Morning hours

From the window, coffee in hand, I look out onto the rooftops of Tai Hang and appreciate those who rose early. On three laundry is already hung, drifting in the eight am breeze. These are Hong Kong’s beauty days, when windows are open and the sky is clear. For a few weeks in November and most of March and April, the weather lingers on a setting between too hot and long sleeves but not much else required. It’s a time to do workouts on rooftops, or in parks, and to go on long hikes to explore abandoned villages. These pursuits will become unbearable in May, and remain so until almost the year’s end.

In these gifted weeks I try especially to rise early, to look out, and to enjoy the freedom of the weather. Squish joins me, watching pigeons and napping in the sunbeams. Soon those beams will be too hot and he will instead nap under sofas, pressed against the concrete. For now though we luxuriate in the open, and the fan blows fine fur in strange arcs as it oscillates. The sky is a clear blue, all the way to Shenzhen, a reminder of our horrid impact on it in better economic times. As always, I wish for the death of the automobile, partially for the view and partially for the noise. Seven stories up, windows open, I can hear people, their odd bangs and crashes as they open shops, unpack cartons, and unload trucks. But mostly what I hear is cars, trucks, and busses. They are wildly louder than all other activities, and a constant presence. One day children, when listening to a recording in a museum, will be astonished at the sound of internal combustion, and react in disbelief that our lives were full of such noise pollution. Until then I wait, and try to rise early to listen to the birds. Cities are full of life and animals, of course. They’re just hard to notice over the cars.

Between day and night

In the fall of two thousand four two foreign boys played hacky sack in Xujiahui Park most days. They were free from worry, barely employed and frequently lost amid the whirl of Shanghai’s boom years. In clothes they had owned for years, t-shirts still from college that ended at the turn of the century, they kicked a knitted ball back and forth for hours. Gradually, as with all things, they grew better, their bodies gathering memory. They learn stalls, and behind the back saves. They were able to play for longer at a time, to control the game so that passers by do not interrupt, that the odd pedestrian unaware of their connection did not block a return. Every day they moved around the park to avoid children on rollerblades who loved the circular areas, or couples on dates who liked the secluded bench spots. Frequently they ended up near the older folks who rested near the entrance in the afternoons, a wide spread of flagstone that was transformed into a dancefloor in the early evenings. These older folks, the retired workers of pre-boom Shanghai, who had seen things the two boys from the US could not imagine, were happy to share their space. They taught the boys Mandarin, word by word.

In twenty twenty, three foreigners played ping pong in Victoria Park on most afternoons in February and March. With schools closed and all three unemployed, the tables became a meeting ground. These three were frequently joined on the other table by a group of local children, and their parents. The kids rode scooters and practiced incredible spin serves, chased each other and played games on their phones. Occasionally, when other adults used one of the two tables, they played with the foreigners, in pairs of all combinations. As always, practice made everyone better, and the daily ritual gave some anchor in a world without timetables or meetings. Ping pong also brought laughter, of poor serves or incredible returns. Occasionally the children taught the foreigners Cantonese, one word at a time.

A decade and a half later our lives have not changed so much. The cities are different, the sports and languages vary, and we age as any other. Yet the peace of spending our afternoons unemployed and in the park in a country not our own has not lessened, and the joy of being welcomed, being part of a community has greatly grown. Habits like these, small bits of exercise in public, are some of the moments we remember longest, after new jobs have come and swept away our afternoons. We are lucky, then, to re-discover them, and lucky to have this break to make them new.

Future imperfect

Apartments in North Point

During the last global crisis, the financial one, I took two years off and wrote a novel. The timing was luck, my own plans scheduled without advance knowledge of the rough stretch ahead. Regardless, I spent the first year of the economy’s downturn riding a bicycle around Houston, writing and living the simple life of one without worries or plans. The second year was harder, in San Francisco, the novel’s first draft complete and the need for future income growing clear. Doubling our rent in the move may have had something to do with the later.

The novel, still sitting unread on this hard drive, was about a world without air travel, and the story of a couple separated by the cessation. Like the years of my life that gave rise to the story, it was set half in China and half in the US. These last few weeks as the sound of an airplane overhead startles, for they have become rare, I am sucked back to those months of imagining such a world. Sitting on the terraces of Rice University I would linger on the idea, trying to deduce what else would struggle in a world without flights. Food supply chains would lurch inconsistently, I guessed, if flights were truly impossible. Air freight as a whole. The speed of things, of post and parcel and people all together would be reduced.

These were the guesses of a younger man, born of the peak oil debate and the belief in national selfishness once the end became apparent. They were made while riding a BMX to Fiesta to buy cheap produce, or beers for fifty cents at the student bar. They were guesses based on weeks spent in third and fourth tier cities in China while living in Shanghai. They were guesses based on lots of reading in a variety of directions. Fiction writing is like that, I think. It’s the act of putting together all the feelers we have out into the world, all the tingles about which way things might go, and telling a story based on living through them. It’s less about projecting the future than, for me, imagining what that future will do to what people care about.

Today, an airplane goes overhead and I stare up at it in wonder. The wonder isn’t new, I’ve been watching airplanes since I was a child in upstate New York, mowing lawns and wondering where those people overhead were going. Today the wonder is that people are going, that airplanes are flying. The sound has become a surprise and a reminder of something I love, of a world I adore. Airplanes, whose climate effects I worry about and work to offset in other ways, are still magical to me. They connect us across huge distances, across oceans and borders. Without air travel the world would be a worse place. Without going and seeing, without feeling, the world is a little harder to share, a little less likely to be understood. The internet can only bring us so close, and as today shows, once air travel is gone, the closing of a border is an easy move.

And so, here in the new crisis, in a time of deep uncertainty and tragedy, of death and eventually starvation, I hold out hope that we come through this, that we take care of each other. I hope that we build a better world out of the tragedies of the current one, and that we are one day again able to fly.

Interesting times

Hospital view

From the hospital bed I can see the tops of towers. The dawn sun rises over the green hill behind them, a slow brightening of the world and my room. The view feels odd, perhaps due to the painkillers and lack of sleep, or perhaps due to the world. With little to do until the doctor’s rounds around nine, I work on relaxing each part of my body, starting with the lungs. This slowing of each portion is my way of putting myself back to sleep. It’s an ability formed in the childhood years of asthma attacks but not truly appreciated until years later, when healing other injuries. Now it is as comforting as anything, and I doze restlessly until seven, when the phone rings. My painkillers are on an eight am and eight pm cycle, at least the pill ones, and so by seven I’m beginning to miss them. The IV drip is noticeably not enough alone.

On the other end of the phone my boss is on his way home, in San Francisco. The all-encompassing virus is mandating work from home, and life, in his description, sounds even more surreal than I already feel. A few moments into our conversation, after the pleasantries, he lets me know it’s no longer an employer/ee relationship. The rest of the conversation is cordial, save for the growing ache in my shoulder. Eventually it ends, and I wait in the almost daylight for the nurse to bring relief. I have nothing else to do.

The end of things, I have written, comes suddenly, but without terrible surprise. So it feels this time, the echoes of one startup’s failure have lingered into the chances of the next in my mind, so that I am not surprised. In fact the similarities are so specific that that the differences are what disappear, and I feel uncertain of many things. Luckily I have little to do but breathe and try to sleep, and a shoulder worth of pain to distract my brain from deeper thoughts.

Fear not

In times of panic so too are there moments of clarity. In Hong Kong a run on face masks is underway. Queues form at the whisper of some for sale, and stretch in circles around entire blocks, until the store of rumored provisions is entirely hidden behind the line of people waiting to learn if it is true. Walking past, those who have not yet caught the fear are confused, wondering if a concert or some other promotion, a tax break, a refund or discount sale is occurring. Have they missed out?

They have missed out on fear, though fear is an easy companion to find. Fear, in this case, is born in a Chinese city and exported world-wide. Fear is a thing that will keep us apart, more than wars, poverty, or the fact that the act of travel destroys our environment. As governments have known for centuries, fear is a great human motivator. It also gets plenty of press, and so I try not to take notice, not to share. When asked if I am afraid, if living in Hong Kong is dangerous, is risky, is scary, makes me nervous, I reply it does not, it should not, it will not. A place like Hong Kong brings joy, brings adventure, brings friendship and a great sense of accomplishment, but it does not bring fear.

And so I do not queue for masks, nor toilet paper, trusting in the global supply chains I help build to recover faster without my additional pressure. Neither, though, do I mock those who do, because fear, once uncovered, is a difficult worry to shake. So to those sending their domestic helpers to stand in long queues for fear of missing out on some newly short commodity, I understand. Being trapped in an office and unable to respond makes us more eager to act and more vulnerable to the whimsy of social media shares. Unable to prove, from the confines of a desk, whether the world is really running out does create uncertainty, does give rise to fear.

If you are short TP I have extra,” reads the text from my friend, unasked for.

All we can do is take care of each other.

Long loops

Back to LA,” I answer, when asked where I’m heading. It’s where my loop is from.”

This answer, now given a half dozen times to friends, colleagues, and family, is a phrase not well understood. The loop is obvious in explanation, the HKG to LAX round trip that connects me to this continent and to my home. On one end America and the other my cat. It’s a good loop, at least some times. I imagine it like the old tow-style ski lifts, ropes drifting by on the snow, there for the grabbing, to be towed along to the next stop. The rope itself is always in motion, like the planes between Hong Kong and LA.

The best part of long loops like this, the trans-pacific ones, is their branching, the ability to add or subtract small loops and other destinations before the return. Writing this from an aisle seat thirty thousand feet up and heading south down the California coast line I am almost done, sub-loops soon complete. It’s an emotional space, the air over San Luis Obispo, a week and a half since leaving Hong Kong. For a loop that started with Throwback and a dozen plus of my old San Francisco frisbee friends I’ve done a lot. Spent the work week in the Bay and added in a car loop to visit family. Sub-loops are like that, purpose-built around jobs or distant relatives. This morning’s started with an ebike, a rental car, out to Sacramento and back. One day full of the most driving I’d done since June. As usual with these loops the people were the goal, cruising Interstate 80 in a large Jeep was just bonus. Or cost.

And now, like a boomerang, I am swooping back along the coast line to LA, a brief hitch in the homeward swing. Another sleep or two and I’ll be sitting in my office, watching the buildings across the street. Descending through clouds into Los Angeles that view feels a long way away, in hours and space.

In so many ways these loops are a tale of our lives, the distance both true and not.

Places I slept, 2019

Skyline

The year ending has been full. At its beginning I wondered whether it would, in retrospect, feel fast or slow. The idea is imperfect, not yet refined. The year, though, had the pace of one that will be difficult to recall as such a span. Changing places in quick succession scrambles my attempts to stitch things into patterns, and although twenty nineteen’s list is not the longest it does feature mostly shorter hops. In some ways that was the goal of moving. As for the reasons for the motion, they vary. We went to ten ultimate tournaments, despite trying to cut back. I went to Japan four times and Tara went five. We went to Taiwan independently for work and together for frisbee, a new country for both of us. We saw old friends in Shanghai and the Philippines, and drove a lot of the east coast of the US in between.

As first years in new countries go 2019 was a hectic one, for us as well as the city. We both got new jobs as the rough side of the start-up lottery came around again. One of our hopes for 2020 is a bit of peace, within and without, though as always not at the cost of freedom. Despite all the travel and turbulence we were able to share Hong Kong with a wide variety of guests, which remains a great pleasure. Hiking, exploring, and laughing with couples from New York and the Bay Area were gifts indeed. Solo travelers too, from New Years on through December, kept us learning new places and reminded us why we love this city. Last, and largest, thanks to the friends who met up in Tokyo for my 40th. The week together is represented by a couple of places slept and of course the view above, and outstripped expectations in the best way.

Despite moving half way around the world, we didn’t feel too distant for most of 2019. These moments together, wherever they happen, are a good reminder that the people we care about won’t fade from our lives. For now, let this serve as a gentle reminder that the guest room is open and flights are cheap.

The list of places slept that follows, a tradition now itself a decade old, reflects mostly our changed home base, with lots of new Asian destinations and a family & friends-focused approach to our time in the US. From the mountains of Colorado to the beaches of Boracay it’s not even all cities, though major metros feature heavily. For the coming year our goal is more new, without of course giving up on the old. Let’s see how we do.

Tai Hang, Hong Kong
Malibu, CA
Santa Monica, CA
SF, CA (five times, three houses)
Tamachi, Tokyo , Japan
Toyosu, Tokyo, Japan
Shaoguan, Guangdong
Shenzhen North, Guangdong
Longgang, Shenzhen, Guangdong
Boracay, Philippines
Novena, Singapore
Hyde Park, Chicago, Il
Ithaca, NY
Cherry Hill, NJ
Rumson, NJ
Brooklyn, NY
Fort Collins, CO
Walden, CO
Bao’an, Shenzhen, Guangdong
Waigaoqiao, Shanghai
Zhongshan Park, Shanghai
Ōsaka, Japan (twice)
Chiba, Japan
Idabashi, Japan
Hatsudai, Tokyo, Japan
Taipei, Taiwan
Taichung, Taiwan (four times)
Kyoto, Japan
Hainan, China
Manila, Philippines

As for Mr. Squish, quarantine laws will keep him in Hong Kong, at least for now. He does get out and about, to our noodle shop, the park, and on an occasional shopping trip. Mostly he’s grateful for the company, which is another invite in a post full of them.

New traditions

IMG_5608

On our street the old couple sets out their boxes of fruit and vegetables before we wake. Today there are passion fruits and cherries along with the standard oranges, apples, and pears. On the far side from our window there is lettuce, cabbage, mushrooms and potatoes. Next door the local restaurant does a brisk business in toast, eggs, fried pork and some noodles. Up and down the street chairs and tables are set out and proprietors take in the air. It is Christmas morning and the world is quiet, but not empty.

For the first time this pattern is familiar. Unlike the year before we do not hoard groceries before the two day holiday, Christmas and Boxing Day. We are comfortable that the grocery store and fruit stand will be open. In the afternoon our neighborhood is alive, someone somewhere hammering on a tin sheet trying to fix an awning. Mostly it is the foreigners that are quiet, not visible on rooftops, their apartment windows shaded and dark. Of our local establishments only the coffee shop is closed. I am glad that they get a break, the Australians and locals who run it. Outside, on it’s steps, a couple takes photos of their Akita, lush and happy in the cooler weather.

The weather is relative, of course. Twenty one C is not exactly cold, not to these children of Colorado and New York. Not, probably, to that dog bred for northern Japan. A balmy Christmas is still new to us, and for the week leading up to it we are uncertain of the season, busy with other pursuits. Finally, though, with the Christmas tree in the building lobby and carols sung by groups in Cantonese outside our train station, we acquiesce and agree. Far from family and with many friends traveling, we spend the days quiet, reading and chatting. These are always some of my favorite days, the quiet ones at end of one year and the beginning of the next. They are time for reflection and for planning, for taking stock of growth and remembering our hopes.

In these years we barely give presents. We share a few, with friends nearby and those we encounter on our travels, or those elsewhere when inspiration strikes. Mostly though we grin at each other, carrying fruit back to our apartment in the sunlight, lucky already with what we wanted most.

New metrics

Electric Road

In Hong Kong on a Wednesday evening I am looking for a spray bottle. It’s our anniversary, the original one, and I’ve purchased a succulent to honor it. The succulents I’d gathered over previous years got moved from San Francisco to the East Bay but not all the way here. So I sought a new one, and then flowers, and now a spray bottle to care for them. In Tin Hau this search means walking down the street, eyes open. Eventually it means a ten Hong Kong dollar purchase from a store that sells stationary, toys, and basic household supplies. Tucked in the back near scrub brushes and a cutting board I find two sizes of bottle and opt for the larger one, in bright translucent colors.

For years now we’ve been evaluating cities, measuring them against our desires and needs. From the earliest days of this site, when smiles were my underrated metric for economic growth in boomtown Shanghai, I’ve been watching places. In Houston the bicycle infrastructure, or relative dispersal of it compared to Shanghai, was what struck me. Gas stations existed on every other corner while repairing a bicycle required a mile or more of travel. This set of facts, once realized, described adequately the built environment, the preferences of locals, the density of jobs, housing, and food, and the danger of streets for pedestrians. After all, cyclists rarely cause death. And so Houston gave me a new way to consider cities, a way to review wherever came next.

In San Francisco I spent days considering elevation and microclimates, these subtle shapes of hill and weather that have huge impacts on residential desirability across the city. The fog is a force in SF, and neighborhoods are defined by their position relative to its reach. The Sunset remains affordable partially because, come evening, it is entirely within the fog bank. The rest of its affordability, or what little remains after twenty years of appreciation, is due to the lack of transit, either highway or train.

In Hong Kong for months now I’ve struggled to clarify my thinking. I like it” and It feels good” remain mediocre rationales. The cliche, while true, that we live in a city but can quickly access the mountains or ocean is not what pulled me here. Something else explains why walking home from our noodle shop in the evening makes us so happy.

And so my quest for a spray bottle. In America, a desire like this results first in an online search. In a location where travel is expensive, dangerous, and personally demanding, it’s no surprise to see delivery flourish and online shopping rise. This rise brings with it the lack of neighborhood unity due to decreased exposure to nearby residents, the failure of local small-scale retail, and the creation of a poorly paid and utterly dehumanized delivery class to take the transit risks and bear the costs. For those reasons as well as the related sedentary health effects, it isn’t a culture that appeals to me. But how to express this preference succinctly?

In Hong Kong on a Wednesday evening I go in search of a plastic spray bottle. I walk seven blocks in eight minutes before finding one. In those seven blocks I pass three 7 Elevens, two grocery stores, one fruit stand, one vegetable stand, and countless small restaurants. I am never alone. Many of my neighbors are outside walking dogs, doing errands, chatting with friends, or coming home from work or activities. I purchase the bottle and then some sushi for dinner from a take out place. It’s a nice night. People are eating outside or in line for bubble tea near the train station. The whole city feels alive and engaged. Walking home amidst all my neighbors it strikes me: this search is a way to evaluate cities. In Hong Kong the fastest way to find something is to walk out of the house and start looking.

I remember coming home one day at the beginning of this year, not long after moving, excited with a discovery. Troye Sivan is playing in May” I said, entering the house. I saw a poster walking home.”

At the time we laughed about how learning about upcoming concerts and music releases from posters plastered on walls felt like New York in the 90’s. Now I think that for as long as we’ve lived here, we’ve learned by walking outside. That’s pretty new for me, a child of the American countryside. In rural America the fastest way to get anything, before Amazon, was to get in a car and drive 20 minutes. Walking was a good way to discover blackberries, and occasionally animals.

And so, one year in, I have a new way to evaluate cities, and a further explanation for why we love Hong Kong. What’s the fastest way to find something? It’s one more way to think about the places we inhabit, and what shapes the sense of life and community in each.

Sickness and work

October passes in fits of frisbee, sickness, and work. We see friends from distant cities and chase plastic in mud together. Weeks later the fields are still bumpy with the memories of our bids and cuts.

We are sick too, a common occurrence in the fall, especially after sharing water bottles and meals with dozens of friends from cities across Asia. We’re lucky in these illnesses, though we may have gotten them from Shanghai friends or given them to Tokyo friends. Hopefully the folks from Manila and Singapore went home without the horrible colds of the fall of 2019.

In between the high energy days of games and the low energy ones of frequent naps we work. In offices and factories we spent much of our weeks solving problems no one has had a chance to resolve before us. This is how it works in startups, every problem something no one has yet had time energy money or knowledge to fix. In our new roles we bring at least energy, and occasionally knowledge. It is the luxury of a decade in San Francisco.

These are good times, if blurry. I feel that I finally know what kind of year 2019 will be. I hope we will remember the best parts with enough details to grant it length, but am not optimistic. Some years are simply spent this way, building blocks for all of our lives.

Mostly, here in the first faint whispers of Hong Kong’s fall, I am glad to wear jeans for a trip to Shenzhen, the first time in six months I’ve contemplated denim. The seasons return, belatedly, long after we’ve forgotten their feel on our skin.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Hideaway

Honne concert

We leave the show in the first wave, our seats having been towards the back. It’s Thursday evening, and the crowd is eager to head home. For the first few blocks we walk with other concert goers, and there is the joyful buzz of those who have just left a very loud, very shared experience. These are the same people who’d waited for an hour beforehand in a line that stretched to three sides of the block. Everyone is smiling.

The farther we walk, headed to the metro, the more dispersed that crowd and that shared event becomes. And then suddenly we are waiting for a light and the buzz is gone. We can feel it immediately, no longer being surrounded by the shared experience. 

“None of these people were at the show,” my partner says. She’s right, just from a glance around. The man in a suit beside us is clearly on his way home from work, or hopefully from post-work dinner. The couple next to him might have been at the show save for the giant Nike shopping bag which hints at a different evening. To my left there is an older man in flipflops, not the typical attire for a Honne concert. In the Hong Kong way of things we have left the sphere of the show but are not alone. For the next two blocks to the MTR we enjoy this feeling, of being part of the dense crowd of a Mongkok Thursday, anonymous and in motion.

The joy of density is so much in its acceptance. People can be anything in New York, Tokyo, Shanghai, or Hong Kong not because each family, each company accepts anything, but because collectively there is space for everything in the anonymity of the crowd. Because tens of thousands of people are out in Mongkok on a Thursday, the two thousand from our concert blend in and go their separate ways without much disturbance. The opening doors of MacPherson Stadium are not a flood into emptiness but a large splash into a running river, a momentary blip on a moving surface.

Later, typing this up on a rainy Sunday I am reminded of the game I played our first months here. At any time of day I would head to the window and count the people visible on the street below. Even at the odd hours of the jet lagged, two or four am, I could usually spot ten people from our 7th floor window. These observations brought me such joy, and reminded me that once again we lived in a city where everyone was alive and awake.

On Thursday after the show we continued home, trading one train for another until the crowds finally thinned as we walk from the station. Ours is a quiet one, and we encountered only thirty or forty people on our ten minute walk home. This slow separation from frenzied crowd to calm apartment was a good way to say goodbye to an event, our first concert in Hong Kong.

Places I slept, 2018

New View

The year ends with a new view. For the first time since twenty fourteen, we have a new address. For the first time since two thousand nine, we live in a new city, and for the first time since two thousand eight, a new country. That is what will summarize twenty eighteen in my memory: we moved to Hong Kong.

Looking back across things I wrote while living in San Francisco is the only way to understand how long the transition took. The earliest mention of moving on comes in two thousand twelve, written as we were moving from the Sunset district to the Richmond district in SF. My lasting memories from that year, without the aid of recollection, are of Obama’s second win, celebrated on Divisadero, and welcoming Mr. Squish, who also caused the move. It feels a very long time ago.

As I wrote at the end of last year our decisions in twenty seventeen shaped most of this year. The desire for different, long present, began for real with Tara’s flight to Spain the day after leaving Tesla. It became fact on the first of October, when we landed in Hong Kong. The gap between those two events, some ten months, will fade with time and deserve more recognition. Our ability to move was grounded in Tara’s freedom and our ability to be patient. Living for a possible future rather than a present takes an amount of self-belief that can be hard to sustain, and both of us struggled with it at times in the spring. Those difficult moments of self-doubt and fear are what will be lost in the grand story of our time in San Francisco and Hong Kong. The weekends we spent making plans A through E to have enough options to fall back on are rarely the highlights of our adventures, nor are they filled with laughter. Those plans, though, were what sustained us and stopped us from staying the course in San Francisco. Moving abroad, as adults, without sacrificing careers or facing too much financial uncertainty, is a challenging game of logistics, desire, and luck. Writing this from our Hong Kong apartment is proof we managed all three.

Despite that move, or more accurately because of it, my list below of places slept is smaller than it has been in years, and focused tightly on neighborhood hunting in Hong Kong, work in the Shenzhen Dongguan Guangzhou Zhuhai area, and family in the US. In many ways this list, started to aid my memory, has succeeded in defining, quickly, the shape of life. Scanning the previous entries I can spot friends’ moves and the slow shift of job changes. I can’t wait to see what 2019 brings, with a new home base and some familiar stops already planned.

As always, thanks for reading. Twenty eighteen feels like a fresh start, both in writing and in learning. I’ve been sending physical mail again, trying to get back up to my five pieces per month target of the early part of this decade. If you haven’t gotten any, send me your address and you will.

Here it is then, the list. Previous years can be found here, back to 2009 when this project began.

Portland, OR
Mt. Shasta, CA
San Francisco, CA
Henderson, NV
Newport, CA
Malibu, CA
Phoenix, AZ
Bao’an, Shenzhen, China
Zhuhai, China
Kowloon, Hong Kong
North Point, Hong Kong
Austin, TX
Causeway Bay, Hong Kong
San Po Kong, Hong Kong
Sai Ying Pun, Hong Kong
Wan Chai, Hong Kong
Bellingham, WA
Aurora, IL
Ft Collins, CO
Elko, NV
Rio Linda, CA
TST East, Hong Kong
Cherry Hill, NJ
Rumson, NJ
Brooklyn, NY
Tai Hang, Hong Kong
Doumen, Zhuhai, China

And as for Mr. Squish? He made it farther than any street cat from the East Bay ever expects to go, and we’re so grateful for his company. As I write this he’s asleep in his chair in the living room, finally relaxed in this new country.

Portland, OR
Mt. Shasta, CA
San Francisco, CA
Tai Hang, Hong Kong

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.

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.

Fishing for peace

Harbor view

On the edge of a block of concrete built to support a highway, they fish. It’s Sunday, and the sun is going down on the weekend, out to our left behind the island. These concrete chunks would already be in shadow were they not perpetually so because of the highway above. In Hong Kong some shade is a good thing, and these are regular fishing spots. The fishermen, for they are all men, seem to know who sits where without any spoken interaction, which points to a long established tradition. People have been fishing these blocks on the shore of Quarry Bay for years, probably since before there were concrete blocks to fish from.

The real joy from this spot isn’t the fishing, though. It’s the water, and the view across to Kowloon, Lion Rock, and Kwun Tong. That far shore is still lit, a beautiful shimmer of golden hour glory and the bay’s moving reflection that emphasize how much Hong Kong is a city of the ocean and the mountains. And so there are photographers here too, both casual and more serious, trying to capture this light. In so many ways the city, the dense urban towers that are home to eight million people, appears the smallest part of the view. Perhaps this is why so many people are able to live so tightly; the water and mountains are often in sight and rarely out of reach.

The story of density is told frequently as a sacrifice, but rarely as a comfort. Here, watching the fishermen sit on their blocks of concrete, rods out and down and lines into the bay, less than a dozen feet from each other and mostly silent, is a reminder that company without conversation can bring peace. In many ways the stories of dense urban areas are not of individual apartments but of shared spaces. Whether Central Park in New York or along the rivers of Paris and Rome, the spaces we share are what builds the fabric of the city. In these spaces we see each other, and are not alone.

In Hong Kong as Sunday ends I am so happy to walk the shoreline and watch all those out, like me, to find some peace. Fishing, jogging, taking photos, or just wandering, we’re all here together, part of this island and this city.

Ease of operation

Looking out

We land in Hong Kong with nine checked bags, which is strangely the most efficient method of transporting the sum of our San Francisco years. Waiting for them I remember other moves, and the challenges of each. Where has the boy gone who left Tokyo with two suitcases, who did not know how to get a taxi or any RMB on landing in Shanghai? What of the boy who left Shanghai with those same two suitcases and two shipped boxes, put on 3 month China Post slow boats destined for Houston? And most of all, what does this mean for the man who has disembarked at this same gate a dozen times over the last two years, carrying a single duffel?

They are all here, these previous selves, well aware of the way we pack when trying to take everything we own on short notice. They are here, in an airport we know so well, watching me maneuver this very full cart down the slight ramp to the taxi stand. They are voices in my head asking how these bags will ever go in a small Hong Kong taxi trunk.

Moving is a test. We test our ability to let go in a way that is painful and educational. We have said goodbye to our friends, to our neighborhood, to our house, to our routines, and to our stuff. Bicycles have been moved, sold, and given away. Art, furniture, kitchen gear and more has been handed off to people who will be able to enjoy them without transporting them more than a few miles. Soon we will part with the car, the bed, and finally the apartment that we’ve loved for the past four years. Moving is an experience filled with sadness, and with uncertainty. By letting go of all these things we are able to make space for new ones, whether that means new apartments or new shoes. And by letting go of our country and our city, at least for now, we are able to discover.

In Hong Kong in early October the weather is beautiful. At seven am, as we struggle with the overloaded carts, it’s a balmy twenty eight C, the humidity not too high. Wearing pants still from the airplane we are already slightly sweaty but able to manage. And we are able to discover how our new home operates.

The fourth vehicle in the taxi queue is a van, and the driver enthusiastically helps us cram all our bags in, guitar and skateboard included. The process, which I’d been dreading since the night before, takes five minutes and then we’re on the road, both in the same car, on our way to the hotel. Having used two separate Lyft rides to get to SFO sharing the taxi is a treat. En route we realize, were we going the other way, Hong Kong to SFO, we could have checked all these bags at Central and ridden the train out to HKG with only our carry ons. From moment one Hong Kong impresses with functionality. All nine checked bags go on a cart at the hotel and are whisked away to a storage room. Moving, even with more stuff than we could carry, isn’t that bad. Two hours after landing we go for a swim in a pool overlooking the harbor, and begin to relax.

As an asthmatic one of the other challenges of moving is procuring medicine. In the US and in Japan inhalers have required a complicated dance of doctors and pharmacies. In China for so long they were available over the counter, only becoming prescription in two thousand seven. So it is with some slight trepidation that I set out to find one on our second day in Hong Kong.

I purchase one after five minutes of looking for a pharmacy in Mongkok, for $93 HKD, or $12 USD. In SF they have cost me $25 for the past two years, with good insurance. No one is quite sure how much extra the insurance company has to pay, on top of my $25. For the second time in two days I’m reminded of why we leave, why we move and challenge ourselves. Without those painful goodbyes, without the long days of packing and worrying, we would never have learned how easy moving can be, and how cheap medication can come.

These examples are mundane, and yet they’re a reminder that what seems daunting isn’t always so, and that taking risks is one way of discovering new joy.

Here then is to the next few months, which will be full of new neighborhoods and first time discoveries. They come at a high cost, one we’ve paid over years, and will bring benefits we have not yet learned to expect.

Construction crews

Cranes and city

Out the window of my tiny Hong Kong hotel the scaffolding rises. In a wonderful match, my room is at exactly the height of the top-most floor of the buildings being built in front of this Hotel Ibis in North Point. The last time I was here, in December, the construction did not reach my room, topping out several floors below. Now I have a front row seat to the working day of a Hong Kong construction crew. They are busy today, a Saturday, having started at seven am. The buildings, a set of apartment towers along the bay, are already twenty plus stories tall, cased in the green netting so common to construction sites here. Like most their scaffolding is all bamboo, the tops of it poking out of the netting like a strange headless forest.

In the United States, in San Francisco, this would be amazing. Fifty to a hundred people that I can see, three cranes, and everything surrounded by bamboo. Here, like most of Asia, it’s just how buildings go up. Flexible, light, and resilient, the bamboo moves with the wind, though not enough to notice without tedious observation. Beyond the construction site from me lies the harbor, full of sailboats and tugboats moving past. Across the water lies the old airport, now a cruise ship terminal, and a large collection of working ships, dredgers, short haulers, and barges. Beyond that high rises stretch to the mountains. The sky is blue, though brown on the horizon just over the mountains. For Hong Kong it is a cold eighteen degrees C.

These apartments are the second phase of a project, and their identical siblings sit completed just up the road. They will block most of the wonderful views of this incredibly reasonably priced hotel, which is sad but to be expected. Nothing lasts forever, especially not budget hotel rooms in Hong Kong with full harbor views. Better to enjoy, and move on, like this construction crew. I wonder where they are from, how far they had to travel to be here at seven am on a Saturday in early March. Are they locals, or from the mainland? From a hundred yards away at twenty three storeys up they look local, and stay busy. There are few smoke breaks, few idle minutes. That isn’t to say they’re always moving, like all construction crews they wait for materials, for the crane, and have meetings to discuss the next stage at various points through out the day. Unlike Japan they wear no uniforms, instead mostly t-shirts, jeans, and hard hats. It’s a pleasant look, an almost American look. If Americans stood twenty three stories up on bamboo. If Americans built a half dozen apartment blocks at a time, in a city already full of them.

In some ways Hong Kong represents so much of my struggle with the United States, and I can’t help but see the echoes of San Francisco in the bay and mountains. That overlapping view defines much of my thinking, and the frequent bounces from one to the other reinforce the symmetry while highlighting the differences. I am here again for the weekend, sick at the end of a week spent in country, Shenzhen Dongguan Zhuhai and back in a loop of vans and trains and ferries that has given my throat little time to heal. These two days, then, are a break, a peaceful moment with a view. Breaks like this at the end of trips, as I’ve written before, are something I’ve learned, a way to come home relaxed instead of exhausted. A way to return, happy, to San Francisco and my cat.

Visiting weekends

On Sundays in Hong Kong the overhead walkways are coveted space. At eight thirty most are taken, demarcated with twine or blankets by the early risers. These women make phone calls or read, holding space for friends. By noon all spots will be filled and the chatter of friendship will echo off the walls of these temporary cement salons. This occupation of public space is part of Hong Kong, repeated and and relatable in a way comforting to this San Francisco visitor. In my Mission neighborhood it is the streets and sidewalks that are occupied on Sundays, rather than overhead walkways. The small sidewalk sales, drinking, and disruption are rather more confrontational in nature than Hong Kong’s collection of weekday workers FaceTiming their families. The juxtaposition is strange, and comforting. Like myself, the migrant workers of Hong Kong have only Sunday off. It is our sole moment of personal peace while in a foreign country. Unlike them, I spend the single day in a solitary fashion, drinking coffee, climbing, and writing in my hotel room. I am lucky to be here in the employ of a US company, to have access to discretionary funds, to have energy to explore. I do not need to carve out a section of stairwell to have private space, nor bring cardboard to pad the ground. And yet I too will FaceTime my family, I too will chat with friends similarly distant, and I too will go back to work in the evening, ready for another week of long days in a country not my own.

In some small way then I appreciate these women’s situation, their choice, however constrained, to live in this country and work hard for money they can share with a family they see only on screen. Watching them set up their places early this morning I appreciate their perseverance, their laughter, and their community. And I appreciate the culture that has employed them so willingly but also that allows them this one day a week of occupancy. The freedom to take over public spaces, in fact to appear in public spaces at all, is not taken for granted, and is not common. The fact that Hong Kong’s walkways are covered on Sundays with evidence of the city’s dependence on migrants is a reminder that public space can be shared and maintained for everyone, regardless of origin.

Finding comfort

I am again in Hong Kong, briefly.

Over the past decade I’ve spent a dozen days like this, give or take. They’re days of freedom on either end of busy work travels. They’re days plucked from the vagaries of jetlag and airline schedules in an attempt to maximize time on the ground.

It’s not a common approach. Many try to minimize time in country, to avoid skipping a child’s soccer game or a Saturday morning breakfast. I have done that too frequently, and now my priorities are different, born of being a person who loves many places, rather than one. Luckily my family understands that I am better company returning from an extra day of quiet thinking than a tight Friday night rush to the airport from a factory in Dongguan. At least usually. Spending Friday evening exploring or at a dinner and then Saturday wandering leaves me with an impression of the world I want to return to, rather than viewing it as a place of work necessity. As always, I try to maintain that curiosity.

In this fashion I’ve spent a weekend in Changsha, doing research, and many weekends in Hong Kong, Shanghai, and Tokyo, the loci of my global slingshot routes. And yet, despite years of practice, I’m still learning. I’m learning how to find special places, how to be a more adventurous visitor. Being a frequent visitor rather than a tourist should provide different opportunities, and does. Lately I’ve been visiting climbing gyms, small parks, and new neighborhoods. Mostly, as always, I walk long distances and speak little.

After several hours of wandering, after a day of looking down alleys and up stair cases, I find somewhere to get cheap noodles, maybe a local beer, and read some fiction. The novel lets me tune out the city I’ve worked so hard to focus in on. And eventually, calmer and ready for company, I head to the airport for my long commute back to our small apartment, to Mr. Squish and our four am jetlag mornings.

Walking borders

I get out of the taxi on a highway offramp. The driver, from Dongguan, doesn’t want to be on the surface streets of Shenzhen. After a week on the road I don’t mind, and I shoulder my backpack and duffle. I weave through stopped traffic to the curb, following it down to ground level. The border is less than a hundred meters away, a large building that houses Chinese customs connected to a walking bridge across the river to another building that houses Hong Kong customs and the Lok Ma Chau train station.

I’ve walked further to borders.

Carrying gear through traffic on the surface street I pause on the dotted yellow as cars start to move and pass on either side. It’s an action that would cause problems in San Francisco or New York but here, like so much of the world, is simply part of crossing the street. Three cars later there is a gap and I am on the far sidewalk. Five minutes later I’m in line for exit customs. Five minutes after that I look at the river that separates Shenzhen and Hong Kong. Like always it makes me realize how small the differences are between places and how much impact they have on our lives.

Borders are largely artificial. Yes, the river forms a nice demarcating line, like the Rio Grande between Texas and Mexico, but the differences in income, opportunity, language and safety are not caused by the river.

On the train into Hong Kong the air is already slightly better. Pollution does not respect borders, but the sources of it do. Hong Kong’s air has worsened over the last decade due to its proximity to Shenzhen, Dongguan, and the whole Guangzhou region, but it’s still better than those cities. So too is the food, Internet, and transit, not to mention salaries. The effects of man. Housing is more expensive though, so many Hong Kong residents have started living in Shenzhen, commuting across the border to take advantage of the artificial cost disparity.

Walking this border is new to me. I first crossed it on foot less than a year ago, though the lines and shops have grown familiar with frequent repetition. Without an electronic ID card I have to wait in line, unlike my commuter friends. It’s still an amazingly efficient border, on both sides. Hong Kong customs are rightfully considered a model, fast, well-organized, and simple to cross. Being a trading port and an international hub requires good customs, I think.

Less than one year. Surprising to me, as it feels like much longer. Fourteen times at least. First with others, colleagues and factory representatives. Then by myself, often met on one side or the other. And now, in a taxi I found, dropped on the off ramp from the highway.

The borders we cross say a lot about our lives. As a boy from upstate New York, the frequency with which I walk the Hong Kong Shenzhen border serves as a shorthand explanation of my job, checking factories and working on manufacturing problems. It also outlines another, more common border I frequent: that between San Francisco and Hong Kong, delineated by airports and the Pacific. This border, seemingly unremarkable, is of course the slowest to cross, and the most expensive. Impossible on foot, or as a daily commute.

Two years ago my border crossings were very different, the product of another job, another life.

In that life I stepped out of the minivan into the harsh light of a Juarez autumn. I carried less, just my backpack, and walked faster through traffic, uncertain of its comfort with mid-stream pedestrians. Hawkers on the corner offered beads and newspapers. The footbridge, a couple hundred meters ahead, arced up over to the U.S. border beside the bridge for cars, jammed and barely moving. Without me onboard my host could avoid this line, using his express pass to meet me on the other side. By walking four hundred meters I saved us each an hour or more. It was an easy trade.

That border changed my travel strategy, led me to the single backpack packing method I use everywhere now. It also taught me that the strangest feeling a border can bring is that of having to ask to be let back in to one’s own country.

So much easier, less stressful, and faster, to ask for permission to enter Hong Kong.

The walking borders of my life two years ago were all between Mexico and the U.S. Mostly El Paso and Juarez, but also Tijuana and San Diego, after long days on the road. Those trips, a staple of my 2012 existence, have disappeared from my life entirely, replaced by Shenzhen and Zhongshan, by so many evenings in Hong Kong. In some ways it’s a direct exchange. I have traded the hot summer afternoons in Mexico, the air dry, for Hong Kong’s humidity and Dongguan’s pollution. Walking back from where the car traffic became impenetrable, almost a mile from the border in Tijuana, to my rental car on the other side of the US border, heading to San Diego airport, flying back to SFO, all that has been replaced by a car ride to Lok Ma Chau, a walk across that bridge, a train ride to Yau Ma Tei, a train to HKG, a flight to SFO. Longer, but much the same. Travel necessitated by sprawling supply chains that are themselves created by the artificial borders I cross.

What would I have said, at twenty, if told that fifteen years later I’d walk the border between Shenzhen and Hong Kong a dozen times a year? Would I have been more surprised to know that at thirty three I’d spent months in Juarez? I suspect that twenty year old would be surprised by both, and then by neither, because he too was always seeking adventure, seeking to understand new things and to learn new places. He would be surprised at the specifics, at this afternoon’s offramp stroll. The general picture, of a life on the go, crossing borders on foot for money, would seem entirely appropriate. Or perhaps that’s the present talking, aware of all the strange jobs and odd decisions that brought me here. Perhaps that boy of twenty would doubt this future’s existence entirely, knowing little of Mexican factories and less of Chinese customs.

Either way, I’m glad to be back in Hong Kong, one border closer to home.

Capital F future

Sitting in a luxury hotel in Chang’an Zhen, I am thinking about the future.

Not the future as in my personal five year plan, though it may turn out that way. Nor the capital F future of living computers and jet packs, though it may turn out that way too. Instead I am thinking about our future, the shared strangeness that is both hard to see and probably already here, somewhere.

I spend quite a bit of time thinking about this future. Mostly from strange Chinese cities though not usually from luxury hotels. It’s a future that seems to slip into view when I’m walking home alone through the evening heat, past street stalls and electric bikes. I find it under neon offering nothing, the store fronts long closed and falsely alluring in the night. It’s a future that I see often after sitting in an Ajisen and eating cucumbers for a while, after drinking an Asahi by myself while reading Fallows and Paul Hawken, Chipchase and Posnanski.

I think about the heating planet and the bliss of air conditioning in Hong Kong this week. I think of the costs of oil, and my job making plastic. I think of those giving up air travel and look at my location. I think about my favorite writers and how frequently they fly. I think about how frequently I fly and whether I would care about flying, about all of this, if I’d never started.

Would I care about the world this way without having sat in so many Ajisens in so many Chinese manufacturing cities, reading on paper and phones and drinking Japanese beer? Unlikely, I think. Without so many evenings watching the lights come on in Chinese apartment towers, how would I know to value all of us? Without watching the neon blink back and forth and eventually off, watching the parks fill with people enjoying the evening and then empty to silence, how would I have learned the size of cities? Without flying, how would I have met so many people, learned from so many places? Without the energy expenditure that damages it, how would I have ever understood our planet?

I watch two men honk at one another, scooting past on e-bikes. They are chatting as they disappear side by side into the gathering dusk. I watch cars at the intersection, red lights hold them stationary, engines running. I wonder what makes so many people want to buy a car, and what would make them stop.

Mostly I think about the difference between making things and growing things, between working and building. After that I think about the difference between being alive, looking at the moon as it rises behind the skyscrapers , and not. It is a difference I only recently started to appreciate.

What will the world will look like when we are gone? Will we have left anything good behind, intentionally or no?

I haven’t yet given up flying. I’m here in Chang’an Zhen. I haven’t yet given up making things, I’m here visiting a factory for work. More importantly, I haven’t yet given up on anything. Walking back from Ajisen I wonder if I will, if the cumulative weight of the capital F future will change my life. I wonder what the next five years will bring, and ten. Whether we’ll all be living different lives, or still wondering. Will Chinese cities still feel like the future in this way on lonely evenings, an amazing combination of factories and urban density, of modern trains and hand-repaired motorcycles, of destroyed air? Or will the world have changed in all directions, become more evenly distributed, for better or worse. On evenings like this I can see both possibilities, a future here and yet often invisible .

Watching the two men on e-bikes fade into the darkness down the street I know one thing: even in the 90 degree F heat and 90% humidity of southern China, I’d rather we all biked than gave up airplanes, and each other.

HKIA

Hong Kong looks gorgeous as the sun rises. In early thanks to good wind and awake thanks to the ability to sleep anywhere, the mountains get my full attention as the light creeps down them.

People often tell me San Francisco is the most beautiful city they have ever seen. I ask them if they’ve seen Hong Kong. Because, liking one, with it’s bay and bridges, with the tricks of light from the constant clouds, with greenery plentiful and the water to reflect the sun, the other comes easily to mind. The mountains are vertiginous, rising behind the airport, rising from the sea on the smaller islands. The boats are scattered without pattern, across the water at odd distances. The buildings are tightly packed, and tall, allowing the narrow corridors of air so familiar to Asian cities, so distinctly rare elsewhere.

Hong Kong is one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen. Three years since my last visit, I wonder why we left.

Rooftops, carts, and cats

The streets of Hong Kong are packed with delivery motion. As Manhattan swirls at three am, so does Sheung Wan bustle in the morning as dried fish in vast quantities is hauled off trucks by men with giant metal hooks. At break time they leave these implements carelessly in giant bags of rice, handles up, points embedded in the compacted mush. Each sack in turn is flung from truck to cart, bundled up into a store, frontless, wares open to the air. Each bag is sliced open and dumped into bins for later measurement again, into smaller bags individually carried home. So many stairs in this city, so much vertical travel, and all of these homes furnished, all of these kitchens filled, all of this waste removed. What of this massive expenditure every day, to carry vegetables home to supper? The cost of yet another tower does not include this.

The carts themselves, ubiquitous on the streets, will be tied to poles at the day’s slackening, around three. Their metal handles, circular and hollow, will fold down to the bed, compacting the entire device into a rectangle of green steel with four blue wheels. The wheels are fixed. These carts are so basic, so mass-produced, and so communal that they have neither names, nor dates, nor manufacturer’s brand. The flat slats of metal that form their weight-supporting base seem not to mind the pounding of sacks tossed from trucks, the blue wheels seem not to heed the curbs they are perpetually banged into up and over. At least one per shop, the carts outnumber the trucks, themselves a half-dozen, most with Japanese engines. There are, later in the evening, twenty carts scattered around unoccupied and seeminly unowned on this three-block stretch. A sense of public space pervades this city, which has so little that all must be carefully shared.

In a park near Lan Kwai Fong a trio of ladies rehearses a dance routine at mid-morning, before the rush of lunch and smokers, after the street sweepers have cleared the broken bottles away.

From our Sheung Wan rooftop the cats seem multitude. They scale the construction site, they swarm the streets and fences, alleys. This vantage point reveals their secret paths, startles one with their numbers, the city below in constant motion. Strange too, as most of the cats I find on the ground spend large periods of time hunkered down beneath some shade. It is early April and Hong Kong is beginning to sweat. We lie on the roof top at night, assailed by mosquitos, in gym shorts, barefoot and considering the skyline. Rooftops like this are a gift, sitting as it does above an apartment that barely slept five, all laid out next to each other, last November. The roof top triples the floor space. The roof top raises the ceilings to the clouds.

Which are themselves coming down. The air here is getting worse, the view shorter than it used to be. So they tell me, people everywhere during these two weeks. So I can see from my vantage point, high above Sheung Wan and watching. The air may indeed be getting worse, smog pouring out of Shenzhen, Guangzhou, all of the motherland to the west. Hong Kong remains the most beautiful city I know of, a mass of thin towers and green peaks that slide into the water in a confusion of street vendors and colonial organization. For two weeks in April it is a gracious host to me, a peaceful place of feline grace and hand-pushed cargo transport, and I am glad of the hospitality.