*I was going to title this post Apostrophe to the End of Term (or, Isn’t it Byronic, don’t you think?) but decided it would be way too obscure and nerdy and not even all that clever. The cleverness factor would have been bumped up several notches, however, if only I had still been working at Shanghai Ocean University. It’s really hard to fit the name ‘Tongji’ into an English allusion.
One of the more difficult aspects of expattery is that everything is fleeting. Hell, you and your life are fleeting. Ephemeral, one might even say. Every year, I seriously contemplate where to go next, which abrupt change to make, what to discard, what to keep. For two decades, I was the one darting in and out of people’s lives, repeatedly shedding my temporary identities like so many replaceable skins. They did the same but since I was leaving too, I didn’t notice it so much.
However, we’ve reached the 3.5 year mark in Shanghai and the 2 year mark on our current flat and I’m almost stubbornly clinging to this thin veneer of stability. There are people here that I’ve known for 2, 3 and even the full 3.5 years! How novel! How delightfully reeking of continuity and a sense of grounded community!
And a lot of them are leaving. Or have already left. Or intend to leave in the next few months. Or threaten to leave on a regular basis.
And it’s not just friends who leave. No, as a teacher, I also lose the 50-odd kids that I spend every working day with for most of a year a time. Every freaking year. Fifty more kids gone, more or less. Like empty nest syndrome on an industrial scale.
Every freaking year. For over a decade now. Sometimes twice a year or more, when on a semester system.
The heartbreak of academia.
(My under-slept and overworked brain initially wanted to write The Heartbreak of Psoriasis but that was just wrong).
My most recent job out at Tongji University was such a tease. Every September, as a department of one, I was presented with my two classes (poetically named Group One and Group Two), whom I would see every day for several hours each, until the end of the following June.
Being a department of one is a very intense thing. You don’t share. Everything that goes on in the program is your responsibility, your joy, your frustration. There are no colleagues to dilute your interactions with the kids, no one to bitch to, no one to commiserate with. Everything is heightened. It’s insanely exhausting. It’s also insanely invigorating.
After the foundation year is done, the kids move on to Year 2 (which is the business diploma program). Some drop out along the way. Fifty kids become thirty become twenty five. The ones who make it through the accounting and law courses (in English) are then shipped off to Australia to complete their degrees, as planned. You may or may not ever hear from them again.
I was a teacher at Tongji for two years, and affiliated with it for the third year (aka tutoring occasionally). I watched two cohorts of kids pass from my academic prep year to the business diploma year. I saw a lot less of them in their second year, of course, but they were around. We said hi in the halls. We made small talk. Clusters came to see me when I was tutoring one of them. It was sweet and familiar. I felt a sense of continuity.
I bade my first group of kids goodbye last May, at their going away
piss up banquet. Last Friday, I did the same with my last crop of kids.
I wasn’t prepared for it at all.
First of all, I had no idea it was even happening.
I was somewhere in the back alleys behind Nanjing Road East, trying to find the old theatre where the national anthem had first been played, having just trekked for the past seven hours around the city for the last instalment of my walking tour app series. With the construction dust of Hongkou clinging to my sweat (summer is back, yes) and my poor socks in tatters (both heels and toes were worn through from too much walking), I got a text message from Cissy, my lovely ex admin assistant at Tongji.
The grad banquet for my last round of kids was starting at 6pm. There had been a mix up with the invitations: she had thought the class monitor had invited me and he had thought Cissy had done it. It was only when another student had asked both of them if I was coming that they realised that neither had.
Thus, the frenzied invitation at just before 5pm on the day.
I stood there, in front of the National Anthem theatre, amidst a cluster of parked bicycles, cars honking, people staring, trying to figure out how to make it work. The kids were finished their course and most would be heading back to their home towns the next day, then to Australia soon after. This was it. My last chance to say goodbye. I felt gutted at the thought of missing it.
But I already had plans. Doug and I had dinner reservations. Because of my anti-social work schedule, I’d been busy or away every single weekend since early April (and even that was a brief lull in my travel schedule, as I’d spent most February and March weekends in Hangzhou, Zhengzhou and Nanjing). Dinner together would have been very nice indeed.
So I compromised. I’d stay with the kids until 7pm, then jump into a taxi to meet Doug for a late dinner.
As it was nearly 5pm and the graduation banquet was scheduled for 6pm, I jumped into a taxi to go home for a quick shower and costume change then dashed back out the door, much tidier, minus the holey socks.
It was a very intense hour, but I’m glad I did it. I want to show you who I said goodbye to. I’m going to miss these guys.
Oh, wait- we need a food porn shot of the spread!
That’s the lovely Cissy on the right, by the way.
They made their toasts with milk in shot glasses. How cute is that?