A Look at Being a Migrant Academic

One of the great things about being an applied linguist, especially one that specializes in teaching English to speakers of other languages (TESOL), is that it gives you unique access to the global job market. This is because of the wide-spread use of English as a lingua franca, or mutual language, in several sectors like diplomacy, business, and science. Certainly, the global spread of English is not without issue. However, this week, I’m going to focus on what life is like as a migrant academic. Here a migrant academic will refer to those of us who are engaged in academic labor in universities that are not housed in our home countries. This term is being used in place of terms like ex-pat faculty, which carries a certain Western bias, or international academic, as the modern academic is often publishing and presenting at international conferences and teaching students from all over the world. All academic now have the potential to make a global impact. Migrant academics, however, have decided to move to a new country for a work appointment. In some cases, this may be because of a wish to live in a place, or to carry out research in a given national context. Or, it could be because employment opportunities have contracted in their home countries.

This week, I’ll be using my own experiences to discuss life as a migrant academic. I plan on speaking frankly, sharing the opportunities, risks, challenges, and rewards. Understand, that these are based on my personal experiences, and are by no means representative. Allow me to begin by contextualizing my experiences.

In 2015, I was wrapping up my Ph.D. in Applied Linguistics/Second Language Studies at Purdue University. I had applied to about 75 tenure-track, non-tenure track, and administrative positions. By April of 2015, I had received a few campus visits—for director positions—and two job offers. Both of my job offers were for Sino-American joint venture (SAJV) universities. After much thinking, I decided to join the faculty of my current institution, NYU Shanghai (上海纽约大学). NYU Shanghai is a start-up SAJV university in the heart of the financial district of Shanghai. This spring, I’ll start my fourth semester on staff. Since I’ll be returning to the office in a few days, I’ll start by focusing on the personal aspects of being a migrant academic.

Personal Opportunity

Perhaps the greatest opportunity is that for personal growth and development. I moved to Shanghai about a day-and-a-half after I walked across the stage at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana. My mom, step-dad, sister, and fiancé were there. Granted, my partner and I were working on about three hours’ sleep because of travel delays. I remember shaking hands with Mitch Daniels, president of Purdue when he asked me what was next. I told him I was off to Shanghai for work and he responded, “That’s so cool!” Yeah, it is freaking cool!, I thought to myself as I walked down the stairs to watch the rest of the very long commencement ceremony.

However, two days later and in the grips of the sultry Shanghai summer heat, I was having second thoughts. I had forgotten to pack deodorant; couldn’t find it in any stores, and had gotten stuck on Line 2 of the Shanghai Metro during rush hour. And, my broken Chinese wasn’t helping, as I was asking store clerks for auto air freshener instead of antiperspirants. I was tired, didn’t smell that fresh, scared of what the future might hold, and missing my partner. I was ready to just go back to the U.S. and be a stay-at-home dad.

However, I stuck it out, navigated the Shanghai rental market and immigration bureaucracy, and started a new job. And, with that, the first bit of personal growth began to take hold…I was becoming more patient with different ways of doing things. I also developed a bit of a sense of humor. Being able to laugh at the minor travails and my linguistic slip-ups. These, I will say, are some of the most significant bits of being a migrant faculty member, patience and a good sense of humor. I’ve heard others complain that “Things are so different!” Yes, yes they are. That’s half the fun. Do things take longer at the bank? Yes, but that’s a superb time to catch up on reading…or Candy Crush. You do you. Do the tacos taste more like the idea of tacos with Chinese-flavors? Sure, do. But, shou zhua bing (手抓饼) is a tasty alternative—and Taco Bell is back in Shanghai. Certainly, things can get frustrating. However, making new friends with different perspectives on life and world events helps you to critically think about your worldviews.

Another great opportunity is to work on acquiring a new language—or to dust off one that you haven’t gotten to use in a while. I know that my Chinese has improved drastically since moving to China, especially since I have a few friends who either speak very little English or who are more comfortable conversing in Chinese. This required me to become more comfortable with taking risks and with failing. But, it’s led to an increase in my strategic communicative skills, like relying on various Sociocognitive tools (dictionaries, body language, etc.). There will be days where you just can’t even. There are days when I’m tired and frustrated with life and just “can’t Chinese.” But, binge watch a show, sleep in, walk along the Bund and try again tomorrow. Now, the downside of this is that when I come home for long stints my Chinese atrophies…making each new term feel like I’m starting over in Chinese.

There are, however, challenges. I’m about 8,000 some odd miles away from my family and my small dog. There are days, many, that I miss them terribly. There are times that I worry that I’m missing out on their whole lives. But, being this far apart forces us to be more appreciative of the time that we spend together when I’m in the U.S. It means that we take greater advantage of our time together. It also forces us to not take that time for granted. There are some payoffs. Two apartments mean that when we’re apart, we can each keep the house the way that we like—neat and tidy for him, a bit more chaotic for me. It also means that we can focus more on our careers while we’re apart, and concentrate more on our relationship when we’re together.

I’ll be honest. On the personal front, being a migrant academic is very challenging. There are days when you question if you made the decision. But, the possibility for personal growth, for linguistic development, for new experiences. It’s great. It really is. Don’t get me wrong. My husband and I are keeping an eye towards the future. But, for the time being, we’ve found a way that seems to work for where we are in our relationship and in our careers. It’s been very, very rewarding.


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