by Robert J. Kowalczyk, Ed.D.
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.
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.
(This is a true story that happened when I was a child. I always wanted to send it in to Reader’s Digest for the “Laugh” section because I think it’s too funny!)
Some relatives from the Midwest came to visit us in the DC area and were eager to go to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania where the famous Civil War battle was fought.
At the time, a visitor center contained a room sized “electric map” laid out on the floor that demonstrated with colored lights the various troop movements during the battle. (This was pre-technology days – the map was pretty much paper mache with little Christmas lights placed in sections that would light up at different times to show where the troops were and how they moved during the battle.)
Having been there before with guests, our family found the electric map very useful in helping to understand how the battle took place in 1863.
We were standing in line to get in, when all of a sudden, the door banged open and an indignant woman pushed her way out and with a loud voice of disgust said, “Well, that certainly wasn’t worth the money. It’s the same damn thing every year!”
(Note from Karen: This is a true story but my friends asked if I would change their names to protect their privacy. I was happy to comply.)
Eric walked into the kitchen as his young wife, Annie, was preparing dinner. The air was fragrant with the aroma of spaghetti sauce and garlic bread. After a long day at work, he was happy to see her and walked over to envelop her in a big bear hug. She was pregnant with their first child and was finally feeling better and interested in food again.
Yet, he seemed distracted when she offered him a taste of the sauce.
“Did the mail come yet?” he wondered out loud.
Annie recognized the anxious look on his face. “Yes, but your passport wasn’t in it.”
Eric looked at the calendar on the fridge. It was May 14 and he only had two weeks before their big trip (this was in the late 80’s when getting a passport wasn’t as complicated as it is post 9/11). He had applied for his passport in what he thought was plenty of time. He had expected to get his passport back last week, and it was getting alarmingly close to when they were supposed to leave.
They were expecting their first baby and for the last few months they had been planning a trip to Europe as a “last hurrah” before the big event. They were going to London, Belgium, Switzerland and then back through Paris, hitting the highlights of each city. And since Annie hadn’t been to Europe before, she was especially excited. Romance, adventure – it was to be their dream vacation, particularly since their honeymoon trip had turned out to be a nightmare due to a bureaucratic “red tape” fiasco.
Eric and Annie had gotten married in the Annie’s hometown in Canada. Eric was from the Seattle area, and they planned to live in the U.S. after their wedding. After the ceremony, they said goodbye to family and friends and drove to Vancouver, British Columbia, where they were catching a plane to Hawaii. As a start to their new life together, Eric had planned a romantic honeymoon trip to the Hawaiian Islands. All looked promising. That is, until they got to the U.S./Canadian customs at the airport.
That’s when they were told that Annie’s “paperwork” wasn’t right. The U.S. Customs Service determined that her citizenship documents weren’t correct. Annie was refused entry into the U.S.
They were upset and confused. Before their ceremony they had been told that once they were married Annie would be allowed into the U.S. with no problem. Unfortunately, the U.S. immigration didn’t see it that way. They had to cancel their trip.
At the immigration office, her honeymoon plans ruined, Annie fell into Eric’s arms and cried and cried. They begged, pleaded, and tried to reason with the border patrol to let them fly to Hawaii. But the curmudgeon guards, as unmovable as marble statues, wouldn’t be budged. Rules were rules. There was nothing more they could do.
After many phone calls to rearrange plans, Eric and Annie were finally able to drive to an old trailer on property that Eric’s family owned and camp there for their honeymoon with sleeping bags, an old hibachi grill and no hot water. They made the best of it. They were young and in love. But it wasn’t exactly the honeymoon they had dreamed and hoped for!
Now they were planning to take a trip to Europe and history looked destined to repeat itself. Could it be possible that lightening was about to strike twice?
Given their past issues, Eric applied for their passports in what he thought was plenty of time and expected to get them with a couple of weeks to spare. Annie had gotten her Canadian passport right away, but Eric’s U.S. passport still hadn’t arrived.
With only two weeks left until they were supposed to leave, Eric was getting anxious and irritated. Their tickets were non-refundable and, if they had to cancel their travel plans once again, they wouldn’t be able to reschedule the trip easily because of Annie’s pregnancy.
What was taking so long? He had allowed at least a two-week “margin” so they wouldn’t be in this position. The passport office was usually pretty quick to issue passports and there was no telling what the problem was.
They had saved and pinched pennies to be able to afford this trip as the tickets were not cheap. Things were not looking hopeful, and Eric knew that Annie would be devastated if this trip fell apart like their honeymoon. Worst of all, once again, there was absolutely nothing he could do.
They were down to the wire when, finally, he got a phone call from Annie.
“Your passport came! We can go!” She was so excited, her voice jumped up an octave, and she practically sang with joy.
Eric heaved a huge sigh of relief. “That’s great, honey. I was really starting to get worried! I don’t know why it took so long but I’m just glad it’s finally here.”
They went on their trip, had a great time, and didn’t give the late passport another thought… until ten years later.
Eric’s parents, Jim and Grace, had been married almost 60 years and loved to travel. They had been all over the world, from Japan to Africa. They loved venturing off to new places, just the two of them, and always enjoyed their time together. Even though Jim’s health was failing, he didn’t let that stop them from exploring new and different places. He had had a minor heart attack a few years back, and he valued every new trip with renewed vigor.
He was writing his autobiography and family history when he discovered that a close relative had, to his surprise, walked through the Panama Canal to get to the West Coast. He and Grace decided they would take a cruise that would partially retrace the steps of their family member. They had not been through the Panama Canal before so this seemed a great reason to embark on yet another adventure.
It was April, and as usual, the Seattle weather was rainy so it seemed a Caribbean cruise was in order. They left from Florida and sailed to a handful of islands in the heart of the Caribbean.
They had a lovely stateroom overlooking the water and Jim and Grace were quite content. The aqua blue of the Caribbean waters was soothing and the temperature was in the upper 70’s with just moderate humidity, making the weather perfect.
The ship passed through the locks of the Panama Canal and, as an engineer, Jim was impressed with the sheer magnitude of what it took to create a pass-through between the two continents.
They then sailed up the coast of Costa Rica.
Late Saturday night, he took Grace by the hand and said, “Let’s hit the midnight buffet, Momma. There’s Japanese food and lots of sushi!” Japanese food was his favorite and they had a lovely dinner, even though Grace noted that once he got there, he didn’t seem very hungry. But he seemed to thoroughly enjoy himself, nonetheless.
The next morning was Sunday and they got up early to get ready for the church service that was held aboard ship.
As Grace was getting ready to leave, Jim said, “You go on without me. I think I’ll stay and take a little nap. I didn’t sleep well last night.”
Thinking he just needed to rest, Grace went on without him. When she got back to their room after the service, Jim was in obvious pain.
“We need to call the doctor now,” she insisted. He reluctantly agreed.
The ship’s doctor knew immediately that he was having another heart attack. He decided to rush Jim to the closest hospital in San Jose, Costa Rica.
Grace sat alone in the waiting room. Periodically, they would give her updates on his condition. It didn’t look good. At one point, they told her they had lost him but were able to revive him. Then right after that, he went into kidney failure. She knew his condition was growing more and more serious.
That afternoon her husband of nearly 60 years slipped peacefully away.
Grace called her four children to tell them their father had died. Just saying the words sapped her of whatever strength she had left. On top of everything else, she was alone in a foreign country, grieving, and needed help getting her husband’s body back to the U.S. for a funeral. Losing her love of six decades was traumatic enough; having to deal with the maze of paperwork and logistics by herself felt like more than she could possibly bear.
She needed help desperately but she was in Costa Rica. She wanted her children with her and needed her children with her. Her oldest son couldn’t come. He checked his passport and it had expired. Her two daughters didn’t have passports. That’s when her youngest son, Eric, checked his passport. It had exactly two weeks left before it expired.
He was able to immediately fly to Costa Rica to help his mother and bring his father back home.
That’s when Eric remembered the two-week delay when he had applied for his passport, ten years before.
At the time, what seemed like an irritating and frustrating bureaucratic processing delay, now seemed like a precious gift.
In hindsight, Eric could see God’s hand at work.