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.

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.

Gaps between

Being unanchored in the world has been a gift. I’ve seen friends in Los Angeles, Phoenix, and Portland. I never made it to the east coast, but I did make it across the Pacific.

Now though, after three months of small projects and peaceful days with my cat, it’s time to get back to it, to grow and learn and be part of a slightly larger team.

For the last few weeks I’ve woken early to make tea and then gone back to bed, reading or sleeping again with the cat snuggled tight against me. It’s been a peaceful life, transitioning between gym and study, nap and novel. It’s been exactly the kind of break I needed, and exactly what the cat hopes for. We’ve become accustomed to each other, and we’ve shared this small apartment in circles from chair to bed to kitchen to sofa, one of us following the other. It’s a routine we will both miss and seek to find again on suddenly valuable weekends. For now though, he will have the place to himself, able to relax wherever he desires. No one will disturb his nap with the vacuum at ten am on a Wednesday, nor with coffee grinding at two pm. I think he’ll miss the company anyway.

The final morning he and I spend snuggled in a new chair. I thought it a chair for one until his seventeen pounds landed on my lap, inbound via the sofa’s arm.

On the last Friday of my sojourn I read back through my notebooks to other times like this, to remember the challenge of being groundless and how these periods ended. Familiarity helps, reminding me that this time is not any different, and that each time the transition works out fine.

Yesterday I had lunch with an ex-colleague who had never quit a job before, never spent months in between. Over ramen I listen to her thoughts and challenges, some familiar some unique. At the end of my own holiday the feel of these gaps has become strangely comfortable. In some way I have become what I try to be, at home in uncertainty.

For a few months, anyway.

Haneda at sunrise

Haneda mornings

In some ways, for this boy, everything starts in Tokyo.

Ever since he turned 18 here, on his first visit, the city has been a constant reference, and a sometimes home. The urban sprawl of the greater metro area has been a window onto so much of his life.

Today Tokyo frames the hours between four and nine am. For these five hours he wanders the new international terminal of Haneda without urgency. The rest of this trip, to Shanghai, Hong Kong, Ningbo, and back, will be a whirlwind of component approvals, press checks, and the small waits of travel required for each. For the next two weeks he will be seldom alone save for early mornings or late nights, and rarely on his own schedule.

This morning in Haneda serves as a counter to that sense of urgency. Drinking coffee in a chair with a view he can pause and think. About his cat, left at midnight the evening prior, the day prior, comfortably relaxed at the end of a quiet weekend. Of that same cat on the rooftop in the morning, looking out over San Francisco and sniffing the wind. He is happy on the rooftop, this cat, and the boy in Tokyo misses both spot and companion.

For so much of his life Tokyo has been about watching people. Sitting here as the airport wakes up, as business commuters and tourists make their way through security and start looking for coffee, the boy is happy. It’s been a while since he watched Tokyo this way.

At least a month.

Inspired by friends with similar jobs these layovers have come something of a ritual, a strange habit of intentional delay in what is already a very long commute. He began taking these breaks last year, in Hong Kong. Alone or with colleagues he would check in for his flight at Central, give up his suitcase of samples and clothing, and walk to a nice dinner, to a quiet evening drink with a view. Spending a few hours this way, before returning to San Francisco and the rest of his life, served as a firewall between the exhaustion of weeks in Dongguan factories and the exhaustion of jet lag. These breaks give him energy to return home with and become again responsible for the small parts of life, for dishes and laundry and the commute.

In twenty sixteen he has moved these breaks to Tokyo. Work is focused on Shanghai, and so Hong Kong is a less convenient option. Tokyo, with the government’s new focus on tourism and Haneda’s resurgence as an international airport, is becoming the perfect hub. Overnight flights from SF give him more than a full night’s sleep, more than enough rest to be awake when he finally makes it to Shanghai, some twenty hours later.

And the peace of Haneda, the fact that all announcements are played in Japanese, in English, and then in Mandarin, gives his mind some time to catch up to the rest of him, to accept the fact that he is once again on the road. Tokyo as rest stop is a new use for his favorite city.

In nineteen ninety seven Tokyo was a fairy tale for a boy on his way to university. It was his first trip abroad, other than Canada, and his first time alone without language.

In two thousand one Tokyo was a gateway, an opportunity, and the city he’d always dreamed of. Moving there got him out of the US, gave him a job, and showed him just how big the world could be.

In two thousand seven it provided a reminder of how peaceful a city could be, after years in the noise of Shanghai. It is this lesson he remembers now, and what brought him to this ritual layover.

In two thousand twelve he got to share his favorite places and the trains that connected them. Exploring Tokyo and Kyoto together they remembered how wonderful adventuring as a couple could be.

In two thousand thirteen, on their second trip to Japan together, they got engaged, in Fukuoka by the river.

And now, in two thousand sixteen Japan is a safe haven, a place to rest and relax, to hole up and to wander. On brief layovers he sings karaoke in Itabashi and climbs to rooftops in Shinjuku. He walks dozens of miles, and yet he also barely moves, spending hours chatting with old friends and hours reading in favorite neighborhoods.

Mostly he spends hours, like this morning, in Haneda.

yours truly, Chocolate cake

Chocolate cake

A few doors down the street a folding sign sits on the sidewalk most days. In witty messages it suggests that passers by stop in for some dessert, for some chocolate. The jokes vary with the weather.

This shop, opened about a year ago, is part of the rapid gentrification of the neighborhood. Without question, the shift from $2 tacos to $2 chocolates is predicated on the gifts of rapidly rising incomes and shifting demographics. This change comes with the displacement that is making the Mission district of San Francisco a battle ground for policy folk of all flavors. Bicycle advocates, transit advocates, NIMBY folk, working class locals, service providers, and the ever increasing influx of people from all over the world.

The inviting sign exists entirely within this larger sphere. Yet for each passer by it exists for just one moment on this otherwise quiet block of 15th Street. And in that moment is where it shines, where the day’s joke about dessert has the chance to make us laugh, regardless of the greater context. All that matters in that moment is how clever the author was on any particular morning.

Walking home past that shop last night I was surprised to see it completely full, every seat taken and people standing indoors and out, enjoying strange confectionary pleasures. Surprised because this block of 15th Street is relatively quiet; There are no other commercial properties. And surprised because chocolates for a minimum of $2 is a specific market.

More than surprised though, I was happy. Because the women who opened this shop, who work endless hours in its stainless kitchen, have built something that brings joy. They have brought a new source of happiness into the world with their baking and confectionary, with their renovated storefront and their jokey sign, that did not exist before.

Listening to the laughter from inside as I walk past on a Saturday evening, I am reminded how much better we can make the world, through hard work, for other people.

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.