel and the spread of the ocean below. They are two men with a regular job, a task of understandable skill if special magnitude and place. Painting, on a hot summer day, a giant expanse of metal.

Painting a giant expanse of metal while dangling from it, alone, in motion, at sea. As with everything, the addition of context zooms the lens to overwhelming scale.

This sense of scale, of the undertsandably human against the largness of the world, is what pulls me to climb buildings, to hike hills, and to travel, no matter the destination. I find this feeling staring out at Tokyo from the top of a skyscraper in western Shinjuku, standing atop a hill in Santa Cruz, approaching or departing from any airport. The feel of the view pulling back is the sensation I love most.

For the last several months my favorite source for it has been Nat Geo Found, a collection of old images from National Geographic’s archives. Spanning the world, the last hundred and twenty five years, and a huge variety of lives, this collection gives rise to a view of the world that is not simple, or lonely. Instead it shows, without claim to own, how amazing and how diverse, how rich and how personal all our lives are. Widely available, easily accessible, the site is a reminder to me too of how wonderful the internet is, and how much I appreciate this access, unthinkable only decades ago.

Standing in front of a group of friends last week explaining in a few moments why I spend so much time in small factories and border cities, I applied the miracle of Google Maps to the problem, isolating a factory and zooming out to reveal the location. Sitting high on a mesa in the desert, this building has no glass for windows, only holes, and the workers alternately sweat and freeze, depending on the season. And yet seeing it from space, though it draws gasps, will never have the same staggering touch as standing on the edge of the plateau, staring out across the empty landscape. Being there, a tiny single human in the middle of a huge expanse, trapped with others by circumpstance and employment, brings a sense of fragility, and of amazement. That sense, found in the monumental stacks of shipping containers in Shenzhen, in the winding canyons of Colorado, and at the edge of the Pacific on all sides, is reason enough to keep going, to find jobs that take me further out of the city I inhabit.

Like those two men painting their ship, so precariously alone in the ocean and yet part of something larger, understandable from a wider view.