(In this blog, I back up and describe more in depth the interview process for a job in Shanghai and the process of moving to China.)
Ten years ago, I moved to Shanghai China. I had been teaching at John Jay College and LaGuardia Community College for the previous year. The fall 2005 semester in NYC was going well but I had a yearning for an adventure after I had given up drinking, which I had given up at the start of the term.
Although I love NYC, it had lost much of its luster for me. Most of my fond memories of NYC had formulated around my drinking habits, which had turned into an addiction. I knew the bars with the best drink specials. I familiarized myself with the liquor stores that offered discounted vodka, usually promotional specials for brands being launched. I knew where to buy the best reasonably priced wine. New York City was one big liquor asylum for me. A few bar owners loved seeing me walk through the door because of my antics at their bars. Most bar owners hated seeing me walk through the door because of my antics at their bars.
Furthermore, most of my close friendships in NYC were based on drinking and everyone drinking had their own special relationship with alcohol. When I stopped drinking, those people were happy I stopped but continued their love affair with alcohol without me. Now, I was the odd man out.
The time had come for me to make a decision – either stay in New York and become sober and unhappy, stay in New York and start drinking again or move to another country and start a new adventure, a sober one, one where those around me did not know me as a drinker.
When you decide to move to a place like China, when you throw yourself into a completely foreign reality; you have to let go of any fears. You have to surrender to fate. It is much like jumping off a cliff into a raging sea or bungee jumping off a high-rise. You must tell yourself other people have done it and some of them have lived and have probably even loved the experience or at least some of the experience. You must turn off the television and succumb to the pull of your intuition. Take the leap! Jump!
Before I moved to China, I was eating brunch with a friend and discussing my options.
“Tyson, now that you have stopped drinking are you afraid that you won’t have those wild kind of drunken adventures that you had as a drinker?” he asked. Though he was a New Yorker he had relatives in Oklahoma who had told him about the naked parties and my various other substance fueled misadventures.
“I think I have had enough drunken adventures. Perhaps, I am ready for some intellectual adventures,” I told him after thinking about it for minute and then I continued:
“I would like to think of my life in terms of some sprawling novel. In part one of the book, I am a drunken, drugged out pop singer, vomiting from town to town. In part two, I move to another part of the world and become a different person like Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights.”
“Yeah, I can see that.”
“‘What would Heathcliff do?’ that’s what I guess I am asking myself.”’
The Christmas before I moved to China, I went back to Oklahoma to see my friends and family before I took off on my intellectual odyssey. At that point, I thought I would probably move somewhere overseas but I was not quite sure where. Since I had committed to teaching a couple of intersession courses in NYC, I had a few months to come up with a plan.
Over that Christmas during my visit to Oklahoma, I was out with a friend and we were talking about my future.
“So Tyson, what do you plan to do when you get back to New York? Are you going to get an apartment and stay there for good? You seem to be doing well there now that you’ve stopped drinking.”
“Well, I guess I’ll be teaching some intercession classes at John Jay and then after that I think I might move somewhere…”
“Where are you moving? Are you coming back to Oklahoma?”
“…uh, I’m not exactly sure where I’m going – I’m still deciding but, uh— I’m probably moving to China.”
“China? Wow, that’s big. So, you’ll probably move sometime next summer.”
“No, I think I’ll probably move after I teach the intercession classes.”
“Wow! That’s quick!”
As I have said in a previous installment, I have this tendency to do things spur of the moment without thinking and over-thinking what I’m doing. That is, important decisions take me no time. Most people seem to have a long-term plan. For some reason, I don’t. I never have. Minor decisions like buying small items – sheets, towels, dishes – takes me forever. Major decisions, I decide instantly.
Before I moved back to New York for the second time, when I lost my job as a deejay at the SpyFm in Oklahoma City when the Spy temporarily went off the air; I met with my boss to discuss my future. He asked me what my plans were. I told him I was moving to New York.
“So, you will be moving in two or three months?” he asked.
“Actually, I am moving in two weeks.”
Yes, when I decide to do something, usually, I have always just done it, for better or worse – move to New York, move to China, whatever. I just pack up a couple of suitcases and I’m off.
Thus when I decided to move overseas, I applied for teaching jobs everywhere and got responses from everywhere – Poland, Russia, Japan, Thailand, Mexico, Korea, China. Finally, I consulted an expert – my friend Robert who is a longtime travel guide writer. This I had mentioned in a previous post.
“Go to China!” he told me without hesitation. He had just been himself and recommended it because of the present events unfolding in China.
“Historically, this will be the time to be there,” he added.
This was enough for me. His words were the start of my epic adventure. At that point, I was ready to have that epic adventure, that adventure that would take me to the far reaches of the globe. With this, I started focusing my efforts on a teaching job in China. In as much, I really liked the sound of Shanghai. I could imagine myself telling people I was living in Shanghai. Shanghai! Shanghai! Shanghai! I loved the sound of it.
“Panda kiss in the mix…”
In a previous post, I briefly talked about the cover letter I sent to the recruiters. Nevertheless, I feel it’s important to include the cover letter and the conversation that it began between me and my future employer:
Dear Academic Director:
I would like to express my interest in a teaching post at ________________. Currently, I am an English Professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and at LaGuardia Community College in New York City. My students – who are at various levels with their English skills – are from all over the world. Therefore, I interface with a lot of cultures and world viewpoints, which always makes my classes interesting to say the least.
In my position, I create the curriculum; prepare students for the college entrance writing exam; instruct the students on the writing of university level essays, tutor students; advise and counsel students; and – among other tasks – familiarize the students with modern Western culture through the use of film, music, the Internet, newspapers, magazines, books, and other appropriate media outlets.
In January, I teach an inter-session class – New York In Film (a survey of New York City’s influence in film). Perhaps this course would be of interest to your students? I have commitments through February. Thus, I could be in __________ in March to start teaching.
When you peruse my attached resume, you will see that I have done a wealth of assorted media related jobs, which could benefit your school. The photo attached is of me playing a concert in the United States. For many years, I made my living as a pop singer. This aspect of my life – I believe – would be interesting to your students as well! I very much look forward to hearing from you.
Fortunately, there was – and I assumed still is – a shortage of English teachers in China. At this point, I felt like a Steinbeck Okie and this was the rainbow at the end of my Grapes of Wrath.
Immediately, the teaching offers filled my inbox. Not all of these offers were legit. In fact, a few recruiters seemed a bit dodgy. One of these recruiters turned out to have several email addresses under different aliases. Sometimes, he even posed as women at various universities in China. This was the difficult part, finding someone who I could trust, someone I could trust sight unseen.
Among the multitude of responses, some that were legitimate, many that were not; a response came from the headmaster at a boarding school in Shanghai, which intrigued me. At the end of the day, no matter what, I had to just trust my instincts. Thus, I trusted my instincts and put my faith in someone that I had never met on the other side of the world:
Thank you for your application, which will receive full and immediate consideration.
Since your background and experience are certainly impressive, we may have difficulty finding a suitable position.
This leads me to one question – why would someone with such a background and experience come to China to teach English to students, and where the pay certainly would not come anywhere near what you are currently receiving?
Yes, this letter was the first to address the question – Why would I move from New York City where I make substantially more than I would in China? In my response, I decided to be honest:
You posed an interesting question. Let me try to verbalize how I feel in a few paragraphs.
Of late, I have started to look at my life like I would that of a character in a sprawling literary work: A character who goes off for an epic adventure and comes back home, sometime in the not too distant future, to appreciate what he left; Or, a character who goes off to a foreign shore and becomes part of that culture because that is truly where he belongs which he does not know, and cannot know, until he arrives on that distant shore.
At heart, I am a romantic. I think of Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, and Dorothy Parker as expats in Paris. In my heart, I feel that Shanghai could be my Paris for the next few years or more.
More importantly, though, I love to teach. Teaching is a humanitarian effort. When I am connecting with my students, there is no bigger thrill in the world (and I was a successful pop singer) than knowing when the students grasp a concept relating to composition or grammar.
I am not money hungry. Enough money to live comfortably is all I need. If you have an appropriate position for me, I would love to be in Shanghai.
My thoughts, at this point, after corresponding with Sheldon, were filled with foreign adventures, those sorts of adventures one tackles while sober. I tried to picture this boarding school where I was set to teach. All of those British boarding school films came flooding into my head. Would this Shanghai boarding school be like a British boarding school, a British boarding school depicted on film, that is?
A musty attic apartment with a dormer, a Murphy bed, and a washbasin is what I imagined to be my living conditions at this boarding school, which waited patiently for my arrival, this boarding school half a world away in the Orient.
In my imaginings, teen boys run through the halls of the boarding school before lights out, shouting and laughing and calling to each other and knocking on my door and laughing more and calling to their friends down the hall from my door because they cannot remember what they wanted to ask me and then they run away and then run to my door again once they remember what they were going to ask. Sometimes we play CDs for each other. In this vision, they play me Chinese music; I play them Led Zeppelin, the Rolling Stones, David Bowie, the New York Dolls.
Soon, I got a response from Sheldon:
Thank you so much for sparing me from the usual, “I love China, I want to learn the Chinese culture, and I want to help the Chinese kids learn English.”
I think you would find a great adventure in Shanghai, and you might even want to change cities at some time and find a niche in Chengdu, Kunming, or wherever.
Your reference to Paris brought back memories of my expat days (post Stein- days), although I met Alice B. Toklas and ate some her famous “brownies”.
I have already submitted your resume and material. You probably know the Chinese use their lunar calendar for holidays, and the Spring Festivals (New Year) comes earlier than usual, which mean an earlier start for the spring term.
Understandably, you have commitments until the end of February, which could mean you would not be able to come here until the early part of March. We will see if we can match up appropriate starting dates. When you come, please do bring your records / albums you have recorded.
In any case, please send to me a copy of your passport and the names and contact numbers or addresses of references.
This Sheldon, this stranger a half a world away, seemed to understand my yearnings. Anyone who had partaken in Alice B. Toklas’ famous brownies was certainly a kindred spirit. After I received these emails from Sheldon, I decided that this school was the school for me. Within a few more emails, I had committed myself to the school and the directors of the school had sent me and invitation letter and committed themselves to me. At this point in time if you were not part of an organized tour group through a sanctified travel agency, you needed an invitation letter to enter Mainland China.
I had a good feeling about this Chinese adventure. At this point, I turned off the metaphorical television and packed my bags. I was on my way to China – Shanghai specifically.
Sadly, Sheldon resigned before I arrived in Shanghai, or rather he did not renew his contract with the company. At the time, this seemed inconsequential. Sadly, it was consequential.
Not long before I left NYC, Sheldon sent out a mass email to all of his business contacts telling everyone he had decided to leave the company. The email gave no details. I was not that concerned about it. The reason he did not review his contract would reveal itself in the way of Jo, the old Australian teacher whom I met when I first arrived but more about that later.
Sheldon sent me an individual email telling me a woman named Elizabeth (she was Shanghainese, and that was her English name) would be taking over for him and that she would be my contact. This seemed fine. I did not question anything. I assumed all was well. By this time, my final arrangements had been made; I had my plane ticket; I had accepted the job in Shanghai. Really, I could not reasonably back out at this point, nor did I want to renege.
Before I left for Shanghai, Elizabeth called for a quick phone interview with me. Elizabeth was by no means Sheldon. The two could not have been more different. Her manner was guarded and tentative. At the time, I really did not think much about this. I assumed she was the typical Chinese boarding school headmistress. For the most part, I thought maybe I was nervous about this monumental move that I was about to make. As I mentioned in the previous installment, she was not a good match for the position. She was putty in the hands of Jo and Maureen Bird Flu. But then every adventure needs antagonists right?
My grades were due on Feb 28 in NYC. On March 1st, for better or worse, I boarded a plane to Shanghai’s Pudong International Airport.
Interested in reading the blog I wrote while I lived in China? Go here: