My sandy toes brush the sky as the swing reaches its apex. Stomach fluttering, I imagine launching across Avila Beach and over the sparkling ocean. I glance over at my coworker Tharika, grateful she is just as eager to act like children on the morning before our recruiting tech talk at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo.
We swing until our hands grow raw and the warmth turns our thoughts toward ice cream. Occasionally, groups of women pause to perch on the neighboring swing seats. They all hold out their cell phones to snap a selfie, a ritual weirdly devoid of play.
“We should send a swing selfie back to the office,” Tharika muses.
“Hashtag business trip!” I laugh.
As I raise my face to California sunshine, I can’t believe that only two days earlier I was at a factory in China, a business trip of a completely different color.
When I was given 48 hours notice to book my travel to China, I rushed to cancel all of my stateside plans. This left me feeling a little shell-shocked as I made my way to Guangdong Province. The excitement and newness of my first trip had paled into a tiring and slightly lonely routine. I felt far worse for those who were in China for over a month, away from their families with no return ticket as they worked to get our product out the door.
What made it an especially weird time was that we were working over the National Day holiday, seven days during which all of China goes on vacation at once. Doing anything touristy during this “Golden Week” is ill-advised. The news showed solid crowds shuffling along at the Great Wall and Forbidden City.
At least I left just before the end-of-holiday rush that resulted in a 50-lane traffic jam near Beijing.
Even had I wanted to explore, the driving rains from a nearby typhoon and the usual travel-inflicted head-cold made me take shelter on my day off. The downpours were so thick I couldn’t even see across the street and many buildings’ floors were dotted with buckets to catch the leaks. Our bus to the factory the next morning wove through cars stranded in the flooded streets.
If the light-hearted moment on the swings encapsulates my California trip, I can also pick out the incident that sums up China:
One night, I walked alone through the streets, carrying my usual bag of bakery treats. A motor scooter came up behind me, so I moved aside and stepped into a puddle. Which happened to be full of algae and who-knows-what-else. My feet shot out from under me and I sprawled on my side, instantly soaked and dripping in slime.
Still, some of the better moments will also stay with me, like walking among Mid-Autumn Festival lantern displays on the Hong Kong waterfront with the taste of lotus paste mooncakes still on my tongue.
Or stumbling into a medicine shop in search of some ibuprofen only to find a bunch of dried herbs and literal snake oil.
And you can’t beat sinking into a traditional Chinese foot massage, under the guidance of a business traveler veteran you assured me that it wasn’t one of the shady places.
…Scene change back to California, where my feet are being exfoliated by soft white sands and ocean salts.
We head to the CalPoly campus in the evening, meeting first with members of WISH (Women in Software and Hardware, tagline “WISHing there were more of us…”), who are co-hosting the event with the White Hat cyber-security club.
The ambitious and friendly group gives me hope for the future, and they’re all abuzz about the number of people they’re sending to the Grace Hopper conference this year. I learn their growing numbers are due in part to the director of computer science, who asks Tharika and I if we have any ideas of how to encourage more women to enter the field. I wish I had an easy answer to that.
In the lecture hall where we’ll be speaking, the scent of pizza and chalk dust sweeps me back to when I was a student three years ago, grabbing free food and listening to industry members talk about technology. The tables have turned so much quicker than expected. It’s the same feeling I get every time I’m the one conducting a job interview.
The Microsoft Band 2 was just announced the previous morning, so this is the first time I’m able to show it off. When we mention we’re raffling off a band, the excited gasps remind me that the thing I’ve been slaving over is something that people are genuinely excited about. They want to know all about both its consumer-facing features and the technical back-end, and I’m eager to share.
I give a gravelly voiced talk about how we manage power/battery life on the band, tying it to general software engineering practices. Sounds dry, I know, but the response is encouraging and enthusiastic. There are so many questions that even after we cut off the session, a line forms in front of me over 20 deep.
And just like that, the “work” part of this trip is over and we’re set loose to wander downtown SLO’s Thursday night farmer’s market.
I burst into my hotel room at the end of the day to be greeted my mother, who just drove down from Sacramento to spend the weekend with me. I start babbling to catch her up on my life, simultaneously hyper, sick, blissed out, and jetlagged.
My mom must think I’m crazy, but in this moment, even though my travels aren’t yet over, I feel like I’m home.