When I came home late one afternoon, early evening really, there was a letter lying on the kitchen table. Neither the kind with a window that inevitably brings a bill or something equally as uninteresting nor a handwritten one that demanded to be read sitting down with a cup of tea, this one was an official envelope without a window but with my name on it. Inside I found a letter sent by Nottingham University in response to an application for a job that I had made months before and had since completely forgotten about. It seemed that the university was asking me to appear before an interview panel on Monday the 18th of April at 4.05 (Chinese time) in room 345 Administration Building, located on its campus in Ningbo, China 315100. In preparation therefore I was to report to a certain Mister Sheldon Chen of Human Resources, housed in the aforementioned building. The letter went on to say that the university promised to reimburse my airfares, accommodation and meals against valid receipts up to 150 RMB per day. But I was told in very stern language that the meal allowance in total should not exceed 450RMB. All that sounded fine and dandy, regardless of the fact that I had no idea whatsoever what RMBs were and how they converted into Australian dollars.
If I had any questions I could address them to a certain Miss Rachel Kay at the university’s main campus in England in writing at least three days beforehand. As it happened, I did have a few other questions, the first of which was “Where the Hell is Ningbo”? Wasn’t Ningbo a character in the Mikado? My knowledge of places in the Middle Kingdom was rather limited. Beijing and Shanghai were about it, and to be honest I wasn’t really sure where in China they actually were. Hong Kong and the Supper Inn in Melbourne’s China Town were about as close as I had been to China. Professor Google sprung to my rescue and informed me that it was sub-level city in the province of Zhejiang, located according the tiny Google map a mere hop, skip and a jump south of Shanghai by a short bridge. Cool, a few days in Shanghai, a couple of questions and Bob’s your uncle. So I replied that I would be delighted to attend but were they sure that we couldn’t do this via video-link? It wasn’t that I didn’t want to go but I wanted to make sure that this was a two-way interview. Just because they were flying me there and back didn’t mean that I was committing myself to anything. No, they eventually replied, it was essential that we meet face-to-face, to get a feel for each other and so on. Fair enough. Having asked the question and received that answer meant that the trip would be guilt free, whatever eventuated in terms of employment.
A few days before I was due to depart I realized that the tickets that I had been sent were to Shanghai. That was good because I wanted to avail myself of the opportunity to have a look around that city, but I had expected to be sent something like a train ticket to get me from there to Ningbo. Like 99.9% of the world’s population, I had no clear idea where Ningbo actually was or how I was supposed to get there. A desperate last minute email to the university was left unanswered – apparently they were serious about the three days notice – so I had to again turn to my only friend in the world, Professor Google, who led me to a Chinese volunteer trip advisor. Obviously I wasn’t the only one who had been left to his own devises to get to university’s campus in Ningbo because there were a number of similar questions from other travelers. Luckily the young woman who runs the website for lost and confused international students heading to the university in China had provided clear advice. With a printout of that in hand, I kissed my beloved goodbye and boarded the Southern China Airlines plane that would hurtle me northwards.
Southern China Airways is very cheap for a very good reason. Because they have spaced their seats for the average Chinese person, they can fit an incredibly large number of them in their metal tubes. On my plane alone there were close to about three thousand little small boned, almond-eyed folk, happily sitting down. I, on the other hand, am 1.89 meters tall with confused eyes sunk deeply in insomniac bags. More importantly, my thighbone is longer than the space allocated to each seat. I physically couldn’t get in without doubling up. And as luck would have it, I had been assigned a window seat – which for watching out was useless because it was a night flight. It simply meant that once in, I would not be able to get out for the next ten hours. I asked one of the cabin crew whether she might be able to find me a seat with some more room. She looked up at me, cricking her neck, and replied that I was very tall. At least we had agreement on that particular issue and I looked at her hopefully. She responded by looking at my boarding pass and helpfully pointing to my assigned seat. Apparently there was to be no change, so I folded myself into the impossibly small space and prayed that my bladder would hold out.
China Southern is not only the world’s most cramped airline it is also the world’s most boring. There are no individual video screens, no thousands of movies to select from, no earphones that work and no free booze. There is no friendly cabin-crew, there is no one who speaks English on the whole plane and the pilot obviously found his licence at the bottom of a Show Bag. Okay, that last one is unnecessarily insulting but the rest are true. It was seriously the worst flight I have ever been on – and I have flown JAT Air where the cabin staff help themselves to the booze first and smoke incessantly whilst sitting on the floor in the aisle as the plane was landing. Anyone who thinks that time isn’t relative should cramp himself into seat 43A on the China Southern flight to Shanghai. Your watch will slow down to an imperceptible crawl and your brain will turn to a slurry. Saliva will dribble onto your chin, your eyelids will fly half-mast and your power of speech will desert you. The woman next to will have atrocious personal hygiene and snore when she sleeps and ignore you when you need to get out to go to the loo. The attendant will look at you as if you are a moron when you ask for chicken and give you beef instead. And most of all, the toilet will be disgusting. You will be ill and outraged but actually it’s the best introduction to China you could have. According to the clock, the trip took nine and half hours. According to my bladder and brain it took nine and half days. To say it was Hell is to do Dante an injustice. Welcome to China, the tiny screen at the front of the plane said when we landed after an eternity. Well, People’s Republic of China, if your airline is any indication, you’re bloody welcome to it as well.
Shanghai’s Pu Dong airport is big. It has to be to service such a massive city. More people live there than in all of Australia. Descending into it is like dropping into a steaming cauldron: first you have to get through a thick layer of smog. After you’ve landed, your plane has to taxi a distance the equivalent of from Melbourne to Sydney but eventually you dock and you are released. You smile at your odorific, throat-singing companion who snarls in return and off you go, stepping boldly onto communist soil. Those Reds that your father toured Vietnam to stop from invading Australia; those Reds who populate all major Australian cities China towns; those Reds upon who our universities depend: they are right here, waiting outside the doors of the airport.
As might be expected none of them spoke English. Or Dutch. Or French. Or any language in which I had a chance of making myself understood. What had I expected? In my inimitable style I hadn’t expected anything because I hadn’t actually thought about anything practical. All I knew was that I was standing in a bloody big airport with a backpack, dressed for the Melbourne winter on what was fast becoming apparent was a humid Shanghai summer’s day. So, in what would become a regularly unsuccessful habit, I collared the nearest young Chinese person and asked her what I should do.
“What do you want?” she asked in a broad Australian drawl.
“You can speak English?” My face broke into joyous happiness.
“That’s because I’m Australian,” she replied while retained the annoyed look on hers.
“Brilliant. How do I get to Ningbo?”
“A sub-level provincial city in Zhejiang, of course!”
“How would I know how to get to bloody Knobbo, or whatever? Didn’t you hear me? I’m Australian.” And off she flounced into the land of her forefathers, leaving me standing on the footpath, none the wiser except for knowing that not everyone who looks Chinese actually is Chinese.
A few months earlier I had done a consultancy in Saudi Arabia. They flew me there with Emirates, business class, seriously close to Heaven, and had a driver with an air-conditioned Mercedes and a friendly smile waiting for me in the arrival hall at Riyadh, holding up a card with my name on it. In English! Here there was nothing to greet me except a mass of confusing signs in a language that I had no chance of understanding and a hot humid climate that came rushing into the arrivals hall whenever a door opened. It was a defining moment: the realisation that this could be a mistake. But as dear old Mister Davidson used to say in grade 12 Modern British History, in the face of adversity there is nothing else to do but close your eyes, call on the gods and bash on regardless! Well, thanks, Davo. I didn’t learn anything about Modern British History in your classes but your decidedly whacko attitude to life has stood me in good stead on many occasions. Wondering yet again how something that was modern could also be historic, it was time to try to bluff my way to Ningbo.
First, I had to find the right number 7 bus, the only one that would take me to the South Shanghai bus station. Under no circumstances should I get on the other number 7 bus because that would take me to Central Shanghai bus station. Seeing I didn’t know the Chinese symbol for either bus or 7, this was no easy task and the likelihood of getting on the wrong bus was looming large in my rapidly over-heating brain. It was fortunate that I had rammed random clothes and other necessities into a moderate backpack because that meant that there was no waiting for suitcases at the baggage claim merry-go-round and I managed to sneak through customs without a hitch. The female officer scrutinized my facial features, compared them with the snap of the Russian mafia boss that masquerades as my passport photo and stamped every bit of paper within reach as if she was going for the world record in chopping wood. Then, looking up with a smile, and in perfectly intelligible English said, “Welcome to China!” So I smiled back and mesmerized her with my entire Mandarin vocabulary, “She she!”
And off I went, stumbling into the People’s Republic of China, looking for a town called Ningbo. I mean, it had to be out there somewhere.
It is hard for foreigners to believe that a city of seven and half million people can be referred to as another city’s “little sister” until you realize that the big sister in this case is Shanghai, which has a population that is knocking on the door of 30 million and growing at an incredible rate. It’s like taking all the people living in Australia, New Zealand and New Guinea put together and putting them all in the Gold Coast. I know that most of the Kiwis and Tasmanian pensioners are already there but you get the drift. We are talking mega-crowded!
Shanghai and little sister Ningbo are kept apart by the shallow but very broad Hangzhou Bay, which is actually the massive gaping mouth of the Qiantang River as it enters the East China Sea. On the northern shore of the bay lies Shanghai; on the southern shore lies Ningbo and at the third point of the triangle, miles inland where the river is still a river rather than a bay, lies delightful city of Hangzhou, the provincial capital after which the bay is named. For the geographically curious, the Qiantang River used to be called the Zhe River and that is why the province is called Zhejiang. Portentously, nothing is named after Ningbo.
Shanghai is an internationally renowned mega-city loved universally for its Art Deco bund, its colourful CBD skyscrapers and as a place where foreigners can have a good time. Hangzhou not only is the provincial capital, it also has the famous and beautiful West Lake, is an historic city of note with sensational pagodas and boasts a world-class cultural and educational hub, not to mention the surrounding hillsides where tea plantations and summer retreats dot the landscape. At first glance Ningbo has little more than a richly deserved inferiority complex. Even the longest bridge in the world, the one that joins Shanghai with Ningbo is known as the Hangzhou Bridge – admittedly as a shortened version of Hangzhou Bay Bridge, but still. Even now, if you want to go from Ningbo to Shanghai by train you have to go via Hangzhou. It’s just not fair.
Without a great deal of thought I had chosen the bus route because that would take me over the bridge. At first thought, the idea of a 35.7 miles long bridge was pretty appealing and this way it would take me about two and half hours to get to Ningbo, rather than the four by train. Also it cost 100 RMB, which translated into about $15 in Australian money – fact that made my daily food allowance barely sufficient for breakfast. At first it was a pretty comfortable ride, with a great view of the bay and enough room to stretch out my legs but after about ten minutes, I realised that the view was not going to change, a realisation that I could have predicted had I been clearer in mind. I mean, it’s the sea. It’s going to be wet and grey pretty much the whole way. And so it proved to be. I tried to nod off but the seat became increasingly more uncomfortable as the journey progressed, so I settled into a familiar semi-comatose, saliva-dribbling stupor. It’s a skill I have.
Eventually I got to the university by means of a taxi from the East Ningbo bus station to the campus. The cabbie used his hands and fingers to tell me he wanted the equivalent of about ten dollars. Sweet, I thought and happily handed over a wad of RMB. The official name for China’s currency is yuan but the country loves parading its Communist heart by referring to everything as “the people’s ….” or rénmín in Mandarin. Somewhere in every town there is a rénmínjiē (people’s street), a rénmínlù (people’s road) and a rénmíngōngyuán (people’s park). So, it comes as no surprise that they mostly use rénmínbì (people’s money), abbreviated to RMB, rather than yuan. Actually, most people use the term kwai, like we’d say ‘buck’ for a dollar, because we in Australia are now Americans.
Later I would find out that the taxi-driver had charged me double, but at that moment I didn’t care. Dragging my backpack behind me like a reluctant child whose tantrum I wasn’t going to put up with, I found a door in an iron gate and throwing caution to wind but without disturbing the guard sleeping soundly in a cabin just inside, I entered, determined to get to my bed as soon as possible. You never know, I could wake up at home, make myself a decent coffee and have a laugh over breakfast as I told my yawning wife about the crazy dream I’d been having.
I dragged my reluctant suitcase past a large round fountain, studded at intervals like a clock-face with large statues of frogs from whose mouths gushed streams of water, up the steps and into a building that according to the large letters over it’s portico was called the Staff Hotel. When I approached the counter in the lobby a young woman behind the desk opened her eyes and immediately jumped up, startled and slightly panicky, staring at me as if she was sure I meant to do her harm.
“Hello, I’m Andrys Onsman. I think you have a reservation for me.”
Now, I know I’m not the prettiest bloke in the world, but really there was no need for her eyes to bulge in terror as if I was going to rip out her kidneys to sell on E-Bay. China doesn’t have E-Bay for start. She gulped several times, never taking her eyes off me, and then said in perfect Mandarin, “Can you speak perfect Mandarin?” Not having the faintest idea what she actually said, I somewhat unnecessarily told her in fluent English that I couldn’t speak Chinese. At much the same time, she was telling me she couldn’t speak English in fluent Chinese.
With a lot of gesticulation she said something that sounded like “huh huh wa wa nee!” and ran off like a demented Persephone to somewhere deep in the bowels of the hotel, somewhere dark and mysterious where I, a most reluctant Orpheus, was obviously not to follow. King Hell, all I wanted was the key to my room and get some kip. I had an interview to bluff my way through tomorrow. I stood there, waiting for at least three days – or ten minutes, whichever comes first, until eventually a less agitated but equally inept speaker of English came gingerly into the lobby, ushered in by the desk manager, who was hiding behind her while at the same time pushing her forward. Mustering up all her courage the second woman said, “No room!”
You have got to be kidding me. No room? It’s a bloody big hotel and it’s the middle of the holidays. There is dust on everything: nobody had been here for days, woman. There have to be rooms.
“My name is Onsman. Please check again.”
She blinked a few times, her eyelashes like window wipers on the inside of her glasses but made no attempt to consult her register. After a lengthy pause something seemed to crop up as a possibility that might break this impasse.
Now we were getting somewhere. Yes, I would like a room. I’d also like something to eat. And a couple of whiskeys wouldn’t go astray either. Think you could manage that? I know it’s a big ask but well, you know, this is a hotel. That’s basically what people expect in hotels: a bed, a beer and burger.
“Yes. I want a room.”
She rumbled around in a drawer and triumphantly came up with a key that she presented to me as if I had won first prize at the Olympics. I took it, bowed and smiled, and turned to where I had seen the elevators. The woman stood stock still, watching me stride across the lobby. Obviously she was wanting to ask me something; like who I was and who was paying for this but that line of enquiry fell outside her lexicon and she was paralysed. Sorry, love, there’s nothing I can do about it. Let’s sort it out in the morning. Sweet dreams! And the doors of the elevator swished shut and it carried me up to the second floor, where, walking along a corridor that was exactly like the one in which John Goodman ran through the flames in Barton Fink, I found my room, unlocked the door and fell on the bed.
Disconcertingly, when I woke up the next morning, I was still there. It seemed that it hadn’t been a dream after all and I would have to get up and prepare myself for a job interview. I searched amongst my still unpacked possessions for information. Surely someone knew what I was supposed to be doing here. The instructions on the letter still said that I was in the first instance to report to Mister Sheldon Chan in the Administration Building at 3.45 pm (Chinese time). I had to find out where his room was because the letter had omitted that bit of information but I managed to get there a few minutes early and waited until the exact (Chinese) time to knock on the door of room 412. I might do a rubbish interview but they would not be able to fault me on punctuality. It’s a Northern European thing – we are all anal about being on time. Obviously it is a trait that the Chinese do not share because Mister Chan didn’t invite me in when I knocked.
After a minute or so I knocked again and but there was still no reply. Maybe he was a little hard of hearing: I rapped on his door hard enough to hurt my knuckles. Silence. So, I boldly pushed on the door handle – which didn’t yield because it was locked. There were two possibilities. Maybe Sheldon had locked himself in his room by mistake and then by way of some kind of freak accident had knocked himself unconscious and was at this very minute bleeding slowly to death from the head wound he received when he fell on the corner of his desk. The alternative possibility was that he wasn’t there.
Deciding that the latter was the more likely scenario I walked up the hall of the fourth floor of the Administration Building, looking for an office that had any kind of human life in it. A little way around the corner I found the International Office and as I am nothing if not international I asked a young woman where I might find Sheldon Chan. She looked up from her desk and replied, “Nottingham”. She must have seen that I was perplexed because she added, “in England”. Yeah, thanks for that. I know where freakin’ Nottingham is, lady. I’ve seen it in that movie with Russell Crowe.
The possibility suddenly struck me that I had got the date wrong, but when I re-checked my letter there it was: Monday April 18 2011. And it still went on to say that the interview would be conducted at 4.05 (Chinese time), which was rapidly approaching. I mean, I was minutes away from delivering my 5-10 minute presentation to the interview panel on the riveting topic of “Your research and its potential impact”. I was eager to find out for myself what the impact of my research was going to be because in truth I had very little idea of what I was going to say. I am one of those delusional fools who have convinced themselves that they rely on the adrenalin. In the real world, it’s not nearly as efficient as actually preparing – trust me on that.
To say that I was getting a bit toey is an understatement. I’d just come thousands of bloody miles and this slip of a girl is telling me that Sheldon freakin’ Chan is in England. She must have noticed my discomfort because with a great deal of reluctance she got up from behind her desk and led me to a small room, empty except for a big television screen. What the actual??
Paying no heed to my rising distress, she turned on her heels and left without saying another word. I sat down and put my bits of paper on the table in front of me. For five minutes or so I sat staring at the wall opposite, wondering if I had wandered into some kind of a weird parallel Kafkaesque universe. Then suddenly the screen burst into life and five people peered at me. There was still nobody else in the room where I was sitting. Then there was a bit of squawking and crackling and a voice that was startlingly like that of Margaret Thatcher said “Hello, Andrys. Have I said your name correctly?”
The first impression at an interview is so very important, so I suspected that the image of me sitting there large and alone in a room in China on a big TV screen somewhere in England, opening and shutting my mouth like a stunned mullet, was going to put me way behind the eight ball. Finally I managed to say, quite unnecessarily as they could see for themselves, that there was no one else here.
“No, it isn’t quite the way we planned it. But, shall we get on with it? There are other candidates and we mustn’t get behind schedule”. Mustn’t? No, of course, we mustn’t. Who on Earth says, “mustn’t”? Well, those people inside the telly do, obviously. I felt like saying, ‘Righty ho then chaps, let’s jolly well go!” But I didn’t because I am far braver in theory than in practice. In any case, my opinion wasn’t required as the interview began with introductions. Of course you should make a note of everyone on the panel and when their turn comes to ask you a question you reply addressing them personally. This shows that you have good communication skills, are on the ball and alert and know how to do well at interviews.
I have appalling communication skills, I am aloof rather than alert (in my opinion, a loof is better than a lert, any day) and I have lost jobs that should have been shoe-ins simply because of my terrible interview skills. So I have no idea who the people were on the panel – except two. The Margaret Thatcher voice belonged not to the former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom of Britain but to the current Head of the School of Education. There was another professor there, head of research or something, a blonde haired woman who was leaving to take up a position in South Africa or South America or somewhere the following week. I hope it wasn’t because of something I said. And two other chaps, or maybe one of the chaps was a woman. I can’t remember. And amongst them sat the provost of the university’s campus in China, a large man with a totally bald head and a Scottish accent.
So I gave my shoddily put together presentation to five people on a television screen. I talked about my research and although no one in television land seemed all that interested I was impressed. No, seriously, I would have given me the job just on my ability to make a mountain out of a molehill. I mean, my CV isn’t bad but I made it sound like I had been doing some world-changing research. It’s what you do in interviews: you embroider with golden thread. Would you tell a panel that you are mediocre?
Then came the questions. They were pretty standard but I flustered and flawed, hemmed and hawed and generally cocked up everything that I could possibly cock up. Rather than answer a question simply and directly, I start considering every different angle and give a range of responses that threatened to derail the entire interview with their complexity and irrelevance. It’s a skill I have.
By this stage I knew full well that the interview was going really poorly and secure in the knowledge that I had talked my way out of a job yet again, paradoxically I started to relax. So, when the South Africa bound woman asked me whether I knew anything about cohort based doctoral supervision, I was perhaps a little bit too forthright. I asked her whether she was referring to the Harvard Law School system or to the way the Humboldt University structured their postgraduate laboratory-based cohorts. I had no idea whether Humboldt even had a lab-based cohort system but I was confident that she didn’t either. My knowledge of the Harvard system was based entirely on the Watergate movie, the one with Robert Redford and Dustin Hofman. She had no idea either but being a professional asked me to comment on the advantages of one over the other. So I made up some stuff about the postgraduate cohort I had set up at my previous university – which was basically true but not nearly as grand as I made it out to be. I never tell lies at interviews because if anyone will get found out, it will be me because I am absolutely rubbish at lying. But maximizing the quality of what you have done is a fair tactic: it’s pretty much a matter of opinion whether you are “not bad” or “brilliant”. To be truthful, the only shred of strategy I had was to weave the phrase “community of scholars” into the reply because everyone does, so basically I kept talking until I had. It must have taken me a while because there was a stunned, glazed-eyed silence when I finally drew breath.
Eventually the Provost asked how I would go about establishing a “presence” in China. I was toying with the idea of saying that in the first place I would actually be in China rather than in England, especially if I was interviewing people for jobs such as this one. But just in time the possibility arose in my brain that he was there instead of here because his mother had terminal cancer and he had made a mercy dash at the last minute to hold her hand as she passed away, and it was only because of his dedication to the job that he was at this very moment barely but stoically holding himself together. It’s a fine line between a witty quip and crass insensitive comment but wide enough to cost you a job if you get it wrong.
So I took a different turn and suggested that his vision was too shortsighted. Morphing into Doctor Evil I proposed that the School of Education should be aiming to start as a regional hub but as its focus was to be international, we should be looking to assume a presence throughout not only China but also south east Asia, where, I confidently asserted despite having no idea about whether it was actually true, leadership in international direction setting and co-operation was desperately needed and therefore potentially very rewarding both in the educational sense and in the financial sense. I could see the university’s tentacles expanding like a strawberry plant on steroids into Burma, Vietnam, Laos and various other places about which I had not the slightest knowledge. It sounded like I was going for world domination but in retrospect it may have been that I just wanted to have a crack at a bloke who couldn’t even be bothered to meet candidates for the position. I mean, sure he might have been called away but surely you’d arrange the 2-IC or someone to meet and greet? I know my attitude was pretty crap but surely not as bad as his! How rude – even if his mother had just recently passed away! As it turned out she hadn’t and he was there to go bike riding with his mate, the Vice Chancellor.
So I did my best to make his question sound like it had come from someone who had no idea about education. It seemed to make little or no difference. When some of the more grandiose suggestions I was making off the top of my head were received with enthusiasm, I realized that we had somewhat different ideas about the role of higher education. It probably didn’t justify my condescending behavior but fortunately for my moral wellbeing, that justification would come later.
Finally the Head asked a few questions that actually made sense and therefore I tried to answer them as well as I could – out of relief as much as anything else. She pointed out that regardless of the primacy of doing and publishing research, the position involved as much learning as it did teaching and that a willingness to engage with the circumjacent society was essential. How, she would like to know, had I handled such interactivity before and what had I learnt from those experiences? It was a pretty decent question and one I could spend some time and mental energy answering in detail.
I had fallen into working in the higher education sector by accident. I had only become a teacher because the scholarships were extremely generous. I had studied theatre and drama, although “studied” is far from accurate in describing how I spent those four years. The proportion of good-looking females to straight males was so stacked into the latter’s favour that even I managed to really enjoy myself. Upon graduation I had to teach drama and music, which was fun and not too demanding but after a while I’d had enough and cashed in my chips, and spent years wandering all over the world searching for wealth and wisdom, before returning broke and none the wiser about anything.
One day the local Aboriginal organization asked if I would teach some of their kids how to play in a rock and roll band. I was once more penniless and the pay was good, so I said sure. We had a ball and a few months in, one of the staff asked whether I would like to be the transition officer for Aboriginal kids going to university. How much, did you say? That much? In that case, I’d be delighted. After a while, the crew there asked, somewhat incredulously it must be said, whether it was true that I had a PhD and if I did would I like to lecture on Aboriginal Studies. Of course I would! It was a fantastic adventure and I had to learn so much so fast on the job that I had no time to get cold feet. Our tiny team did so well we were all offered bigger and better jobs. My teaching evaluations turned out pretty good and a bigger university asked me to join their academic development team, teaching their lecturers to teach. Suddenly I was living in a different state doing a different job, wondering how the Hell all that had happened.
Having, as a migrant to Australia had to learn the language and the culture; having had to learn to work with Aboriginal people, seeing how disadvantaged and discriminated against they were; having had to learn how to converse with and guide the development as teachers of a wide range of academics, many of who had no interest in the conversation or their development; learning from and with as well as teaching other people had been how I had become who I was. Of course there is no way you can say that kind of stuff in a job interview: it always comes across as if you are regurgitating Woman’s Weekly columns or as if you are channeling Deepak Chopra and rather than confirm the interview panel’s suspicions that I was completely insane, I only implied it by talking about example where I had worked with others and the benefits had been mutual. Interview panels don’t want to hear about your soul; they want to know if you can do the job; if you will comply with the company and if you are a nut-job. That’s all. After that, it’s all about the looks. Luckily it’s in that order, else I’d be stuffed from the start.
When they asked if I had any questions, I tried to alleviate the tension by asking if I did get the job, would there be anyone actually here on campus. The Provost’s eyebrows shot up at my little attempt at sarcastic humour but the Head allowed a smile to creep up around her lips. The rest of the panel studiously consulted their notes – they obviously had already indicated that the candidate showed a distinct lack of regard for propriety and should not be allowed anywhere near their uninhabited university. So, I gave up, said there was nothing else and got up to leave.
Outside the interview room a young Chinese woman was the next on the list of candidates for the position. I genuinely wished her all the best, as far as I was concerned the job was hers, watch out for the woman with the blonde hair and they only get interested when you talk about your research and how much money you’ve attracted. That was all the advice I could get in before she went in to have a go at convincing a TV screen full of talking heads that she was the best choice for a position that no one seemed to know exactly what it entailed. Good luck, sweetheart, I hope you get it because I don’t want it.