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.

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.