TwoSigmas: I would like to give a warm welcome to expat American author and educator Andrew N Johnson. Andrew is speaking with us today from Chengdu, China!
Andrew Johnson: Hi, it’s great to be here with you today.
TS: Yes, right, well can you go ahead and start by giving us a brief introduction about yourself?
AJ: Sure. I’m from New Orleans, Louisiana. You know, home of crawfish and Mardi Gras, and the birthplace of Jazz and Blues. Well, also the Delta, but …
TS: Did you grow up in New Orleans?
AJ: Not exactly, we moved around a lot, because of my Dad’s work. So we were all over the South, Georgia, Mississippi, Texas … which is probably why I’m so comfortable living and teaching abroad.
TS: So where exactly have you lived?
AJ: For the past 15 years, I’ve lived and worked in eight countries on four continents. For example, Germany, Thailand, China, Saudi Arabia, Ecuador, Peru … and now I’m back in China.
TS: Wow! All over. So, what’s your favourite place you’ve ever taught?
AJ: Definitely China. While I had more overall fun in South America, in China people really value education, and this makes a teacher’s job so much easier. Now, living in China isn’t for everyone, but as far as teaching goes, it makes a big difference when you know how much your students and their parents appreciate the work you are doing.
TS: I see. So, what made you decide to pursue a career in education?
AJ: Well, in my case, it was sort of a by-product of being a writer. You know, I had to eat …
AJ: Seriously, I started teaching while still at university, and after I graduated I moved to Germany and began teaching at a business college. I found the work rewarding, making a positive difference in people’s lives, and I usually had enough time and energy to write as well.
TS: That’s important.
AJ: Yes, absolutely. It’s not easy to write after a grinding 9 – 5 gig. Or after a soul-crushing shift in an isolated cubicle. You see, most importantly, teaching is dealing with people, and I believe ultimately that is crucial for a writer, or indeed any artist. The work may be produced in isolation, but the inspiration usually not. At least not in my case.
TS: So you would say your teaching has helped your writing. Would the reverse also be true?
AJ: Yes, yes! Absolutely. Writing is fundamentally about seeing into people, then describing what you see. Of course, that insight can only benefit a teacher. And enable more effective teaching.
TS: Ok, good. So … what would you say has been the most valuable lesson you’ve learnt as an educator?
AJ: Patience. Yeah … in a word, patience.
TS: How so?
AJ: Well, I would say that effective teaching requires you to engage the student. That in turn means being less selfish, more connected to your student, less absorbed, at least temporarily, with your own concerns. And to connect with another person, for whatever reason, requires patience. Because establishing that connection, that teacher-student relationship, takes its own time, and learning takes time. The student’s time, not the teacher’s. And so over time as I have hopefully become a better teacher, I’ve become more patient. And that affects all of my life, my personality, not just my teaching.
TS: Interesting. Ok, so what has been the toughest challenge you’ve faced in your teaching career?
AJ: Well, given that I’ve spent the majority of the past 15 years teaching ESL and subjects abroad, I would definitely say that being away from friends and family, and the places I grew up, has been the toughest challenge. Also an opportunity, because this too forces a person to grow, although often in unexpected ways. But definitely, living in a foreign country, while undoubtedly an astounding and rewarding experience, can often times be quite lonely and bewildering. Some days you feel like an alien on the earth, a stranger in a strange land.
TS: Wow. How do you do it? Why do you do it?
AJ: Good question. Questions. Ah, how? I guess you do get used to it. Somewhat. And I focus on the positive. The reward of living an adventurous life of travel and exploration. Learning about other countries and cultures. Focusing on giving to my students, and receiving from them in return. Most of all, I use it as a catalyst for my writing. It’s a process. As for why … at this point, it’s all I know. Whenever I go back to the States I feel almost as displaced as I might in any other place. It’s changed so much since I was in university. And I’ve changed too. A lot.
TS: What about your family? Don’t you miss them?
AJ: Of course. My family and close friends back home I do write emails to, pretty regularly, and we also talk online. It’s not so bad. But again, not for everyone.
TS: Ok, I see. Ok, so, in your view, what are the main differences between teaching online versus teaching in person, and do you have a preference?
AJ: Well, on the one hand, it’s hard to beat the personal connection you can have with a student you are teaching in person. On the other hand, coming to the other side of the world to get that connection can have some pretty serious drawbacks, as I’ve outlined above. So I really applaud what you’re doing here: using technology to bring teachers and learners together who are a world apart. For many, it’s the best of both worlds. So if I ever relocated back to the States, I would definitely be teaching online. Besides, you don’t have to sit in gridlocked traffic!
TS: (laughs) That’s true! So your first novel …
AJ: Mexican Fish Tale. We published that just last year.
TS: Alright. And your second novel is … ?
AJ: Stormborn. It’s being written right now, and is about halfway done. Hopefully out by year’s end.
TS: Could you give us a brief idea of what to expect?
AJ: Sure. The back jacket will read something like: “A young New Orleans bartender facing bankruptcy agrees to marry a French lesbian for $10,000 cash. His troubles look to be over. But soon he has bigger worries than ever, as the Mafia wants him whacked, the FBI wants him doing 6 hard for immigration fraud, and here comes Hurricane Katrina … is there a way out? STORMBORN”.
TS: Great! I’ll be looking forward to reading that!
AJ: I hope so.
TS: So, I want to thank you for talking with us today …
AJ: It’s my pleasure, thank you for having me.
TS: And for those interested in reading more from Andrew N Johnson, his novel Mexican Fish Tale is available at this link, in print or ebook: