I’ve now been in Shanghai for around six months. The winter break last month that was supposed to mark my halfway point has dropped in significance, now, barring any unforeseen circumstances, marking merely a quarter of my time here. I’m not all that thrilled to type those words or to contemplate the next 15 or so months of living here, but I understand why I’m doing it, and I think this may be a good opportunity to try to help you understand as well.
When I was last living and working in the U.S., my main gig was working as an adjunct instructor (later shortened simply to “instructor” as if the removal of the “a” word made us feel any more appreciated) at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock (UALR). There has been a lot of conversation regarding adjuncting in recent years, and many wonder why, with tuition skyrocketing, many of the educators responsible for the most basic of college courses can’t be paid a living wage. I don’t know for sure, but I would wager a guess that there’s a certain law regarding capitalism that’s being borrowed from the corporate world to justify it: employees are costs, and lowering costs is good for maximizing profits.
Except, of course, that education isn’t supposed to be for-profit. It is, in my mind, meant to serve the public good: a rising tide and whatnot.
But even if you disagree, you might be able to see the benefits of having an employee who is fully committed to their job–an employee who doesn’t have to worry about additional sources of income. That wasn’t me when I was an adjunct, and it wasn’t the majority of my peers either. In my time at UALR, it was standard for them to offer each adjunct a maximum of two courses to teach each semester. For these two courses, the in-class time would add up to about 6 hours per week (3 per class), but planning, preparation, and grading would take up significantly more. It wasn’t uncommon for me to spend 45 minutes or more reading and responding to each of my students’ papers. When you’re working with 23 students per class, completing 3-4 major projects per semester, that time can add up very quickly. Sometimes, if a student is really having trouble, conferences and one-on-one guidance are needed. Without fail, at least a couple students every semester will need recommendation letters. Syllabi, lesson plans, grading rubrics, assignment parameters, instructional guides for using different types of media–none of these things create themselves. The time I spent on each class, per week, was significantly more than the 10 hours per class for which I was being paid. And that grand total was a mere $4,000 per semester ($2,000 per course).
Imagine, if you will, trying to survive on $8,000 per year. I maybe could have done it–could have worked seasonally in the summer or maybe lucked into one or two adjunct spots for summer courses to get by. I could’ve signed up for government assistance. I could’ve sold pot. I could’ve robbed banks. But none of these things seemed like the right thing for me to do: I was (pretty much) able-bodied, had a master’s degree, and considered myself fairly intelligent. So, I had to figure something else out.
I picked up a secondary gig in a pizzeria and a tertiary one in the TRiO office on campus. I actually enjoyed working at both jobs–the physical labor of food service and the time spent filling out mundane paperwork became forms of meditation in contrast to the mentally exhaustive task of teaching composition. Teaching is like having homework…forever, and teaching writing is like having really boring homework forever. Have you ever given a half-assed effort on a paper? Ever plagiarized? Ever done just the bare minimum? Ever skipped a teacher’s comments just to get straight to the grade? Yes, we know you have. You aren’t being clever, but you are making my life hellacious because I can tell you’re giving the minimal effort, are bored, are cheating, and aren’t reading any of my constructive criticisms.
That’s not to say it was all bad. I enjoyed talking with many of my students over the years and getting to see them progress. The ones that listened and learned and were engaging were great to be around, and I hope I was able to help them in some small way chase whatever dream they had.
But I couldn’t keep doing it. I couldn’t keep working 3 jobs and not see my bank accounts getting any larger. Couldn’t keep working knowing that any medical issue beyond a sore throat could end up putting me in the red. I had to figure something else out, so I thought about what my dream was and if I had ever really given it a serious shot.
I said before that adjuncting was my main gig, but it was just a means to an end. I’d always figured I might end up as a professor. It was, back when I still harbored dreams of getting published right out of school, my back up plan. If I couldn’t make it as a writer, then I’d finish out a PhD somewhere and take a comfy gig as a prof. I could bank a good salary, have health insurance, a retirement, an office on a beautiful campus somewhere, and still have time to write on the side. This back up plan, I realized as I became more familiar with the lives of the professors in my graduate program, was mostly a convenient fantasy. Professors, at least those who deal with writing courses, spend an incredible amount of time reading, preparing, and grading every week. On top of their course loads, they sit on committees and staff senate, they help with theses and dissertations, they edit publications, they research, they email constantly, they attend meetings, they hold office hours, and they sometimes even get to have families. In other words, they don’t have any free time. And even if they did, I doubt they would want to spend that time doing more writing. But I wanted to be a writer. It’s what I’ve wanted since I was writing little stories to submit to contests in elementary school. I’ve always enjoyed telling stories, but I’ve always been so busy that it’s seemed difficult to have any real time to sit down and work on them.
Now, I know that that’s an excuse. I acknowledge it, and I recognize that I could get a lot more done than I have in the past. But, it’s damned hard sometimes to come in and sit down and make your mind work in a creative way when all you want to do is decompress from whatever you’ve been doing all day. And it’s doubly hard if what you’ve been doing all day is editing or writing. So, what was I to do? I’d taught ESL in Korea, and that was probably the easiest job I’d ever had–no lesson prep, no homework, and I could sleep in till noon every day. Best of all, after a year of that, I’d saved up nearly $12,000 without even budgeting. I’d been able to travel and eat out all the time, make a lot of good friends, and even write a novel. Couple all that with a growing interest in the tiny house movement, and I sort of had the beginnings of a plan percolating.
Then, as it happens, things kind of took off on their own. One of those good friends from Korea sent me a message about China, asking if I would be interested in coming over to work as a literature teacher in the new semester. At the time, I’d just moved into a house and signed a lease, and I’d already agreed to return to teach composition. I declined his offer but asked him for more information and started chewing his ear whenever I could about the conditions, the food, and, most importantly, the pay.
Without being too specific, I will say that he assured me I could save double or triple what I’d saved in Korea for a 10-month stay. If I worked other jobs on the side and haggled my way into good-paying tutoring gigs, I could earn even more…lots more. I can imagine myself back then, dollar signs floating in my eyes, as I dreamed of a way to leave the adjuncting business behind for good. That way, I finally decided was a combination of things. Step 1 would be China. I would come here for a year, work my ass off, save money, and then go home. Step 2 would then be the construction of an off the grid tiny home that would allow me to chase my writing dream for a year or two without having to worry about anything taking up my time. I would give myself a chance to succeed or to fail, and then I would reevaluate things at the end of that time but from the lofty position of homeowner instead of simply apartment dweller.
So, I took the job…and then a second one. And now I work 6 days and 1 night a week, and I have very little time to write. I’m saving money–not as much as my friend, unfortunately, but still enough to stay firmly within what he said I could. I’m also thinking bigger about my time after Shanghai: instead of a tiny home on a trailer, I think I would like to get a nice parcel of land back home and build a house–still small and still off the grid, but quite a bit larger than any conventional tiny home on wheels. I’d like to learn more about aquaponics and farming and homesteading–making my way without having to rely on any (or very little) outside sources of income. And I still want to write and give myself a real chance at that.
But I know now that it’s going to take me a year longer than what I’d originally hoped. I’m trying to make peace with that, trying to set goals for myself and work towards them, trying to learn what I can for the life that I think will come after Shanghai. Things may change again. C’est la vie. But my time here will afford me the chance to not struggle with those changes.
Or, at the very least, to struggle a little bit less fitfully.