It started with a tweet.
About a year and a half ago, I tweeted at a boy I once met as a high school senior.
"@matstrand Twitter's probably not the right place, but what are you up to these days?"
With me on a computer in New York, and him on his smartphone in Los Angeles, we caught up via direct messages. He talked about starting grad school in machine learning; I about preparing to move across the world to start a reporting job in Hong Kong for the Wall Street Journal.
We had both just graduated from college, on the cusp of embarking on new adventures in our lives. Four years prior, we met at a movie theater in a scrawny downtown of a Los Angeles suburb. We chatted excitedly about this college thing and how it would transform our lives. Back then, I was preparing to move to Chicago, a feat given my overprotective immigrant father.
After a series of exchanges with Mat (I learned later he dropped the second t from his Christian name "to conserve the alphabet" — what a Twitter devotee), I suggested we get together when I was in California before being en route to Asia. To his surprise, a couple months later, I messaged him again.
That night, eight days until Hong Kong, we discovered over skewered frog legs and deceptively strong soju at a North Korean-style restaurant a shared love of prime-lens photography. Uninhibited, we were two 20-somethings at parks, a Caltech lawn and every exhibit at the aquarium offering commentary on ways society has enslaved us among other nonsense.Uninhibited, we were two 20-somethings at parks, a Caltech lawn and every exhibit at the aquarium offering commentary on ways society has enslaved us among other nonsense.
But then came our most poignant moments.
My penultimate day in America, we journey to Rose Hills, the cemetery where my mother was buried 19 years ago. Even though she died when I was 2, it's hard to not be sentimental. Mat sat by her grave as I chatted nonstop about a woman I've known only from other people's stories.
I had recently learned my grandparents in Saigon bought so many fake papers for their children, to avoid their sons getting drafted in the war, that my mother, as well as her seven siblings, had no clue what their actual ages were; here was a gravestone telling me she lived from 1950 to 1991. I learned that when my dad was imprisoned for attempting to escape war-ravaged Vietnam, she supported my brother and sister because their life savings disappeared along with hopes to live in America; here I was, against all odds, a product of their American Dream, which my mother experienced for four years before leukemia got hold of her. I also learned what a genuine, attentive and caring person Mat was; here was a boy who would've been practically a stranger to me a week ago, offering me a shoulder to cry on.
The day of my flight, he messages me at 5 a.m. in a last-ditch effort to see me, offering to take me out to breakfast. We went to the park instead, recapping our adventures. Hours before my flight, I invite him along.
"Any more adventures before school starts?" I asked, cloaked in a blanket from his car to cope with the morning chill.
"How about you come along?" I continued, in jest, not sure of his response.
He very seriously takes me up on the offer, buying a roundtrip ticket to Hong Kong leaving that afternoon from LAX, prolonging our time together another week, even if it meant missing the first couple days of grad school.
Hours before my flight, we finally exchanged phone numbers. Hours after I land in Hong Kong, he does too, and we begin dating. We dubbed our week #matandaliceshongkongadventure (try typing that on an iPhone) — perhaps too long for conventional hashtags, but conventional’s not really our style. #matandaliceshongkongadventure consisted of surviving the end of monsoon season, eating as little as possible in as many places as possible and trying hard not to think about the end of the week.
I was nervous when days into the relationship I was pondering love. I loved his up-for-anything spirit, his compassion, his crooked smile. I learned later that smile, with teeth biting the side of his lip, was a sign of nervousness about our relationship.By the end of #matandaliceshongkongadventure, we navigated the city's bustling night market where we ate hygienically questionable seafood, drunkenly belted Lady Gaga at karaoke and spent too much time standing on the hotel windowsill looking at the skyline.
I knew Mat didn't want long distance, making our last days bittersweet. By the end of #matandaliceshongkongadventure, we navigated the city's bustling night market where we ate hygienically questionable seafood, drunkenly belted Lady Gaga at karaoke and spent too much time standing on the hotel windowsill looking at the skyline.
After sending him off to the airport, I tweeted the following:
"I had the greatest adventures of my life the last two weeks. Thanks @matstrand. #matandaliceshongkongadventure"
Turns out distance wasn't going to be a problem. Upon returning to Los Angeles, he drops out of grad school, sells his belongings in a massive garage sale and buys a one-way ticket to Hong Kong where we start #matandaliceshongkongadventurepart2withalovelyflat.
Our flat was indeed lovely, all 300 square feet of it. After befriending three realtors and making acquaintance with 20 flats in a span of days, I found Urbana, a no-frills complex that seemed like a deal at HK$8,300, or $1,100, a month, in a city where property prices were skyrocketing. The studio in Sheung Wan, a historic area known for its herbal medicine and antique shops, had just enough space for a queen-sized bed, a sliver of a kitchen with a mini-fridge, an incredibly awkward bathroom with glass walls and a balcony where we dried our clothes. But it was perfect, and we never mentioned, let alone complained, about needing anything else.
We were two impulsive kids sure of nothing else but how we felt, and we lived whirlwind lives in the busiest streets in the world. On any given night, we hopped on the MTR, the city’s subway system, letting our appetites guide us. Hong Kong was exciting, chaotic yet terrifically ideal.
Since Mat didn’t have a visa, we were careful not to overstay his welcome, which in tourist-visa terms meant not being in Hong Kong more than 90 days at a time. Together, we traveled 30,000 miles, accumulating 54 total passport stamps (not including our canceled China stamps from when we accidentally stepped foot on mainland soil) as well as stories of rugged, sometimes romantic, getaways. Our lives seemed so unreal we joked about being children playing adulthood. How much more true than our last-minute trip to Bangkok over Christmas weekend, when we decided hotel bathrobes were proper attire to a nearby grocery store. Yes, occasionally, we were those obnoxious Americans.We were two impulsive kids sure of nothing else but how we felt, and we lived whirlwind lives in the busiest streets in the world.
But in Hong Kong, that was a title we tried desperately to avoid. Even Mat, a guilo, a Cantonese term meaning ghost man (white man), was working on his vocabulary and pronunciation. He loved being the guilo asking for directions and ordering in restaurants. Learning this Southern Chinese dialect is difficult even for native Mandarin speakers, but locals were often surprised, and impressed, with this white man.
Mat walked me to the subway every morning. During these seven minutes, we passed shop fronts with dried sea cucumbers and deer fetuses, seven convenience stores and this insane bustle reminding us to never stop moving until we arrived at a street corner opposite the MTR station. We spent a couple minutes saying goodbye at the “corner of sadness," where we’d part for work.
Soon the corner of sadness became just any other street corner, a narrow sidewalk with far too many people trying to pass through. Eight months after arriving, my temporary contract with the Wall Street Journal expires. I pass on a full-time offer, pack up my life again, suffer the pricey penalty to break my lease, move to Mountain View, Calif. — where Mat had lined up a job as a software engineer at an up-and-coming biotech startup.
The thought of relocating for love seemed like such a romantic notion to me. Mat had done it, why shouldn't I? But in reality the move was more difficult than expected. Mat's spirit for adventurousness took him to Hong Kong. My pursuit took me to the suburbs where I, as a non-engineer, am often incredibly bored.
I spent the first weeks trying desperately not to hate it here. Google Maps' default location in Hong Kong pulled at my heart strings. My weather bookmark showed me Hong Kong’s humidity. When I fiddled around for change, I occasionally found a couple Hong Kong dollars. I found myself sometimes crying because of how homesick I felt.
Mat noticed, apologizing for bringing us here. He was worried I'd come to resent him, and for a short while I might have. Yet I can't. I convinced him moving here was a good idea, that we'd both find our places here, that it'd only be fair. Eventually we came to make a home here, and I came to not hate, even like, the suburbs.I hadn’t realized that I’ve been suffering from heartbreak, not homesickness.
I spend my days alone in front of a computer writing cover letters, reading the news and tweeting said material in an attempt to stay relevant. Unlike Asia, the U.S. is still reeling from its economy, where unemployment's too high and home prices too low. Sure Silicon Valley is bustling, but I am a writer in a programmers' town looking for employment where knowledge of English syntax (not Python, C++ or Ruby) is needed.
With time, I've come to realize that when I was living in Asia, I had two loves: Mat and Hong Kong. I hadn’t realized that I’ve been suffering from heartbreak, not homesickness. But I've also realized with Mat in my life, I've grown so much more as a person. I've learned how to drive, how to build sites with Django, how to be goofy, how to love.
Sometimes I see that nervous smile on Mat, the same one from #matandaliceshongkongadventure. That smile represented making big decisions for the sake of love. I'd make any sacrifice for him. We have hopes to live in Hong Kong again, but I should note my most important lesson from these adventures: that I love him more than any city.