One year

With regularity the days go by. The anniversary dates of first job offers, visa approvals, leaving parties, and flights all roll past as the summer ends and September begins. Now in October the memories are of our busy first days of house hunting, my last weeks of packing our San Francisco apartment, and those first few weeks in our Hong Kong home.

Mr. Squish doesn’t seem to remember arriving in a pee-soaked state one year before, having traveled farther than most cats ever do. Or maybe he does, but the trauma of that memory and the loss of his SF rooftop are not moments he chooses to commemorate. It can be hard to tell. Either way he naps under the red sofa in the afternoon heat and sprints around the house in the dark with the comfort of a cat familiar with his surroundings. This move may have taken him away from cool weather and the Mission rooftop, but it has given him air conditioning, a variety of rooms to nap in, and the company of a work from home human. I like to think he’s satisfied.

As for the humans, our memories are as fragile as ever. I remember biking home from long days at the office in SF, up hill into the wind, and wondering where we would live next, and how long it would take to get there. A year later I can answer the question, but not remember the urgency with which it was asked.

“I don’t want a vacation, I want a new life,” I used to say.

It took more than a year to get one, and while I think often of how lucky we are to be in Hong Kong, the anniversary of the move is as good a time as any to reflect. This morning I do some light shopping in our neighborhood, for my sick partner. The shopping list is not long: avocados and passion fruit from the old couple’s street stand two blocks down. This fruit and vegetable stand, visible from our window, was a major perk of the apartment when we first saw it a year ago. A year later we’re frequent customers and were correct to value it. After that comes sourdough bread, from the coffee shop downstairs. This was a bit of luck, as the coffee shop opened in December, after our lease was signed. It serves wine and cheese in the evening, coffee in the morning, and whole beans and sourdough bread in between. Few establishments, opening directly downstairs, would have both signaled gentrification and fit my work from home routine as well. Last on the shopping list, of course, is some dong lai cha, iced milk tea. In the past year we’ve tried almost all of the small street restaurants and corner breakfast shops in the immediate vicinity, and have favorites for almost every type of dish. This tea, from the slippery egg place, is by far the best, and so a special sick day request.

Living somewhere, as opposed to visiting, is the art of learning a place deeply, enough to have a routine, and also of becoming part of the routine of others. At each of these stops I am no longer a stranger, if not exactly a local. At the small noodle shop I visit first, for myself, I’m by now a regular, if one who orders few things and understands little Cantonese. A year in though I’ve started to learn, and will get better.

A year in a place is both a long time and not. This year has been enough to make friends and change jobs, it’s been enough to become part of established social groups and to start new ones. A year though, as I first realized in Tokyo, is not long enough to really know much, or to have explored everything. In some ways a year is no time at all. And so, starting the second year of our lease, becoming comfortable in each of our second jobs here, looking back makes me happy. We’ve come a long way from those last weeks in San Francisco, from our one bedroom in the Mission. We’re settled, and home, in this new city.

They know your name

After cleaning our old place we sit with our backs against the wall of our local bar, tacos on order and Tecates in hand. It won’t be our last trip here, the Taco Shop will remain just across the park, but it won’t be our closest option late at night, after ultimate or hard days. We won’t wander down at 5 on Fridays any more for happy hour, or watch games from the back tables on Saturday afternoons. The bar staff, who know our faces if not our names, are unaware of the reason for our strange faces. They smile when we sit down and treat us well, locals who live around the corner and come in often, never when the place is packed. This is what happens when we move. As a basketball game unwinds on the TV behind the bar I remember the early times, saying goodbye to places I once knew. Places I once was known.

For that boy the differences at first felt so small. Of course no one knew his name, in those new towns. At the laundromat he watched people for hours, sitting cross legged on top of a washing machine. In nineteen ninety eight Portsmouth didn’t feel that different from Ithaca. He would get a bagel in the morning, fresh off the boat in, and walk to the laundromat. His one day ashore would be spent reading, thinking, cleaning, and talking to almost no one.

Four years later and on a day off again he would walk out of the Ebisu train station in the rain. He stopped for coffee in a shop with an English menu. Ebisu is a quiet part of Tokyo, and after coffee he would head down small streets towards the used foreign book store. Mostly English, he perused for hours until it was time to take the train home to the suburbs of Saitama. He did buy books, but that was not why he loved this store. He loved it because the staff streamed British radio, Channel 4. Standing in the tiny aisles of this shop in Tokyo he listened to traffic reports of a place he had never been. Hearing of traffic conditions and the evening weather in England he no longer felt alone in the world. The foreign feeling that so surrounded him on those week day afternoons when all of Tokyo was at work and he, with no language, was free, faded for a bit. There are so many parts of the globe, said the radio, where we are out of place, where things feel like home but are strange.

In between these two moments he lived in Maryland and Boston, Pougkeepsie and New York. He would live in Tokyo without language for another year and then Shanghai with only fragments. In each of these places he was familiar few times. In each city he started over, found a coffee shop, a laundromat, a bagel place, a bar to frequent. And in each city, with time, the staff of some establishments remembered his face, his drink. They noted his odd habit of taking a corner table and pulling out a notebook, of reading the Economist over twelve kuai worth of dumplings and twelve kuai worth of beer. They saw him sleeping over his coffee late in the afternoon instead of eating lunch at noon with the crowd. Even less frequently they knew his name, and he theirs. Knew that he would, when asked, tell stories and bring friends, recommend dishes or specific seats.

In these quiet exchanges he built something and left it behind again with each move.

And after each new beginning he woke early on a Saturday and went looking for a coffee shop in which to write.

In the Richmond in twenty twelve I begin with Japonica, on California and 17th. Just to see, just to try. Maybe in a few weeks the owner and I will know each other by sight, if not by name. Maybe a few weeks after that I will be a regular again.

Transitions

The weather breaks and he begins to move after months of planning. Habits are simple things, codified out of time and repetition. Their creation goes unnoticed, until a change of workplace, house, or partner forces home their shift. The boy who left Tokyo in one weekend of breakups and gift-giving, pieces of his life strewn on the street outside a Yono hommachi apartment block, stares at the rain sweeping across Shanghai. The windows are tinted gold, an attempt at fake glory that neither the view nor the windows have been able to maintain. The sky is grey and darkening, and the office lights begin to dim. He watches, waiting for a parcel from a factory. The phone rings, an apologetic and wet delivery driver, confirming address, hoping for the endless ringing of an evening reprieve. The phone says six forty five as he sets it down on the window sill. Marble, though the wall that supports it is concrete, painted white and slowly turning to dust. These evenings are comfortable moments, the staff gone, the building growing quiet. The phone blips with bars and dinners, none holding any sense of urgency against the darkening windows.

These Friday evenings of peace after the week’s hectic crush are habits that take effort to scatter. Their ritual encompass a host of others. His bed is waiting for him clean, sheets neatly turned down and clothes hung outside to dry, though they will not in the rain, by an ayi hired to accommodate the rush of busy weeks. On hearing of his plans the worry in her eyes will remind him of the destruction of this scattering. Moving on, he assures her he is not. Not yet, at any rate, not for several months. The sheets will still be cleaned, the bed made. The daily pattern will continue. Leaving for Hong Kong for a few weeks, he will return to familiar pillow covers, bought years ago upon moving in. Reassured she smiles, amazed at this man’s freedom to abandon employment.

Like freedom, scale stuns. Photography provides an example most easily, or most recently: five hundred thousand people crushed into a single train station in Guangzhou’s winter. The overwhelming realization of size new visitors have on seeing Shanghai’s skyline that first taxi ride in to the city at night, towers extending in every direction. Asked for the hundredth time the inevitable ‘why’ he answers no longer in specifics but with the memory of that boy leaving Tokyo in a whirlwind:

“I moved here on a whim.”

The question answered not at all, each side moves on to safer ground:  plans immediate, travel hopeful, the eventual expression of desire, or the jealousy of time. The ayi’s look of amazement at his freedom misses the scale, and thus the stun. To acquire the job he so casually concedes the man who employs her first had to abandon his family, his country, and his employment in some distant place of equal comfort.

‘Why’ lingers in his head long after each conversation as he seeks new answers for his own use on quiet scooter rides. Sometimes the moment is hard to spot, he thinks, the change a long time coming, wave-like from the sea. By the time it reaches land there’s no telling where the push arose. Change is a frightening thing, and yet empowering. This comfort with another culture, this industry mostly understood, they didn’t happen as tiers on a ladder, save for one of individual days assembled. There came a moment when what was was not enough, and habits, rather than small patches of comfort against the wind became small fences of restraint against desire. He wants to go, and to do so must disassemble all the things that hold him here. He is older, and has learned some things, no longer discarding books to re-purchase them again, now able to calculate shipping costs versus cover price. A gain not only of mathematics but of language, the post office understood rather than confounding. Some of these things and most of this learning he will take with him, and some of these habits he will re-assemble in distant locations, having learned their comfort in Shanghai.

For a few more months though he will greet the ayi in the mornings, pack bag with novel and notebook instead of folders and laptop, and set out on foot to remember this city, this country. To remember the habits of a boy curious and stunned, fresh off a plane at twenty four, and unemployed.