Someone to Always Spill the Tea With
Someone to Always Spill the Tea With
Jessica Hanser and James Atkinson talked nonstop after meeting in June 2018 at the British Library in London.
“Jessica has the singular ability to engage anyone she meets,” said Mr. Atkinson, who was born in Rochford, England, raised in Melbourne, Australia, and is now living in Singapore. He currently works as a senior ship broker specializing in liquefied natural gas for Braemar ACM.
Ms. Hanser, born and raised in West Palm Beach, Fla., was then an associate professor of history and a founding faculty member at Yale-NUS College, a collaboration between Yale and the National University of Singapore. She was in the London library researching for her 2019 book, “Mr. Smith Goes to China” which delves into the lives of three Scottish private traders. The book explores Britain’s imperial expansion and global network of trade during the 18th century.
Ms. Hanser, who is fluent in Mandarin, became interested in Chinese history after attending lectures by the Yale history professor Jonathan Spence while studying for a Ph.D. in history there. She also has a master’s degree in history from the University of Cambridge and an anthropology undergraduate degree from the University of Chicago.
After some conversation, Mr. Atkinson, 38, in London visiting his company headquarters, was intrigued that being in a library didn’t stop Ms. Hanser, 39, from talking. “I’m happy it was me and some other handsome Australian didn’t get luckier,” he said jokingly. “I could see from her eyes that she was happy talking to me, and it was a natural progression to find out if she wanted to see me again.”
Ms. Hanser said she was instantly attracted to Mr. Atkinson’s “positive jovial nature. His bright blue eyes, I now believe, are the color of the Australian summer sky.”
The next day they met outside London’s Green Park station. Ms. Hanser was running late. “I remember James standing patiently on the corner looking debonair and gentlemanly in a light charcoal suit,” she said.
He had made dinner reservations at the Gate, a Mediterranean-vegetarian restaurant in London’s Marylebone neighborhood. Over a pre-dinner drink at a tea shop, which served Ms. Hanser’s favorite beverage and the topic of her research, they discovered some common ground. Both were married before (Mr. Atkinson has two children), have mothers who were teachers and shared an irreverence toward authority. They were also interested in each other’s work.
“I do research on people like James but from three centuries ago,” said Ms. Hanser, who discounted what she called their “superficial” differences like nationality and religion (she is Jewish, he is Episcopalian). “I study British merchants who went to South East and East Asia to trade. James took a great interest in my work, and also tried to explain what a ship broker does. We got so wrapped up in conversation that the tea shop closed, and we were kicked out.”
The next day, they visited Mudchute Park and Farm in the middle of London’s old docks. Filled with alpacas, pigs, sheep and chickens, it gave Mr. Atkinson the opportunity to regale Ms. Hanser, an animal lover, with the habits of a Silkie Bantam chicken that once lived in his Australian backyard.
That night they went to a West End performance of “The Book of Mormon,” Ms. Hanser’s third time seeing the show and Mr. Atkinson’s first. He laughed for two hours straight. “There is something endearing about listening to a tall grown man with an Australian accent giggle,” said Ms. Hanser.
Mr. Atkinson kissed her at the end of the evening then returned to Singapore, while she remained in London for two months of work. “I thought Jessica was genuine and interesting,” he said.
But once she was back in Singapore, he realized that their lives were totally different. Ms. Hanser taught Zumba classes every week — nothing terrified Mr. Atkinson more than dancing — and she thrived on a university life near the Singapore campus. He led more of an “expat existence” downtown in a bachelor apartment littered with a bike, coffee, wine and sports on TV.
While they saw movies together, cooked each other dinner, and socialized with friends, he worried that their shared interests may not be enough to envision a future.
In March 2019, Ms. Hanser accepted a position as an assistant professor of history at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. She was excited by its opportunities for research and eager to enjoy a natural outdoor environment.
When the couple met at a favorite cafe to discuss her departure, they didn’t want the evening to end. “It was the moment when we decided not to say good night but to find another place to spend more time in each other’s company that I knew this was more than serious, and Jess was the one for me,” Mr. Atkinson said.
In June, he took her home to Australia, which included a trip through Kakadu National Park in the Northern Territory. They swam in billabongs admired waterfalls, and avoided salties (20-foot saltwater crocodiles). “It was an incredible trip and helped me realize that James was the one,” she said.
At the end of July, as she was preparing to leave Singapore for Vancouver, Mr. Atkinson arranged for a surprise send-off for Ms. Hanser. He arrived at her Sunday Zumba class wearing a rainbow tutu and bobbing antlers. “James brought a Canadian flag-themed cake covered in maple leaves with lettering that read, ‘We’ll Moose You,’ while 30 friends gathered around the pool,” said her former colleague, Lindsay Allen.
Although living in different parts of the world with a 15-hour time difference can be challenging, the two managed to talk regularly. Mr. Atkinson is a morning person, and Ms. Hanser is a night owl, so they often started their days at the same time.
It helped that they were both busy. Ms. Hanser found creative ways to teach history. Much of her research on slavery, which is focused on the Indian Ocean and British Empire, now resonates with modern politics and social unrest.
For the December holidays, the couple met in West Palm Beach, Mr. Atkinson spent time with Ms. Hanser’s family. At 1 a.m. on New Year’s Day, while they were sitting in her childhood bedroom, he proposed with a ring purchased from an ethical jeweler in Vancouver. “It was made of recycled gold and a Montana sapphire in my favorite color purple,” she said of the ring, which also had three ethically sourced Canadian diamonds on each side.
They planned to marry by 2022 with consecutive beach-style celebrations: one in Carmel-by-the-Sea, Calif., and the second in Melbourne. But the coronavirus changed everything. In mid-March, Ms. Hanser flew to Singapore two days before the borders closed to all foreign nationals, finishing her semester by Zoom. “Due to Covid’s strict border controls, we wanted to marry quickly so James and I could be together when we are in Canada, Australia, or the U.S.,” she said.
The couple married on July 21 at the National Museum of Singapore. In a five-minute legal ceremony with strict social restrictions because of the pandemic, seven masked friends were spaced around the bride and groom while a couple dozen family and friends from five time zones observed via Zoom.
Behind a plexiglass divider, the officiant, Ho Poh Onn Clarence, a solemniser, or justice of the peace, asked the couple to recite the Registry of Marriage’s short vows promising to “keep their love as pure as today, in laughter and tears, in sickness and health, in comfort and fears, in poverty and wealth.”
“Jessica is a Renaissance woman with an incredible academic background that has not changed her,” said her father, Leonard Hanser, a judge in Palm Beach County Court’s criminal division. “James is a special person — intelligent, articulate and especially patient when Jessica overanalyzes things. He edits her essays and treats her like she is the most important person in the world.”
On This Day
When July 21, 2020
Where National Museum of Singapore
Two Bouquets The bride wore a sleeveless black and white dress covered with hummingbirds that Mr. Atkinson bought her in Singapore. Friends offered a bouquet filled with orchids, and another bursting with roses.
High Tea Instead of a reception, the bride and groom were joined by 10 friends in the Grand Lobby of the Raffles Singapore hotel, where they were divided into three tables of four in accordance to social-distancing rules. Guests toasted the couple with champagne, tea, scones, finger sandwiches and small desserts.