Thank you for your interest, please step aside
Another interesting contribution by Joseph James Alvaro: “This is the case-study of a dilemma in two stages. The first is about searching for decent work in an ageist society; the second is about what can happen, if, ironically, a job (or two) is actually offered. It is a true story about relevance and how we are evaluated by others. And it is about the purgatory and privilege of decision-making. It fits into the victim narrative which we, humans in an inhuman era, seem to know so well.
At my age, it has been difficult to find decent work, even with a PhD. I mean who starts a full-time PhD at 59, finishes at 63 and then expects to get a job in the ageist eco-system of Hong Kong academia? I knew it would be tough. For 6 years I had worked in a decent Hong Kong university, but since finishing my PhD, had found only piecemeal work in small declining local institutions. I was now underemployed, and I felt it. My search included online jobsites, that according to my criteria (lecturer in English), were supposed to send me new positions as they opened up. Inexplicably, however, my criteria were largely ignored and I would receive jobs that were not, by any extension of the imagination, related (actual example below).
Here are the latest vacancies that match your search criteria (Jobsearch 64662).
Senior Lecturer in Sewage, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH), Environmental Health Group – London (UK)
We are seeking to appoint a Senior Lecturer with experience in designing and implementing rigorous studies in low and middle-income sewage works…
Closes 11 September this year
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Meanwhile, I watched my younger, more connected, and probably more productive colleagues go from strength to strength. The world was at their feet. I started my own small training company with a partner and needless to say, soon understood the mafia-like nature of Hong Kong’s tutorial underworld. Options were decreasing, but I persisted. My wife, a hard- working executive, began making comments about grocery shopping, bill-paying, laundry, etc. Evidence was mounting: the beer, the TV, the chips, the midriff…I was clearly in decline.
Nowadays, it seems that the most tedious aspect of a job search is filling in repetitive application forms. Certain corners of Hades are dedicated to their creation. The rule down there is that no two are allowed to be the same. Similar, yes, but not enough to allow you to copy and paste information from one to the other. Each word must be typed in individually, form after form. And most never respond. In my case, a few did, but I didn’t want to work in Canada’s North West Territories, and certainly was not up for any of China’s ‘garden cities’ (been there; done that). One well-known UK institution, for a ‘Lecturer in English’ position, offered me a mere £30K+something per year. I did the math. I was looking for better options – and was not ready to grovel – just yet.
During the 2 years, I had sent out about 60-65 applications. In the process, I learned a few things about Hong Kong universities. They are shamelessly prejudiced. If a job happened to come up at one of them, I would write, saying plainly that I am over 60, potentially saving me the tedium of filling in yet another form. An actual response, in classic Hong Kong bureau-speak, is quoted below:
Thank you for your interest in our position, sir. Regarding your question, our University do have a policy on contractual retirement age. The University’s contractual retirement age for all staff is 60. Staff are expected to retire on age 60 unless they received exceptional approval for reappointment beyond retirement age.
In other words, there is a very long queue of qualified people that you are standing in front of. Please step aside.
The funny thing about job searches is that they can overlap. An application sent somewhere months ago, may suddenly and without notice, bounce back. It’s rare, but it happens. Why, one wonders, did it take so long? The impression is that all the first-tier applicants declined it for some reason, and the search committee are now in crisis as they quickly work their way down the list to the third- and fourth-tier hopefuls. Suddenly, you are a viable candidate.
With the distinct impression that I was not on anyone’s short list, I still prayed for something good to happen. Most unexpectedly, two of my old applications caught up to me, both around the same time. One had been sent out months ago, the other about a year. Was I being pursued? These came from institutions where I actually would want to work. Out of the blue, I now had two firm offers in hand. What was going on? One was from a highly regarded college of art and design (a North American institution), billed as the “college of creative careers”, in a historic HK building where only the very rich can afford tuition. This college had the added benefit of bestowing the title ‘Professor of English’. The hierarchical system of academia, however, is a sort of Jezebel; she gives nothing away cheaply, so to get that title practically overnight just didn’t feel right. The other position in Doha, offered Master of Science degrees in Conflict Management and Humanitarian Action for the Middle East. Teaching English to students on a course with ethical underpinning seemed very appealing. Besides, there are no taxes, free accommodation, and other princely gratuities – Bingo!
Decisions, decisions, decisions!
My world had become a struggle, not the Manichean sort of good vs. evil, but a tussle between two good things. Draw a line down the middle of a paper, they say, list the pros and cons. I did. But I only saw perfect balance. Among other things, both offered what seemed to be brain surgeon salaries with generous benefits. I talked to friends and trusted colleagues; I sought the advice of respected counselors. My chief advisors (family) were open to either job. I flip-flopped. I vacillated. I dithered. I wanted the decision to make itself. I wanted the big hand to just decide for me. I was distraught for a week. Go through the open door, said one, but, said I, are they not both open? Thankfully, no one said ‘just do it’, or ‘follow your dream’. But one old friend did say: be reckless, do what excites you, go for the intrinsic stuff that resonates where you keep your values.
I was holding out, not because I wanted to, but because I was paralyzed, i.e. immobilized by indecision. I needed external endorsement, a sign. Not only did I have to choose, I had to do it soon – the deadline was in a few hours – that very day. Mentally, I went through the paces.
I rehearsed my choices, pictured myself here, pictured myself there. Basking in Doha, weekends at Dubai…I imagined myself, champagne glass in hand, wittily entertaining colleagues and students at the art college. But that’s not a wise way to make a decision. I so wanted one last confirmation from outside, from the universe. Moments later, having reached a muddled crescendo, I received an email from the art college notifying me that they must conduct an extensive background check on me, which meant more forms, more applications, and authorizations that I had to fill out. What if, I thought, something turned up, something questionable…a bad review from a disgruntled ex-student, for example. Could it jeopardize the job? This new factor had injected a level of uncertainty into the process, making me feel vulnerable. Being out of a job on two counts was a risk I would not take. I was now leaning toward Doha. Looking for that last indicator, I opened my email.
Dear Dr Alvaro
We are pleased to attach your visa for Doha. Best wishes
The big hand had moved and the planets aligned.
In retrospect, I understand that the dilemma of being an older person looking for dignified work stems not only from my lack of skill in making decisions, but also from a certain type of discrimination. Ageism is not fashionable like other contentious social issues; it is a forgotten prejudice that bubbles quietly on the back-burner. Those who are affected by it make their own way without fiery vocal supporters for the cause. Perhaps we have had our chance, and now, just need to suck it up. Institutional gatekeepers with immense power weigh each of us, young or old, on the scales of relevance, while we wait haplessly to be told how significant (or not) we are to their agendas. For humankind at large, I question if life has ever been lived on our own terms, as we want it. Though I chafe at it (society being what it is), having the occasion to make a decision between two good things is a luxury indeed. At the same time, I take it as an endorsement, albeit an ironic one. There is, under the circumstances, the sense of both guilt and gratitude in being called to make such a choice.
Joseph James Alvaro, MSc., PhD – 24 August 2016
City University of Hong Kong, Department of English, Visiting Fellow
“As an experienced educator, my goal is to help students meet the linguistic challenges posed by education in the medium of English. My current interest is on the pedagogical role of Critical Literacy in English for Academic Purposes (EAP). I have been working in EAP in various educational institutions in the greater China area for 18 years, the last 7 of which have been with the City University of Hong Kong. The title of my thesis is ‘The Language of Ideology in China’s English Press: Representations of Dissent’, which is essentially a critical analysis of mediatized political discourses through a close study of the relationship between language, ideology and power.”