Shanghai again, together

We land at Terminal 2 some eleven years since our last shared departure. In between Shanghai has been a touch point and frequent destination, but only for myself.

Shanghai is a city of change, where the list of bars and restaurants that have closed is daunting. Most of the places we knew in two thousand seven and eight are gone. Most of the places that opened after we left have likewise disappeared. The subway has blossomed, from four incomplete lines to more than a dozen. Entire entertainment districts have grown, become popular, and then been closed by the government. Apartments have gotten more expensive but also more numerous, and there are new cool neighborhoods far beyond what was our circle of frequency.

I have been lucky, taking in these changes over the course of the intervening decade, on work trips that lasted days and weeks. Since two thousand eight I’ve been paid for probably four months of time in Shanghai, though none since 2016. There are still changes that surprise me, every time I land. Taking them all in at once is daunting, and I watch Tara wander, eyes wide with uncertainty. Is this the corner we walked to so frequently? Is this our grocery store? Which way did we go to get from one apartment to the other, in those early days?

There are moments of joy too, in this adventure. The stalls attached to Zhongshan Park station, which had always been a home of odds and ends, now feature local designers, and better food. The connecting Carrefour features the same broad array of goods but under better lighting and with a cleaner sense of organization. The old apartment building is still standing, and the convenience stores nearby are far better than the old Kwik. We eat dumplings and meat pancakes for $3, and wander the neighborhood in the morning heat. Zhongshan Park itself is pretty, and filled with dancers. Of the Faithless concert that brought us there together for the first time, well, we have memories.

On Yueyang Lu we wander beneath the green leaves of Shanghai July, happy to see how much good the intervening decade has done for the foliage. These streets have always been a special part of Shanghai, a gift of foresight that keeps out the worst of the summer heat. Along Zhaojiabang Lu and throughout much of the city, efforts to spread the feeling of the French Concession’s tree-lined roads have paid off. “The trees are so big now,” we remark to each other again and again. So often, in this greenest season, it’s impossible to see tall landmarks scant blocks away, not just in our old neighborhoods but all over the city.

Tree growth more than anything is the lingering lesson of these ten years. Buildings have gone up and become accepted. Businesses have come and gone. People too. Subways have been built so far out that the borders of the city are difficult to determine. All these efforts, though, are overshadowed by how green the city has become, at least in the summer. As we leave, walking up the stairway to our plane from the Pudong tarmac, we know the trees are what we will remember from this visit in twenty nineteen.

A decade is a long time to a person, or to a couple. A decade is a long time for our careers. Eleven years ago we knew so little of what we would become, and where that would take us. And we did not appreciate enough the small saplings being placed all over Shanghai.

A decade, it turns out, is a long time for the small trees planted along Zhaojiabang. Long enough to grow tall and dense, to separate one side of the street from the other, and to quiet the noise and improve the air. Long enough to make the city a better place.

Temporary crossings

A photo of a friend

We have a gift, in technology, that is transforming our memories. When I began writing, years before this site, the idea of a personal photographic history was a distant vision. Digital cameras were a poorly performing luxury and cellular connections barely able to convey data. I would not own access to either for another half dozen years.

Unsurprisingly the memories of my first trip abroad have a vague feel and possibly apocryphal characteristics. Much of human history has the same quirks. I have always taken the year of my birth as a blessing, lucky to have grown up before self-documentation. Not before documentation, as parents still took photos and recorded far too many Christmas presents being opened, but before the constant self-editing of ones’ personal digital history. And yet cloud backups and quickly accessible photo streams are a gift of another kind, bringing our memories out of the fog of uncertainty and into the concrete in an entirely new way.

They do not, however, constitute the whole truth, something for which I am grateful. There will still be stories told without evidence, and poorly lit photos that do not clearly prove that we were there that night. At least not without consulting the location metadata.

What we do have is the ability to remember a specific day, return to it, and share the remnants of it with new people, or with old friends. We have the ability to instantly look up the last time we saw someone, or the last time we took a photo, at least.

And so it is that I can find the image I remember in a mater of moments. He stands on the deck of a ferry in the bright light of October sun. We are headed across the Yangtze river to a new factory. This was the good kind of trip, all of us excited to see what we would build together. The travel still felt exploratory and joyful. We all laughed and enjoyed the ferry that day, a place none of us had ever expected to see.

Three months later I would be back, on the worst kind of quick turn quality control visit. I would cross this river on this same ferry, or one of four identical vessels. I would spend several days in the cold of Yangzhou and then fly to Tokyo to present my solutions, to apologize, and to wear a suit. That would be the last time we met in person, me apologizing to him and then us both apologizing to a mutual customer. It was an unpleasant occasion at the end of the year. We were both tired, then, exhausted from the compromises of supporting a failing business model. A little more than a month into the new year I changed jobs, and left that industry and that world behind.

The truth is there aren’t many people to tell, few people I know who ever met him, and fewer still I still speak to. Instead I sift through photos of my times in Tokyo, of his trip to Petaluma, and of our factory visits in China. The best ones I send to his colleague, in case they capture moments he does not have. I share the memories I have available, especially of the good days. It’s all I can think of to do.

Long ago and in another country

In the quiet of an unemployed Hong Kong afternoon I watch the clouds gather on the hillside above our apartment and work through memories. For the last several weeks of travel I have been thinking of the distance covered. Distance not in the sense of miles on the road, or places slept, but as people. I am thinking of the distance between who we were, and who we are.

In early twenty seventeen I left a job, convinced that the time was right to become bolder, to move into a new circle and have a wider presence. It was a moment of confidence in my professional abilities. I had gathered several small consulting gigs into a semblance of structure, and was planning to study for a professional certification. I felt more ready for a life without work than I had in years, since two thousand eight. For the first time since returning to the US I was professionally relaxed, if not calm, and ready to try new things. That it had taken me almost a decade is not a surprise to those who’ve struggled with the self-doubt of returning to their home country with a resume built abroad. Discovering the difficulty of conveying the value of broad international experience in a job application can be hard on the mind.

Three months later I was back to work, the beneficiary of friend’s recommendations and personal persistence. We had, at least temporarily, decided to stay in San Francisco, to enjoy the summer and learn as much as we were able.

It is to this point I now return, in memory. To the decision in May twenty seventeen to stay, to learn, and to take the opportunities we had worked so hard to get. Moments like these take a while to evaluate correctly, to understand whether the choice of jobs and hours at them are worth the lessons learned. A friend of mine once said, before he quit the company we’d met at, “always do whatever’s next”. That spring, we did.

From my small office window looking out at the towers of Hong Kong, I know we were right to follow his advice. It took but two short years to prove us both so. That new job taught me an entire industry that I’d been interested in for a decade, and gave me the resume line I’d lacked. Tara’s extra year gave her the experience she needed to move on at the right level. Through work and patience we did, to a new role for her and a new country for us both. And now, with another break, albeit an unexpected one, coming to a close, I am again excited for what’s next. I’m looking forward to a new team, to new friends, and new challenges, all of which will be built on the choices of that spring of twenty seventeen.

For the first time in a while I have had time to feel out who we are, and who we are becoming. I’ve had space to evaluate where we wanted to be and our trajectory. It’s a gift, to have time off so frequently, and I try to both celebrate and observe. We’re lucky, and we’re getting closer.

Title quote from Ursula K Le Guin’s novel The Left Hand of Darkness.

On the road

We spend a week in motion in a rented Kia, exploring toll roads from Illinois to New York. We get gas in Ohio and an Easy Pass in Pennsylvania, and stop in neither state. It is a quick but thorough tour of relatives and friends, and despite the pace nothing feels rushed.

It’s been a while since we drove the east coast, down 81 and through Philly. Longer since I drove from Chicago to Ithaca, a part of the country my companion has never seen. We encounter fierce rains in Cleveland and the Endless Mountains, and see great lightning in Cherry Hill and Rumson. It’s the kind of tour that sees us admire flowers, play tennis, and hold snakes. We eat in back yards and dining rooms, at local restaurants in Brooklyn and at Google’s cafe in Chelsea. I even get a couple of bagels from College Town Bagels in my home town, and eat them while driving.

We do better than the above listing suggests though, and on our flight out of Newark I am happy and relaxed, and then asleep. By the time we land in Denver for the next stretch I feel sated, rested, and comfortable with the conversations we traveled those miles to have. We’ve gotten better at pacing ourselves, planning less and focusing more on each evening, on the mornings around the kitchen table and the walks to get breakfast. Fewer photos, less posting, and more focus on the people we came so far to see.

More and more I am grateful for our abilities, for the freedom to fly so far and be so unburdened. As I once wrote about being thirty eight and biking to the gym, there is a luxury now to being able to spend time with friends and family, despite the choices we have made to move so far. The conversations are brief, often a single hour or a single evening, yet they are real.

And so with each such loop of short visits we share a bit more of our lives, and we remember each other a little more clearly. With the tools of rental cars and trans-pacific flights we are pushing back on the erasures of friendship by distance and time.

Keep contact

Office view of San Francisco

At the end of everything come goodbyes. They come after the laptop is turned in, after the exit interview, after the resignation letter. We go out for a drink, or lunch at a place we’ve always liked. Sometimes we just sit around the office and chat, or wander the parking lot. The location isn’t as important as the people. They are our constant companions for the last several years, folk who have shared more of our waking hours than our families. It’s a strange aspect of this modern life where occupation dominates. The time together leads to friendships that are both intense and limited by location. For a few years we share everything, so many things, small battles and celebrations, long trips, awkward meetings and Christmas parties. And then, suddenly, we move on.

And so we say goodbye last, for the people are what we will miss, regardless of the product or company, regardless of which side of the table we sat on in price negotiations. Vendor, colleague, customer, supplier, all of these words are simply descriptions for a person in one box of their life. Before and after, well, it’s hard to say who they may become, and good to remember who they have been. So we say goodbye in bars, in line at boba tea, over ice cream on Market street. At the very end we say goodbye on Zoom calls, while the account still works and everyone’s schedule is simultaneously free. And when it has been good we laugh and we cry, glad to have had the chance to share so much with these people met in the search for a paycheck.

It took me years to learn to say goodbye. My first jobs were places that celebrated for me, where turnover was high enough to have rituals surrounding it: Irish car bombs on the restaurant patio in Boston or all-night karaoke in Saitama. Those were the years of transience, of scattered memories and friendships made for the moment with Irish students in America for the summer or English teachers from Newfoundland. Part of these goodbyes was the lack of surprise at their happening. So many of our relationships came with expiration dates, visa limits, or school year cycles. And so I made it to Shanghai before I knew how to value colleagues, even the ones I remain friends with from those earlier years.

Thus these last few weeks have been bittersweet, filled with former colleagues and good friends reaching out to see where I will land, to see if they can help, or simply to admire the product that occupied so much of my last two years. There have been lots of chats with colleagues now become friends about job prospects but also about baseball. We bring up old jokes formed during late night calls with distant timezones, partially because they still make us laugh and partially because we weren’t ready to say goodbye, because we were still having a good time.

In that last sentence comes some of what has changed from those early days. For the first time in as long as I can recall, I wasn’t leaving, I wasn’t in a rush to whatever’s next, though I now need to find it. My former colleagues, far from being distant and forgotten, toiling in their cubicles while I take interviews, are all within reach, available by chat and sharing their search. In some ways there was no goodbye, despite the zoom calls and the tears. In a lot of ways we’ll still be here, in different cities and at different companies, because we didn’t leave.