Worth remembering

Rooftop view

Tokyo,” I answer. The question was where I’d like to turn 40. Of course Tokyo.

Our lives are brief windows into the world, and we manage only a smidgeon of the possible. Places learned when young remain outsized in memory, our early experiences more important, larger, than recent events. So, of course, Tokyo.

The first time I saw it, the week before my 18th birthday, Tokyo was already changing my life. That trip, a gift from a family friend, was my first real glimpse of the world outside the US, and enabled me to say yes to the post-college move back, at 22.

Turning 40 is an excuse to gather people to a city I love, to celebrate something both personal and utterly universal. Mostly, it’s a way to remember that boy turning 18 here, reading the Stand and operating with limited language. A week in Tokyo without goals, with no objectives or destinations, is an invitation to the deluge of memories from birthdays in two thousand two and three, turning 23 and 24. I remember, scant days before arriving, how I used to give presents to those who came to my birthdays, Bilbo Baggins style. And so I do, picking out small things that I love about Japan for each guest. It’s an excuse to wander Tokyu Hands, to consider who is coming, and to consider where we are.

I am lucky this time, and so many people have agreed to join us, from San Francisco, Seattle, Portland, New York, and Singapore. As these friends gather to our rented apartment I am shocked at the joy each arrival brings. Shocked not because I didn’t expect to be joyful but because I hadn’t understood in the planning stages how much joy sharing Tokyo with these people would bring. For this boy born in the rural hills of the US North East, Tokyo remains the perfect city. It combines incredible transportation with utter foreignness, huge crowded centers with quiet side streets. More than any place I know, Tokyo rewards wandering, with small shops, shrines, and beauty scattered across an urban tapestry of such scale as to be infinite. Tokyo, in many ways, is proof of what humans can build, as opposed to what we so often do.

On this trip we rent bicycles for the first time and reap the rewards of this most human scale of transportation, meandering from Hatsudai to Naka Meguro on small streets and through new neighborhoods. We bike to Shimo Kitazawa and back and are immediately lost. These kind of odd adventures are enjoyable only on bicycle, with the ability to cover large distances, stop easily, and never be too tired to manage one more side street.

As a way to welcome a new decade the week is perfect, filled with old friends and new memories. Seth takes us for whisky at the New York Bar that once housed Bill Murray, a foray inaccessible in our early twenties. A large group of us have drinks at the tiny 10cc, enjoying newfound comfort in a neighborhood that intimidated the younger version of myself. We stand on the rooftop of our apartment and watch Mt. Fuji as the sun sets. We take the Yurikamome line back over the rainbow bridge from Odaiba and Toyosu, artificial lands of the late boom now comfortably part of the present day. We eat in Ginza and Ikebukuro, in Harajuku and Hatsudai, together and separately. Some discover crème brûlée shaved ice and others revel in okonomiyaki, and no one goes hungry. Mostly we wander far and wide, on foot and by train, in the best fashion of unplanned vacation.

Watching my friends spend the week sharing their favorite parts of Tokyo and discovering new treasures is the best kind of present, one that makes my heart bigger. At the end of the week, on the Narita Express, I watch the skyline drift past and try to lock down all the memories, to remember each day, sure that I will forget the joy too quickly. Mostly though I think of the boy who once turned eighteen here, and who first took this train.

He would be so happy to know that at forty he will share Tokyo with his friends.

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.

Repetition and growth

Beijing Apartments.JPG

In the summer of two thousand seven lives a boy I will remember forever.

In the echoes of experience lie good stories.

In my memory this boy boards the train to Beijing on a Friday evening. It is summer, closing in on his birthday, and the sleeper cars are mercifully air conditioned. This train was new when he first moved to China, the car interiors a spotless white. The first time he rode it, in summer of two thousand four, the twelve hour ride to Beijing was incredible, so fast. Three years later everything feels well-used, a patina of hand prints on each door handle and section of wall surrounding. This overnight train from Shanghai was an improvement on the fourteen plus hours and hard sleeper trains of prior years, the late nineties and early aughts. In the present day the speed is not impressive; the current high speed line runs Shanghai to Beijing in only six hours. In two thousand four twelve hours seemed fast, but by two thousand seven it had become routine, and whole new ways of life had been built around the overnight sleeper’s reliability. Families in Beijing could have one parent take a job in Shanghai, commute down Sunday night, head to work Monday morning, and run the reverse on Friday. They’d stay with friends or family on week nights and be home when the kids got up on Saturday.

We never know what kind of lives the future will support.

In two thousand seven the boy who boards this train to Beijing is preoccupied. He throws his backpack in his berth. When the older Chinese couple in his compartment asks if they can have the bottom bunk he acquiesces without thought. Foreigners prefer top bunks, they say, and he agrees. Foreigners do. They’re happiest when able to sleep. Chinese families prefer the bottom bunks in this small four bed compartment. More social, better for eating and chatting. The boy moves his bag up high and steps back into the hallway. There are small tables and seats at intervals that fold up against the wall when not in use. He squats at one, charging his phone off the outlet beneath.

We never know what kind of lives the future will support, he thinks, scrolling through email on his Blackberry. This is a new technology, his third smartphone” but the first one that supports work email, that is paid for by a company. He has had it since May, purchased in Los Angeles, and it is his favorite device ever. On this train though it will be a weight around his weekend adventure. He is heading north to see a friend from Hawaii who is in China taking classes for the summer. Despite the weight they will have an excellent weekend.

The train leaves promptly at seven oh five pm, and the phone starts ringing shortly after. It is a woman from Indonesia, someone he has never met. She wants him to guarantee a shipment of fabric from a Chinese factory that is sitting in port in Jakarta. The shipment is valued at fifty thousand dollars. And so they debate, on the phone, as the train moves out of Shanghai headed north. Through Jiangsu they debate who is to bear the responsibility if the fabric has an issue, and why the Chinese factory that made it can or can not be trusted. Fifty thousand dollars. The fabric is to be made into dresses, for delivery to his company in the United States. There is a deadline, a ship window, and he urges her to have faith, to make the order, to pay the Chinese supplier. Again and again she asks him to personally back the shipment. They have never met. In a year he will leave this job and return to the United States. They will never meet.

The phone call drops, it is two thousand seven and he is on a high speed train. Standing in the vibrating space between cars where he’s moved to have some privacy the boy stares out the window at the Chinese countryside. Already then he knows he will never forget this evening. A boy from upstate New York, not yet twenty eight, taking the overnight train from Shanghai to Beijing, spending the whole ride arguing with a woman in Jakarta over fifty thousand dollars. How did this become his life?

The phone rings.

In two thousand sixteen I stand outside a bar beneath a highway in San Francisco. It is eleven pm on a Wednesday. The phone number on the screen is long, international. I answer it.

On the other end is a man in India I will never meet. He wants me to guarantee some charges on a shipment. The container is sitting in the port in Mumbai. We debate dollars. Excuses are made. Clear the cargo, I ask. Send me receipts.

I start walking. Somewhere in the next two blocks we are cut off. For the length of one red light I stand on the corner of 14th and South Van Ness staring at the phone. I am thinking of that woman in Indonesia, fifty thousand dollars, and the train ride to Beijing in two thousand seven when the phone rings again.

Hello,” I say.

In some moments the future feels like the past, imperfectly recreated.

California drives

On a Wednesday in November I drive north along the 101 in the middle of the day. It’s been years since I’ve seen the north bay during work hours. In Novato I get the car washed at a place I used to go only before 9 am, on my way in. The crowds surprise me, mostly older people chatting about books and signing cards for the troops. I am the only person under fifty not busy washing cars.

In Petaluma I drop the car off for brief repairs. I’m happy to see the town for a few hours. It’s a place I liked being familiar with. Of course things have changed, some for the better. There’s a combination roaster and coffee shop a block from the tire place, where before there was nothing. The clientele is young and engrossed in their work.

The Fit’s repairs are a minor thing, worth the adventure on this rare day off mid-week. The ride mostly makes me think of the three years of commuting, forty miles each way, from the western parts of San Francisco. Living downtown now heading north is far less convenient. So much of our life then was about proximity to the Golden Gate and comfort in the fog. The new zipper pylons on the bridge surprise me, though they shouldn’t. The truck that moves them was an internet sensation when it debuted, replacing the men leaning off the back of a pickup that had done the job for years. I was always impressed with their ability, slotting each pylon home while in motion, hanging down into traffic. I wonder what they do now. Their skill, calm coordination amidst moving automobiles, seems both widely applicable and of limited concrete value.

The passage of time is shocking at specific intervals. We purchased this Fit five years ago, for this specific commute. Five years, three of them making this drive, have passed since that first fall of automobile-based discovery. Owning a car was such a large step in becoming American, age 31, fourteen years after I’d sold my Volvo for spending money on my first trip to Japan.

Now, commuting by bicycle and train, I often comment on how glad I am not to drive every day, not to be stuck in traffic regularly. But this commute, forty miles up the 101, was how I learned to be American again. Seeing the dry hills on a Wednesday in November is a good way to keep hold of those memories.

Gray skies and hotel windows

Sitting twenty two stories up above Shanghai, I watch the weather and listen to music. Or rather, I look into the weather, a fog of fading white that makes tall buildings invisible only a mile away. I look down at the roofs of shorter buildings, many still under construction. I look at the wall of the nearest tower, its surface covered in the soot of years in this air.

Shanghai’s view does not surprise, though friends ask when I post photos how I, asthmatic, cope with the air. I cope like everyone does, by breathing in, breathing out, and moving forward. By focusing on what there is to do in front of me rather than what there is all around me. Instead of focusing on what there is inside all of us.

It is Sunday, and I am relishing the peace in between weeks on the move. Sometimes that is the greatest gift of hotels in foreign countries.

In May of twenty thirteen I spent a week in Tokyo for work. Living out of a perfectly-designed-for-it’s-size hotel room, I wore a suit and went to izakayas with customers in the evenings. It was the culmination of years of dreaming; suddenly I had a job that took me to one of my favorite places, that gave me a place to stay and a view that I loved. Taking the subway around the city to meetings gave me a glimpse into being a business man in a network of concrete built for them. Pouring out of Hamamatsucho station with the crowd in the evening, walking the two blocks to my room at Hotel MyStay, and taking part in the Tokyo rituals again after so long left me in a perfect mood. With enough time spent alone, work travel has a way of building an atmosphere. After three days of this compact life I was ready for company, mentally.

The National’s Trouble Will Find Me was released that third day. Letting it play in that tiny hotel room for the three days that followed gave me a fresh environment to layer the new music on, to integrate it into. The album became a soundtrack to that week, to convenience store breakfasts and late night FaceTime calls. Now, two and a half years later, a lifetime away, sitting in a hotel room twenty two stories up above Shanghai, those songs still takes me immediately back to Tokyo.

Don’t make me read your mind
You should know me better than that

My current hotel room is much larger, China not lacking space the way Tokyo does. The residents also don’t enjoy the neat confinement of items, the precise layout required to maximize utility. There are extra mirrors and more wood than strictly necessary. Outside of this room China sprawls, with more huge buildings going up to demonstrate ability rather than fill need. Driving to Ningbo last week we crossed the long bridge that spans the bay, avoiding the even longer drive around its circumference through Hangzhou. That longer circle was the only option when I traveled this route frequently by bus in 06. Reaching the far shore, the bay’s south edge, we saw a cluster of towers, maybe thirty, residential and at least twenty floors each.

What are those,” someone asked, meaning what is that town, what is that city.

No one answered. A cluster of identical buildings, they were clearly built in a single go. There was no town nearby, nothing else on the shore of the bay. Why so many apartment towers then, and why so tall? Because space is not an issue in China, and size even less. There are millions of people within an easy drive, millions more within a few hours, all seeking housing and an opportunity. This is China.

In Tokyo everything is tightly constrained, each building wrapped in between all the others. So much so that buildings are often strangely shaped, L’s or T’s or other letters, unable to be squares or circles.

Jennifer you are not the only reason
My head is boiling and my head is freezing

And I remember steaming my suit before meetings, looking in the mirror while working through my pitch for the day. Organizing my notes in the evening and lying on the bed looking out the window as night fell on the city.

Tokyo will always be with me, part of the story of this music. Or this music will always be Tokyo. Some times blending a place and a feeling, a set of songs and a mood, shapes everything we do for years. Sometimes it is just a way of etching time into our minds, deeply enough that years later we are astonished to realize how long ago that was, May of twenty thirteen.

If I stay here, trouble will find me
If I stay here, I’ll never leave

Quoted lyrics from The National’s I Should Live in Salt’, Fireproof’, and the title track off of the 2013 album Trouble Will Find Me

Open doors

Walking home alone in the evening, as the last of the sun falls on the Sutro tower behind me, I realize this is going to be a good memory. It’s a strange feeling, recognizing one’s future self in the present. Walking into an emotion so good it will linger is rare because it has to be. Emotions that remain strong enough to carry us years later aren’t the common ones.

Today, this evening, coffee from Four Barrel in hand, walking home in jeans and a t-shirt and listening to the neighborhood, was like that. All the street lights were just on, the sky was still bright in places but losing color, and the gate to our apartment building was shut but the door behind it open, letting out a pool of golden light onto the street to welcome me home.

Living in cities in the early years of the twenty first century is an exercise in deposition, of putting down layers of personal history on to places that are or will be famous. By that I mostly mean are or will be unaffordable. Probably it has always been like this. I know from my parent’s friends that this is what New York felt like to them in the late 70’s and early 80’s, when St. Marks was a neighborhood not a name, when apartments in Chelsea were places to live comfortably, rather than micro houses to be featured in Dwell.

Yet living in cities is in some sense always about being seen, always about being somewhere rather than nowhere, about being able to walk to neat spots rather than commute to them. And so, like in Shanghai, I am laying down memories in San Francisco that will serve me for years, long past my time here.

Biking home late last night down Howard was similarly beautiful. The weather is finally perfect San Francisco after a September heat wave. The neighborhood, fast gentrifying, was still mostly empty in the dark, and I could slip through lights without braking, without holding on to the handle bars. On a Sunday evening everyone was inside preparing for the work week. Coasting upright I could look around and remember how lucky we are to live so close to our friends, to live so close to the train, in the middle of everything.

I remember riding my electric scooter home through Shanghai’s fall thinking the same thing, thinking how lucky we were to be in the center of this giant city. We knew the whole time that Xuhui would become unaffordable in a generation, become like Manhattan, a place few live in their twenties. Being able to put down those memories before the French Concession became a global tourist hotspot, before Lamborghinis were crammed into hutong alleys, was glorious.

Cities are always like this, I think now. And so I am glad to have these memories of walking home tonight to a small house with purple lights in the windows, to a cat who waits for his dinner, and to a rooftop garden that needs tending.

Lucky to be alive

Our lives are stories that we tell ourselves and tell each other. Our personal fiction, edited and self-controlled, takes different shapes depending on the audience and our mood. At work it gains a more serious tone than on the frisbee field, than at the beach. In one place our story is of physical prowess, in another of mental competency. So often these are stories we act out rather than speak, reflecting ourselves to those surrounding us rather than espousing our roots.

We have two histories, I have written: a geographical one that must be teased out in stories and a topographical one that can be discerned through observation of our bodies. So to do we have a variety of explanations for our injuries, for our accomplishments, for our decisions.

In some stories our line of work is an accident. In some it is the clear result of a multi-year plan. Our facebook pages and linkedin profiles are but the most extreme versions of these variations, clearly targeted acts of self creation.

These varied explanations are not untrue, they are simply separate views of the interwoven events that have lead us from where we were born to where we are today.

In many of my tellings employment is a side effect, work history a result of where I’ve been and who I’ve known rather than a focused accomplishment. In these versions I moved to Shanghai because I was ready to leave Tokyo, because a friend was living in Anhui and wanted to move to the city. The jobs that followed were coincidental, the result of moving to the focal point of the global wave, a place at once both megacity and boom town. Likewise, years later, San Francisco was a compromise rather than a natural next step.

In some ways the direction of those connections is correct. In some of these tellings though there emerges another version, one I bring forth reluctantly. It is the story of a mind constantly filling, and the awareness of a variety of goals. It is the tale of a boy who wanted to see more than his home town, and the story of a man who wants to know how things are made. More than anything, it is the result of wanting to be comfortable anywhere.

From this angle, in these more cautious tellings, the jobs line up and are part of a progression from curiosity to knowledge, from office to factory, and from country to country.

Our stories are not fixed things of course. They depend on the teller, the audience, and a feel for the moment. Considering my own versions from a San Francisco window on a foggy summer afternoon, I’m reminded most of a truth first heard almost three years ago. A truth I have considered, if not articulated, on the edge of each major decision:

The distance between who you are and who you might be is closing.”

Our stories do have a direction, and a pace. The latter, in my case, is no surprise. Each time I read that quote from Jan I hear a second sentence in my head, my own personal warning and guide:

Keep moving.

Another decade

The evening comes to Shanghai through a filter of haze. It’s been a clear week here in the middle of October, clouds and blue skies every day. There’s still a tinge to the air though, something in the smell of the place that’s unmistakable. Shanghai has changed in the past ten years, but the smell remains. I step out of an airplane into the open air. Across the tarmac Pudong’s Terminal 1 beckons, a huge square of light against the gathering dusk. For a moment I linger at the top of the truck-born staircase, letting the memory take hold.

Ten years and two months ago I stood, stunned, on a similar staircase, on this same runway, in the same last moments of daylight. The details match: the yellow sky of pollution and arc lights, the huge rectangle of Terminal 1, the line of other passengers before and behind, and the smell. Around these details, everything has changed. Terminal 1 is mirrored now by Terminal 2, opened in 2006 and far more frequently used. The road leading to the airport has been re-done, and the maglev built. Metro Line 2 now reaches both airports, stretching across the entire city east to west. And the sprawl of Pudong has reached ever further east, though not quite to the airport’s edge.

I have changed far more than the view has. I am no longer surprised China Eastern is too cheap for a jetway. Walking down the stairs to the waiting bus I look around. There are a dozen foreign faces on the bus to the terminal. That first evening I was the only one, alone with out language, landing in Shanghai on a flight from Tokyo. In August 2003 at the height of the SARS panic few foreigners wanted to visit China.

Fewer still were looking to relocate.

Customs is no longer a strange labyrinth of paperwork. Instead it’s a routine I’ve been through dozens of times, if not yet a hundred. I do the math quickly. Sixty? The HSBC ATM I rely on for RMB has moved, to the front of the customs line rather than just after. Or is that Terminal 2? It’s been years since I used the old Terminal 1 and the two are mirrors, which makes recalling the differences more difficult. I do remember this building though, in good times: boarding a flight with a frisbee team, on our way to Korea or Hong Kong. We drank beer purchased from the vending machine in the check-in hall all the way through customs, through security. I remember pausing to set the open cans on the  X-ray machine as we went through the metal detector, laughing with the guards and teammates. So much has changed.

I remember meeting friends here, arriving from the US, the UK or Japan, to visit me and to explore Shanghai, all of China. I remember being met upon my return in November of 2004, having fled the US again following Bush’s re-election. The symmetry of all these trips is hard to escape, standing in line at customs.

Ten years two months and three days have passed from my first footsteps in this country. I slept in a windowless hotel room on Nanjing East, the pedestrian street, my first week in Shanghai. A horrible idea, it was the cheapest option I could find. I ate at Lawson’s the first night, a sad familiar brand from my life in Japan. I was unprepared for that first landing in China, without friends, language skills, employment, or housing. I spent three days looking for an internet cafe. During that first week in the hotel on Nanjing I walked home from an interview in Hongqiao. Those first few weeks were a challenge and an opportunity to let curiosity overcome uncertainty. My surprise at stepping out of the airplane into the open air of evening on Pudong’s runway that first evening turned out to be only a small shock, if a lasting one.

In Shanghai in 2013 I step into a taxi, glad to be able to speak Chinese again after months away. Gao’an Lu and Hengshan Lu, I tell the driver. And, as we start moving, the air looks good today, tell me about the weather.”

As I’ve written before, in some ways Shanghai will always be home. Ten years since I first touched down, I am glad to have another look from the top of those stairs, staring west into China with the ocean to my back and the wind in my face.

Forgetting

You know him, but you probably don’t remember his mom, she was an…” This is how stories begin in my parent’s home. I do not. It has been decades since her son and I shared a playground in middle school.

Decades.

The children we once knew have grown, moved, married, and are contemplating children. Some parents, like mine, remain in old circles and wonder at our forgetfulness.

The loss is not intentional. Rather too great is the world, too many are the people. We do not mean to surrender these memories of childhood, they are forced from us by the onslaught of days. To manage we devote our meager resources to our current locations, to our new homes. On the East Coast for a few days of stories and family, I learn of another method, long practiced, for defeating the limits of memory.

My father’s parents drive me south to Philadelphia. We have scant trips like this together and many things to share, tales of those gone and those unable to join us. We alternate between the two as the miles pass. Sometimes we speak of our future desires, my own hopes to visit Scotland this fall among them.

It’s really beautiful out at the north edge of Scotland,” says my grandfather, I forget the name of the town, I’d have to look at my notes. Anyway, you ride along…”

In an astonishing moment an entire world previously unknown appears to me, revealed after decades. The same decades that have hidden my childhood companions suddenly contain copious detail, personal history, the travel of those with no limits on time.

Notes?” I ask, thinking of my poor scribbled collection of memories from earlier travels, from years abroad.

From everywhere we’ve ever been,” he says.

Every night when we get back to the hotel,” adds my grandmother, he writes while I read my book.” With that my own urge to organize and record no longer seems so strange. The first image I see is of our cruise in two thousand six, me writing in a lounge high on the ship late in the evenings, others having retired to their cabins. I imagine him sitting at a table, looking out over the Mediterranean, writing.

A day later I have copies of his notes from three weeks spent in Scotland in nineteen ninety four and can add format and handwriting to my imagined evenings. The notes are in a kind of short hand, and the hours driving together lend me the sound of his voice as I read them, which I do for much of my plane flight home.

9/10 Saturday Stayed — Toured Hadrian’s Wall — Housesteads Roman Ft. (high on ridge, impressive remains & views, walked wall — really windy)

Almost twenty years ago. As with so many written things I picture a book of these travel diaries, with appendixes that list the miles traveled per day, that list the names of each hotel, as they are recorded on the paper in front of me. I see a book of things forgotten and yet not lost.

We have a finite memory. Most things slide in and out. Relationships, good times with old friends, one-time travels to distant lands, even these drift from our fingertips though we do not mean to let them. What then of the details of Japan, of Shanghai, of our travels, houses, kitten? On the bus home from the airport I think of this site, of my attempts to record time and place, and vow to continue. Looking down again at his notes as I sit in the fog of San Francisco I am amazed at the details so long forgotten and so quickly returned to hand.

Glimpses of Shanghai

When the day is done

I meet a friend in front of Jing’an temple. Looking around at the intersection I recognize no buildings save the one behind me that names this intersection, ancient and partially re-built in concrete decades before. Towers of glass and neon spring out of corners that once held parks, that once held nothing. My friend finds me looking lost in one of the city’s most familiar places. I hold tight to the back of his scooter as we speed down Nanjing Lu, dodging police and taxis with equal caution.

And I lay me down

I am sick in the afternoon at the edge of a grass field, almost to the river, almost to the sea. A man on a bicycle outside the fence who is watching the soccer game behind me pretends not to notice my squatting form. I appreciate the gesture. My stomach turns. On the way home I am sick on the Nanbei Gaojia, out the taxi window in the sun. Traffic, moving at a brisk walk, politely does not crowd our cab, and I am grateful. Home again on a friend’s borrowed couch I hunker down with Gatorade and warm blankets. A day goes by as I heal.

I think about the day we had

I visit new shopping complexes with old friends, talking of change and plans. I have one constant thought, that we have grown up from the youth who first learned this city’s streets. The streets too have matured, and this old block now recreates a Shanghai that once was and yet has never been. Microbreweries occupy lane houses recreated to a degree Disney would be proud of. In my first days back I hear tales of rental car adventures and clear explanations of domestic regulations on electric engines. One did not exist eight years ago and the other was obtuse, unintelligible. Deep local knowledge, smart phones, and an ever-improving sense of business characterize all my meetings. We are no longer English teachers and Shanghai is no longer the edge of the world. Friends who once saved for bicycles have offices and employees, worry about adoption rates and customer growth metrics. Vacations are no longer home for Christmas with parent’s help but to Hokkaido, to Cambodia. Indonesia, I hear twice in the same week, is the new wild west.

After all, I’m married to the wandering star

Casual deletion

Arriving at PVG towards the end of August I am immediately covered in sweat. The merino hoodie that sheltered me high above the Pacific has no use in this city of clouds and dust. Shanghai welcomes me with the need for a shower, with a new banking fee, and with an entire new ring road from airport to city.

It seems I start every visit the same way, exclaiming that Shanghai has changed. Why do I not feel this way landing at JFK, or at HKIA, at SFO, NRT or LAX?

As the fastest-moving place on the planet for the last fifteen years, Shanghai’s shift should come as no surprise to this once resident. And, on my third visit since departure, finally, it does not. Instead it comes with sadness born of empty storefronts that once housed comforting restaurants, once held a tiny shop curated by an owner for whom the space represented a life’s dream. In fact the list, when organized, represents a comprehensive naming of places once frequented by a boy on an electric scooter.

Shanghai has gotten richer, has purchased the yellow Lamborghini that sits on Wuxing Lu, a block from my first apartment. Shanghai now works in Ermenegildo Zegna offices, on the 50th floor of a building in Lujiazui.

The changes are not all so individually grand yet overwhelm in their completeness. The basement of Metro City in Xujiahui is no longer filled with hundreds of booths selling semi-pirated electronics. Instead Carl’s Jr offers the same food they do anywhere, an entirely new entrant into the China fast food scene. Likewise some of the boom of two thousand eight has been swept away. A huge two-story shop launched as the flagship of a nationwide chain, the Chinese version of Threadless’, has been so completely overwritten that I am not now sure where it stood on a street of identical single-story storefronts.

The shop of two Chinese hip hop lovers who sold me my Taiwanese mesh back cap with its image of a Japanese yogurt drink-bearing scooter could have been replaced by any one of a dozen small jewelry shops, each featuring a single bored middle-aged woman as attendant. These shops might be owned by a single diamond conglomerate, itself using the multitude of fronts to run well-controlled experiments on which dress on the mannequin in the window attracts more customers.

What is it about humans that makes them copy each other so carefully? We truly are social creatures, and at some seventeen million, Shanghai is a test bed for our tendency towards duplication.

A fancy bakery opened my last year here is not only closed but has had all of its signage poorly redone in Chinese English at least once, demonstrating a now-failed attempt to copy the original in between. Three short years later and my friend, taking time off from work to write as I once did, says he is going to a cafe.

I used to write in Boona 2, on Fuxing,” I offer, remembering my favorite cafe, bustling on weekends and with plentiful power outlets.

That’s been closed for years,” he says, I write in the cafe that replaced it, absolutely horrible but constantly empty.”

I shake my head at the improvement, and wonder about the financials of such a switch.

My roommate’s motorcycle, left in our basement garage in two thousand eight as we fled, which had remained in its dark corner on my visits in two thousand nine, and ten, is gone. Who now rides that machine which he once slid so gracefully through an intersection beneath Yan’an, the weight of both it and him skidding on his MacBook’s aluminum chassis? I look for it as I wander the French concession, wondering whether those scrapes would be recognizable, and how much it was sold for.

We are temporary creatures, maintained by our habits and effort.  All signs of our passing will one day be erased.

Dreaming of a President

In an apartment in Venice four blocks from the Pacific I once knew a boy who fell asleep to The West Wing in the evenings.

I did too, on green couches whose supporting structure would poke at our ribs as we dozed. Those couches are long gone, and the apartment, with it’s drawbridge and fence, now houses people I do not know. Watching The West Wing again, four or five years later, the opening chords of the theme bring that scene back to me instantly. Those two boys were exhausted as they lay down, eyes closing almost before the DVD player could spin up. They had been working long days, from early light to well past dark. They had gone out too, with the exuberance of friends whose lives were usually separated by the Pacific. They were given only those scant hours between work and sleep to enjoy a decade’s worth of camaraderie, and the bar tab often showed their dedication, before the couches claimed their tired bodies as the TV panned over the White House.

This past week, with the DVDs freshly arrived from Los Angeles, we’ve spent hours inside that world, appreciating the acting and laughing at jokes written most of a decade ago. Yet the love for Charlie and Josh, the rueful awareness of my own personal Toby-esque nature, the support for CJ and Donna, these are not the first emotions that opening sequence calls forth.

That is strange because the emotions that return immediately, the deep hope and desire that are so strongly intertwined with those couches and long days in Los Angeles, no longer exist.

In two thousand five, two thousand six, those boys did not fall asleep to The West Wing simply because of exhaustion. Each morning those two boys would rise, perhaps having moved from couch to bed, perhaps still in their clothes, and head to work again. They would get coffee at Groundwork on Rose and discuss a television show neither of them had truly seen. Instead of the episode’s plot they would discus how pleasant it was, just for a moment as they woke in the morning, to believe Martin Sheen the President of the United States.

Habits are our ways of making peace with the world. By repeating small actions, by safeguarding our hopes with nightly support, we build structures capable of carrying us through disheartening turbulence. Between two thousand and two thousand eight I built a life on the other side of the planet to protect my hopes for this country. In Los Angeles for business I learned how my friend had handled the same challenge. He’d fallen asleep to The West Wing every night instead of the news.

In San Francisco now, we have a President who expects me to understand his arguments, if not Latin, and I still appreciate the show. The writing is deft and the characters nuanced despite the tiny snatches that an ensemble drama demands. But the magic and need that made its theme a daily habit is gone, and it is good, busy with new challenges and striving to protect different hopes, to remember how far we’ve come and how impossible such progress once looked.

Comes an end

At the end of the year we look back, and tell stories. Often the stories are of people now distant or places we are far from. At the end of this year then, as the cat sits next to me, I will tell you two. Out the window to the right I can see the Marin Headland, and the tree in the back yard still has leaves. To a boy from New York, on the thirty first of December, this is worth noting. The ends of most years fade like most days, salvageable only with focus. Some though swim strangely before me, raised by music, perhaps, or phone calls, the voices of people involved.

In one of these memories a group of boys wander Shibuya, having taken the Saikyo line in from Saitama. They wear coats, for the weather is chilly, and have champagne in bottles in their bags, awaiting the midnight hour. Excited, they enter bars for brief moments, a single beer or a few songs on the dance floor. Occasionally they encounter familiar faces, and sometimes one or anther is left, engaged in conversation, while the rest spill back out onto the streets, where the real party is. They meet up in intersections, stairwells, and public spaces. They are not alone, the city is alive, from the video screens on famous buildings to the pulse of music from every doorway. These boys are young, and in love, in that way that young boys far from home can be, with Shibuya, with people everywhere, and with the evening. They cheer on strangers, and chat with bouncers who are likewise entertained by the celebration. They buy drinks in cheaper establishments and tend bar in fancier ones, as it is that kind of evening, people slipping in and out of roles and positions, gaining a phone number, a friend, or a bottle of gin. As midnight nears they re-unite, somehow coming close enough in the throng to pass champagne to each other, all part of a large circle of people they do not know. The Hachiko exit of the Shibuya station, made famous by countless movies, is an impassable mass of bodies, and the memory ends with the champagne.

Another year, another country, and the image I remember is of Huaihai, it’s lanes blocked by police for a show, a parade, and then fireworks. The year ending is celebrated by Chinese dance teams, by dragon costumes, and by the all-encompassing smoke of fireworks set off both in patterns and in fistfuls. A group of friends have wandered in from various edges of the crowd, working their way in one side street or another to try for a better view of the stage. This memory is from the years where Huahai at Huang Pi Nan Lu feels like the center of the city, before Shanghai sprawls out and becomes familiar. Zhongshan park is still unfathomably distant, and taxi rides avoided despite their scant cost. The parties of this winter are fueled by three kuai baijiu mixed with two kuai coke. But on this evening everything seems still, despite the throngs and the fireworks, the constructed stages and the pulsing lights. Even the crowds are patient with each other, at the end of the year. People wait, and help children up on to shoulders, they let old people to the front and climb phone booths carefully, concerned for the plastic and glass. It is a cold evening, and most have bundled up in hats save the construction workers, who watch from the edges hands in the pockets of their suits. After the show ends a couple walks home down the center of the street, holding hands as they step over the debris, broken costumes and expended fireworks. The crowd, which had filled seven blocks, is gone within thirty minutes, and, as they walk east, the street is given back over to cars by the elevated road, the new year already arrived, and the city returned to it’s plan.

At the end of the year we look back and we tell stories. Tonight, with some new friends and some old, we will go looking for celebrations, lucky to have had so many.

Transient in all ways

The air is what changes with seasons.  Hot and muggy in the summer, chill and dry in the winter, or hot and dry and cold and wet, the air is more than temperature, it is feel.  Sometimes these seasonal shifts bring unwelcome days spent indoors sheltering.  Sometimes they bring days with scant light, or with an abundance.  At an ultimate tournament in Copenhagen two years ago the sun set near eleven, and players lingered outside long into the evening, marveling at the gift.  In the winter the same climes are less inviting, and so, creatures of this mobile world, we depart for places less socked in with snow and ice.

It is February, the calendar tells me, though the February of my childhood memories bears no relation to these days of lively air, of sun and wind and a hint of rain, off in the distance.  It is not dry, nor hot, neither chilly nor muggy.  For these weeks Houston glows, and we take any excuse for long walks, evening strolls, and afternoons spent lazing with the windows open.  Houston may be horrible in the summer as locals claim, muggy and hot with air still and sitting on the city.  Shanghai is, five almost unbearable summers proved that, and all those with the ability flee to Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, the Philippines, Europe, North America.

An hour of flying has the carbon footprint of driving for a year, I hear.  Car-less, then, I am still no more removed from our planet’s doom than anyone else.  Let’s move to somewhere we can walk, I say, let’s move somewhere we don’t have to sit in traffic.  Let’s fly somewhere, for vacation, I say.  Let’s fly somewhere to see the world, and the hypocrisy, if true, is staggering.  Reading Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking a year ago, I marveled at their use of air travel.  Her story of loss, brilliant in its clarity, was for me as much a commentary on air travel, and our shifting abilities.  She speaks of hopping up and down the California coast for dinner, on the PSA, an airline that no longer exists.  Fascinated, I look them up, finding hijackings and crashes, joy and marketing all gradually subsumed into now-bankrupt nationwide carriers.  Her stories, and their $13.50 aisle seats, belong to a different era, where airlines flew when they wanted to, or when they were full, like Chinese mini-busses do now, circling the train stations in search of passengers.

Playing ultimate yesterday with the wind blowing and sun shining, a woman told me of playing on similar days in Northern Europe.  She mentioned living in Korea, and  I told her of the tournament held yearly in Jeju, on practice fields built for the 2002 World Cup, and how the wind there blows off the ocean that lies just over the cliffs.  All our travels are comparable through wind, and all were brought back to us standing amid yesterday’s gusts.

Coming home today, I stand outside and watch this day unfold.  It is weather to bottle, says a friend, to save forever.  We cannot, of course, the only store for days like this is in our memories, which is why we tell stories, and share travel histories.  And I wonder, watching the clouds blow by in huge gusts that reach the ground so gently, whether this too is an era, and we, like Didion, will write stories of it that will astonish in thirty years, sending readers to Wikipedia and to pages kept by those who remember.  Will two hundred dollar flights to an island south of Korea for a weekend of ultimate have the same allure of the PSA, of the common since become impossible?  I consider the carbon footprint, my dislike for the automobile, and that claimed equivalent, and suspect they will.

Not quite yet, though.  A friend is coming, from New York’s ice and snow, to see these magical February Houston days, hopping down for a weekend.  He won’t be riding the smile, and it won’t cost him $13.50, but, if the weather holds and the flight is safe, the belief that our lives are special, and temporary, will be hard to shake.

Future positions

Part of the joy of travel, of moving, is learning a new common.  Moving to Shanghai and finding that bicycle traffic exceeds car.  Living there long enough to watch car start to gain, and the massive parking problem that change creates.  Moving to Houston and finding cars a minority, compared to SUVs, and the unique kind of common created by such large vehicles.  Watching young siblings of a friend play upon their parked vehicle, it affording an easier climb and better view than the purpose-built play structure in the yard.  Learning to navigate each one, until it is time to move on again, and the new place likewise surprises, lacking trains, or cars, or electric bicycles.  Realizing that what is comfortable now is not the original, but an amalgamation of each previous situation.

So often future predictions, or visions of such, are simply the application of what is already common in one place to another, with the twist of local restrictions or desires.  Cellphones are going to incorporate electronic payment systems, claims one, having been to Japan.  Transit cards will become electronic, removing the need to swipe a MetroCard in New York through the magnetic reader, claims another, having seen Hong Kong, or London, or Shanghai, or Tokyo, or…  Everyone will have a car, says the proud new Buick owner in Shanghai, knowing America.  Discerning between the potential and the possible, the future coming and the present not yet arrived, becomes an art of guessing what people want, what local infrastructure will support.

In every projection too there is the bias of personal desire.  Thus comes the vision of a wind-powered future from those with large investments in windmills.  Likewise those building massive databases of human activity suddenly see a future where every item of identification communicates location.  Passport, cell phone, car keys, payment cards, check.  There are those who seek support for admirable visions of electronic automobiles spread wide over the landscape, asking for them to be built by those who for the past seventy years have opposed such infrastructure.  But these are not the only futures built around the personal desires of those who espouse them.  There are the dreams of authors, in whose projections worlds overcrowded, over-governed, and over-built compete with those of space-faring societies that have escaped the resource limits of a single planet, of artificial intelligences that remove burdens of daily labor, and of a variety of governments that cater to a mobile population. These are all visions of a future coming, of a world we do not inhabit but should, or will, or might soon.

The beauty of these views is not that any one is perfect, or correct, or that any of them are.  The joy of learning what is common in a new place is finding fresh tools for a personal projection of what the future will hold, of where the world could be.  Because much of the future is made up of people, and the people are made up of what they imagine and desire, what they learn and acquire.  This message is paraded around by consumer advocacy groups, by giant corporations, by friends and neighbors in a variety of forms, and is true in all of them, if slightly minimized.  For the future is not a small thing, one life is not a small thing.  On moving to Japan, seven years ago, and being shown to an apartment smaller than any of the dorm rooms I had occupied the four years prior, being forced to revisit my needs and possessions, I found roommates, colleagues, friends in similar situations.

I like the way it’s done here,” they kept saying.  About refrigerators small enough to tuck into corners that then required more frequent re-filling, from similarly smaller shops within walking distance.  About beds that were rolled up and put away in closets in the mornings to provide space for a desk and a sense of cleanliness.  About balconies on every house, for drying clothing and watching Mt. Fuji in the evening.  All these people, each moved to a new location, each discovering that what was common in Tokyo, in Saitama, was something they could live with, appreciated, and would incorporate, if able, into their own future.

There are stories like this from everywhere I have ever lived, and they blur together into nothing more than personal history, exploration and discovery.  They provide the tapestry though, the background of things I know to be common, somewhere, and can easily apply to my vision of a future.

And so, on a sunny November day in Houston I ride my tiny bicycle down tree-lined streets, arms covered in a hoodie purchased in Shanghai for its utility against very similar weather on my way to an apartment fueled only by electricity, generated mainly from wind and solar sources.   I carry a bag hand-made in Philadelphia, which holds a computer made in Taiwan and China.  And while such a listing can be displayed as a consumer badge, and is, it is also a vision of the future, of my plan for it.  The world changes every day, and the older we get the faster it seems to go, a function of both personal aging and of the era we were born to.  There are crisis and inventions, as there have always been, and our future is probably none of the grand predictions, none of the brilliant novels or simple transpositions.  The future will probably be as fragmented as today, with massive cars and extreme poverty, with starvation and luxury ocean liners.  Our choice is what common we are aiming for, what personal collection of necessary and desirable we hold dear enough to work for.

So here I am, age twenty nine, transporting myself by bicycle and airplane, communicating with laptop, cell phone and postal service, learning to appreciate and cook food common to my new location.  Uncertain whether any of these is perfect; imagining a future finely balanced out of all the visions I have seen.

Discoveries

Learning a place comes with the gift of discovery that fades with time.  Finding for the first time, after months in-country, whole blocks of cheese in a supermarket beneath Xujiahui.  That simple event - something Americans must first learn to be impressed by - changed our whole day.  This discovery of cheese: gouda, cheddar, swiss, more, required bread, wine, and the park.  Sitting in an apartment in Brooklyn now, years later, the sudden joy returns to me in other disguises.

I copy keys after asking around, discovering bicycle shops and long-time locksmiths in the same morning.  Afterwards, squatting up against a wall Chinese style, with a bagel and coffee, I remember where this glow comes from.  It comes from discovering anew things once taken for granted.  On Yongjia Lu there is a man with a key machine.  He fixes bicycles, patches tires, sells locks, repairs chains.  If asked he drags the key copier out onto the street, and digs through the rack of locks hanging on the wall for an extension cord, battered and covered in grease.  He turns the machine on and starts matching the grooves with a blank, by hand.  Sometimes the keys do not work, when his eyes guess wrong and his fingers fail to spot the error.  Usually they are fine, shiny and new, replacing those broken on beer bottle futility or packed up along with sleeping bags by friends on their way out of town.

In Park Slope the locksmith takes four minutes for a task for which I expect an hour and much of the neighborhood to stop in for something in the interim.  I am surprised, having just settled in to a long article, and hunt for change, quarters and dimes feeling unfamiliar in my pockets.  The surprise is of old things forgotten yet familiar in their sudden discovery.  For the first time Brooklyn feels like Shanghai feels like Los Angeles, as I wander them all in search of things I once knew.

Sitting in a bar one evening a year before, fresh off a plane and bewildered by time lag, I scanned the beer list for something exotic, something I hadn’t had in ages, and good.  Baseball was on the television, teams and a language I was familiar with, and the breeze blew in the open doorway.  The bartender came back with two bottles, one for me and one for the man next to me, pushing them at us across the wood and moving on.  The other customer might have been older, or not.  He grabbed the Tsingtao and tipped it towards me, saying something about good beer and something about the Yankees.  I clinked bottles, Sierra Nevada Pale, and drank, like him discovering something.  Again.

Personal geographic

Memories lie dormant all over this city. In Fuxing park, after years away, they return suddenly. A February afternoon, jacket collar up against the wind, slips over me despite the heat of May. A face I haven’t pictured in years comes back instantly, bringing with it hand-holding and small pleasantries I had thought ashes of personal history.

They fade, says a rumor of memories, are dulled by repetition and become faint traces barely accessible with conscious effort. This is true, in some way, as oft-recalled scenes are now at least part composition, part invention, rather than their original fact. Graduation day’s weather, easily confirmable through photographs and weather sites, is reassuringly mapped onto memories of that day. I do not believe I have any real ability to visualize the clouds, if clouds there were, puffy and scattered. Perhaps seeing the hill, the view of the lake through the trees would suddenly snap the sky into focus in my mind. Perhaps not, and that amphitheater would instead evoke other days, as the layers of personal history are deep there, the days set upon one another like palimpsests.

A small town can not hold as many of these ambushes. Each place has been too frequently visited to retain only a single moment. No place has been forgotten for long enough to shock. Thinking this I remember a bridge and a long-dead friend perched upon it’s girders, slung below the road surface yet high above the gorge. It is a place I haven’t visited in a decade, and I am chill at the memory. No, these mental ties to geography do not require size, not always.

Barefoot now and throwing a frisbee in the late afternoon sun amid a flock of kites the shape of eagles, my memories are of another evening, drinks outdoors in the garden visible beyond a hedge. The friends of that evening are not dead, thankfully, just far away. They have long since relocated to London, to Australia Boston New York Maine Hawaii Hong Kong, and they are only three people. Years gone now, my routine is of passing around this park but never through. The memories lie unmentioned, untouched, with their participants scattered.

Yet the size of a place does enable this forgetting, allowing frequented pathways to be forgotten by a change of job, a move several blocks north. A dumpling shop on Jianguo Lu closes for May holiday, three days. The owner purchases new chairs and tables in the interim. A crazy night there comes back to me, from years before at three am. Another expat in a three-piece suit and too drunk to see, ranting about something, his face familiar but name unknown. The winter of 03, perhaps. The day is not clear, the need for dumplings at such an hour even less so. Only that face, the suit, and the hour return upon re-entering this recently redecorated tiny restaurant.

With wings

He leans against the curved hull, pillow stuffed into the window well. Mouth open and head back, he is asleep in 33A high above the Pacific. Time zones slip past, an oft-ignored creation of human-kind, organizing the world into segments. The plane shudders in the wind, buffeted by invisible currents. As it lands, sliding into the gate, the passengers rouse themselves, stretch. Phones blink to life, electronic cackles of welcome, connection, home and business. The arrival gate and it’s crowds of men with signs, of lovers desperate for the first glimpse, awaits.

Habit shifts can define generations as the rare becomes commonplace, the mythical ordinary. Mid-morning conversations with friends in New York as they settle in for sleep, detailed analysis of fauna found on a day’s excursion on an Australian island read over breakfast coffee in Los Angeles. The world shrinks, people say, as their habits change. As what was once extraordinary, the arrival of mail on horseback, becomes a daily ritual, and then scarce again. On a rural route outside of Ithaca the mailman pets the golden retriever through his jeep’s open door, knows the names of every family on his route, holds their letters when they travel. This integration seems mundane to those born a century after mail calls around campfires. Only a decade after that a single envelope hand-addressed is a cause for celebration, the personal effort touching. Stamps whose varied faces once hid beneath pens in every drawer become difficult to find, require lengthy waits in line to purchase. FedEx, revolutionary in it’s global reach and speed, becomes the province of companies, recedes from the individual. Our travels become electronic, or personal. The detailed letter from Thailand wilts under the weight of a thousand blog posts, of Flickr shots uploaded from dodgy connections at the beach.

These shifts, of distance and technology that become those of lifestyle, are not necessarily successful. The automobile created suburbs that became cities in an effort to avoid the use of the automobile that inspired them. The airplane becomes a cubicle with repetition, and the freedom of takeoff that so delighted little boys becomes a sleep trigger. No longer do the passengers peer out and down, watching cars fade into matchbox toys, wondering who all those people are, and where they are headed. The boy no longer looks up from his lawn mower, wondering where all those people are going, up so high in that silver sliver, trailing white across the sky.

The man in 33A boards patiently. He no longer seeks to be the first in line, no longer jumps at the anticipation of the flight attendant’s newspaper rack. He stows his luggage anywhere, comfortable with magazine and notebook. His movements, long practiced in these tubular confines, have gained an economy of motion, been minimized. Like all such travelers he knows the bathrooms, the coffee spots, and where wifi is at each and every airport. He no longer marvels at the numbers of people heading to Korea, to LA, to Chicago, to Singapore, to Mumbai at any hour of the day, at any time of year. This is how the world works, covered in people constantly re-arranging themselves. All sense of miracle at humanity’s frantic new habit has disappeared.

Perhaps he is correct in this. The technology amazes, as once did the wheel, the steam engine, the railroad, yet underneath the urge to leave, the desire to settle somewhere new, the possibility of better just out of sight has kept people moving for millennia. They have crossed valleys, rivers, oceans, often in no more than their skin, rarely with a plan grander than to go. He crosses the Pacific likewise, back and forth with little certainty, and less consideration. His nonchalance would be epic, save for the other two hundred passengers asleep around him.

Tokyo, two thousand seven

From Narita, several days past the four-year anniversary of leaving it.

I lived here for two years. Those words sound strange, as the Japanese that flows out of the speakers does not impart meaning in my mind. Two years. September seventh, two thousand one to August eighteenth, two thousand three.

My plane is delayed, Singapore airlines, widely regarded as the world’s best, does not start our relationship on a high note. Forty five minutes though, due to late arrival” is not enough to diminish my desire for the flight onwards. Narita. For two years Tokyo was home, and now it is a space I return to in transit, lost in the system, understanding that I am here for scant hours, and that my requirements are few. Electricity. Internet. The same things Pudong cannot provide, Narita overflows with. Five hundred yen for the day’s internet. A steal compared to some airports in Germany. A steal compared to Shanghai’s utter lack.

GSM cell phones still don’t work here. I will distrust the entire system on this basis a few weeks later. I will be forced to rent a phone, expensive yet foolishly trusting, a few weeks later.

Some days the whole world is filled with echoes, and the day itself cannot get through the mesh of time-lag and personal history. Tina Dico’s voice, lilting:

Watch my neighbors go to work
and look exhausted and burned out when they get back

Saitama rings out of the corners of my ears, my eyes, the train station emptying it’s bicycle-stealing salarymen out into the night, free of the beer-breath-filled train. I stumble home, in these visions, grateful for the peace of that small space I rent, of that small corner of Japan I inhabit.

A dinner party in Shanghai, years later, someone’s mother commenting on taste, on patience, as the Christmas lights sparkled white, which allows them to survive year round, out of all seasonality save for this evening. Gentle splashes of light into shaded swatches of night.

I’ve been blind, too blind to tell false from true
I’ve been so busy running
never stopped to think where I was running to

Now Tina’s voice is live, in a coffee shop in Copenhagen, and the memories are of a vacation, one May morning, sitting on the steps of a church in a Danish square, bleary-eyed and missing Korea.

The memories pile up, and only an onward push can rid them.

But what’s a man without a past
We love him for his lies
and then we try to break him down to make it last
’til they come true

Standing on a train platform in Ueno, past midnight two weeks later, the strings of people homeward bound linger only until the doors close. Machine-purchased coffee tastes the way it did at eighteen, the way it did at twenty two. The stations change as I head east, across and then out of Tokyo’s heart. The train, a crowded mass of smells so distinct and so familiar, gives way to lonely commuters hanging from the hand-rests, gives way to solitary exits from deserted stations, to the chirp of crickets and the crunch of gravel. To a suburb of small towers, balconies creating the odd shapes of houses past. My head a swirling fog of izakaya alcohol and my heart awash in solitary gladness, I remember what I loved here, long after I’ve remembered why I left.

It’s the order that’s elusive, not the memories.

Thank god for this beautiful view

Quoted lyrics from Tina Dickow/Dico’s Room With a View’ off of In The Red (2004) and Tina Dico Live at the Copenhagen Jazzhouse (2007)

Sweat and storms

It is July, a month filled with sweat, with uncomfortable sleep and itching eyes and with abrupt transitions from air artificially dried and cooled to air filled with water held in only by surface tension. In the afternoon the winds swirl and, on good days, the air breaks open in rain that wipes away, for a moment or ten, the dirt and slow motion malaise that creeps otherwise over everything and everyone. For fifteen minutes people scamper, as though the water poured down upon them provided power for their footsteps. With the rain’s end their pace slows again. Men become once more immobile, sitting again on steps with their shirts up, bellies bulging slightly in the posture-slackening heat.

It is two thousand and seven, and a man sits on his balcony, re-reading a work of fiction he first found a decade before, half a world away. Re-reading a book that has been quoted endlessly by friends who now live in Los Angeles, in San Diego, in New York, in London. The beer by his shoulder is cheap, and pretends to be Japanese. His feet are covered in bug bites, the sacrifice necessary for the small area of grass at the base of his building. His balcony, on the fourth floor, is not high enough to avoid them. Perhaps no balcony is.

In the coming weeks he will travel, to Beijing, and it’s famously forbidden palace of previous governments. To the wall, a barren portion long ruined, untouched by the repairmen who have installed handrails at Badaling. At least he hopes so.

It is July, two thousand and seven, and he cannot stop thinking about the same month, three years before, and a smaller room with no balcony three blocks to the west. In that room lived a boy as uncertain, as young, as anyone can be who has traveled so far. That boy packed and drank, planned and read. He sat in the sweltering heat unable to afford a decent air conditioner. His apartment, lengthy and narrow, conducted wind well from kitchen to bathroom, bedroom to desk, but did not release heat.

In the winter the same room could not store it.

That boy packed in between conferences and crisis, after working hours, of which there were few, and before late nights. His books, clothing, and prized possessions, all became cubic space in green boxes he ferried home from the post office on a scooter he’d purchased for seventy kuai, the cost of replacing it’s starter. The scooter puttered and sputtered and did neither with safety or speed. He adored the scooter for its cheapness, this boy of two thousand four, and waited constantly at corner stalls where boys far younger disassembled it’s fuel line and poured liquid through that thin rubber tube, dissolving clots, cleaning away years of accumulation. They did this same repair for less than ten kuai each time, a cost of ownership affordable even to twenty four-year old boys working twelve hours a week. Or less.

When these strangely sacrificial rituals of boxing and re-boxing were complete, and the parcels ferried back to the green storefront of China Post, he left, this boy of two thousand four. Backpack on and shoulders back, he stepped out of his apartment for the last time, locked the door, gave over the key, and wandered off, to Thailand, Malaysia, and out of sight.

Sitting on his balcony, age almost twenty eight, the man with bug-bitten feet finishes his beer and steps inside. He is not packed, he has more possessions than ever before, though they are scattered delicately across the globe; mementos of his existence given to friends, old traveling companions, and roommates.

He is not going anywhere. At least until the storm breaks.