Finding comfort

I am again in Hong Kong, briefly.

Over the past decade I’ve spent a dozen days like this, give or take. They’re days of freedom on either end of busy work travels. They’re days plucked from the vagaries of jetlag and airline schedules in an attempt to maximize time on the ground rather.

It’s not a common approach. Many try to minimize time in country, to avoid skipping a child’s soccer game or a Saturday morning breakfast. I have done that too frequently, and now my priorities are different, born of being a person who loves many places, rather than one. Luckily my family understands that I am better company returning from an extra day of quiet thinking than a tight Friday night rush to the airport from a factory in Dongguan. At least usually. Spending Friday evening exploring or at a dinner and then Saturday wandering leaves me with an impression of the world I want to return to, rather than viewing it as a place of work necessity. As always, I try to maintain that curiosity.

In this fashion I’ve spent a weekend in Changsha, doing research, and many weekends in Hong Kong, Shanghai, and Tokyo, the loci of my global slingshot routes. And yet, despite years of practice, I’m still learning. I’m learning how to find special places, how to be a more adventurous visitor. Being a frequent visitor rather than a tourist should provide different opportunities, and does. Lately I’ve been visiting climbing gyms, small parks, and new neighborhoods. Mostly, as always, I walk long distances and speak little.

After several hours of wandering, after a day of looking down alleys and up stair cases, I find somewhere to get cheap noodles, maybe a local beer, and read some fiction. The novel lets me tune out the city I’ve worked so hard to focus in on. And eventually, calmer and ready for company, I head to the airport for my long commute back to our small apartment, to Mr. Squish and our four am jetlag mornings.

Jet lag

Four am and my body is awake. Next door a small gathering is winding down, Saturday night enthusiasm giving slowly way to Sunday morning acceptance of the week to come. Laughter and chatter slip through the cracked window above my bed. Combined with the sense of Asian afternoon in my brain and there is no return to sleep. The cat is snuggled tight against my leg, so happy to have his people home again after almost a month abroad.

A month abroad. No wonder my soul has no roots. Eight border crossings in the first ten days. Four countries and seven cities, several of them multiple times. No surprise then as it starts to rain that my body does not know where we are. In the past month it has heard and felt rain in Hong Kong, in Bohol, in Dongguan, and in Tokyo. Now, hearing the patter on the same neighbor’s roof, I hear all of those cities, and feel at home in none.

Filling out customs forms a few weeks back, towards the end of the busiest portion of travel, I had to stop at the home address line and think carefully. Our address in San Francisco, this apartment I am in now, filled with the sound of neighbors and rain, with furry cat and wood floors, no longer came immediately to mind.

Small wonder that, another two weeks on, my soul has not yet found its way back across the Pacific to my body.

In the evenings here, after the sun has set so early, I sit and read for hours. Only after dinner, after cleaning up, feeding the cat and locking doors, do I suddenly wonder what the person who used to live here would have done on this Tuesday. The person who used to live here being myself, in July. Before travel, I almost write, but by July I’d spent three weeks abroad, post injury. Who would he call, this past self, for dinner or adventure? Where would he go after work, in the early hours of the evening? Wondering these things I go to sleep at nine thirty, at ten, to wake at four.

“We haven’t seen you in forever,” say friends, when I remember to call those I used to share meals with, climb with, throw with, or watch baseball with. Their claims resonate and I struggle to remember our last conversations, apologize for my confusion, and relax into silence, letting others talk.

Yet in the past month I have not been alone. I have seen so many friends in so many places. I have eaten, drank, and played with friends first met in Tokyo in 2002, in Shanghai or Manila in 2004, and all over Asia in the years since. The world is rich for me, in all directions, but my vision is blurry. Jetlagged to the core I remember so many things, but can share little, save in these strange hours without sleep.

Remembering these streets

I enter the US as usual, in a line half asleep. Asiana has shut off the movie system thirty minutes prior to landing, just long enough for me to doze off before touch down.

As a person I wake slowly.  My head follows far behind the rest of my body, languishing in dreams until it has churned them into unintelligible fragments. Because of this I do not like mornings, save when jet lagged, for then the day springs upon me unsuspecting and I am unable to feign sleep. Waking up on the plane as it settles down onto the tarmac of SFO I am confused, my eyes do not seem to work. As we taxi I struggle to create focus by closing first one and then the other, to remember who I am, where I have come from, why I am here. It has been weeks on the road.

Filling out the customs form I struggle to remember my address. Proof that I have indeed been gone long enough, and moved just before leaving. The label of “home” has no immediate mental association.

“What were you doing out there?” the uniformed man asks, far kinder than his compatriots at LAX. I have woken up now enough to use both eyes, to use some portion of my brain.

“Visiting friends,” I say. The truth. I have slept but four nights out of the last twenty five in a bed.

Checking on the world, I think, as he considers my Walgreens photo and brand new passport. I was looking to see if it was still out there, beyond the bubble that my own country’s culture and borders create. I do not say these things. They are beyond the power of my tongue as well as beyond the wisdom of the moment. He hands back the booklet which still does not feel comfortable, having not yet adopted the curve of my pocket. This new chip-containing version has not spent years in my bag, has not been thumbed through by countless officials, and has not sweated against my skin in the summer’s heat. Yet this now is my documentation, and it is no longer bare.

The world too, on the other side of airplanes and air conditioned waiting rooms, felt similar. It lacked the comforting curves of my previous apartments, of my own daily commutes, and yet was not foreign. Conversations with new acquaintances had the feel of the familiar, and friends not seen in decades seemed well along their chosen paths. The world, in all its variety of Shanghai spectacle and Tochigi silence, was still there, reassuring to my hopeful heart.

The car is an unfamiliar place after weeks on foot and trains. It vibrates with the pavement in a less predictable fashion, and my eyes, still confused by the brightness of San Francisco, are again unprepared. The hills look gorgeous, the skyline wide. It’s the colors, I realize, the blue of the sky and the green of the land, that are so sparkling. Again it strikes me how precious this area is, not for its relative beauty but because it exists, because people have managed to destroy and repair in mostly equal measures.

Lately Shanghai’s pollution startles me each time as I land with the thought that I lived amidst such heavy clouds for so many years. And yet returning after several weeks to this western coast of the United States it is the blue that surprises and the sun that is unexpectedly bright.

In a week or two San Francisco will again seem normal, and the latest travels be swept under a current of daily responsibilities. Until then I will treasure the early mornings when my body jolts awake at five am, and revel in having no sense of home, here or anywhere.