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.

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.

Make few plans

For the fourth time in the last seven months I leave the country on less than a week notice. So often am I here one day and gone the next that the cat and house grow used to, if not happy with, my abrupt exits. The strangeness of it sweeps over me in 14G on my way to Incheon. As with all work travel, being on the road so often creates a detachment from the rest of life. Enjoying this requires an ability to be comfortable in two places at the same time, frequently jet lagged and uncertain of the weather.

Sudden departures though require a different set of sacrifices. Mostly they require tolerance and a partner able to care for the cat. Given four days notice this time it’s no surprise that the bag and the clothes are the same as my last trip, two weeks ago. Remaining packed means I have put little thought into attire and less into arrangement of belongings. For only a week, everything can be shoved in any which way.

The tolerance of partners and pets is a gift that must be earned. What can be learned to ease leaving the country so quickly is simple: make few plans.

At lunch three days before I sat listening to conversations between colleagues. They made lunch dates for the coming week and discussed possible weekend adventures. I sat silently, thinking about the coming week. Lunches will be wherever the factory team takes me. Evenings, well, I am lucky, and will spend one evening at a bar that has indoor batting cages near Suzhou Creek. ‘Make few plans’ is in fact an incorrect presentation of the idea. I have many plans, just not in San Francisco, not in my house. And that, at last, is the central point.

Asiana 211 lands in Seoul over an hour late for a layover scheduled for one hour. I step off the gate into the humid Korean jetway air hunting for signs to indicate the next gates direction and am instead met with information. The onward flight will likewise be delayed, and the airline apologize for this, for the impact of a missed hour in Shanghai on a Tuesday night. I laugh. There’s a free dinner voucher and further apologies, to all of us.

Looking around near the gate I see few upset faces. There is little consternation among the waiting passengers, no uproar at the announcement. We are, as a group, content with this hour to eat, to walk, and to relax on the internet in one of the world’s best transfer airports.

Wandering up the automated walkways, at peace with the lack of urgency, I think of the group around that gate, waiting for the Shanghai flight. How many of us have no plans, to be so unconcerned? How many of us standing there in Seoul gave up all prior engagements before boarding some earlier flight countries back and days before?

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.