Almost every writer I know is a procrastinator. I certainly am. That is, I was, until I moved to Shanghai, China, last fall to teach, and found myself with six classes and 160 students crammed into two days of classes, and five days a week with nothing to do. I teach oral and written English to graduate students at one of the country’s leading universities, yet homework in my course is discouraged by the administration, so unless there are papers due—and that’s not often—I have roughly fourteen waking hours a day to pass alone. I’ve explored the neighborhood, the campus, the local shopping centers, and all the city’s major museums. Most of the shrines are merely tourist traps, but I’ve checked many of those out, too. As for friends—there aren’t any. So how did I end up here?
Four years ago, I taught in a remote city in northern China and shared an office and too many good times to count with other foreign teachers, many of whom remain good friends. In Shanghai, although it’s a bigger and more international city, the foreign faculty who share my apartment building keep to themselves. The few who speak English are busy with their young Chinese girlfriends and side jobs. We had a getting-to-know-you meeting in the fall, and one dinner at a Brazilian barbeque restaurant in the New Pudong District, but as the semester wore on there were fewer, and then no opportunities to socialize. My only regular contact is the British professor who teaches across the hall from me. He lives off-campus with his Chinese wife and child, and we chat and complain to each other for about five minutes on the two mornings a week we teach.
At my apartment, the one English-speaking channel on television delivers propaganda disguised as news, so I’ve unplugged my TV. Most outside news sources commonly available via internet in other places have been cut off by the Chinese government. I didn’t even know there was an Avian flu outbreak in Shanghai until my parents told me in their weekly phone calls. And as far as the local authorities are concerned, those thousands of dead diseased pigs floating in the Huangpu River haven’t damaged the local water supply one bit.
In short, I live in a vacuum, a world insulated from the West, fearful and often disdainful of Westerners, and very lonely. Although I enjoy my students, it would be unprofessional to socialize with them. Using the few Chinese phrases I know, nodding, and smiling, I have friendly relationships with a few shopkeepers; others, and even older people walking down the street, scowl at me in disapproval. So I pass the time taking walks, reading, listening to my ipod, watching American television shows I download onto my laptop, and, yes, writing. I’ve finally begun my memoir, the one I’ve been meaning to start forever, and that blank computer screen that used to be my nemesis is now my best friend. I find that writing about my solo experiences, observations of people, loneliness, and occasional despair is not only cathartic, but serves as a sort of friend, someone with whom to share my deepest feelings—ironically, many that I wouldn’t share with other people, but which may be open to anyone who cares to read the piece if it is ever published. I’ve even applied for a National Endowment for the Arts Literature Fellowship to help to finance me in finishing my memoir-in-progress.
So far, I’ve completed fifty pages. To be honest, the writing flowed more easily during fall semester. There were those occasional faculty outings to write about, my solo excursions, and my students’ reactions to different contemporary topics I gave them to discuss during oral English lessons. I’ve woven in my earlier experiences in Shenyang, China, and there still is much to say about that (mostly good, along with one dreadful experience I won’t go into here). I’ve written about spending Thanksgiving as a normal working day, and strolling through the lovely French Concession area of the city alone and miserable on Christmas day.
Over time, however, I’ve become less and less productive. Early in the spring semester, depression settled in to stay. This illness isn’t entirely new to me—I’ve experienced major bouts of depression periodically throughout my life—but the disease breeds in isolation, when there is nothing to do but ruminate on one’s own dark thoughts. I’ve grown to understand why human rights advocates believe that putting prisoners in solitary confinement is a form of psychological torture, because I could hardly be more isolated than I am unless I were in a jail cell. Still, I can put on a bright face for my students, and give a friendly wave to a colleague when we pass on the street, or exchange a brief greeting with him (I’m the only female American teacher here), and send coherent responses to the administrative staff when they contact me about holidays or exam dates.
One thing I know for sure: I will never return to China, and probably never teach abroad again. The stakes are too high—I don’t know if I’ll find amiable cohorts, as I did in Shenyang, or end up totally alone again. And my father, who is frail and in poor health, needs me to come home and help care for him. I miss my adorable five-year-old niece immensely, even though we Skype every Sunday night. I fear I am missing the best months of her life, and wasting much of what’s left of my own middle-age. I will finish my memoir, I know. It just might take me longer than I thought it would.