by Sheila Knoll
“Have you ever thought about teaching in China?” I never had. But in the end, that was question that brought me here. At least that was the immediate cause. Initially, I thought I was unqualified. Aaron, the Academics in Asia recruiter answered, “Actually, you’re not. You have a master’s degree. You have teaching experience, and you have experience teaching English.” I later found out that the minimum requirements to teach at Sias are a bachelor’s degree, as well as 2 years of teaching experience or a TEFL China certificate. So I was more than qualified.
The conversation with Aaron took place in December 2016. The next few months seemed to fly by. First, I discussed the possibility with my kids. I honestly thought they’d say they didn’t want me to go. Instead they both said, “Mom, that sounds like an incredible opportunity!” I also talked to a couple of friends whose opinions I valued. They were also enthusiastic and supportive of me taking this step. In early February I submitted a resume and application to the Academics in Asia website. Shortly thereafter, I was contacted for an interview and a second interview soon followed. Not long after the second interview I received an offer to teach at Sias International University. I was so excited! The next step was to get a background check and physical completed. I also needed to have my diploma and other paperwork notarized and authenticated by the secretary of state. Once these things were taken care of, I was ready to go. I left for China on August 15th, only 8 months after the initial meeting with Aaron.
I guess, given the circumstances, you could say that I sort of fell into this opportunity. I was meeting with Aaron to discuss a short-term summer trip for some of the students at the college where I was teaching in the United States. Although that trip never happened, Aaron’s question about teaching in China started the process that ultimately led me to teach in China. I say I fell into this opportunity because it was completely out of the blue and unexpected. After all, I’m in my early 60’s and looking forward to retirement in a few years. In another sense though, the journey that brought me to that moment actually began in high school.
My first choice of a career (while I was still in high school) was to be an artist. My practical self soon discarded that career choice because I didn’t think I could make a living as a potter. However, I remember looking at pictures of Chinese sculptures, paintings, and pottery that had been crafted hundreds, sometimes thousands of years before. I remember thinking that Chinese techniques for painting, sculpture, and pottery were sometimes centuries ahead of their Western counterparts. Their beauty was unparalleled by Western art of the same time periods.
I’ve also always been fascinated by history—particularly ancient history. Ever since I was a child, I’ve read about the ancient civilizations. From Mesopotamia, Ancient Greece, Rome, and Egypt, to the Incas and Aztecs in Mexico and South America, as well as Asia, India, and China. Chinese history especially fascinated me. While most of the other civilizations I read about had passed into the pages of history long ago, Chinese civilization has continued in an unbroken sequence for over 5,000 years. (Not only that, over the years I learned that many of the key inventions and innovations that moved civilization forward first originated in China.) All these things contributed to my continuing interest in China and the Chinese.
Yet I never thought I’d visit, (let alone live) in China. I’m a single mom and have been since my youngest child, David, was 5 years old. He’s 32 now and my daughter, Rose, is 35. I spent many years working and caring for my kids. When I graduated from high school in 1973 at a time when the field was almost entirely dominated by men, I earned an associate degree in information technology and in quick succession I worked as a computer programmer for a trucking company, for Yolo County, California, and finally for McClatchy Newspapers. I worked for McClatchy for 13 years. When the company downsized and cut positions in the corporate information technology department, I started consulting. I did consulting work in IT for the next 12 years. By consulting, instead of taking a full time, permanent job, I could work 30 to 35 hours a week and earn enough to support myself and my kids while still having time to be with them when they got out of school. I was one of the consultants who worked on the Y2K projects. After Y2K, when the consulting field dried up, I took a position as a computer programmer working for a local school district. Two years later I got hit by a car while I was walking on a break from work. That accident ended my IT career.
After I got back on my feet, I earned a master’s degree with the goal of teaching at a college level. As a reward for accomplishing my goal, I took a study trip to Israel and Jordan. I spent 2 glorious months studying the literature of the second temple period, digging in the dirt at archeological sites, living and working in Israel, and getting to know some of the Israeli people.
Now that my kids are grown, it’s possible for me to travel and see some different parts of the world. But my love for travel began as a child when my family went on road trips. We lived in Northern California and had relatives in Southern California, Oregon, Washington State, and Canada. We visited one or more of them almost every summer. Even as my children were growing up, I managed to sneak in trips to Mexico several times, as well as Fiji and Australia. Before you get the idea that I flew off to exotic resorts on vacation, let me explain. Most of the time I’ve spent in other countries has been spent on either mission trips or service projects. This kind of travel has enabled me to relate more naturally to local people. I am more interested in getting to know real people, getting my hands dirty, and living in a different culture rather than lounging by a pool in a resort.
Now, I am teaching English to Chinese university students in Xinzheng, Henan, China. This is my second year teaching at Sias. Here I’m able to combine my passion for teaching with my love of learning about new cultures and new people. It may be cliché to say I’ve fallen in love with my students, but it’s true. The first time I stood in front of a classroom full of Chinese students I was terrified. I thought, “What was I thinking? I don’t think I can do this. I don’t know Chinese. How will I communicate with these students? How can I teach them?” What I discovered is that the Chinese students I’ve had the privilege to teach are engaging, smart, sometimes mischievous, and always respectful. They are very forgiving of their foreign teachers’ blunders. Some of them have become good friends.
I’ve also had the opportunity to make friends with a couple of Chinese faculty and many foreign teachers. Most of the foreign faculty are from the United States, but there are teachers from England, France, Scotland, Australia, the Philippines, and several other countries. If you want to expand your horizons, and learn about other cultures and people, this is a place you should consider.
What do I do when I’m not teaching? In my spare time I love to read. Reading can take you to anywhere in the world, to any time in history. It can expand your horizons incrementally. When I’m not reading or teaching, I also love to take walks, go out to eat, or simply grab a cup of coffee or tea with my friends. So, what really brought me to China? I think, despite my very mundane daily activities, I’m a risk taker. Why else (when I’m in my 60s, not knowing a word of Chinese or a single person in China) would I leave my safe life in the United states and fly off to China to teach for a few years?
There are still many places left on my bucket list and I’d welcome suggestions from my readers. Where have you traveled in the past? Where would you like to visit in the future? And why? Please write and share your thoughts. Also, if you have questions about living and teaching in China, I’d love to answer your questions.