For all of my exclamations that Manhattan makes me work harder, work faster, think bigger; that the energy pulsing through its concrete veins fuels my lofty ambitions; that the constant rotation of fresh talent and thinkers in and out of the city challenge my world view… I am still a child of Australia who grew up barefoot in the grass, and fell asleep to the sweet sounds of silence. The weeknight clamour that finds its way through my apartment window, was a lifestyle choice “to be amongst it”. I didn’t move to New York to have space or peace or quiet, I declared to my broker during my apartment search. Suit yourself, he said and rolled his eyes. This one has a washer-dryer.
Years on, ensconced in a robe, hair tendril-ed about my face from a blind and silent hour in a steam room, tongue burnt on my favourite 铁观音 (tiě guān yīn) tea, I watched Hangzhou’s February fog curling its sedated fingers around the Tang Dynasty eaves of the neighbouring villa. A few doors down, the early preparations of traditional Hangzhou breakfast (steamed yams, eight treasure rice porridge, fried donut sticks, Chinese preserves) muted by moss and Buddhist prayers gaining momentum up the hill. Space and peace and quiet, it turns out, are not electives in the pursuit of sanity amidst nonsense.
I had spent the prior two months living in Shanghai while New York had its holiday season lull in billable work and friends to invite over for dumpling dinners. Americans to whom I attempted to explain the concept of a Yule-less China tilted their heads to one side, then the other. They work on Christmas Eve, too? they wondered, incredulous, then proceeded to ask about more familiar territory – was the food as good as Mission Chinese, they wanted to know. My turn to eye-roll.
Shanghai, like New York, offers little refuge for the occupationally drained. Like New York, it took me over ten visits in adulthood to feel like I was wearing the city, not the city wearing me. Like New York, the fierce pride of the born-and-bred and the arrogant ingenuity of expats makes for a breathless pace and fear of missing out. But like New York, a few short hours on the train will take you back to a simpler time of spiritual presence, handpicked tea, patient centre lines and deep breathing of calligraphy.
Recommended intake: three times per annum.