The Goodbye is an occasional series about women leaving a place behind. Are you moving and feeling nostalgic? Fill out this form, and you could be part of the series.
There’s a theory in cell culture that a body subjected to intense periodic stress, followed by recovery, develops strength and agility. Discomfort, it appears, can be generative. Five years ago, I had quit a career abruptly, left a secure relationship, moved back to the United States after years abroad, dropped out of graduate school. I felt confused, afraid, weak — a failure.
Rarely known as easygoing, I’m a person who esteems the effortful. I relish hard work, so long as it’s rewarding, and often find the hardest moments to be the most productive. Other people seek fun, excitement, but I was seeking a certain hardship. I went looking for a testing ground of sorts. And what greater place than the fabled New York City, away from the suburban Midwestern comforts of my teens, the reserved gentility of France and the colorful cheapness of China that erodes a little every year.
I got my dream quickly. As an intern in the publishing world, I lived in a walk-up tenement apartment with over a dozen people of all ages in metal bunk beds, no Internet, a two-burner stove, no sink even in the sole bathroom. The roommates didn’t speak English or even the agreed-upon Chinese dialect for immigrants, Mandarin. I still haven’t gone to the Tenement Museum because I feel like I’ve already lived the life.
Twice a week, I scouted the open-air market under the Manhattan Bridge for bulk fruit and vegetables on the cheap, eyeing the sidewalk for bags of bruised produce that went for even cheaper. My first meal out was at the end of the internship, paid for by my team. From that not-quite-auspicious start grew multiple strains of jobs, educations, friendships, relationships — all the matter that makes up a life.
And what a place to do just that — materials and stimuli of every kind, diversity, food, culture, sport. Some of the hypotheses I had about myself proved unfounded, others were happily confirmed, or tested to their limits. I am not too shy for networking; I can pursue both the arts and sciences; I can be supremely adaptable. Along the way I evolved, realized truthhoods.
New York is rife with catalysts, that element of surprise often transformative; the air hums every second with effervescent potential. It’s where you’ll face freedom of expression, dissent and cohesion, microcultures of every stripe, anonymity in the crowd. New York is not about the amenities, though they are great, but the people. Always being surrounded by smarter, more interesting people increases your capacity — after all, following the theory, you are the average of the people you spend time with.
That brings me to the end of my time in New York. I call it a tenure to give it an air of intention, though I’ve been trying to leave for a year or two. I’d switched from publishing to tech. I’d experienced my share of charity galas (where I volunteered), tasting menus (ordered usually without wine pairings), travels near and far, an apartment with a yard, and luxury consignment shopping (for gowns a season or two old — silk to remind me of my birthplace, Suzhou, China). Odd that strangers perceive me as glamorous when five years ago I was in the humblest of states. I have a veneer of the cosmopolitan; I can be unflinchingly diplomatic and a little pedantic. But underneath is the bohemian, the gritty, the ravenous — all the hard work and bad temper I was raised with.
People ask me why this moment. I tell them that being more attached to New York than ever, it’s my last chance to escape before I’m drawn in forever. You always go through partial rebirth when moving far, but now, I’m cleaving away to further concentrate and refine, not to remake myself. I claim my identity as a techie, an artist and an athlete. New York helped me forge that. It was hard and I didn’t always like the process, though when I did, I loved it. I’m grateful for the bone-weary ugliness of some of those moments, and for the divine intermezzos in between, for friends, colleagues, collaborators, family both given and made. I’m leaving in spite of love. My adventurous spirit will never be sated. My perseverance and concentration will forever be heightened. I’m now a stronger person with increased range and sensitivity. I’m coming out of my fear, into my curiosity.
Following the same cell theory, that same body, subjected to chronic stress, begins to break down. Long-term wellbeing, in the end, is about balance. I got my hardship; I’ve grown. Now I’m seeking fertile ground where I will cultivate inner peace in a place suffused with outer peace. After I move out of my apartment in Queens, I’ll be spending 10 days in meditative silence before settling out west. I picture it like a blank page marking a chapter break. Then, Seattle.
A green space with a distinctly urban point of view
The first friend I made in the city, a native New Yorker, walked me nearly the entire length of the High Line one balmy night. Since then, it has been the one place I consistently show visiting friends and family. We’d play Rear Window, peering into multimillion-dollar apartments and office buildings, and have seen plenty of interesting scenes — but none so far more disconcerting than any to be seen on the streets.
The best of Paris in New York
This bookstore-cum-event space opened the fall after I moved to the city, when I was still nostalgic for Lyon, France, which had been my home for almost three years. When I needed a fix of beauty, I knew I had only to lounge in the marble lobby or gaze up at the celestial ceiling. A friend who worked there once showed me the inner workings of the building, and they’re as beautiful as the facade.
A piece of countryside right off the city
Every year, I waited in anticipation for open season to start in spring and then, with dread, closing season in fall. I could paper my walls with Manhattan skyline photos I took from the island. I became a hammock devotee and a picnic basket owner. Recently I learned they opened a campground, and one of my regrets is not going before moving away.
The five boroughs in micro-miniature
I first visited the museum shortly after I moved from Manhattan to Queens. I had no idea what I was in for. The other rooms were regular and well-lit, visitors passing framed artworks. But past a doorway off to the side, I wandered into the panorama room. Silent, dark, almost somber and seemingly undiscovered, the panorama is made for introspection as much as examination.
An Asian food paradise in America
On the rare occasion that a friend who lived in Manhattan, or even more outlandishly, Brooklyn, visited Flushing, I paraded them through the many cheap and tasty delights of the New World food court.
I tried to point out things they should try (soup dumplings), things they might not have tried before (liang pi noodles), things they thought they tried but hadn’t (spring rolls), and things they didn’t know were edible (stinky tofu, preserved eggs).
A place I hated that changed me for the better
I’d taken classes at lavish Columbia and quietly urbane New York University, but it was at prison-like Baruch, with its security-clad lobby, rickety elevator and ’90s computer lab, where I painfully, patiently learned my first programming language, the first step in a career pivot to tech that has brought me happiness and fulfillment. For the dirty and ugly, I’m grateful.
An uncelebrated but not wholly utilitarian waterway
My rowing team used to joke about dredging up dead bodies on our way out to practice; we tried not to splash each other with the polluted waters. We ran along the boardwalk, mock threatening to throw each other in, then, as always, we’d eat as a family. Why, for so many years, did I assume I wasn’t capable of a rigorous team sport? These waters remind me of my daring, my drive. They remind me to have faith in myself, and love for other people. They remind me how small and intimate New York can feel.
Visiting New York City? Find Xian’s recommendations mapped out here.