Passing through

In the foggy chill of a November San Francisco evening I head home to a place I’ve never lived. After a jet lagged day in the office, a round of mini golf with coworkers, and dinner with an old friend I am tired and full. Crossing Dolores I am also alone, in the strange way of San Francisco where ten pm sees all responsible individuals indoors save in a few tiny commercial strips. In Hong Kong there would be dozens of folk out of doors in all directions now, a level of activity not only explained by the weather.

I’m happy to be at home in the Castro this week, a neighborhood I haven’t frequented since our early years in the city a decade ago. On these recent trips I take advantage of friends’ generosity as both a cost saving measure for the current startup and a fringe benefit of the long flights. These evenings with people I now live too far from are quite a perk. We discuss old times, sharing memories of China and San Francisco in equal measure. I am often confused about bed times and vague about meals, but good conversation is not as vulnerable to displacement.

The sense of home, though, has gone. That is the starkest change, walking home across Church, or up Market past Safeway and the Churchill. I know these places, having bought thanksgiving dinner fixings at one and fancy cocktails at the other, but they are no longer part of my city. I spend a morning thinking about this as I ride Muni to work. It’s been so long that I try to swipe my Clipper card on the way out of the gates, like Bart, only to have the station attendant remind me that’s not necessary on Muni. It must have been five years since I rode it last.

And then suddenly in a text message it’s explained to me, obviously. Visiting San Francisco now is like returning to Shanghai in two thousand ten, two years or so after moving away. Everything is familiar, it still can feel like home, but it isn’t, and in some way it doesn’t. I’ll always be comfortable here, but probably never again a resident. Just like Shanghai. And the metro confusion of the Powell street Muni gates matches so well my lack of knowledge of line 10’s stops past Xujiahui in two thousand nine. These are places we know but have forgotten, or places that have changed.

On my way to the climbing gym this evening, to meet old friends and enjoy one of the largest bouldering gyms in the world for a couple of hours before my flight, I pass Chase Center, the Warriors new home. It’s a colossus, a sparkling modern money-printing facility. The last time I rode this street I could see straight through the structure. Only the girders were in place, phantoms of the future bleachers curves mirrored in their arcs.

Like all cities, San Francisco is changing. Like all people, we are changing. Many of my friends no longer live here, not in the city proper. It has only been a single year, and yet the pace of their evacuation is startling. The people I stayed with in September have fled north since that visit, a scant two months prior. I wonder how long I will have friends here at all. And then I arrive at the gym and find another friend sprawled on the mats unexpectedly. It will be a while, I realize. My five years of connections to Shanghai have still not faded, not fully. Nine years in SF will likewise not fade too fast. It’s just the sense of home that has moved on, to warmer and denser cities where my cat wanders the park and is taken out to dinner at the noodle shop.

Time now to get back there, again on this long commute.

Off hours

The kind of quiet Monday I last enjoyed in the spring sneaks up on me. I rise early and make coffee, acknowledging the cat by leaving the sink tap dripping for a bit. He prefers to drink running water with quick laps of that tiny pink tongue, and I prefer to let him. In the dark of the kitchen we make space for each other, me pouring boiling water over grounds and him two paws down in the sink, two paws up on the counter, making tiny splashing sounds.

We retire to the office once the coffee is done, where I scrub emails and reach out to factory staff to plan visits later in the week. It’s too early for them to be on site yet, and in an hour I’ve accomplished enough to pause until they reply. The cat and I wake Tara with tea and move to the sunroom to read the news and lie on the rug until she arrives. We read and she plays the guitar for a bit until the neighborhood is fully risen. These minutes of morning together are likewise a gift of this kind of Monday, and we appreciate them. Quite often one or the other of us is traveling, is at the train station early or the airport even earlier, and there is none of this shared peace, reading while the children next door leave for school.

After a while the neighborhood is awake, children out and office workers likewise. The shops open and deliveries start to arrive, and Tara departs for work, a short bus ride or walk. Again this commute is a gift of our life here. No longer are the bus rides an hour plus of private shuttles down the peninsula. As she leaves I set the robot vacuum to work, appeasing the cat with a high perch safe from the trundling commotion. He accepts this reluctantly, and naps while I follow up with the responses arriving from factory staff and US teammates. These colleagues are conducting a ritual I know so well, that of the Sunday evening email scrub to prepare for the week. It’s a part of life I have left behind in my journey to the future. In return I now work Saturday mornings, a few hours of quiet catch up on the end of the US work week. These hours are a fair trade, as they overlap with some factories sixth working day. I’m happier with this schedule, trading Friday dinner time emails in the US for Saturday morning ones, letting Tara sleep in while I chase shipping documents and wire transfers. There’s an unspoken rule in this exchange, a pact we all mostly keep: one day a week without email. Saturday in the US and Sunday in Asia are sacred, a shared time for everything else in our lives. One day a week of peace. And as a result the last quarter of my weekend sometimes comes, strangely, on Mondays.

So it is that afternoons like this Monday, where replies trickle in and there is no specific urgency to any situation, sneak up on me, for they are not planned. Instead, upon realizing myself so gifted I head to the gym or to the grocery store. Occasionally I write, or nap with the cat. Days like this are rare. Last week on Monday I was on a 7 am flight to Taiwan. The week before I was already in Japan. The week before that I was already in San Francisco. More than a month, I think, since the last of these quiet mornings with the cat. And so I relax and appreciate the gift of living once again in the future, in UTC+8, and working at least partially in the past.

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.

Fast or slow

“It’s raining in Shenzhen,” my colleague’s text begins, “probably also in Hong Kong”.

Like that the truth comes back to me. We did it. Texts guessing about the weather of our home town now speak of Hong Kong.

Out our Tokyo window the streets are chill and windy in the evening. Our hotel for the weekend is a luxury, new and relatively spacious, with an interesting design that combines the room’s cupboards with the bathroom sink and counter tops to create the illusion of an open area and usable space. Open only since July, it’s one of a plethora going up in this south eastern district in preparation for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Staring out the window while Tara fiddles with her demo unit for next week’s trade show and scans the hotel’s wifi, I am trying to determine what kind of a year we are in. The text, from a colleague with whom I will spend the following week traipsing around Guangdong province, pulls in both directions.

In my still-developing theory there are long years and short years, and it’s usually impossible to tell which is which from the inside. There are short years of starting new jobs, where time rushes past in the intense waves of learning new work environments, tools, industries, vocabularies, and colleagues. These gains come with long nights and early mornings, and the excitement to work through both. The challenge and the reason for the name, of course, is that these years can be hard to remember. Little happens outside of work, and even what does can be difficult to recall distinctly, the brain overburdened with gaining knowledge. Short years are busy ones, in some respects, but they are also inherently boring ones, where the next year is upon us before we have created any deep attachment to the current one. As noted, these distinctions come easiest in hindsight, in the struggle to recall what happened in twenty ten or twenty seventeen.

Long years seem to grow in our memories, and contain moments we will remember all our lives. Often they contain long vacations that didn’t involve laptops, like Singapore and Indonesia in twenty sixteen, like Paris, Copenhagen, and Norway in twenty fifteen. Sometimes they contain life events, like marriage, honeymoons, or time between jobs.

And yet neither of these categories are absolute, and neither clear. Twenty fourteen is both a blur of injuries and a new job and our wedding, somehow responsible for so many memories and so few. Twenty twelve springs back so frequently to mind due to a move and Mr. Squish’s arrival. The short years, which grow in number as we age, are difficult to even notice in these types of listings, and I wonder where I was, awake, asleep, or in transit?

Two thousand nineteen has opportunities for both types. Probably so do all years, in the first quarter. From Tokyo, where the weather is bracingly chill after Hong Kong’s temperate winter, I look out the window and wonder what we will remember.

Eyes open heart wide

Moving means everything is new and of unknown interest. As a result I spend weeks wandering with my eyes and ears open. Exploring, in the tame urban sense of it. I look out of doors, in shops, up stairs, and around corners. More than a month in, Hong Kong is as full as I’d hoped and I have no sense of the limits. Learning a new place is best done by wandering without earbuds, and without goals. Tonight, sitting on the top level of the tram heading home at golden hour, every angle looked good. Every direction provided some new detail to absorb. Bamboo scaffolding. Laundry hanging out of windows. Purple neon in the top floor of busses. Commuters watching their phones. Commuters crossing the street. People in upper story windows just getting home, and people in shops picking up things for the weekend.  All these parts of the city convey the sense of motion and depth that I love so much. There are people everywhere.

The appeal of density is a difficult thing to explain. I’ve tried for years, thinking about why fleeing the dark of rural China for Shanghai’s lights feels better than anything. Last week, on a bus back from Zhuhai to Hong Kong, I felt that pull again, that desire to be where the lights and people are. And here, on Hong Kong Island, walking home from the tram, I have made it back once again. I feel as comfortable as I can, considering I can’t yet speak Cantonese.

My wanderings are one way to enjoy the density of this city, to appreciate the variety of life, of housing, of jobs being done. Taking new routes to familiar places is a way to immerse myself in this city, to absorb as much as I can of my new home. Because eventually, as with all things, I’ll be busier, and have less time for extra steps. I’ll be focused on other things, and not remember the city I chose to live in the way I thought of it before moving. I won’t remember the Hong Kong of the past few years, where I took Sundays off after long Dongguan weeks. I might not remember the Novotel breakfasts of my business trips. Instead this city will join San Francisco, Houston, Shanghai, Tokyo, New York, Boston, and all the places I’ve lived in my memories. It will be full of friendships and struggles, the ongoing geography of real life.

Today, though, on the tram home, Hong Kong was still firmly in the realm of places I have always wanted to spend more time. And by keeping my eyes open and my mind empty, I’m trying to keep it there for as long as life will let me.