By Erin Crowell
While Leelanau County resident Sarah Johnson has lived over 30 years in a
home that is off-grid (meaning self-sufficiency without reliance on a
public utility), the mother of three is finding a whole new meaning for
The Pathfinder School teacher is currently on a three-month sabbatical
teaching English in the very unwesternized portion of Central China in a
city called Yichang.
Although the citys population swells at around 3.5 million, Johnson says
shes never felt more disconnected to the rest of the world.
A lot of things are blocked, she says of internet sites such as Google
and news outlets like NPR. But there are ways to circumnavigate, she
adds, describing a way she can use one site to access another.
A FAMILY AFFAIR
Johnson approached Pathfinder headmaster Karl Sikkenga earlier this winter
about the opportunity to teach at Three Gorges University.
Karl had mentioned a sabbatical program in the near future, but I dont
think he was planning on doing it quite so soon, Johnson laughs.
When she approached her family about the endeavor, Johnson says there were
I just kind of blurted out that there was a teaching gig available and I
wanted to do it, Johnson recalls. Are you nuts? was the initial
reaction. My husband said, well, if thats what you want, do it.
With the support from her family, Johnson left at the end of February,
taking her youngest daughter Norah, 11, with her.
Shes been a great travel partner, Johnson says. Shes very open and
curious, which is great. I think the trip has created a certain
flexibility that she didnt have innately. Shes a very analytical kid,
looking at situations instead of getting emotional about them. She likes
to ask why? and whats the tradition behind this?
Five weeks ago, second eldest daughter Flannery joined her mother and
sister, followed by Johnsons husband, Bob Babich, three weeks later.
The cultural differences are always evident, and appear even in the
This is from a very limited perspective, as Ive only been here for a few
months, but I have noticed the standards here are very different in terms
of curriculum. The teacher decides whatever they would like to teach for
the semester. Not everyone has the same experience.
In the U.S., you take Comp 101 where you focus on argumentative and
descriptive writing. Here, they really push their middle and high school
students in anticipation of university. By the time they get here, kids
kind of kick back.
Johnson says its not uncommon for only half the class to show up for an
Beyond the classroom, cultural differences happen everyday for Johnson and
When we go downtown, were the only Western-looking people on the street.
People will giggle and take photos. By the end of the day, well have
gathered a small parade, she laughs.
Johnson says the experience has also opened her childrens eyes, a goal of
Weve always been about shifting their paradigm, she adds. I think that
giving your kids the global perspective as far as how people live is a
really big gift. They see a lot of things here.
For Flannery, a 16-year-old student at Leland High School, the experience
has allowed her to consider her own endeavors.
Coming to China and seeing all the pollution, it makes me want to study
environmental issues, she says.
When it comes to mom, Flannery says she is proud.
Shes definitely an inspiration to me. I know shes really glad she took
this opportunity and that is absolutely amazing when she can experience it
and all the challenges that come with it.
To follow Sarah Johnsons experience in China, visit her blog at