I’m back in Seattle right now after having spent almost two weeks in China. This is the second, and most likely, last year I get to do this and now that the jet lag has (mostly) worn off and I’m back to some semblance of a normal routine, I’m using this time to dwell with my feelings on my experiences – both in China and this past year.
At my (now) former university, I was one of a handful of instructors who had the opportunity to teach for 12 days in Wuhan, China. The university has a partnership with the South Central University of Nationalities (SCUN) and as someone with a background teaching in Tech Writing, I was offered the chance to teach graduate students my first year there. However, I couldn’t at the time because I was too busy getting married…The second year, I jumped at the chance and it’s been very enlightening.
It’s a strange sensation to step into a country and have your biometric data scanned while seeing all of the cameras around. It’s another thing entirely when it’s all happening in a context where the language is so different from yours. But taking the taxi from the airport, to the hotel, to the next flight, and then to the university, I start to get a sense of just the immense size of this country. My students referred to Wuhan as a “small” town: this “town” has a population of over 10 million and just the amount of buildings, high rises, and apartment complexes is staggering. SCUN itself feels less like a college campus and more like a self-sustained suburb within a larger town.
My schedule: up at around 5 a.m., call my wife and chat for half an hour, make myself some instant coffee and eat some sweet bread, shower, then head to the “canteen” (cafeteria) around 8. From 8:30-12:00, it was class time every day (except Sunday). The first couple of days I’d just pass out in my dorm and nap for a couple of hours. After that, I’d get up and either a) grab food from the canteen, or b) head out to the shopping center and grab food there. The whole time I’d just have my headphones blasting (usually Bombay Bicycle Club, Tool, or the new Bon Iver album).
The students are extremely friendly: they’re quick to invite you out to lunch when you arrive and are (almost to a fault) eager to get you to try the various regional dishes that stand as testaments to each students’ particular home province. At some point, a student will ask if you “like spicy food”. All I’ll say is be careful if you say, “yes”.
I know I’m not always the most social person around, but it’s hard to even mimic social behavior when you’re in a completely different social context and can only say “thank you”, “hello”, and “beer” in that language. I took to taking long walks in the evening before it would get dark.
Outside of class and lunch, I was pretty much left to my own devices. Dinner meant walking to the store to restock on water and maybe more sweetbread. But mostly, I tried to limit that as it’s still kinda embarrassing to only be able to communicate through points and nods. It gives you a lot of time to think about things. Here I was, 37, teaching graduate students in China. If you’d have told 13 year-old me that I’d be here, I’d have chucked a rock at you.
I’ve been going back-and-forth about my commitment to academia, which is understandable given the year I’ve had. I’ve moved from a tenure-track position at my previous university to a full-time lecturer position and, though my wife and I fully believe our current university will do everything they can to find something more permanent for me, it’s still risk. I built three years of tenure and stellar reviews at Previous U and, as one of my best friends pointed out, it’s an ego hit to put that work on hold. That, coupled with the economic anxiety that comes with having to wait months for your first paycheck while living in a city that’s more expensive than Tokyo, makes me question what value there is in this prestige-chamber that is higher education. I don’t want platitudes; I want to get paid, and this shit sometimes makes me think that all those seminar papers, theses, dissertations and applications were just an extended exercise in fucking around. Some sick, masochistic labyrinth of obstacles meant for people who can afford to get paid in praise or esteem. Does that praise and esteem feel good? Of course it does. Does it keep the lights on? Fuck no; if anything, academia does a wonderful job of making you feel like you’re always hobbling to a finish line that never comes.
I’ll be honest: I’ve applied to several jobs these past few months. My wife has been supportive of this idea the whole way, which is helpful, but I don’t know what this year is going to bring. Right now, I think I’m taking more of a wait-and-see approach with higher ed. This could be the year my publication submissions start to take hold and the teaching rhythm starts to hit a groove. But I can’t help think about any other industry that, granted, would be pretty fast paced and likely higher stress.
But the students this summer were so kind that maybe they’ve pushed me towards the wait-and-see. So as of right now, I’m still teaching. I can’t say that this’ll be the case a year from now, hell even a month from now. But I think I’d be doing these students, those from Previous U and Grad School U a disservice if I didn’t give it one last shot.