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

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.

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