Anyone who has served overseas can tell you distance makes home closer. Local educators Louise and Jesse Hiatt and their daughter Nicole’s 10-month stay in China gave them a chance to lead a simpler, more focused life, bringing home into focus.
Jesse and Louise taught at Beijing Royal School in the northern part of Beijing, which is a private boarding school, grades kindergarten through 12. They served in the middle school, grades six through nine.
“In a round about way this was through Mount Airy City (N.C.) Schools. Mount Airy has been teaching Chinese in their High School for years now. With that we were given the opportunity to sent administrators to China. It was part of a larger group. I was invited to go along with four others on that trip. The total group from the U.S. was well over 200 teachers,” said Jesse Hiatt.
He said they spent a couple of days in Beijing. There, they were introduced to the group and then sent out to different parts of China for three days to two schools.
“I fell in love with one of the two schools. The day I was there, a gentleman who works to bring the Chinese teachers to Mount Airy was there with me. I knew him and got to know him better. A year ago last May, I called him up and said, ‘I’d like to go to China,’ thinking he could help me. I had no concept of the International teacher and the (huge) market that’s out there.”
There was no progress in subsequent emails. Jesse sent an email saying he guessed it wouldn’t work out for the 2017-2018 school year and keep them in mind for the next year. Almost immediately, an email suggested a school which needed somebody. Within two weeks they both had an offer and a contract (interviews and demo class lessons were done over Skype.)
“They wanted us August 17, but at that same time China changed its laws and kind of made it more strict on getting a work visa to teach in China. We had to go through authentication, paperwork on degrees and licenses. That took a little more time. We headed off September 11th. We hit the ground running because their school started a week-and-a-half earlier. Other teachers were covering our classes until we got there,” said Louise.
They received permission to bring their daughter, Nicole. Carroll County High School officials determined since she had enough credit to graduate they would graduate her early, perhaps one of the first diplomas signed by new Superintendent Dr. Shirley Perry.
The two were tasked with teaching oral, or spoken, English the first semester and Comprehensive English and English Literature the second semester along with oral English.
“I learned that teenagers are the same the world over,” said Louise. “Part of me is very grateful we were in a big city because they could go to the tourist spots and travel was easy by buses, taxis and subways. I think if we’d been a more isolated part of China I think it would have been a different experience. Someone asked me if it was hard to leave and I made the comment when I said goodbye to everybody here I knew I was coming back. Saying goodbye to people in China was difficult.”
Louise said it was very different at the beginning because she took for granted being able to interact, relate and communicate with her students, who shared a common language.
“I was pleasantly surprised at how willing everyone was to help us no matter where we were. Standing, looking lost, someone would come up and say, ‘Do you need help?’ The pace of life was different for us. We were in an apartment and our only responsibility was to teach. We didn’t have a yard to take care of,” said Louise.
Jesse said their typical routine was Monday through Friday, go to work, and then go home. Maybe do a little shopping after work. On Saturdays they went sightseeing and Sundays they went to church, followed by relaxing back at the apartment.
“We did a lot on Friday afternoons. One of the really nice things about this school is they have a fellowship program. Each foreign teacher was pared with a Chinese teacher. They gave us a budget to go out and do things to get us acclimated to China, to Beijing,” said Louise. “Somebody made the comment while we were out there, everybody does something better than you. I liked that. Everybody, no matter who they are, will do something better than you. I took that to mean not judging people. To be more open.”
The two came to appreciate the adage, “China is always changing” when they revisited favorite restaurants only to find they were gone, under new management. Vendors at a favorite farmers market for Jesse were constantly changing, too. They also came to understand personal space in another way.
“An experience I remember the most was during rush hour on a Friday evening. The buses were crowded. Nicole and I got on a bus and Jesse couldn’t get on. I thought there was no way anyone else would get on. Six to ten got on at each of the next stops. No personal space. I can remember thinking, nobody’s getting mad. I made a comment to a colleague later, and one of the Chinese teachers said, ‘What good does it do to get mad? It’s the way it is,” said Louise. “We also realized that I survived just fine without my house full of stuff. Some things I really struggled with. It was the relationships with people and the experiences that I missed more than things.”
“Kids really are the same. They want the same things. Parents want the same things for their kids. There’s more that makes us alike than makes us different,” said Louise. “We learned that a lot of communication is not from your words. We were able to communicate with people who did not speak English and we did not speak Chinese.”
At one point, Jesse had to go to hospital for an injured finger. Later, as he left through the emergency exit, he saw a tragedy which needed no translation. He said he is not sure, but he is almost positive a young boy died judging from the reactions of the family.
“It was heart wrenching, in a large part because of my beliefs. Knowing that this family is probably not Christian. Most of the people in China seem to have no religion at all. So I’m sure I am projecting some of my beliefs on them. You can’t help that,” Jesse said. “I know what I think happens (when you die) based on my beliefs but what do they think? I could see the love of that mother, the heartbreak in her and the grandmother. The father trying to console his wife. That was one of the most touching of my experiences in my ten months there.”
David Broyles may be reached at 276-779-4013 or on Twitter@CarrollNewsDave.