The global language

Atletico Madrid, up 1-0 twenty six minutes in, is switched for Liverpool vs Bournemouth. The Premier League remains on top, at least in this craft beer pub in Hong Kong. Having no allegiance in either match I am happy to watch the world through football. My joy is for the game; I am glad to be back where a sports bar means the global football rather than the American one.

***

Fifteen years ago a boy who had weekdays rather than weekends off in Tokyo used to spend them in a used book store in Ebisu. Here, in the rain of Tokyo Novembers he would browse and feel at home. The store, since closed, was a treasure of second-hand English for a boy who could not read Japanese.

The comfort he found in Good Day Books was not just the bookstore joy of familiar titles and new discoveries. Instead it was the atmosphere, quiet save for BBC radio, which at his hours of visiting meant mostly traffic reporting of the London evening commute, a perfect sound for Tokyo mornings. In these hours of browsing he was no longer in Ebisu, no longer an English teacher with a Thursday off, but a solitary spirit in the global remnants of the British Empire.

***

In a Thai hotel years later he waits for his wife, arriving from Seoul a day later. The TV in the room they will share turns on at his entry, and so it lingers as he unpacks, displaying helpful information, local restaurants. After a while he changes the channel without purpose, stopping on the local weather. Local, in this multinational chain hotel, means regional, a map that covers Bangkok, Phuket, Chang Mai and also Singapore, Jakarta, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Beijing, Tokyo, and Sydney. The weather map is one of global cities of the eastern hemisphere, and he lets it be, watching tomorrow’s highs scroll through in a comforting fashion, no longer alone.

***

In two thousand fourteen he sits in a Japanese restaurant behind a Dongguan hotel on a Friday evening by himself. This is the middle of a work trip run long, a factory visit supposed to take one week that will now take several. A similar situation, he suspects, to the Japanese business men at the next table, who were the restaurant owner’s target market. Unlike them, he is alone, without colleagues to pour sake for. And so he watches the TV above the entrance while eating noodles. The small CRT is set to NHK, a muted loop of Tokyo’s local stories, weather, and traffic providing familiar background for owner and restaurant-goers alike. The solitary diner watches the news in Japanese with similar pleasure as he’d taken in the BBC traffic reports of two thousand two. It represents much the same: a bit of the wider world brought into this small establishment.

***

And so the comfort I take in Hong Kong at finding this pub and it’s channel-surfing bartender is of no surprise. Swapping La Liga for the EPL is a choice that I can understand, if not take sides on. The broadcast, without sound, is of the kind of global background noise that I love and have always loved, that reminds me I am no longer in America, no longer at home but always here.


Months away, and back

In this other city people do not bicycle to work. They log hours of life in automobiles, invest those hours watching license plates for amusement: words paid for simply to alleviate this drone. They have made a collective decision that fifty dollars per person would benefit everyone by giving some form of humor to the mindless jerk and roll of stop and go freeways.

But this is not the difference that surprises. Los Angeles is a city built on the automobile, and we are all aware of the ramifications. That is, we are growing aware of the ramifications. That is, we are still hopelessly inconsiderate of the impact. A sixth grade class, full of boisterous cheer at their opportunity to ignore textbooks, all with their hands raised, desperate to answer.

“The worst problem in Shanghai is the traffic.”

“I think the pollution is the biggest problem.”

“There are too many cars.”

Sixth grade. My next sentences are predictably icy, the strange lack of remorse that age and clarity bring.

“Raise your hand if your family has a car.” Three hands out of thirty six.

“Raise your hand if you want your family to have a car.” Thirty six hands out of thirty six, with one tentatively slow.

We are not different. The failings are repeated, the desires are mirrored. The time spent in automobiles is not a difference of desire, but a lack of time. In five years, the situation will be mirrored on both sides of the Pacific. Those who contest that statement contest only the number of years, not the fact.

No, the difference that provokes is the one that wakes me each morning, asleep on a leather couch that may not really be, that is green and welcoming, for the first week, and then becomes a strange combination of place to collapse and position to avoid.

The difference is light.

Shanghai is a city built upwards in leaps, towered with an enthusiasm seldom seen by man. It is built of concrete, and of steel, solid rock, sand. These are not items of comfort, they are items of quantity, of ability, of speed, and of cost. These are apartment blocks, yet the concerns of the living are attached last, afterthoughts, minor inconveniences their tenants will suffer through for the next decade, or two. Heating, the entire building a cement shape with no insulation, no space in the walls save for water and electricity, is bolted on to each apartment individually, small blocks to transfer energy out when hot, in when cold. They litter the sides of every building, frequently upgraded, moved, readjusted, individually purchased. The purpose of these buildings is to shelter, not to house. To cover, not to hold. Water pipes are run without thought of pressure, electricity without thought of human use. One line runs to the ceiling center in each room, one ends near the door, one on the far wall, and out. Any further adjustment requires chiseling through the wall and then patching, destroying the cement that is in all cases already too fragile. Too much sand, an irony in a city sinking slowly into it.

In Los Angeles, in Venice, by the beach, I sleep on the sofa of an apartment that is not, for it once was a house. This second floor may have been a deck, half exposed, later walled in when the internal stairs were removed. This is a building built for a family, converted to house three. It is wood, and it creaks in the wind, or when the neighbors start dancing again. It is softer, and warmer, and full of light. The walls are windows, open in the sunshine, sheltered by blinds in the night. The sunlight that wakes me could do so from any direction, my sleeping position visible from any side of the building. In Shanghai’s apartment tower each room gets one window, no more. This does not mean wall space is wasted, but that each apartment has so little of it that faces outwards. That each apartment is a cave, a container, stacked to the sky.

This is not a new surprise. New York knows it, Tokyo and Hong Kong as well. But the strange darkness of my apartment without electricity, even in the longest summer, now has a starker contrast, the well-lit afternoons in Venice, even on the shortest day.

It is a lack of windows, and a lack of wood, both small items that speak to speed, money, and numbers, rather than craft, people, and the desire to inhabit a space full of light.