So I have a lot of people in mind as a I write this. That makes me grateful, because it tells me that I have a lot of folks that I feel accountable to for my life decisions (and G’s too, I suppose, but let me speak only for myself here).
What’s happening is this: after moving to Malaysia from India to take up an assistant professorship at a new university, three months later I’ll be moving to the US for a visiting assistant professorship at an undergraduate college in Fall 2018, followed by Vancouver in Spring 2019.
Now, why would you go and do such a thing, you might ask? And especially to anyone who knows anything about academia, a (potentially) permanent academic job is sort of the holy grail anyone who’s been put on the PhD track. It’s assumed that your end goal in life is to be a professor. This itself is very problematic, because there are less professor jobs than graduating PhDs out there, and increasingly so, but let’s not go into that.
And I won’t deny that the job that I have right now has lots of perks: good facilities, good pay, somewhat flexible work hours, nice colleagues. While it’s far from home, I can take public transit and still live at home, which is nice because my parents have been empty nesters for the last two years. And it’s been a long time for me too, over ten years since I’ve actually lived at home instead of just visiting. But the job has its downsides: the worst of which to me is the bureaucracy of the Malaysian education system which fosters an unhealthy work environment, and the culture of showing up for work whether or not there’s work to do. All things considered, we have it pretty good here: I hear that at other universities the professors punch in and punch out of work. Things could always be worse. (Okay, some of you with nine-to-fives might be rolling your eyes right now, but listen: first of all, research is supposed to be a 24-7, whenever your brain is awake kind of deal, so we don’t usually stop thinking after leaving work at 5. Secondly, if I were going to do a 9-to-5 I might as well, say, get a job in industry where the pay scale is certainly higher.)
So that’s the details on the job. Pros and cons. What’s else is new? I think leaving India, even though we decided it was the best way forward, was in the end kind of a shock to the rhythm of our lives. You’ll understand this if you’ve lived in India, and had friends there: there’s just so much life to living in India. Now, I’m not going to be some foreigner gushing abut how ‘exotic’ India is, but the truth is that all the colour and the cacophony and the chaos of living in a large Indian city really permeates your entire being. True story: my sweat started to smell like curry at the end of it! Look it up—ingested turmeric, like alcohol, actually does escape through your pores. And add to that the amazing group of friends that we had left behind: we communicated basically everyday over chat, met up at least once a week, often more, and many lived in walking distance to each other!
All that to say when we landed in Malaysia, I was met with the comfort of home, but also a very big void. It’s a strange kind of emptiness: in Malaysia the air is somewhat still; life moves at a slower pace than elsewhere. Even though we still have traffic jams and discos and thunderstorms all year round, life seems to mostly revolve around good food, an honest day’s work, and just getting by. Elsewhere we’ve lived, New York is hustling and bustling, and Germany, well, was an orderly opposite of India. But in each place, we were a different kind of immigrant, learning to get by amongst other kinds of migrants. Here in East Asia, there’s no need. I can relax. I can be absorbed into the majority culture, and be seen as an individual. Oh! I think I just got a taste of white privilege. (The kind where you’re not constantly seen as representative of an entire people group, but just as an individual. Like a ‘lone wolf shooter’ instead of a ‘Muslim terrorist’.)
Let’s track back a little: I said that moving out of India seemed like the best way forward for us. What did I mean by that? Well, even though the richness in our personal lives reached a kind of a peak (though perhaps more so in hindsight), our professional lives looked like it was starting to slow down, stagnate. On the one hand, the academic job market is a real ringer, and going through it several years in a row has taken a toll on me. And after a while it’s hard not to see the shortcomings of academic mathematics: how it props up white males, and by and large takes on the familiar contours shaped by Western hegemony and patriarchy. Even when I hear a successful woman mathematician say she thinks of mathematics as pure, as not being connected to gender, I can’t help but think of a white person saying they don’t see race. No thanks.
So, at the end of the day, I was starting to wonder what life could be like outside of academia. And honestly, the world we live in today is accelerating towards a future that’s not very bright, and I feel this growing yearning, or urgency, to at least try to be on the side that’s working towards a positive change. Or less negative change. Things like climate change and social justice, where you know there’s no magical cure-all: none of us are going to end racism or sexism or any kind of phobia, nor are we going to save the polar ice caps from melting or sea-levels from rising or the extreme climate events from proliferating. But I really believe that even if we don’t work to stop even some of it, we have to bear witness. Someone has to remember the things that have come to pass. History is how we make sense of how we got here; history is how we figure out where to go from here. So moving on to a different job, a different location, might help me work towards that.
But that’s just me. It doesn’t help that in India and Malaysia, the bureaucracy has made it prohibitively hard for G to get a job. Also, finding a good job is hard. We all know. Also, if you know what we’ve been up to the last year or so, you’ll know that this is Plan B. Our Plan A fell through, this is in part just us trying to put the pieces together, put on a brave face, and take a step forward.
We have no idea what we’re doing. Fortunately, most grown-ups don’t know what they’re doing either. So I feel better about that.
If you’ve managed to read this far, I have no idea what you’re doing because this is basically just me writing for myself at this point. It’s my therapy. Don’t you have better things to do?
Anyway, I’m almost done here. One last thing I ought to say, is that I recently got approval for US permanent residency. I feel all kinds of things about that. More on that next time. Congratulations are in order, I guess, because no matter how you look at it, it’s a lot of money and time and paperwork, so getting anything like that over with is worth a pat on the back. On the other hand, I bristle at getting congratulated, because it literally means that the settler coloniser empire has granted me—me!—permission to permanently reside in that land they took from the Native Americans and enslaved Africans on. If you’re a US citizen, you’re probably feeling a little out of sorts at this, but I love you! I really like you and all the very good friends that I have made. The US, I readily acknowledge, has a lot of light and darkness. I’m really grateful for the friends and family that I have made there, and that will never change. But this is the way things are. Life is messy, we should all be used to that by now.
There’s a lot we have to be grateful for. In such a short span of time we’ve gotten to know so many wonderful people, learned a lot about the world, traveled to many places, and have had our ways of thinking pushed and challenged. We’ve met refugees and expats and migrants. All that possibly at the expense of career success, perhaps, in the very mainstream sense.
And so that’s where we’re at right now. Somewhere in between, still figuring it out, confused a lot of the time. Baby steps.