Jarrod Howard is a kindergarten teacher in Austin, Texas.
A long-time resident of The Lone Star State, Howard grew up in Beeville, a quaint town near the Mexican border that boasts a population of just under 13,000 people.
“There is nothing there,” Howard says of his hometown.
“We got a Chili’s back in 2006, and just recently a Starbucks, but besides that it is very rural. It’s not like people are riding horses on the road, but you do see the Amish.”
After graduating from high school, Howard left Beeville and enrolled at Texas State, a public university that is located 45 minutes south of Austin.
Howard originally wanted to be a social studies teacher, but after struggling with the curriculum he pivoted and began working toward a degree in childhood education.
It was during this transition that Howard met Mrs. Gardiner, a caring professor who looked past Howard’s struggles with test anxiety and instead focused on how his passion for education could be best implemented in a classroom setting.
“I didn’t have many teachers who cared, but she did,” Howard mentions.
After graduating from Texas State, it appeared Howard would follow the trajectory of many education majors and seek full-time employment at a school, but Howard delayed his integration into the public school system, opting instead to return to Beeville to figure out what he wanted his future to look like.
Howard notes it was during this stretch that he first felt the urge to go overseas and teach English, adding that he was engaged in preliminary talks with a company in Dubai, but that after several conversations with them, he didn’t believe the situation would be a good fit.
“I like to go out and have fun, and they told me that if I talked to the wrong people when I went out, bad things could happen. It no longer seemed freeing like I initially thought it was going to be,” he explains.
But Howard still wanted to go abroad and teach, and as he was scrolling through Facebook one day his eyes were drawn to an ad from EF (Education First), a multinational education conglomerate that has offices in metropolises around the globe.
“I clicked on the ad not thinking that anything was going to happen, but before I knew it I was doing a 30-minute interview with a guy from Boston,” Howard says.
Based off the conversations he had with the recruiter in Boston, Howard thought he would soon be jetting off to China to fill the Asian titan’s booming demand for teachers with English competency.
In the weeks that followed, Howard researched everything he could about what life in China was like, but after building a rapport with the recruiter in Boston, the momentum from that relationship began to fizzle.
Soon, Howard’s emails and calls were going unreturned, and he started to think that his aspirations for crossing the Pacific Ocean would go unrealized.
“That’s when this guy called me,” Howard says of a subsequent phone call he received from EF, one that outlined how the recruiter he was working with had left the company, thus explaining the decline in communication.
With that matter sorted, Howard completed the requisite paperwork in order to gain entrance into China, and not long after he was stepping off a plane in Beijing.
Howard’s commitment to education has always been apparent, but few would have been willing, or have desired to undergo the arduous process that it took to ultimately uproot their lives and switch continents.
For Howard, heading to a budding nation like China was part self-growth, part escapism.
“I wanted to get away. More specifically, I wanted to get away from my mind,” Howard says.
“But what got me over there most of all was that nobody knew me. I was basically an invisible person who could restart.”
Howard adds that because of the whirlwind nature of life as an expat in China, it’s difficult to encapsulate everything that transpired during his yearlong sojourn.
Of course, there were certainly aspects of his time abroad that stood out, namely the social scene and being a laowai (foreigner) in a hegemonic nation like China.
“Before I got a girlfriend over there, I was caught up in the lifestyle,” Howard admits.
“Everything was 150 miles per hour. The music, the city, the girls.”
Howard also eventually left EF and accepted another position at a revered international school, a decision that reminded him of the level of wealth that exists in the world.
“The international school was bougie. The kids were getting picked up by chauffeurs. There were Ferraris, Lamborghinis, limousines. The kids had a private swimming instructor who was in the Olympics,” Howard recalls.
Howard was initially hired for his American accent and firm grasp of the English language, and even though he was well compensated (albeit under the table in a “big ass envelope” of Chinese Yuan), eventually Howard found the position at the school to be untenable.
“I left cold turkey. I just stopped showing up because it was very sketchy. The people who I was working with had left, so it was just me and the guy who hired me in,” Howard remarks.
Looking back, Howard says he has no regrets about his stint in the People’s Republic.
Yes, things didn’t always go smoothly, and as a black man, he was sometimes prematurely judged by Chinese locals.
That being said, Howard had already experienced similar pushback as a citizen of the United States, both from white people, as well as black people.
“I’m sometimes rejected by my own community. It’s this invisible wall. Sometimes when I talk, I get the reciprocity back, but in a lot of instances, I don’t,” he candidly explains.
Howard attributes much of this disconnect to the omnipotent American media that for years has generated clicks and profits by ignoring individuality in favor of boxing demographics into ill-contrived narratives that recently have proven to divide rather than unite people.
For his part, Howard accepts this reality, which is why he doesn’t take the way others treat him too personally.
“No matter where you go, you’re always going to be given a label because it is going to be projected by the media,” he says.
“Being a black man in America, I need to have that shield to know that other people are going to look at me before I even look at them.”
In China, many locals assumed Howard was from Africa, but when he spoke and his American accent was brought to the forefront, often the perception people had of him changed.
“It’s more ignorance than it is stupidity. They’re just unaware,” Howard insists, although he wasn’t always able to downplay the quick judgements from some Chinese citizens.
“I would not get sat by on the subway, and it did get to me sometimes.”
These days, Howard is teaching kindergarten back in his home state of Texas.
He loves working with children, but as a man who has traveled around the world and gone through an array of experiences that few can relate to, Howard also understands that the same ambition that brought him to China will one day likely pull him away from the classroom.
“What’s happening is I have too much energy and creation to be inside four walls,” Howard says.
“What’s driving me is that I know that there are bigger things out there, and I want to explore those possibilities.” QS
Looking for a new book to read?
Pick up Quentin Super’s latest novel, The Long Road East, for $28.95!
Or listen to the audiobook for only $17.99!