A humanities scholar's occasional ramblings on literature, science, popular culture, and the academy.

Saturday, May 31, 2014

Shanghai, Part Three: On Not Being a Tourist

I spent my Junior year of college studying abroad at the University of Kent in Canterbury, England. In the summer after that year, having already seen much of Western Europe, I and two of my friends decided to backpack through Greece, Bulgaria, Romania, and Turkey. While in Istanbul we stayed at a hostel across the street from Hagia Sophia. Rows of bunk beds spanned a large terrace with a canvass roof where sordid travelers rested. Hagia Sophia was a literal stone’s throw away; the Blue Mosque was right around the corner, and the Grand Bazaar could be seen in the distance. One night, sitting up in bed, looking out at this sight, I found myself in a conversation with a French man who had set himself up in the bed across from mine. Many months earlier, he had flown to southern India with the plan of spending the next year slowly making his way back to France. Most recently, he had been in Iran, which is the sort of thing I suppose you can do when you have a French passport. This man went on and on about his desire to experience the real cultures of these countries, not the tourist traps—to eat where locals ate, to visit people’s homes, to be authentic. “You think any Turkish people actually shop at the Grand Bazaar?” He asked me.

I thought his philosophy was bullshit. People’s everyday lives were pretty much the same everywhere, I surmised, but there was only one Grand Bazaar. Visiting only the landmarks might not be “authentic,” by this man’s definition of the term, but it was an experience that was unique to the place. By contrast, fetishizing an authentic experience of the other seemed weirdly colonialist, a kind of poverty porn for a well-off dude from the developed world.


I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately, because, since my year abroad in England, this is the first time I’ve traveled to a new place not as a tourist. I’m being paid to work here—and I’m working hard. I teach two classes, one of which meets four times a week, the other of which meets twice a week in the evenings from 6:00 to 7:40. They are both writing classes; one has eight students; the other has 32. And one is a course I’ve never taught before.

One consequence of this work load is that, four days a week, I am on campus, either teaching, eating, or working in my office, for at least eight hours a day, and most days, closer to twelve. Another consequence is, when deciding where to live, I felt I needed to be close to campus, in Minhang District. I could have lived in Xuhui, near the university’s old downtown campus; there is a shuttle that runs between the two campuses, and it takes between half an hour and an hour, depending on the traffic. But the evening class meant that I would only narrowly be able to catch the last shuttle home two days a week, and I wasn’t inclined to risk it. Shanghai boasts an excellent modern subway system, but there are no stops anywhere near SJTU’s Minhang Campus, and while cabs are far cheaper than they are in the U.S., they still aren’t exactly cheap.

I knew that Minhang was far out from downtown and that there “wasn’t much to do” in this neighborhood, but the way it was explained to me by the people I talked to who had done this program before, I had taken that to mean there weren’t tourist attractions or bars or nightclubs, all things I could do without. That’s true, but what’s also true is, there are no grocery stores, there are no signs in English, there is inadequate street lighting at night. Living here has made me realize how full of crap Sophia Coppola is. Scarlett Johanson was staying in a luxurious hotel in a wealthy downtown part of a major cosmopolitan city—she may have felt alienated in her marriage, but she was not lost in translation. You want to get lost in translation? Travel 7,106 miles away from everyone you love and everything you find familiar, and move to the suburbs.

Me, my entire first week.

On my second weekend here, I finally took the shuttle in to Xuhui. Around the corner from the old campus I found a shopping district that looked like Times Square, complete with a Hershey’s store, a McDonald’s, a Starbuck’s a Pizza Hut, and a KFC (I would soon learn that, in just about every district of Shanghai but Minhang, you can’t swing a dead cat without hitting a KFC). I found a massive shopping mall where virtually all of the stores were familiar European and American brands—H&M, Calvin Klein, Toys ‘R Us, hell, even Ed Hardy. And in the ground level of that mall, a grocery store. Not a Family Mart or a produce stand featuring strange and wilted vegetables, but an honest to goodness grocery store with bread and cereal and pasta and trustworthy-looking meat and produce, and best of all:

Globalization has never tasted so good.
I honestly teared up when I saw that peanut butter. I spent my entire first week operating on a very low point along Maslow’s Heirarchy of needs. Having this mall and this grocery store meant that I could feed myself and that, maybe two days a week, I could come to a place that felt familiar, where I could drink Starbuck’s, read a book, and feel not quite so isolated.


Of course, I knew that I should spend some of that time “being a tourist.”

There are two other Michigan faculty members here. Both are full professors in their sixties. They each are teaching only one course that meets twice a week, for which they each have a TA, meaning that they are doing a fraction of the work I am doing while making at least twice as much money. One lives in Xuhui while the other lives in Huangpu, another downtown district. They spend almost all of their time being tourists. It’s sometimes awkward discussing this experience with them, because while, to a certain degree, there’s a spirit of “we’re all in this together,” it’s also abundantly clear that they are getting a much different view of Shanghai than I am. They get to go to the fancy restaurants and the museums and the gardens and the temples. They have the luxury of money, and of geographic proximity, and most importantly, of time, that I simply don’t have.

Admittedly, I could try harder, and I’m trying to make a point of visiting at least one sight each weekend. But the work is exhausting enough that I sometimes, like today, don’t want to push myself to spend my free time as a tourist. Tourism is hard!

I’ve struggled with anxiety most of my adult life, and the first time it really became an issue was that year I spent in England. And a lot of that came down to the tension I experienced between the pressure to succeed academically and the pressure to “make the most of this experience.” The expectation to keep up with my reading, to write papers, to attend classes, while also finding new restaurants and taking day trips to different towns every weekend, was just too much for my introverted mind to handle.

I was chatting with my fiancee the other week and I said to her, “I know this is crazy, but I need you to tell me that it’s okay if I don’t make the most of this experience.” She obligingly said it was okay.

Ironically, I am having an authentic experience, and I feel validated in my suspicion that it’s pretty much the same. I’m living in Shanghai the way that most Chinese people do, near as I can figure—I go to work, I come home, I cook myself dinner, I spend my evenings reading or watching TV or chatting with friends and family (the main difference being I do the last two mostly on the internet), and once or twice a week I use my day off to visit downtown. I’d rather be a tourist, but once you get past the initial sensory overload that comes with the intimidating unfamiliarity of the suburban life, being an everyday resident of this place isn’t so bad.


Today was the Duanwu Festival, or “Dragon Boat Festival.” Apparently there are boat races throughout China today, but I didn’t know where to go and didn’t have the means to get there anyway, and was suffering from fairly severe sleep deprivation in any case. So I stayed home. From my apartment window I watched kids shooting off fireworks. And yesterday one of my students gave me a zongzi, a rice dumpling wrapped in bamboo leaves traditionally eaten during the Duanwu Festival. It was delicious, and it seemed pretty authentic to me.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Shanghai, Part Two: Five Senses


Sticky. Always sticky. It's actually not as hot as I had feared, but the humidity is constant. I would be taking two showers a day if my hot water worked more consistently in the evenings.


The sights that have stood out for me in this past week have been the sights of bureaucracy. In my first post I compared it to a Philip K. Dick story, but Terry Gilliam might actually be more accurate. Virtually every building features desks with stacks of paper, shelves with binders of paper--forms in triplicate, stamped and filed and gathering dust. When I went to register with the police, the DMV-esque police station featured a row of six desks behind a glass wall. Four of the six desks were marked "Occupant Registration." The other two were marked "Public Order," meaning the Chinese police devote twice as much space to keeping track of where everyone is living than they do to maintaining public order.

Obtaining a cell phone and a bank account were equally surreal experiences navigating a paperwork dystopia. At first blush, the cell phone store looked like an American electronics store, with designs for different models of phones and large cardboard advertisements. But the back of the store was the same mess of forms, and all of the employees were dressed in what looked like police or military uniforms. In fact, this quasi-governmental appearance of many professions that you would expect to be "private" is the strongest visual signal that you are in what is at least nominally a Communist country. But the bank was the absolute strangest. I had to fill out a form that asked for my first and last name, which I turned in to the teller along with my passport. This prompted a dramatic freak-out, including lots of pointing at the paper and grimacing, and a five minute exchange between the teller and my "student buddies," who were there as my translators. Apparently the fact that I had put my name down as "Brian Matzke" despite the fact that my passport said "Brian Severin Matzke" was the source of much consternation. Eventually I was allowed to simply write the "Severin" on the form, but I got the impression that my initial omission was still looked upon as a grave error. Neither of my student buddies had ever heard of "middle names" before, and when I tried to explain that while middle names appeared on government IDs, it was common not to use them on other documents, they were thoroughly perplexed.

I find these encounters with bureaucracy to be scary and hilarious in equal measure. Much about this place seems like chaos with a superficial veneer of centralized control. The traffic is insane, but at many intersections you will see a traffic cop standing and, as best as I can tell, doing absolutely nothing. I was walking with an American professor teaching through my same program here who pointed to one the other day and said, "I guess that's what full employment looks like."

Gestures towards organization inevitably coexist with the grime and messiness one would expect from a city of this size. People spit on the sidewalk constantly (I can't really blame them for that--the humidity does cause some crazy mucous buildup). And they don't just spit; little children still wear bottomless pants, so seeing kids relieve themselves outside is common, and once I saw a grown man pee on the sidewalk. Not on the bushes next to the sidewalk; on the sidewalk. I think he was doing landscape work for the apartment complex he was next to. He was wearing a uniform.


All of this public urination contributes to the second most overwhelming sensory experience I've had this past week: the smell. Everything smells very overwhelming, very different, and often very bad. It's a combination of air pollution, street garbage, unfamiliar flora, and pungent foods. Fortunately, I've mostly adjusted to it. During the first 72 hours though, it made me dread having to go outside. As my fiancee explained it to me, we are hypersensitive to unfamiliar smells, so over time it has come, not to smell better, but to smell less. And the campus is remarkably clean, smelling mostly of different, not-unpleasant trees.


It's time for my confession: I don't like Chinese Chinese food. I've tried and I've tried over this past week, and I've found some dishes that I tolerate, but not one that I like. If you asked me a week ago, I would have described myself as an adventurous eater with a diverse palate. This week has made me aware of how sheltered I have been, having only eaten in America and Europe.

I find the food unappetizing due to a complex combination of factors. It's not that the food looks strange or exotic--it's mostly pretty straightforward: stir fries, shellfish, noodles, etc. But the spice palate is radically different. Not hot, not sweet...honestly, it's unlike anything I've had in the U.S., and not in a pleasant way. The olfactory senses are connected, of course, so the ambient smells don't help any either. Nor does the fact that I once saw a man washing his woks with a hose on the sidewalk in front of his restaurant where the previous night I saw a child pee. But I suspect that the chief factor is the low quality of the ingredients. Whatever I order, the vegetables look wilted and sickly. They feel wrong in my mouth.

Of course, another contributing factor is the social dimension. When I'm in Michigan, I'm perfectly content to eat a meal alone in my apartment or at my desk. But even in the U.S. I would feel awkward eating alone at a restaurant or in a cafeteria. But here that's my only option. I have yet to be able to make it to a grocery store, so cooking for myself has been impossible for the past week. That has left me with three options: eating alone in a restaurant, eating alone in a cafeteria, or buying a ready-made meal from the "Family Mart" (basically Chinese 7/11) around the corner and eating alone in my apartment. None are enjoyable, though I prefer Family Mart because at least then I can eat while watching Netflix.


Hearing only Chinese when I go out often leaves me feeling pretty intensely vulnerable. I'm comfortable while on campus, but everywhere else makes me feel very anxious. The experience gives me a new respect for linguistic minorities. I may have been foolish and impulsive in coming here like this, but those who decide to move to a place where they don't speak the language--for work or family or whatever reason--are tremendously brave.

The ambient Chinese is easy to get used to, though. Here's what's harder: over the past several years I came to manage my anxieties--around the dissertation, the job search, what have you--by filling my life up with noise. I'd quiet the voices in my head by steaming video while home alone and by listening to podcasts through my iPhone on the commute into campus. Here, I can still do the former some of the time, but there are hours of the day when my connection is too poor to stream videos, and I left my iPhone back in the U.S. That leaves me with multiple times during the day when I'm forced to face the silence. That's the most overwhelming sensory experience I've had so far.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Shanghai, Part One: Arrival

I wanted a teaching job, and for my sins they gave me one.

In late March I was still struggling with uncertainty as to where I would be living come August, having been on the job market since September with no bites, when I got an email asking for Michigan instructors to teach writing in Shanghai over the summer. I met with the director of the writing center to find out more. It would be two months teaching two courses--a version of the intro-level writing course I'd taught again and again at Michigan, and a graduate-level workshop for Master's degree students writing their thesis proposals. I told the director I was interested, but that it would be difficult to commit to  going overseas over the summer without knowing what employment status I would return to. It was a truthful statement, but also a deliberate one--I had applied to be a lecturer with the writing center and hoped to leverage this China gig into an appointment for the Fall semester. The director was able to assure me that I would be interviewing for the lectureship, and I got the sense that my chances were good. Sure enough, soon after I got the job for the Fall.

April was a whirlwind of logistics--renewing my passport, obtaining a visa, getting vaccinations, writing syllabi. The condensed time frame meant I didn't have time to dwell on how crazy this was. I get awkward talking to the guy making my sandwich at Potbelly. If saying "hold the mayo" filled me with anxiety, how did I expect to handle two months flung onto the other side of the world with no knowledge of the language and culture?

Having managed to avoid that question, I boarded the plane on May 8.


It's hard to explain why I jumped at the opportunity to come here, given that I had no prior experience with, or even any particular interest in, Chinese language, Chinese culture, or the Chinese educational system. I was going for the money. I was going for an adventure. I was going to make new professional contacts both at Michigan and abroad. I was going because it was a "CV builder." I was going for the lectureship in the Fall.

But mostly I was going because I saw it as an opportunity to press a reset button on my professional life. I'd spent the past eight years in Ann Arbor pushing towards an extremely narrow sense of my professional self. I wanted to be a professor, and for the seven years I spent as a graduate student that never didn't feel like an attainable goal. But one extremely dispiriting year on the academic job market while working part time as a lecturer and text editor made me question whether that goal was attainable--or, looking at the stresses faced by many friends who had academic jobs, whether it was the right goal at all. I blamed myself for not having a better understood the job market years earlier, for not having done more to cultivate my identity in a way that fit the jobs I was applying to. But I also blamed the University of Michigan. I don't want to sound ungrateful, because UM has provided me with many amazing resources and opportunities over the past eight years. But only after a year of failure on the job market do I appreciate how little of my graduate education was actually devoted to professional training, and how there were several tangible things that UM could have done to help me become more appealing in the eyes of employers (that's a subject for a whole other post). I haven't given up--having learned as much as I did about the process this past year, I intend to go on the market again with a better sense of how to present myself and with a far less romanticized perspective. But I still felt some resentment. A lot of that resentment became attached to the place, and if I was going to do the job market again in the Fall, but approach it with a better mentality, I would need to get out of Ann Arbor for a while.

I guess what I'm saying is, a year on the academic job market will make you want to move to the other side of the planet in order to get away from graduate school.


I'm still amazed by the fact that the other side of the planet is one movie marathon away. In my case, that marathon consisted of American Hustle, Saving Mr. BanksCaptain Phillips, Philomena, and The Conjuring. So sue me--I was going to read the whole time but half way through The Lathe of Heaven they turned off the cabin lights and I was too tired to focus on the book anymore, but too awake to sleep, so, movie marathon it was.

I love to fly, and I love airports. I think they're a wonderful way to be introduced to a new place, because they're so standardized and familiar. There are always clear signs telling you where to go. It's impossible to feel lost in an airport, and I find that tremendously comforting.

After immigration, baggage claim, and customs I was met by my "student buddies," two undergraduate students from Shanghai Jiao Tong University who served as my liaisons. Their Anglicized names are Susan and Penelope. It was their job to get me from the airport to my apartment, help me register with the local police, and provide me with a packet of information about the campus.

Taking a cab was my first sense of minor cultural shock. When I motioned to buckle my seat belt, Penelope said, "Oh, that's a good idea" in a way that conveyed that buckling a seat belt was an activity that had never even occurred to her before. Of course, my seat belt was broken, so I had to go without, a condition that was only mildly terrifying, as the aggressive driving that characterizes Chinese roads is somewhat mitigated by the fact that nobody is capable of traveling faster than maybe 12 miles per hour in the bumper-to-bumper traffic.

Eventually, we arrived at our first stop, the police station. China requires that all new residents register with the local police. It felt very much like a Philip K. Dick story. The station was a small building with the front doors open, but with a curtain of dirty vinyl strips in front of the entryway, like you would expect to see at a warehouse or body shop. The inside was small and looked like a DMV. A tired looking man in a police uniform sat at a desk behind glass, and Susan and Penelope handed him some documents and told him who I was. They had a long back and forth, which I didn't understand but got the clear impression that it took much longer than it needed to.

From there we went to my apartment complex, about a block away from campus. The main campus of SJTU is located in Minhang District of Shanghai, which was described to me as "rural," but that is very misleading. "Suburban" would be accurate by Chinese standards, but to this American, Minhang is still denser than most cities I've seen. From my initial impression the main difference between Minhang and Xuhui, the downtown financial district, is that Minhang is more residential and somewhat run down. When Penelope and Susan took me to my apartment complex, it felt very overwhelming--building after building of apartments arranged in a dense, messy fashion. But the inside was gorgeous, boasting two bedrooms, an office, kitchen, dining room, living room, and bathroom, and hard wood floors. I don't even want to think about how expensive this apartment would be if located one block from UM's main campus. The contrast between the inside and outside of the complex is one of several examples I've encountered of the dissonances that I sense are what people mean when they talk about China as a developing country.


I'm sitting in the office of my apartment writing this. It's ten thirty in the morning on Sunday, May 11 (To all of you back in the US, I'm writing to you from the FUTURE!!!!). I'm still adjusting. I need to get over the jet lag, need to figure out where to get food. Sadly, all of Shanghai's famously great food seems not to be in Minhang, so my day-to-day eating will be less exciting, but at least there's no Potbelly, so I don't have to learn how to say "hold the mayo" in Chinese.

Teaching starts tomorrow. That's the part of this whole experience I'm most looking forward to. And since I'll be teaching two writing classes, one with 17 students and another with 30, and one of which meets four days a week, it's the part of the experience that likely will dominate my time here. I'm not here to be a tourist; I'm here to be a teacher.

And I'm here to press that reset button. I'll let you know when I find it.