Walking in the rain

After thirteen years, long walks are still a great joy. This statement seems a good sign, and a good starting place. Lately, during these pandemic months of alternating joy at the ability to congregate and sadness at the freedoms we have lost, that’s how I think about our life together thus far. A good starting place. For more than a decade we have worked on becoming the people we hope to be. We have worked on fitness, on skills, on friends, and on the never-ending goal of being comfortable everywhere. From tech startups in the Bay to bookstores in Houston, from distributed teams in Hong Kong to small companies where we hire our friends, we’ve worked on work. Work, in these cases, are mishmash of things. Work is a focus on getting paid, on getting better at making decisions. It’s getting better at building teams and products. Mostly, it’s just work.

Sports are much the same, time spent working on our bodies as full systems and as specific sets of injuries that need attention. Sitting on the floor in our sunroom with blisters on all my toes after a weekend of ultimate I am acutely aware of the need for better preparation. The pandemic’s halt to organized competition may have given me six months off to rehab from shoulder surgery but it also seems to have removed all my callouses from cleats and climbing shoes, leaving my feet more vulnerable than they were a year prior. These small wounds do not count as injuries in the larger picture. They won’t leave scars or require PT. They are just part of the process of becoming competitive again, a challenge that grows both more familiar and a little more difficult every time. It’s a challenge I’m still happy to undertake. Or at least happy to undertake again, this current time.

At yoga, occasionally, for my shoulder, I look at what we have learned, how much more flexible and strong, and am sure it is worth all the sacrifices. We are lucky, to be able to make these trades, mental space and easy sleep for muscles that ache and minds that will not rest. They’re the trades that have built this foundation.

Walking along the edge of Hong Kong island together in the rain, I am happy to feel the chill of it on my skin after the long hot summer and happy to have time to talk and think with each other on an evening in October. The moments of reflection like this walk are less common for us now than they were in the spring, a product of our decisions. More often now the bodies are too tired from the gym, or the work calls go on until one or the other of us is already asleep. On certain occasions, though, we make time for nothing else, and take a long walk somewhere new. On evenings like this one we give each other space to walk through our work problems, to be the sounding boards of first resort that we have been for so long. Looking at the lights in Kowloon and listening to the lap of the harbor against the side walls is a reminder that these long walks work. Like the long bike rides that proceeded them in San Francisco, or the long skates in Houston, they are how we process, how we grow, and how we share what we have learned.

Thirteen years of these exchanges later I am mostly grateful to have spent them together. I am glad to have shared all the work to reach this starting place, ready for whatever’s next.

Shape

In the background of our current situation certain topics repeat. They range from the inane chatter of the truly privileged, where we will go when first able to fly again, to the serious, where now can we imagine settling down. The later is a conversation not about home prices or commutes but, in the fall of twenty twenty, of where democracy and free speech will be possible, where will support non-car based lifestyles without also oppressing journalists and school children, without also building social structures that repress minorities?

The later is a hard conversation, ruling out as our criteria do both the small college towns of our American youth and the large Asian metropolii of our twenties and thirties. We are caught between the hell Facebook has unleashed and the deathtrap of authoritarian regimes. As with so many of a certain class and education we long for Paris in the 20’s, for New York in the 70’s, Hong Kong in the 80’s, and even Shanghai in the 00’s. Mostly we long for freedom, for the joy that comes with an explosion of expression and the ability to make new things in environments that don’t require the automobile. These are sad topics, avoided until they re-emerge, the looming background of every longer conversation.

The most frequent topic though is that of our selves, of our jobs, and of the people we are trying so very hard to become. Whether we are learning software or hardware, finance or general management, recruiting or e-commerce or app development, the main questions are of our ambition and the way it will shape our lives. Will we be happy to have spent hundreds of hours striving so hard in search of success? Will we be happy to have worked so hard at startups that may linger and become brands but will probably fail as our startups have before, will probably fade as our companies and efforts have before? Will we be happy with the resulting t-shirts and laptop stickers, LinkedIn CV badges, and stories of free beer?

Who are we building with all these hours of focus, who are we working so hard to create? Will we like these people, still incomplete and already overwhelmed, who focus on work on Saturday morning and Sunday evening, who work till midnight on weekdays and forget to visit the gym?

I wonder. In the spring of twenty twenty I thought we were doing the right thing by taking our time, by not rushing back to the job market, by not rushing back to the working world. In the fall I know we were correct, as I watch how quickly our habits are overwhelmed by our responsibilities, how our sense of obligation to the work goal outweighs our body’s sense of fitness and fatigue. I know we are building something, and that after those months off we were bored and ready to be more fully utilized. I know we try hard to be part of good teams, to relax when we are in between things and to take longer and longer off each time. And yet, here we are, two months in and fully under water, working hard to breathe.

I hope we are building what we seek.

Saturated

The first few weeks of a new job test our abilities to take in information. For days we come home tired and then have calls in the evening. Some days we stay home and talk either to each other or others constantly. We read, worry, check, reach out and try so hard to learn faster.

The process feels like a test of our ability to learn. Here is all of the information, our new employers say. When can you make decisions? And for weeks, on long walks after dinner or while having coffee in the morning, we tell each other to make fewer decisions, to try and do as little as possible, to react as little as possible. Because we do not yet know, and will regret the decisions made in haste these first few weeks. Take it slow, we tell each other. Don’t believe that we understand the situation, we tell each other. Be patient and learn, we say. These are the words of our past selves. The strengths of repeated startup failures is a wealth of experience in starting over, in learning everything again.

Finally, now, driven by those past tries, we are relaxed enough to tell our colleagues and our managers that we are trying to avoid making decision early. We are trying to avoid making decisions rashly, without all the data. And one week in it’s not possible to have all the data, have all the knowledge of what came before. We test our capacity to input and find it wanting, unable to absorb thousands of hours of learning and creation in the scant hours of a single week. We talk about how tired our brains are, in the evenings before sleep.

We do not give credit enough to how awake our brains are. After months of ping pong and yoga, surfing and naps, video games and novels, we are awake. We are more fully deployed and our abilities tested in all directions. It is exhausting in the way that true utilization is exhausting. It is tiring in the way tournaments are tiring, our bodies pushed to and beyond what they were ready for. The evenings this past week have been like those glorious hours of post tournament revelry where we are beat up and utterly present.

So here we are again in the summer of twenty twenty: happy, exhausted, full of energy, unable to sleep, and fully alive.

Saturated.

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.

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.

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.

Keep contact

Anki view

At the end of everything come goodbyes. They come after the laptop is turned in, after the exit interview, after the resignation letter. We go out for a drink, or lunch at a place we’ve always liked. Sometimes we just sit around the office and chat, or wander the parking lot. The location isn’t as important as the people. They are our constant companions for the last several years, folk who have shared more of our waking hours than our families. It’s a strange aspect of this modern life where occupation dominates. The time together leads to friendships that are both intense and limited by location. For a few years we share everything, so many things, small battles and celebrations, long trips, awkward meetings and Christmas parties. And then, suddenly, we move on.

And so we say goodbye last, for the people are what we will miss, regardless of the product or company, regardless of which side of the table we sat on in price negotiations. Vendor, colleague, customer, supplier, all of these words are simply descriptions for a person in one box of their life. Before and after, well, it’s hard to say who they may become, and good to remember who they have been. So we say goodbye in bars, in line at boba tea, over ice cream on Market street. At the very end we say goodbye on Zoom calls, while the account still works and everyone’s schedule is simultaneously free. And when it has been good we laugh and we cry, glad to have had the chance to share so much with these people met in the search for a paycheck.

It took me years to learn to say goodbye. My first jobs were places that celebrated for me, where turnover was high enough to have rituals surrounding it: Irish car bombs on the restaurant patio in Boston or all-night karaoke in Saitama. Those were the years of transience, of scattered memories and friendships made for the moment with Irish students in America for the summer or English teachers from Newfoundland. Part of these goodbyes was the lack of surprise at their happening. So many of our relationships came with expiration dates, visa limits, or school year cycles. And so I made it to Shanghai before I knew how to value colleagues, even the ones I remain friends with from those earlier years.

Thus these last few weeks have been bittersweet, filled with former colleagues and good friends reaching out to see where I will land, to see if they can help, or simply to admire the product that occupied so much of my last two years. There have been lots of chats with colleagues now become friends about job prospects but also about baseball. We bring up old jokes formed during late night calls with distant timezones, partially because they still make us laugh and partially because we weren’t ready to say goodbye, because we were still having a good time.

In that last sentence comes some of what has changed from those early days. For the first time in as long as I can recall, I wasn’t leaving, I wasn’t in a rush to whatever’s next, though I now need to find it. My former colleagues, far from being distant and forgotten, toiling in their cubicles while I take interviews, are all within reach, available by chat and sharing their search. In some ways there was no goodbye, despite the zoom calls and the tears. In a lot of ways we’ll still be here, in different cities and at different companies, because we didn’t leave.

Slim hope

They promote from within,” my colleague says, and it is a statement of admiration in an afternoon of less pleasant observations. We are waiting on a factory line for it to re-start. The work we hoped to complete today, we have just learned, is to be spread over several, and we are trying to prevent this delay.

We are trying to prevent delay, so that we can leave.

We are trying to prevent delay so that when we leave we have done what we need to, seen what we need to, and can take the samples to colleagues further away. Teasing out our true needs should not take three sentences. In this concrete room we are quite clear, and have had meetings outlining this schedule weekly for the past month. The room we stand in has hundreds of workers on a half dozen products, and is quite temperate. The comfort is a gift of the season. In August the weather will not be so gracious, and we will all be a little shorter tempered. For now we try to see the good, and to have patience. Nothing life-changing will happen today, one way or another. We are all still early enough in the production schedule to go home tomorrow regardless of specifics. At dinner, everyone will laugh. And so we are discussing the factory in more general terms, the good and bad that come with any human operation. My colleague’s observation, borne out of the production manager’s youth, is true. They do promote from within. When we started this project, several years before, he was an assistant who fetched and did not speak. Now he is constantly on the phone, which is how we find him, often on another task in a different building. He is still less than twenty five, but he knows where everything is in this sprawling complex, knows who everyone is.

This knowledge deserves promotion, and thus comes as no surprise. In so many ways he has grown up in this factory. He has grown up with us and others like us, in the good weather and the bad, working on products that did well and those never re-ordered. He has adapted, as we all have, to the changing trends and product requirements, and is still here. That alone is something of a success.

Flexibility is a quality we list on both sides of the ledger for this factory, when we are waiting and listing our thoughts. On days like today though, when the weather is good and the timeline sufficiently padded, we take it in the best way. On long afternoons where not all is ready we cut each other the slack of those who know July’s stress and heat well, and do not want to build up any frustrations in advance of the challenging times.

Today, we say to each other without words, everything is alright. Whatever that means.

Seeing the future

We are rarely entirely new beings. Instead we are an echo of our parents and the examples set before us. We grow and change and age in patterns that seem unique individually but are quite in line with our species globally. We are children and then adults of a particular history, of a place and time.

I am reminded of this in the breakfast buffet of the Pullman hotel one morning in Shanghai in two thousand fifteen. A man walks past me in shorts and a black T-shirt, carrying a notebook and pen. He has a shaved head, and is perhaps forty five. I am thirty five, here for work, and still too concerned about appearances to wear T-shirts. The man wanders away though the buffet and I can barely avoid staring.

It’s rare to see one’s future self walk by so close.

He looks like I look. More, he looks like I will look, if I am still attending buffet breakfasts in Chinese hotels in ten years. The feeling of witnessing someone in the same place, with the same styles, mannerisms, and accouterment, is disconcerting. The first moments are of shock, an odd tickle on the back of the neck. After that comes a humbleness, the awareness of one’s lack of individuality. And finally, when I am standing in the elevator returning to my room, a desire to make contact, to have said something witty by way of introduction. A wish to have met myself, however strangely.


Three years later, at a breakfast in Dongguan, in black T-shirt with notebook, I have grown more comfortable. I no longer worry about the supplier I am going to meet in an hour. I have been swimming early in the morning, and will write a letter to a distant friend over coffee. I am more collected, more comfortable, and slightly older. My head is recently shaved, by a young man in a Shenzhen barber shop. If I encountered that future self again the recognition, I believe, would be mutual, and not just for the clothing, bald head, and habit of writing at breakfast, which I’ve possessed for years.

There is a certain comfort at being in China, at being at home on the road, that I’ve improved on these past three years. After so many trips full of urgent mornings rushing through breakfast to make the pick up schedule, after so many years of worry and email before bed, I feel more able to schedule rigorously and still breathe. It’s a skill I’ve always had but not always believed in, which led to unnecessary stress.

Since my injury in 2014 I am focused enough to rise early, to swim or exercise, and to eat little breakfast. I am able to relax enough to write at the breakfast table afterwards, and pack quickly for the scheduled departure. I am able to eat less at lunch and dinner, to work out in the evenings if that is the only option, and to make time for video calls with family.

I am older, and still on the road. Not yet forty five, but no longer thirty five. And on mornings like this one I wonder about that man in the Pullman in Shanghai. Is he still on the road as well, still meeting business partners and enjoying spartan hotel mornings?

Perhaps one day I’ll know.

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.

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.

Gaps between

Being unanchored in the world has been a gift. I’ve seen friends in Los Angeles, Phoenix, and Portland. I never made it to the east coast, but I did make it across the Pacific.

Now though, after three months of small projects and peaceful days with my cat, it’s time to get back to it, to grow and learn and be part of a slightly larger team.

For the last few weeks I’ve woken early to make tea and then gone back to bed, reading or sleeping again with the cat snuggled tight against me. It’s been a peaceful life, transitioning between gym and study, nap and novel. It’s been exactly the kind of break I needed, and exactly what the cat hopes for. We’ve become accustomed to each other, and we’ve shared this small apartment in circles from chair to bed to kitchen to sofa, one of us following the other. It’s a routine we will both miss and seek to find again on suddenly valuable weekends. For now though, he will have the place to himself, able to relax wherever he desires. No one will disturb his nap with the vacuum at ten am on a Wednesday, nor with coffee grinding at two pm. I think he’ll miss the company anyway.

The final morning he and I spend snuggled in a new chair. I thought it a chair for one until his seventeen pounds landed on my lap, inbound via the sofa’s arm.

On the last Friday of my sojourn I read back through my notebooks to other times like this, to remember the challenge of being groundless and how these periods ended. Familiarity helps, reminding me that this time is not any different, and that each time the transition works out fine.

Yesterday I had lunch with an ex-colleague who had never quit a job before, never spent months in between. Over ramen I listen to her thoughts and challenges, some familiar some unique. At the end of my own holiday the feel of these gaps has become strangely comfortable. In some way I have become what I try to be, at home in uncertainty.

For a few months, anyway.

Haneda mornings

Haneda at sunrise

In some ways, for this boy, everything starts in Tokyo.

Ever since he turned 18 here, on his first visit, the city has been a constant reference, and a sometimes home. The urban sprawl of the greater metro area has been a window onto so much of his life.

Today Tokyo frames the hours between four and nine am. For these five hours he wanders the new international terminal of Haneda without urgency. The rest of this trip, to Shanghai, Hong Kong, Ningbo, and back, will be a whirlwind of component approvals, press checks, and the small waits of travel required for each. For the next two weeks he will be seldom alone save for early mornings or late nights, and rarely on his own schedule.

This morning in Haneda serves as a counter to that sense of urgency. Drinking coffee in a chair with a view he can pause and think. About his cat, left at midnight the evening prior, the day prior, comfortably relaxed at the end of a quiet weekend. Of that same cat on the rooftop in the morning, looking out over San Francisco and sniffing the wind. He is happy on the rooftop, this cat, and the boy in Tokyo misses both spot and companion.

For so much of his life Tokyo has been about watching people. Sitting here as the airport wakes up, as business commuters and tourists make their way through security and start looking for coffee, the boy is happy. It’s been a while since he watched Tokyo this way.

At least a month.

Inspired by friends with similar jobs these layovers have come something of a ritual, a strange habit of intentional delay in what is already a very long commute. He began taking these breaks last year, in Hong Kong. Alone or with colleagues he would check in for his flight at Central, give up his suitcase of samples and clothing, and walk to a nice dinner, to a quiet evening drink with a view. Spending a few hours this way, before returning to San Francisco and the rest of his life, served as a firewall between the exhaustion of weeks in Dongguan factories and the exhaustion of jet lag. These breaks give him energy to return home with and become again responsible for the small parts of life, for dishes and laundry and the commute.

In twenty sixteen he has moved these breaks to Tokyo. Work is focused on Shanghai, and so Hong Kong is a less convenient option. Tokyo, with the government’s new focus on tourism and Haneda’s resurgence as an international airport, is becoming the perfect hub. Overnight flights from SF give him more than a full night’s sleep, more than enough rest to be awake when he finally makes it to Shanghai, some twenty hours later.

And the peace of Haneda, the fact that all announcements are played in Japanese, in English, and then in Mandarin, gives his mind some time to catch up to the rest of him, to accept the fact that he is once again on the road. Tokyo as rest stop is a new use for his favorite city.

In nineteen ninety seven Tokyo was a fairy tale for a boy on his way to university. It was his first trip abroad, other than Canada, and his first time alone without language.

In two thousand one Tokyo was a gateway, an opportunity, and the city he’d always dreamed of. Moving there got him out of the US, gave him a job, and showed him just how big the world could be.

In two thousand seven it provided a reminder of how peaceful a city could be, after years in the noise of Shanghai. It is this lesson he remembers now, and what brought him to this ritual layover.

In two thousand twelve he got to share his favorite places and the trains that connected them. Exploring Tokyo and Kyoto together they remembered how wonderful adventuring as a couple could be.

In two thousand thirteen, on their second trip to Japan together, they got engaged, in Fukuoka by the river.

And now, in two thousand sixteen Japan is a safe haven, a place to rest and relax, to hole up and to wander. On brief layovers he sings karaoke in Itabashi and climbs to rooftops in Shinjuku. He walks dozens of miles, and yet he also barely moves, spending hours chatting with old friends and hours reading in favorite neighborhoods.

Mostly he spends hours, like this morning, in Haneda.

Chocolate cake

Chocolate cake

A few doors down the street a folding sign sits on the sidewalk most days. In witty messages it suggests that passers by stop in for some dessert, for some chocolate. The jokes vary with the weather.

This shop, opened about a year ago, is part of the rapid gentrification of the neighborhood. Without question, the shift from $2 tacos to $2 chocolates is predicated on the gifts of rapidly rising incomes and shifting demographics. This change comes with the displacement that is making the Mission district of San Francisco a battle ground for policy folk of all flavors. Bicycle advocates, transit advocates, NIMBY folk, working class locals, service providers, and the ever increasing influx of people from all over the world.

The inviting sign exists entirely within this larger sphere. Yet for each passer by it exists for just one moment on this otherwise quiet block of 15th Street. And in that moment is where it shines, where the day’s joke about dessert has the chance to make us laugh, regardless of the greater context. All that matters in that moment is how clever the author was on any particular morning.

Walking home past that shop last night I was surprised to see it completely full, every seat taken and people standing indoors and out, enjoying strange confectionary pleasures. Surprised because this block of 15th Street is relatively quiet; There are no other commercial properties. And surprised because chocolates for a minimum of $2 is a specific market.

More than surprised though, I was happy. Because the women who opened this shop, who work endless hours in its stainless kitchen, have built something that brings joy. They have brought a new source of happiness into the world with their baking and confectionary, with their renovated storefront and their jokey sign, that did not exist before.

Listening to the laughter from inside as I walk past on a Saturday evening, I am reminded how much better we can make the world, through hard work, for other people.

Winding roads

Idabashi view

In the month of March I am mostly confused about location.

In a Shanghai hotel room an old friend brings me medicine in between naps. His daughter laughs at her reflection in the mirror while we chat. I’ve been sick for days and seen little save this room in between factory visits. The company is welcome and the medicine better than my homemade solutions.

A few days later I see a super hero movie on the US naval base in Yokosuka. I’ve never been on base before and the experience is strange. Sitting in a theater having paid $2 for tickets feels both familiar and surreal. It is strange to be in Japan and yet surrounded by Americans, especially after two weeks in China. Afterwards, wandering around Idabashi with my friends, I am so grateful to be back in the suburban depths of Tokyo. Sub-urban is a claim that can only be applied to Idabashi when it is placed next to Shinjuku. In some ways the duplication of train stations, shops, conbinis and aparto towers feels like it’s own culture, a form of topography and living for which Americans have no language. Sub-urban then only in hierarchy not in density.

In Las Vegas a few days later I look out from the thirty third floor at empty patches in the city’s expansion. Whole blocks skipped, still raw desert, surrounded on all sides by cul-de-sac housing tracts. A depressing view of car culture and relative waste that I don’t know well enough to imagine living in. Or to imagine feeling trapped in.

Sitting at a bar in downtown Las Vegas arguing about transparency and expectations I realize how much of our conversations are also about location. Much of the conversation, scattered over several weeks and countries, is about cities, housing, variations of living. So too is much of our conversation about our hope for the future, and many of our questions are about how places shape people.

It is a perfect if confusing way to spend several weeks, well-suited to this site save for the lack of writing.

Always be holding

Cat watches

Travel in the modern world consists of a series of electronic notifications, an evening packing, a sad cat, a train ride and some time alone waiting. The process has become routine. Packing takes an hour. The train ride 40 minutes. The waiting time is peaceful, thinking time.

Leaving the cat, watching him realize what is happening as the duffle bag hits the floor, is the hardest part, the saddest part. And yet he too knows that this is our life; that commuting across the Pacific is how we pay for that apartment in San Francisco.

His face this morning, sitting on a Japanese-style stool looking out our window at the street, was perfect. He knows, he has known, that it was time for me to go again. But rather than watch me pack, rather than huddle on the bed, he sat at the window watching the pigeons on the telephone line outside. He looked out, calm, from the seat purchased specifically to give him this view.

These three months of peace, the down time between November’s wrap and March’s new start, have gone quickly. We’ve enjoyed lazy weekends, sleeping in and walking to the coffee shop or waking early and sitting by the window together. We’ve enjoyed long naps in the sun after beach ultimate on Sundays, confident that there was no better use of time. For three months we’ve spent most of our evenings together, sprawled on the sofa, happy to be home.

But the world is big, and adventures call. He and I are both curious animals, and underneath the sadness is a certainty. It’s the same certainty that brings us to the window at 4 am when there is yelling outside on the street, that wakes us both from the bed in our deepest sleeps. We must go see. We can not be content to sit and wonder what the racket means.

I must know how our products are made. He must watch the pigeons each morning. We are creatures of habit, true, but we are also creatures of adventure.

Out again into the world I go. Shanghai this week, and then Tokyo, Las Vegas, and Colorado.

The last one he and I will do together, a visit to the mountains and distant family. The thought of traveling together is exciting.

Watching him sit by the window, almost four years old now, his eyes on the wire and his body still, I know that he isn’t aware of our upcoming adventure. And given the choice, he might not like to leave his comfortable apartment, his daily routine. But like myself he will be happy once we’re elsewhere, able to look out new windows at new things.

Spring is here, I tell him, putting my bag on my shoulders. It’s time to go. Again.

On location

The Alameda Tidal Canal

His stand, on the corner of Livingston and Embarcadero, is high traffic only in the loosest of terms. No sidewalks reach his chosen corner. There is shade, barely, from a single tree. The corner is mostly abandoned, an old section of railroad cutting across the block has kept it from any development.

The neighborhood has kept it from any development.

Across the street, towards the bay, there is a small park, a couple of piers that seem mostly abandoned. On nice days, which is most every day in Oakland California, I take my hot dog over to one of the benches and sit watching the water, watching Alameda across the water. It’s a slow area. Usually I finish before anyone else comes by, on foot or on bicycle. Occasionally a boat passes, but not frequently. Sometimes a homeless person has a tent set up, over towards the bridge underpass. Once, over a course of weeks, someone built a home-made boat. Every day it was different, secured to a rock by an old blue rope. One day it was gone, the owner hopefully adrift down the channel and into the bay. Away on an adventure, I imagine.

He opens the stand every morning around ten, this white haired and mustached man. How old is he? Fifty? Sixty? He is well-dressed, usually in a sweater and newsboy hat. He carefully sets up a small table and set of chairs in the shade, and ties down the tent that will give him shade. Pulling the drink coolers out in front he smiles at passers by, potential customers in an hour or two. At lunch time the stand is busy, sometimes five or more people in line. Construction workers in trucks order several, for the crew, driving back to a job out of sight. On hot days the table and shade are appreciated, and men cluster behind the stand, beneath the single tree, eating and avoiding too much interaction.

Like the street vendors in New York this is a migrant’s tale, if a long one. Based on Yelp and personal history, he’s been running this stand for fifteen years. I wonder how it began. Listening to him, I remember learning words for foods in Shanghai and think of him learning the English words for each condiment, each combination of meat and vegetables. I remember working in the service industry in China, happy to make money, happy to pay rent. I wonder what he thinks of this corner, of Livingston and Embarcadero. I wonder what he thinks of Oakland, and of hot dogs.

One day I’ll work up the courage to ask him.

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.

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

Make few plans

For the fourth time in the last seven months I leave the country on less than a week notice. So often am I here one day and gone the next that the cat and house grow used to, if not happy with, my abrupt exits. The strangeness of it sweeps over me in 14G on my way to Incheon. As with all work travel, being on the road so often creates a detachment from the rest of life. Enjoying this requires an ability to be comfortable in two places at the same time, frequently jet lagged and uncertain of the weather.

Sudden departures though require a different set of sacrifices. Mostly they require tolerance and a partner able to care for the cat. Given four days notice this time it’s no surprise that the bag and the clothes are the same as my last trip, two weeks ago. Remaining packed means I have put little thought into attire and less into arrangement of belongings. For only a week, everything can be shoved in any which way.

The tolerance of partners and pets is a gift that must be earned. What can be learned to ease leaving the country so quickly is simple: make few plans.

At lunch three days before I sat listening to conversations between colleagues. They made lunch dates for the coming week and discussed possible weekend adventures. I sat silently, thinking about the coming week. Lunches will be wherever the factory team takes me. Evenings, well, I am lucky, and will spend one evening at a bar that has indoor batting cages near Suzhou Creek. Make few plans’ is in fact an incorrect presentation of the idea. I have many plans, just not in San Francisco, not in my house. And that, at last, is the central point.

Asiana 211 lands in Seoul over an hour late for a layover scheduled for one hour. I step off the gate into the humid Korean jetway air hunting for signs to indicate the next gates direction and am instead met with information. The onward flight will likewise be delayed, and the airline apologize for this, for the impact of a missed hour in Shanghai on a Tuesday night. I laugh. There’s a free dinner voucher and further apologies, to all of us.

Looking around near the gate I see few upset faces. There is little consternation among the waiting passengers, no uproar at the announcement. We are, as a group, content with this hour to eat, to walk, and to relax on the internet in one of the world’s best transfer airports.

Wandering up the automated walkways, at peace with the lack of urgency, I think of the group around that gate, waiting for the Shanghai flight. How many of us have no plans, to be so unconcerned? How many of us standing there in Seoul gave up all prior engagements before boarding some earlier flight countries back and days before?

Casual beauty

Descending through the clouds into Shenzhen on a Sunday afternoon, the gift of flight overwhelms me. In a window seat on the left side of the plane as we fly south my view is of the edge of the continent. As we descend into Shenzhen the circular approach route gives me a view of most of the city and some of Dongguan.

It is a flight I’ve done several times, and one of my favorites. The southern China coastline is a mishmash of islands and man-made structures, ports and refineries mixed with huge cities and apartment complexes. On a good day the border between Shenzhen and Hong Kong comes in to view, as do some of the islands surrounding. Today, amid a gaggle of puffy white clouds, my view is clear, unobscured by the wing. I can see the sun’s reflection on the water and clouds, the scale of Chinese cities, and the ocean. As with all flight it’s a reminder of how small each of us are and how beautiful the world is.

As we turn and head west over Shenzhen, starting a loop that swings west, south, and finally east again for our landing on the southern edge of the city, I see Chang’an district below, and the hotel where I will spend the coming week. Our turn is quick at this altitude, and I cannot find the factory that brings me here. I see the complex in the hills that has no lights and mystifies me, but not long or well enough to discover its purpose. We pass directly above it.

Air travel is a gift, I have said, as have many others. Swinging low on this approach I remember another reason why: flight is a view of the world’s beauty that can be hard to see from the ground.

Torn between

On the road again life is a procession of transportation, offices, factories, and hotels. In between each new step is a moment of carrying gear, of lugging duffle bags out of taxi trunks and yanking them off of conveyor belts, of carrying samples up chill concrete stairs and sorting them into piles based on vendor on hotel beds. Re-packing after one night in a Dongguan hotel I realize how many of the possessions spread out around the room were bought specifically for this life. This bag, bought for carrying across the Mexican border with shoes inside. The other bag, bought to be a one bag carry all for a trip to Japan. This clothing specifically chosen for weight and the ability to wear it multiple times without attracting attention. Jeans for their comfort when slept in on trans-Pacific flights. Laptop charger combined with phone charger to minimize cabling, and the cabling itself extra long, to support strangely-located outlets in hotels and airports. A toiletry kit that does not get unpacked at home, in a light weight bag from Tokyu Hands. Click pens that do not explode when pressure changes, which have replaced the Uni-balls I used to carry. A custom-made wallet for passport and larger Chinese bills.

Standing nine stories up in Chang’an, packing at eight am after swimming, my focus on gear suddenly becomes clear. So much of my life is spent moving that I have re-configured almost everything around it, often without notice.

Later, in a hotel in Shanghai for most of a week, I begin to unpack into the life of a resident. I build small habits around the coffee shop, a breakfast spot, and the comfort of a fixed hotel room. Clothes are hung rather than draped on furniture. Shoes have a spot by the door. And the lights, music, and heat are all configured for residency rather than taking whatever comes in a more transient style. Here, finally, I do laundry, and I consider how few items have made this journey with me.

At home in San Francisco, in our one bedroom with it’s limited closet space, we debate furniture. More than a year now and still no table other than in the kitchen. We have a sofa, a large purchase by both standards, bought as a wedding gift to ourselves. We have a chair, and some lights. Plants. Art. Enough, really, to fill the small space. And yet often, lying jet-lagged on the bed, I wonder what we really need, what of these belongings we’ll take with us when we leave. The three legged chair, bought as a present a few years ago. Clothes, though not all of them. Bags. Electronics, in some minimal form. And books, letters, and art, the daily acquisitions of long distance friendships.

The balance is between a garden and a backpack, between a nice library of books and an iPad instead of a laptop, between pants for every day and an every day” pair of pants. In my desire to live with less, to travel more, is a limit on how many things I am willing to have at home, how much time and energy I have to build one.

Sitting on the roof of our apartment building a week later, as the sun sets behind the Sutro tower, I wonder if this debate is honest. Watching Tara play the guitar, watching Mr. Squish sniff the strawberries, would I really rather have less? Could I possibly handle any more time on the move?

And out of all this optimized carry is anything as important as these few minutes a day on this rooftop, watching each other relax as the sky goes orange?

The answer is obvious and demonstrates why I shouldn’t bother accumulating stuff in the first place. Living with less is just a matter of living where we are without concern for what might be, without investing emotions in belongings.

Because the people and the animals are more mobile than any minimal set of items, and they’re what I’ll be taking with me, wherever is next.

Industry worlds

Saying goodbye to a job so often means saying goodbye to a group of people, to factories, trade shows and entire industries. In one act, signing the next contract, I move from someone who flies southwest to El Paso several times a year to someone who will probably never do that again, who will soon go months without flying domestically. After spending the first week of August in Salt Lake for a couple of years I do not go, and only realize the change from a friend’s Instagram, viewed via VPN while in Dongguan. Unlike Salt Lake, Dongguan does not have an outdoor park concert series, where I lucked into the National in twenty thirteen.

As a teacher years ago my life was driven by students’ schedules, by my contracting company, and by the needs of other teachers. In Tokyo, as in Shanghai, these requirements represented both many of my waking hours and much of my mental processes. I learned to plan lessons, to trade classes, to pull forth answers from shy but eager children, and temper the rambunctious nature of 6th graders.

These skills have come with me through the past decade to San Francisco. The people have not. Save a few, old roommates from Tokyo with whom I still adventure when able, and fellow contractors from Shanghai who likewise moved on from the profession, I no longer speak to anyone from those jobs. I do not know where those fifth or sixth graders are, who they have become. I hope amazing people, the foundation of modern Shanghai. They are after all twenty two.

Their teachers, my former colleagues, I wish well also, and hope they have received better working environments, more support, and an increase in wages. I remember wearing winter jackets in the the chill concrete rooms of that first Shanghai winter. We worked with sore fingers, all of our joints going numb as we filled out student evaluations, graded homework. From that year I have no contacts, and even the school addresses are fading, save for an elementary school on Sinan Lu.

More recently my clothing industry colleagues and vendors, from the first years of factories, remain on the periphery of life. Occasionally we find one another on LinkedIn, or in person, but mostly I walked out of that life when I moved back to the States, and my colleagues have remained where they were. The few I do keep track of have moved similarly to myself, from one industry to another until we are more at home in the strange international circle of Shanghai than in any particular company or factory. These friendships are the best parts of life, those who I have known for years and trust, whose recommendations I use in my more recent jobs. They’re who I have dinner with when alone in the city for the weekend, whose houses I stay at when booting up new production lines.

And this movement of professions continues. Just a year ago I worked closely with a man who ran an outdoor gear factory in a small Chinese city, with a metallizer outside of San Diego, and a family-run maquiladora in Juarez. In January of 2014 I spent several days measuring blankets on the floor of an Otay Mesa warehouse with a man close to my own age who had walked across the border to meet me. Each day we would have breakfast at IHOP, mostly coffee, and begin our measurements. One month later I had a new job, and our relationship passed on to a resume note, to a memory.

Moving from one city to another requires so much change. A new grocery store, a new ultimate team, a new apartment and neighborhood. Changing industries does much the same, removes the support network or renders it less valuable. By taking the new job or moving to the new town we so often say good bye to what we know and to the people we’ve worked so closely with. Passing through factory towns on my way to a new vendor in Ningbo last year I realized I probably couldn’t find the offices I used to visit in Shaoxing, Hangzhou, or Ningbo. Could no longer even recall all the products I’d come this far to source, all the weeks I had been on the road.

Crossing the Yangtze by ferry in December of twenty thirteen I knew it was probably the last time I would make that journey, and sat on the railing the whole time, trying to take it in. That’s the difference with these changes now, I remember the earlier ones and am more able to see them coming, to try and hold on to the feeling of each accidental place I will most likely never see again.

Chance meetings

I wait on an overhead walkway in the reflected lights of a Las Vegas evening for a friend. We live five hundred miles apart, and are lucky to be briefly so close. He is here with friends from high school, I with some from Houston, some from San Francisco. In a small bar we have a drink and he puts Johnny Cash on the record player. It’s a brief break from the rest of our weekends, which are a brief break from the rest of our lives.

Except in so many ways neither of these are a break, both of our lives are a mishmash of locations and people that we have somehow managed to keep up with for a decade or more. Thanks to jobs, education, and opportunities that take us from one place to another and to technology, from Instagram to Find my Friends, we’re in fact growing more connected to more people.

As we walk he mentions a mutual friend in New York: Our TV tastes match very closely, so I listen to his recommendations.” After a decade of friendship we know more and more of the same people, regardless of how we first met.

When I return to the group I am staying with they ask after my meeting. In many ways this is the most unexpected and wonderful gift of our wedding last year. Friends from Shanghai, New York, Houston, San Francisco, Los Angeles, San Diego, and Tokyo all know each other, and have become connected in their own ways.

The week before I am in Shanghai for a weekend with a colleague. Lucky with a day off we have dinner with some of my old friends at a Xinjiang restaurant on Zhaojiabang Lu. In town but briefly I invite both who know each other well and those who have never met but have each known me for a decade. Watching them shake hands before we sit is a wonderful feeling. Late in the meal, after the restaurant’s dancers have tired, two friends who have each spent significant time in Tibet get to sharing stories of their adventures.

Watching them talk I’m reminded again that our relationships are the most precious things we acquire. The more scattered they are the more effort they takes to maintain, to pull groups together across physical space and personal time. Yet seeing old teammates, college friends, and former colleagues at the same table helps make sense of all this travel, of the busy-ness that fills so much of all our lives. And whether at dinner in Shanghai or over a drink in Las Vegas, introducing old friends to one another remains my favorite pleasure.

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.

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.

Injured travel

In a hotel room again he stretches before rising. These new actions have become a daily routine, the small pattern of curls and flexes that make standing without pain a possibility.

It is a Sunday in Dongguan, in Chang’an. In this hotel a week now he has become familiar to the staff, greeted no longer in the formal English of their training but in the Mandarin reserved for visitors from the north. They no longer try to stop him from taking coffee back to his room after breakfast. Like many foreigners here he is understood by his habits, a strange list. Cereal and coffee at breakfast. Then more coffee. Departs between nine and ten. Returns around 6. Laundry on alternate days.

In the afternoon he swims in the indoor pool, slow laps in a variety of strokes. Backstroke, measuring his place against the pool’s glass ceiling. Breast stroke, breathing out in small bubbles. Sidestroke, slowly, when his left arm is tired. Crawl only on the third day, gingerly. He moves cautiously, and holds his back frequently between lengths. Old, the lifeguard thinks, before returning to his other distractions.

Injured.

On other trips this man would have left, would have headed for Hong Kong on Saturday afternoon when work was finished. Would have spent the weekend in Shanghai with friends. Instead on Sunday he stays inside, stretches, swims, and drinks milk. Instead he is cautious with his body, avoids groups, does not drink alcohol in public.

These are the actions of recovery, of a human slowly remembering their abilities. In the morning he puts his shirt on backwards. Without pause he raises his arms, removes, reverses, and dons again. Only after does it strike him: a month ago he could not lift the left arm high enough to don t-shirts with both arms, nor bend it backwards to remove clothing.

All his small trials of stretching, swimming, and caution will one day pass. His body forgets quickly the limitations it learned reluctantly. Eventually he will have only vague memories of these days spent in Chang’an, too injured to adventure.

And scars.

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.

As fast as possible

In the space of a week I go from Los Angeles and a pool to Petaluma, San Francisco, and Shanghai. Yangzhou, Changshu, and Tokyo follow before the string of airport initials and train station names reverses, leading me home in time for Christmas. With each step comes a greater sense of urgency, and a greater sense of exhaustion. Every vehicle and every contact is exhorted for speed. ASAP. Any phrase so often abused as to have a common acronym deserves consideration before use, in this case deserves preservation for the truly urgent moments.

How to tell what requires attention when everything is made to seem urgent?

Our lives are brief fragile things of scant import and dear value. They consist of years that can be counted with ease by children, of months tied together by weather, and of hours that seem to drift by with the Chinese countryside, in a state of waiting known as transit.

In the space of a week I spend forty one hours in motion and yet waiting, rushing and yet unable to move. In the space of a week I sleep in seven beds. At the end of it, waiting for the last plane, I try to clear my brain and add up the lessons from those miles, add up the value of the travel in a way other than the monetary cost or the hours.

I have had dinner with friends from all segments of life, from Tokyo ten years ago, Shanghai eight, Shanghai five, and San Francisco now. I have seen houses and children, girlfriends, and wives. In groups large and small, we have shared stories that will hold us together for another month, or year, or two, until somehow the world brings us to table again in the same city.

I have solved problems I am paid to solve, given support to those both up and down the chain of business from me. Listened to complaints, answered requests, provided explanations, outlined requirements. I have cleaned and trimmed and measured and folded and packed product in the kind of chill concrete building I try to avoid after Christmas 2007.

Do these things, done at questionable speed, make for a better life? They certainly do not help our shared environmental disaster. In fact, they are a direct cause, a product of the excesses of miscalculated transportation costs. What can I do to repair these damages? What can I do to make each hour both longer and shorter, both more memorable and less all-consuming? How can I continue to learn and work while allowing myself time for tasks that require mental focus and a single location?

These are good questions for a twelve hour flight from Seoul to San Francisco.

Fleeing the dark

In a window seat on a bus from Changshu to Shanghai as the sun sets, my eyes linger on dark towers. Along side the highway buildings both finished and not form huge rectangles of black against the fading sky. These clusters of massive apartment buildings lie vacant, whole complexes of fifteen or twenty towers of thirty stories plus. They form the leading edge of Shanghai’s expansion, like the foam on a wave. Unoccupied and often incomplete they will one day be home to thousands, one day be connected to Xujiahui or Zhongshan Park by subway lines as yet unbuilt. Today they are huge monuments to investment and urbanization, massive Stonehenge-like clusters without light. From my seat on the bus, bouncing with each lane change, these dark pillars are a sign post of my journey. I am heading home, fleeing the gathering dark of China’s smaller cities for the lights, towers, restaurants, and friends of Shanghai.

Bus rides are always jarring, a series of jerks and swerves, loud and full contact. Luckily towards the front someone has begun a conversation with the driver and he no longer focuses on the horn. I appreciate their sacrifice after two hours of its sharp peals. Alongside and around us smaller cars weave, looking for openings. Occasionally to the side one of the buildings is alight, one of the towers filled with families cooking dinner. I am not alone on this flight from small town darkness, the seats surrounding are filled with old and young. Across the aisle an old man and his wife discuss their evening plans, drinking tea in glass containers they’ve brought. We are all trying to get somewhere other than Changshu, trying to make it to the big city before dinner.

This is not a new situation. For a decade now I’ve been coming home to the lights of Shanghai. By train, bus, or car, and occasionally by taxi I have fled the dark of smaller cities, of factories and rural areas for the comfort of the world’s largest city. I have fled the dark of Changzhou at two am by standing on the side of the highway and flagging down passing sleeper busses. The bus that finally stopped that night was filled to overflowing, and I sat for two and a half hours on a bucket perched atop the entrance stairs, holding myself upright on the driver’s seat. Other times I have stayed in cold hotels, unable to find a way home, trapped by work in the dark.

The desire to flee to an urban area at the approach of darkness is a strange one for me, having grown up in the countryside of upstate New York. For many years I spoke of it only briefly, uncomfortable with how quickly the desire to return to Shanghai in the evening began to sound like a fear of the dark. In many ways it is. And yet I have spent months in smaller Chinese cities and villages without this panic, without needing to flee. Somehow it is the combination of work and of having no place to sleep, of the color of the sky and the smell of the air that makes me so eager to leave. Against the burning pollution haze of afternoon becoming evening I feel far from where I belong in a way rare to someone so rarely stationary, so long removed from my childhood home. It is a feeling both unnerving and glorious.

Closer in to Shanghai’s center there are lights in most buildings, and now it is the dark that surprises. We are almost home, and the idea of human life no longer seems strange. Traffic becomes too heavy even for the horn, and the last ten kilometers threatens to take hours. I grow restless with my fellow passengers, and eager to be finished with this journey. Spotting a metro stop, one too far north for the station name to be anything familiar, a group of us asks to be let off at the corner, and are. And like that, in an instant that was actually three hours, I am back in the city, and no longer seeking light.

Small job, big world

In a photo from decades ago two men hang over the prow of a large ship, painting it while under way. In white t-shirts and dark pants, some twenty feet below the deck, they eptiomize so much of the world to me. Long after the source of the photo has disappeared, I see them, tiny figures against the hulk of steel and the spread of the ocean below. They are two men with a regular job, a task of understandable skill if special magnitude and place. Painting, on a hot summer day, a giant expanse of metal.

Painting a giant expanse of metal while dangling from it, alone, in motion, at sea. As with everything, the addition of context zooms the lens to overwhelming scale.

This sense of scale, of the undertsandably human against the largness of the world, is what pulls me to climb buildings, to hike hills, and to travel, no matter the destination. I find this feeling staring out at Tokyo from the top of a skyscraper in western Shinjuku, standing atop a hill in Santa Cruz, approaching or departing from any airport. The feel of the view pulling back is the sensation I love most.

For the last several months my favorite source for it has been Nat Geo Found, a collection of old images from National Geographic’s archives. Spanning the world, the last hundred and twenty five years, and a huge variety of lives, this collection gives rise to a view of the world that is not simple, or lonely. Instead it shows, without claim to own, how amazing and how diverse, how rich and how personal all our lives are. Widely available, easily accessible, the site is a reminder to me too of how wonderful the internet is, and how much I appreciate this access, unthinkable only decades ago.

Standing in front of a group of friends last week explaining in a few moments why I spend so much time in small factories and border cities, I applied the miracle of Google Maps to the problem, isolating a factory and zooming out to reveal the location. Sitting high on a mesa in the desert, this building has no glass for windows, only holes, and the workers alternately sweat and freeze, depending on the season. And yet seeing it from space, though it draws gasps, will never have the same staggering touch as standing on the edge of the plateau, staring out across the empty landscape. Being there, a tiny single human in the middle of a huge expanse, trapped with others by circumpstance and employment, brings a sense of fragility, and of amazement. That sense, found in the monumental stacks of shipping containers in Shenzhen, in the winding canyons of Colorado, and at the edge of the Pacific on all sides, is reason enough to keep going, to find jobs that take me further out of the city I inhabit.

Like those two men painting their ship, so precariously alone in the ocean and yet part of something larger, understandable from a wider view.

Shanghai again, forever

Like that, I am back. After six months of travel, work, and daily life I board an airplane, transfer, and return to Shanghai. The ritual of packing, driving to SFO, boarding, and drifting through Asiana’s in-flight movies is strangely comforting, as is the coffee in Seoul early in the morning a day later. With fast internet and quick transfers, Incheon represents a stepping stone, a brief pause to consider my final destination. And to say goodbye to the unrestricted internet, to the wider world.

The first few days on the ground in Shanghai are always a blur. PVGs strangely dark carpets, the inspection line and HSBC ATM. Baggage and the first feel of local weather. The taxi’s new route, on the middle ring road that didn’t exist when I lived here. Flashing traffic cams and billboards. In the dust of evening the outline of Pudong’s towers. And then at last, after hours in the air and in Seoul, after the strange discomfort of sleeping in jeans while seated, the tight familiar streets of Puxi and real Shanghai. Baozi and soda water or gatorade and mi xian in my old neighborhood. A SIM card from the subway station shop and divestiture of bags in a waiting apartment. Eventually a walk to a bar with old friends.

Like everyone, I have fond memories of the places I grew up. Lansing. Vassar. Boston, where I lived in 2000. New York City, on longer and shorter stays of varying life impact. Tokyo. And Shanghai. More than any, Shanghai. At 33 here I am again. Here it seems I more than anywhere return, six times in the past five years. In this city I am content to anchor on, in visits and jobs, long after I’ve moved away. Shanghai again. Forever.

I wonder so often at those who have left and not returned, gone four, five, or ten years. What would they think of the city now? Where would they look to stay, again in this rebuilt metropolis? For me the memories are thick and yet too distant. I wish we could again bowl in that strange place north of Jing’An, that we could again find solace in cheap pints in the Hut.

Two weeks later I am leaving Shanghai again but not forever. In a few hours this trip will blur into others. It will become just one more strange variation, one more series of long evening walks and quiet train rides. As for the people here, we deal and live, trade stories of our time apart and move on. More than anything we become friends and say goodbye. Over and over, to old faces and new, for a decade now.

On this trip I’ve eaten noodles with friends and taxi drivers, wandered Puxi late at night, played frisbee and seen countless factories. I’ve remembered how much Chinese I know and how much I’ve forgotten. And now I will move on in the rush of a modern life, next Monday to Miami. Shanghai will recede and new objectives arise, but the few weeks here will serve as a reminder of how good life can be when cut free from the current of every day and anchored instead in a city of 20 million that I know so well. That we, collectively, have lived in and come home to for so long.

Writing these words I look around. Pudong airport is falling apart a bit, rotting in the concrete way, in the way of dirty air and humidity, of a lack of maintenance. I’ve been here dozens of times, on the top deck of T2, getting coffee in a tucked-away spot with a view. After napping in the taxi for 45 minutes on the ride out. Out till 3, up at 7, 8. Out of the apartment at 9 and in Pudong shortly later. Early, to have time to remember.

Two weeks later the sentences I wrote on arrival perform the same magic as always, the magic that makes me write. Boston is in the news. I am making plans to return to Tokyo. And the last night in Shanghai was spent in a new bar with old friends, folk who have like myself returned again.

The bar was new but the building old, familiar. The last establishment inside those walls was the Hut of this post’s opening. It was convenient in those years, the pub behind a good friend’s apartment and a block or two from mine. Now the two of us meet in Brooklyn and reminisce about its cheap drinks and over-ripe peanuts. On my last night the new name and fancier drinks could not disguise the location. Stories of the past decade came easily to all of us.

From the heat of Miami I try to recall my earlier visits to Shanghai, since leaving in two thousand eight. Being sent to a city in a country not my own for business is an incredible opportunity, something I have always wanted. Being able to stay with friends, being trusted to plan my own travel and produce my own results, those are the perks that make it better than I had imagined, better than I’d experienced before.

And landing in Shanghai may always feel like coming home.

Once with effort

The rafters of the factory are open steel beams that support electrical cords for lighting and duct work for air conditioning. In Juarez the summer’s heat is oppressive, and I admire the size of the ventilation.

In a factory in Jinshan years ago, my dress clothes sticking to me in Shanghai’s miserable July, I worried about the workers spending most of their lives in a huge room cooled only by a half dozen refrigerator-sized units. During quality inspections our group would take turns standing in front of their whirring fans, visitors and managers alike. The sewers made no such moves, their bodies grown used to the weather.

The duct work in Juarez is a sign of care for employees, and an acknowledgment of the city’s position in the high desert. It is windy and cold in the winter and still and hot in the summer. Ventilation is a sign of corporate compassion. This factory’s concrete shell, handed down from company to company for decades, has been modified by each successive inhabitant to cope with the challenge of keeping many hands in motion regardless of season. In one corner of the ceiling, by the offices, colored fabric has been hung, green and blue nylon stretched between beams to create a false roof of bold shades. Years earlier, by the look of the fabric, bright but dusty. Dirt has settled around the holes where the edges are lashed to the rafters. These bold lengths of nylon were the start of a grand project never advanced, too expensive or otherwise unsuccessful.

Didn’t insulate well,” is the answer, when I ask. An idea now abandoned. A Saturday’s work still hanging there, no more and no less.

The feeling of nostalgia, of loss, and of having missed the moment of energy strikes me repeatedly in factories. So many of the places I see are not at their peak, will never again be. Buildings that once were new and well-maintained, filled with workers and a sense of energy, now have dirty floors and piles of discarded machinery and material along the sides. The detritus of daily operational demands so often overwhelms anyone’s ability to plan and to improve.

Sitting in an office above a different factory the sense of time passed is all around me. In one corner there’s a small bar custom-built for this space and used to entertain customers. It is covered with books and samples, and the wall paper on its front is peeling and dusty. In another corner a shirt and tie hang, the sign of a true workaholic, someone who slept at the office and needed a spare for the next day. Neither have been used in months, but hang anyway, a memory of hours no longer required. The memory of a younger man. I wish I’d seen that entertainer, that host. I wish I could see this office used in the way it was built to be.

All around us are reminders of projects done with purpose, accomplished by an effort no longer easy to imagine. In San Francisco the Sutro Baths are one such, ruined by fire and weather on the edge of the Pacific. Now the moss-covered foundation serves as a monument to what people were able to build at the turn of the last century.

In the rock gym hang pictures of the Golden Gate Bridge, or more specifically photos of men walking the clusters of cables that would become the bridge. They stand without safety gear, working high above the mouth of the bay in what must have been an incredibly cold and windy position. Outside the gym’s huge windows the bridge dominates the view, a structure of too large a scope to have been built by individual hands.

Our own houses have these remnants too, fixtures installed, cabinets built, labor invested. On moving out we realize these projects were done in the early days, before we became too busy and too tired, while we still had energy and hope for the new place. Sometimes they represent the work of inhabitants before us whose energies remain unknown. Who built this shelf, we ask, or why did they wall off the Murphy bed, the kitchen door? Likewise the gym’s carefully manufactured rock walls cling to the interior of a space built for the military a hundred years before. The repurposing of old structures built with effort long forgotten is easily visible in the Presidio, and yet continues everywhere.

Indoors at the back of another factory there is a cafe awning where workers were once served food. Long closed it is covered in dust and machinery blocks the entrance. On my visit the cafe is hard to spot. Workers avoid that end of the building, a sad reminder that the business is not what it was and that no one can return it to glory. Ducking through the plastic strips that line the shop floor’s entrance I wonder what this factory sounded like when the cafe was filled at lunch hour, when the dedicated cook served one and all.

This is the way of every life, I think, pulling away in my rental car. We build and hope, we give up, we create, and we abandon. It is the story of growing old, and a reminder that our actions are temporary, our energy finite, and our time brief.

On my next visit to Juarez the colored fabric is gone, and new white panelling reaches half way across the vast space. In my absence someone has restarted the project, has put new energy in to the old building. There is a future here, and room for growth. Here people are not yet abandoning, not yet growing old.

I smile as the owner shows me the new lunch room, built by hand off the back of the main floor from cinder block and concrete. Complete with its own AC and bright colored paint it is a sign to the workers that things are improving, that the future still shines. After so long seeing factories in gradual decline I am excited to be supporting this growth. The owner is loud and cheerful as he leads the tour. We are both happy to invest in these people, this place. We can build something here, we can make this small piece of the world better than before.

We have energy and time.

Becoming American

For a long time most of my American experiences came in airports. Usually the international terminal at LAX, Tom Bradley, not widely considered among the world’s best. From this terminal, while JAL flights boarded for Tokyo and Indian families carried burdens large enough to share, I called grandparents, texted friends, and read magazine covers. These scant hours in America came on the tail end of business trips that had been filled with work and dinners, friends and traffic, but lacking in any sense of connection to the grander America. Perusing the kind of airport shops that in the tri-state area are called Hudson News, I read of television stars I did not know and movie releases I would later buy on Shanghai street corners for a dollar. I bought bubble gum and the Economist, and the people I reached on my soon-to-expire T-Mobile prepaid SIM seemed glad of the brief connections. Those conversations mostly centered on my impending leap, back out of the walls of the US, to a life difficult to recount while being constantly reminded to keep an eye on my luggage by pre-recorded voices.

In the past few years, again a resident of my home country, I have, I usually say, become more American, which is partially true. Some days the gulf has seemed huge, between what America looks like from a distance and what it can be in the day to day, both for better and worse. I have been back more than two years now and still the time away looms large in all recounting, in most introductions. People ask about China and Japan, though my life there, at seven years remove, is far further back than any moment of their own that enters the conversation. Without reason we do not discuss Houston, my home in 08 and 09. I wear my O’bama tee, sarcastically Irish, and try to recall that sense of possibility and elation, riding my BMX from West University to Midtown to call prospective voters in Missouri, in Virginia.

Until this week I have not felt truly at home here, in San Francisco, in America. I have wandered, watched, and written, I have driven much of this country and flown to far more, and I have made friends in Texas, in Colorado, in California and Oregon, but I have not been here, not fully.

The change is a series of anchors, tying me down, a series of possibilities, urging me on. I now have health care and an automobile, a purchase I forswore at twenty two. I have a loan, for the first time since university, and a commute, for the first time ever. After two years in my own country I have a job, which requires the above and promises to teach me things I do not know, to take me places I have not yet been.

Shaving in the early morning light on Wednesday, the newness of it becoming habit, I smile at the reflection, this person who lives in San Francisco, who works in Petaluma.

After all these years I have finally come home to a place I had never lived.

Welding protection

He crouches beside the road, booted feet on a grid of window bars. In one gloved hand he holds a small welding torch, from which the sparks have just ceased to scatter. The sidewalk beneath his work is slick with mud made by last night’s rain, and the air is chilly. Keqiao in March is cooler than Shanghai, and no less wet. The sky overhead is darkened by clouds, an even more impenetrable layer than the normal haze of white. All along this block men work in similar attire on similar projects, welding square bars into shapes or ferrying cartons of them on and off small open-backed trucks into stores fronts that have no doors. It is a strange symmetry, most of their business conducted in the public space of this dirty sidewalk, almost five meters wide.

He is young, this welder, his companions are paunchier and less concerned with their tasks. Disturbed by my passing for a moment he turns back to his structure, checking the corners. I imagine it walling off an entry way in the evening, a visual impediment. Each square bar is hollow and, from the way they are hefted in bunches, quite light. They restrict access to houses all over this country, and I have tested them with pressure years before. Never though have I seen these men with masks creating them, not in such a group. The block houses thirty of these shops, each with metal shelves along the walls that hold bars of varying length, each with groups of men who turn them in to objects on the sidewalk. The street is filled with the sound of it, radial saws chewing through metal, and the bright flash of the tiny welders at work.  In front of one shop a man is welding a hinge onto the back of a small flatbed truck.  One side of the hinge is on fire, the solder slowly burning.  He continues to affix the opposite corner, ignoring the flames as they singe the truck’s paint.

It is their masks that stop me. I have seen dozens of men welding in China without any, simply covering their eyes with an arm as they work. This is not a method that lends itself to precision.

These men each have masks though, in the fashion of Keqiao, this suburb of Shaoxing known for it’s fabric mills and rivers. Each mask is a pair of black sunglasses, plastic ones with small horns that flare out at the tops of the lenses, where the ear pieces connect. They are dark enough to obscure the eyes completely. Over these in careful composition sits a piece of cardboard cut in the shape of their face, the glasses’ space removed, hung on the earpieces to replicate a welder’s mask. Each one is a unique construction, lending the scene a striking individuality.

The crouching worker, whose face I noticed first, is instantly recognizable, his face the mirrored red white and gold brands of a Double Happiness carton, centered on the opaque black glasses.

Some days I party, some days I sleep

The best thing about weekends is not needing them.  Because of Marie and the impending Rice spring break several of us went to some gallery openings Friday, and then a bar for some karaoke covers of songs no one knew.  A good way to end the week, after a lot of thinking and some writing and some planning and well yeah everyone having plane tickets the next morning.

Except me, which is good for the novel and the pocketbook and bad for the whole talk to people not using the computer” portion of my life.  Which is fine, that’s what cell phones are for.

The realizations though that drive this are: going out with friends is fun, but better when not dependent on the day of week, because things are crowded on weekends.  The grocery store on Saturday is a nightmare, just like the laundry machines on a Sunday, both of which I avoid whenever possible.  I got a table at the Agora today by virtue of being early, but it was packed by four pm in a way Monday-Friday never is.

What I’m saying is that, should you not work 9-5 Mon-Fri you have a gift that few people ever have, revel in your time.

Daegu lonely

The rain pours down, splashing off cars and sidewalks, dowsing Daegu liberally with cleanliness. The lightning slits apart the faint pulse of neon that lights the street, revealing small delivery trucks cowering at stop lights. The rain’s clatter does not find it’s way indoors, falling too vertical and fierce. Rooms remain muggy despite the faintest breeze, and when it passes, hours later, they will still stink of mid-day heat. The next morning the city will slowly start to bake again, stickiness clinging to everything, and by mid-afternoon the previous day’s shower will seem an impossibility, a night time dream of vast confusion. Business men will sweat through their couplets and shirts, pace outside restaurants in a struggle to remain in the shade, to smoke, and to avoid touching one another in these brief noontime moments of solitude.

And again as evening comes the clouds will gather, the sky darken, and at eleven the lightning, the thunder, the sudden drenching will return.

I imagine Daegu always this way, not seasonal as it must be, as it should be. My four days here are alike, each evening punctuated with sudden showers, violent in their suddenness, and baking days of sweat and sunshine that discourage the thought of their re-appearance. The heat licks around cars at 1 pm, making traffic a hellhole of exhaust and granting pedestrians the disgusting certainty of swallowing that which is not air. Windows go up, go down, go up and stay, as the cars cool, as the A/C that all rely on is first blessed and then exposed, a heat-exchanger of vile proportions, creating toxic streams along these concrete roadways that will desperately need their cleansing shower to enable the daily repeat. Commuting in a city trapped by hills, the air still, the pollution lingering, below a sign that says dye capital”, the air seems dead, though filled with energy. A combination not often found or championed.