by Robert J. Kowalczyk, Ed.D.

Robert J. Kowalczyk

At age 62, after a long career in the nonprofit world in America, I decided to take early retirement and spend my retirement years traveling around the world. As a retirement gift to myself, I spent the month of January 2003 traveling around parts of Asia (Sri Lanka, the Maldives Islands, and Thailand). As a special retirement treat, I booked my airline seat in business class for that long journey to Asia and my return to my home in Minneapolis.

At the end of my month’s retirement holiday, flying from Bangkok to Minneapolis, I had to change planes in Tokyo. As the flight was called, I decided not to fight the crowd trying to board and waited until final boarding. When I headed to my assigned seat I found it occupied. A flight crew member checked my ticket and the other passenger’s ticket and discovered that a computer error had in fact assigned the two of us to the same seat. Since there were no other seats available in business class, I was told to wait while a flight crew member checked to see if there was a seat available in first class. I could tell by the expression on the flight crew member’s face when she returned that she did not have good news for me. I was told first class was also full and my only option was a seat in economy class. I was offered an apology for the inconvenience and a free business class ticket for future travel. I accepted the offer and headed to my newly assigned seat.

When I made my way to my newly assigned seat, once again I found it occupied by another passenger. The other passenger checked his seat assignment and discovered that he was in the wrong seat and moved. I then settled into my seat for the long journey home. My seat mate, a Chinese man, leaned toward me and said, “I was just getting to know my seat mate, and now I have a new one.” That was the beginning of a long conversation, and a friendship, over the many hours it took to fly from Tokyo to Minneapolis. The man’s name was Dr. Xiuwen Wang. At that moment, little did I know that he would become my new boss in China.

Dr. Wang, educated in America, had lived in Ohio for the past 15 years. He recently had returned to China to serve as the principal of a newly constructed K-12 private boarding school in Yangzhou, PR China. Dr. Wang was on his way to Ohio to collect his family to return to their new home on the school campus in Yangzhou. When he told me of this wonderful new school for which he would be responsible, he did so with great passion and enthusiasm. I recognized immediately that he was a man of great vision and had a commitment to educational excellence. I discovered in our lengthy discussion on that airplane that we had a great deal in common relating to the education of children, whether they were students in America or in China. I in turn shared with Dr. Wang my past professional experiences and educational background (I have a Doctor of Education degree in Educational Psychology and Special Education). Before landing in Minneapolis, Dr. Wang had convinced me to come to Yangzhou to join his educational team of skillful school administrators and teachers, a decision I have yet to regret. So in August 2003 I packed my bags and headed to Yangzhou, PR China to serve as Dr. Wang’s assistant principal for what I thought would be for a one-year period. In addition to assisting Dr. Wang with various administrative duties, my main responsibility is to oversee a large group of international teachers of English. That one year has now grown to five… and only time will tell if there will be a sixth year.

Robert J. Kowalczyk at work

Being an American working in China, sharing my professional expertise in education, is truly a privilege. It provides me with an opportunity to know and appreciate the rich Chinese culture. I am often overwhelmed by the warmth and friendship that is extended to me by my many new Chinese friends and colleagues. Qiao He, which means “a meeting of fate,” was truly a blessing upon me, one that has changed my life forever.

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