New old views

Sunset on the beach in Ao Nang, Thailand. Purples, oranges, and blues.

The trees are as green as I remember, that deep tropical green interspersed with lighter varieties. In the rain everything saturates slightly, becoming the colors of my memories. The orange tile roofs pop a bit, peaking out from between the skyscrapers. We are back in Bangkok again, after five years. The heat, broken by these daily thunderstorms, doesn’t seem as intense. Or perhaps my body is less shocked by the transition, Hong Kong being almost as humid. I would like to say the past four years have changed me, but I know my skin’s memory is too temporary for that.

Some of the city feels different, of course. So much has changed, so many new towers up and ones half built now complete. We wonder at things we don’t remember, are they new or forgotten? Five years is a long time. This trip is different in other ways: we are three, rather than two, and our concerns the first day revolve around finding diapers, being able to wash tiny garments in the sink. We are still lucky, still traveling carry-on only, still able to take the train into the city, transfer to the BTS, and walk to our hotel carrying all of our bags. We have packed lighter than ever to make this happen, fewer items for ourselves and more pieces of clothing we can both wear to accommodate the new member’s main needs, diapers and a stroller. The later item, in keeping with our family’s primary requirements, fits in a carry-on bin when collapsed. We change, and yet we remain. I can’t wait to be able to teach her to pack light and go far.


From the shade of the trees, at a restaurant table and the plastic chairs, the beach looks close enough to my memories. Fifteen years ago three boys stood a bit further down, just off a plane from Bangkok, waiting for a long tail to Railay. They were young, confused, and would spend most of the week drinking beer in the ocean and playing Magic in the aircon of their bungalow. It was the type of vacation that sounds easy and is incredibly rare. Three friends, their friendship formed in a small apartment in Tokyo, re-uniting in a foreign country years later, after they had all moved on to different places.

This afternoon, sipping beer Chang with an infant strapped to my chest while watching the ocean, feels like a good return to this area, to these beaches and the lack of urgency we try to create with vacation. For a few days we are going nowhere. We walk the beach, swim in salt water and pool water, and take the time to appreciate each other. My accomplices now have never been to this section of Thailand before, and my own memories are distant enough to leave us in peace. It is new, then, in a way sorely needed post-pandemic. For the first time since Hanoi in January of 2020 we are in a new place together, on vacation, with no goals. We didn’t intend these moments to be so far apart.

The bar plays a strange collection of covers, and I wonder about the economics. Does the streaming platform chose to play global pop, for a global tourist audience, in poor cover form so as to avoid paying the original artists’ fees? Is this the world now? Do we all live in muzak versions, not just in elevators but in everything? The global circuit no longer depending on poorly ripped CDs of Bob Marley, of Rhianna, but of covers uploaded by Filipino bands who will, through algorithmic manipulation, never cross Spotify’s threshold for higher-percentage pay outs?


The prior visit, the three boys who’d met in Tokyo, is now best dated as one year pre-iPhone. No one had cell service, there was no global data network. We Googled things from one shared laptop, and then went wandering. We reserved things online, before departure, via email. No one made FaceTime calls on their AirPods from the beach. It was hard to know how good the sunsets here were, without visiting.

I don’t begrudge these changes. They’ve let me work from many places, let me travel and live a life that was mostly fiction in 2004, or in 1998. The ability to quickly show our young accomplice’s face to the grandparents in distant locales is of course good. The ability to respond to work calls from the pool deck, well, it’s inevitable. On that 2006 trip I had a Blackberry, paid for by a company in Los Angeles. The future is already here, and the past right beside it. Outside our resort a man squats busily cooking corn on the cob on a grill for a dollar, while half the restaurants along the beach have not re-opened post Covid. We live in a world that contains all of us at once.

It’s wonderful, after a few years, to remember this face to face.

Finding freedom

The 7-Eleven steps, benches, and a parked taxi in the rain

On Sundays, after she’s eaten early and we’ve done a second diaper change, we head out. Our routine, like all things, is benefiting from practice. The first time out I forgot my wallet, and the second, a metal cup for tea. The first few times going into the carrier she fussed, almost but not quite enough to wake Tara.

Now we are happy and quiet, going into the carrier with no complaints, collecting wallet keys phone mask hat cup flip flops, and heading down the stairs before anyone is much the wiser. It’s humid in the stairs, and those seven flights are a slow way to get used to the weather after our air conditioned bubble.

By the coffee shop around the corner she’s often asleep, a scant twelve yards from our door. Sometimes she watches me order cold brew before passing out again. It’s early, after all. And then, standing outside in our alley, coffee in hand and baby asleep again, everyone lightly sweating, I am free.

I think a lot about freedom, what it means and where we find it. I think a lot about the hours in our lives that matter to us, and how they change. I remember strongly the feeling of freedom late at night, after the town or the campus or the city was mostly asleep. For as long as I can remember I’ve loved to be up high at night, to look out at a place and think about all the people who are there, invisible with their lights off, asleep. Mostly of course I think about those still awake, those heading to work at odd hours, or just finally coming home. I think about those up for no reason, and those up because of pain, medication, or young children.

In those contemplative moments I am free. Free to think about almost anything, to consider new ideas and observe things I’d otherwise ignore. It’s a feeling I love.

Lately I feel this way a lot, standing at our window watching Tai Hang at three, at four, at five am. I count the taxis parked along Wun Sha street every night, when their driver’s shifts are over. The current high is twenty five in sight at four thirty am, a number hard to top given the streets physical limits. For this view and these hours of freedom I deeply love Tai Hang. I love the 7-Eleven with it’s large entry, where people sit at all hours. I love the coffee shop next door to it that put up benches. These benches, unknown to the shop staff, have featured dates, late night delivery worker dinners, and smokers on their phones at three. They have hosted drunks of all genders in all combinations, continuing their evenings or sobering up before heading upstairs. Late at night our window is a great view into the kind of city I most appreciate.

And yet there’s another side, another set of hours in which to find freedom. San Francisco first convinced me of freedom in the early mornings. As painful as they were, once we were on bicycles to the gym at seven, we were free. Being first on the mats, able to climb any route without concern for overlap, to hear the songs the staff played while cleaning to wake themselves up, and having the sunrise pour through the windows, blinding us on top out, was freedom. Biking to work afterwards, having showered, past the construction site that is now the Warriors stadium, I felt almost as free as walking home late at night.

On Sunday, as I walk around the small blocks of Tai Hang at eight am with Clara asleep in her carrier, sipping my first coffee, I am free. I pop in to the French bakery for bagels and a croissant for Mr. Squish. I put those on a bench and drink coffee while leaning on a parking barrier, holding Clara and watching people in line for one of the cha chaan tengs in the back alleys. The clientele, at this hour, is mostly those like me, with young children, and groups of spandex-clad bikers and runners, eating after even earlier rides or runs. Half of us are escaping the later day heat, and half of us are simply following the child’s cycle. Later we will all be replaced by families, and by those with dogs, both of whom dine closer to 10 am on Sundays. I like this changing of the guard, and remember similar ones from my own restaurant days: the older folk, couples or alone, who would dine at five, right on open, and were often regulars. Then families, six to seven, and finally dates, younger couples and a wider variety, after eight. The hours change with country, or like with San Francisco, the weather, but the themes are consistent. We are all human, and hungry.

After the coffee is gone we purchase milk tea, in a metal cup we’ve carried clipped to our belt, for the sleeping family member. She’ll appreciate it, iced from her favorite street stall. After saying thank you we head home, our half hour stroll almost over. These are our moments of freedom. Our missions, small though they be, are accomplished and with (including the cat) three quarters of the family asleep, we are in no rush.

A second cold brew, perhaps, and then the elevator up stairs.

Faith in each other

A view of the river in Nong Kiaw

A month in, the clearest part of parenthood is the reflection it provides. In the late nights, in the long days with sparse sleep, we see few things clearly save each other. Our ability to rest, to walk, to eat, to see friends, and exercise depends on our partner’s abilities, on their tolerance, and on our mutual trust. We have, in this small child, a way to finally see the compassion in our relationship, and our kindness for one another. It is humbling, to understand that our ability to hold the baby while she cries and our partner eats is perhaps the best gift we can give. It is clarifying to understand that our push for an extra smile when she will not sleep takes more energy and is therefore more appreciated than anything else we’ve done in weeks. And it is revealing to understand that our ability to do things, from lunch with friends to climbing workouts to dinners out depends entirely on our partner’s ability to be ok when things go wrong. We serve at the pleasure not of a higher authority, but of each other, a pleasure that must be re-iterated daily. Would you like to go out, would you like to go to the gym, would you like to meet friends? Each one requires explicit confirmation, and the understanding that it could take extraordinary effort, extraordinary patience.

Mostly they do not, and Clara is peaceful, is at peace with our decisions. She is ok with electronic music and ambient heat outside the pizza parlor on a Friday night, where we eat on a bench and share a beer with friends after a long week. She is ok with the bright lights and bouncing tunes of the climbing gym, with the many voices and odd sensations of an afternoon at the swimming pool. She tolerates a ferry ride, an MTR ride, and many taxi rides, without outburst. In some ways we adventure at the pleasure of the child, and I think in some tellings this would be true. But it is not, for while she has a voice, and uses it at will, she has no say in the initial agreement, in the planned outlay of patience and effort. That is instead an agreement built on all our years together, almost fifteen now since those early scooter rides in Shanghai. Almost four now here in Hong Kong, where the idea of family became more possible.

And so we continue to grow, our true selves revealed to each other in the things we are willing to smile together after. It has always been this way, of course. In many ways our four hours together in the back of a flatbed from Nong Kiaw to Luang Prabang remains the clearest mirror, held up to our relationship in pain, guilt, and the joy of adventure. It is good, then, to find new joy together in these late nights and the early mornings they blend into.

First days

Looking southwest from the Peak in Hong Kong, across Wong Chuk Hang, and Aberdeen to Repulse Bay, Stanley, and the ocean, where container ships pass.

Like anything new, the first days are a bit of a blur. We sit in a room overlooking all of Hong Kong and try to take in the view. We are looking at the face of a new human, someone never before met. We are looking out at an island, at hills of jungled green and reservoirs that mirror the trees nestled in the valleys. Expensive homes dot the hillside below us, and beyond that the flat areas of Aberdeen, Wong Chuk Hang, and Repulse Bay. Past all that container ships pull towards us and away. The main sea route in and out of Hong Kong feels busy enough. Only the skies are quiet, with no airplanes in sight for much of the day.

The view is shocking on a clear day, all the way north to land that is not in Hong Kong, that is part of the greater country that surrounds us, some twenty miles up the coast. It’s a view worth millions, a view utterly unavailable in most major metros, and the thing that sets Hong Kong apart among world cities.

Mostly we ignore it, focused instead on the new person who has joined us. Our spare moments are spent texting family and friends, sharing photos and chatting about the new responsibility we’ve taken on. It’s a weird one, learning how to care for a human who most definitely can’t care for themselves. Like every new parent, I’m sure, I’m shocked at how unready we humans are released into the world. Unable to walk or talk, and not particularly close to either. While friends with older children say that the time goes quickly, by any reckoning three, five, eight, or eighteen years is a long time. Thinking back to the start of our relationship, fifteen years prior, makes it clear just how long a commitment we’ve made. Life will not be boring.

We look forward to the learning, to sharing our lives with someone new. After all my years avoiding housemates, it’s a bit of a strange choice. I hope that the cat feels the same enthusiasm, at least eventually.

In the afternoon, we are lucky and nap together. The pleasure of three people tucked into a single bed is pure joy. After an hour, when the nurse comes to take the new member for a checkup, we realize how free we are, going to sleep without any responsibility, without worry or hesitation. In the first few days of parental leave, rather than adding to our stress we have ceded our normal tasks, our professional goals and targets. In the hospital for another twenty four hours yet, we have not yet assumed the full burden of our new role. I have no complaints.

Looking north I can barely see the buildings of North Point over the hill, the tops of the AXA tower and One Island East poking above the mountain. I can see Red Incense summit, where we watch the sunset and fireworks. I’m excited to take Clara up there, to show her the world we live in. To show her the place she was born.

Mostly unprepared

Before change, like before a storm, there are moments of peace, of pause. On a Wednesday after yoga I work from a courtyard, free until a dentist appointment. It’s beautiful here, cool enough in the shade to be pleasant. For two hours I write documentation and update plans. I want to remember these moments, with little to worry about save my own responsibilities.

Often big changes are visible some ways out, and yet still impossible to anticipate. The end of university. The first days after moving to a new country. These events are monumental, and will be permanent memories. Their dates are known in advance, planned around. And yet the feeling, the act of being on the far side, remains invisible, unknowable until it arrives. I think often of our first week in Hong Kong, walking the TST waterfront in the humid evenings. That week, at a hotel paid for by a company long since bankrupt, was uncertain, and beautiful. Every act, of getting coffee at Starbucks while messaging real estate agents early in the mornings, of eating noodles at a Japanese place at the end of the day, awoke us, reminded us of the shift we’d made, from San Francisco to Hong Kong.

On this afternoon in June I wonder what the next few weeks will feel like, how well I’ll remember them. I know everything will be different, but the how of it, the feel of the change, is invisible to me. I hope I remember to write.