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.

Scant busy days

Occasionally, when otherwise unoccupied, I find myself busy for a prolonged stretch. It is no great expanse of time, merely the full measure of a work day, from early in the morning until the sun has set. Being mostly unemployed, these days are never single purpose, and the varied nature of them affects my mood. On good ones, like today, they start with interviews with distant companies, conducted before the household has woken. I sit in the office, grateful for the view of Kowloon, and talk to engineers on products I am curious about, am hopeful for. After a few hours I emerge to make tea or say goodbye to the family, depending on the work day.

The next calls are ones where I talk less, but add more value, consulting calls with factories, with American engineers at the end of their days and teams closer to me at the start of theirs. These are the kind of calls I am at home in, translating or clarifying where needed, managing the structure and shape of the plan, and resolving minor issues with both sides for the hour following. These are the kind of calls that keep me sane, when mostly unemployed. They keep me connected to factories, to what is happening with China’s lockdowns and American labor shortages, and to where the distributed teams in the US are located. It’s a hard way to do hardware, fully remote and part time, but it’s rewarding, and the people are worth the contact hours. Many of them I’m sure I’ll work with again. Some I already have.

After these hours I rise and procure coffee, wandering down stairs to Fineprint to say hello to neighbors, the regular crowd. It’s a comfortable environment, the kind of experience central to our love for Hong Kong, for Tai Hang. Our street features a dozen restaurants, our neighborhood roughly thirty, and a fifteen minute walk’s radius an easy hundred. There is always somewhere to go, something to eat, someone to see. The liveliness of this kind of environment balances my work-partially-from-home situation perfectly. I can not imagine doing without, and worry some times about those on calls, so clearly in suburban locations, so clearly in a single family home with nothing to walk to. I worry about Americans.

I worry too about my Chinese friends, about those in closed loop” work environments that, with the euphemism discarded, means sleeping at work”. I worry about the sustainability of Covid Zero when it takes away everything but the ability to work. I hope we survive this, collectively. I hope my project manager, who has spent fifty three days in solitary quarantine in twenty twenty two, survives this. We don’t seem to have a choice.

Inside looking out

Hotel bed and towers beyond

Quarantine is always an odd experience. This time I’m alone, looking out at the world but unable to touch it. For seven days I watch the apartments above Elements, hundreds of boxes filled with life. I watch the restaurants and green spaces below, and the motion of cars. To one side I can see the Star Ferry trundle back and forth, and beyond that Hong Kong island, another stack of buildings and people. I watch a parent and child tend plants on their balcony, and children chase each other around a playground. Far to the left I can see a swimming pool, filled with those rich enough to reside in one of these towers.

Hong Kong is built on this density, on this ability to see several thousand apartments from any angle, but the view is rarely this good, nor are we forced to watch it this long. For a boy who loves people, loves towers, loves motion and this city, it’s a pleasure. While I of course would rather be out, rather be able to feel the air and touch the water, I’m glad to have this view.

Seven days is just long enough to force thoughtfulness. The first few days, burnt away in the haze of jet lag and working from a hotel, feel like any work trip anywhere. It isn’t till the weekend that the situation becomes clear. Like the weekends I used to spend in Dongguan, too injured to bother going anywhere, staying in a hotel alone is an odd experience. Even on those Dongguan weekends in twenty fourteen, though, I would spend most of the day walking, would feel the air and eat in restaurants. Quarantine is a different form of solitude. I think of all those who did three weeks like this, the requirement in Hong Kong over much of the past few years. I think of a factory project manager I know who spent fifty three days in quarantine in twenty twenty two for the pleasure of seeing her family in Taiwan for a week. Fifty three days alone, as a person others are to be afraid of touching.

It’s hard to imagine that length of time. It’s an odd experience, this week, but another few days and I’ll be home to my cat. Another few days and this whole trip, circumnavigating the globe fore the first time, will be over, almost like it never happened. So much of travel is like that, a blitz of new places, new weather, new colleagues and old friends, and then home again, to the cat, the family, and the hillside. Home to my tiny routines in our neighborhood, where the world is within reach.

I’m excited to see if the bakery has re-opened, to get bagels and milk tea. I’m excited to feel the humid air, and walk in the park.

Quarantine is a strange place, so close to home and yet nowhere anyone can see. And that comes back to the window, where I sit looking out. A boy kicks a soccer ball against some stairs, practicing his touch. Taxis loop in and out of the fancy apartment complexes, bringing guests and residents. And the harbor reflects the light as the sun sets on Saturday.

I’m glad to have this view, for a week.

Outward bound, again

Masked up, looking out the window at my airplane at HKG

In many ways the pandemic started for me in a hospital room in Hong Kong at seven am. The painkillers from shoulder surgery had worn off, and I was unable to sleep. My then boss called, letting me know our startup was furloughing everyone as our prospective lead VC had pulled out of the round. This string of words, which matter only in a specific universe, is how I became unemployed that morning while waiting for the nurse to bring the next round of meds. It was March 20th, 2020, and I knew recovery would be slow.

In many ways the pandemic ended for me purchasing flights late at night last Saturday. My new colleague did the purchasing, over Zoom, coordinating our trip to Dublin and then a week on-site with the team in San Francisco. The job is new, my start date is the date of boarding the flight to Dublin, and the future, much like it was in March of twenty twenty, is uncertain. I did not expect the end to be so clearly personally demarcated. The change, the shift that makes me feel so profoundly different, is that once again people are excited to pay me to fly places and learn things. That, it seems, is what I expect from the world, and having it restored has restored my sense of the possible. This change, in some ways, has restored the horizon that was so difficult to see.

We’ve learned a lot the last few years, us humans. We’ve suffered, too. I’m not high on the list of people in difficult situations. Knowing that has made it hard to write lately, when life felt hard, as I know life here in Hong Kong is quite good, even when restrictions were the tightest. It’s no Shanghai, and the sound of ambulances has never been as omnipresent as New Yorkers once described. We suffer mentally from the closed borders and we suffer physically from the closed gyms, but many people can still work, many people can still see their family. While the bar is low, Hong Kong has cleared that low bar.

Now the question is can we clear a higher bar, that of once again being one of the world’s best cities. Can this once again be a home base for people who are paid to fly places and learn things?

I hope so.

On this Tuesday, outbound to a country I’ve never been to tomorrow, everything suddenly feels possible, and the future bright.