Rohina Singh: Her way of moving forward
by Winluck Wong, PRUDE Inc. Living Library Project Coordinator
This article is part of PRUDE, Inc.’s “Living Library” project, featuring Saint John’s newcomers and the diverse stories they bring to the city. It is funded by ONB’s Multicultural Grants Program.
Ask Rohina Singh who’s her favourite professor in college and she wouldn’t hesitate to say it’s Mrs. Solomon. She admired her professor’s easygoing approach in the classroom. How effortlessly her professor connected with students on their level.
Rohina would go on to channel that same calm energy with her own students.
The dream to breathe
But teaching was far from Rohina’s mind at that time. Growing up on the crowded streets of Lucknow in northern India, all she could think about was getting out. It’s been a dream of hers since she was 13, when she no longer felt comfortable being a female there.
It changed how she evaluated a new place. “Am I able to walk on the streets without being harassed for being a woman?” Rohina said. “Not being a woman of colour, but just being a woman.”
She eventually moved farther up northern India to Chandigarh, where it was a bit safer. But by then, she was determined to find a way out of India altogether.
During the day, she worked as a reservations agent booking travel through Lufthansa and KLM. Every rupee she saved was a step closer to realizing her dream.
In the evenings, she challenged herself by learning a language everyone told her would be too difficult: Mandarin. “If I fail, it doesn’t matter. I just want to give it a try,” Rohina said.
Work from 8:00 AM to 9:00 PM. Study until 1:00 AM. Sleep and repeat. She pushed herself to prove everyone wrong.
And it paid off. She picked up Mandarin far quicker than she expected. Within three years, she graduated with an Advanced Diploma in Chinese Language.
Not letting up on her momentum, she immediately Googled opportunities to teach Mandarin. Instead, what came up was page after page of opportunities to teach English in China.
“This is something that I can do,” Rohina thought. Mandarin is, after all, her third language. In addition to her mother tongue of Hindi, she’d grown up speaking and learning in English at school.
So she started applying to colleges and universities in China. A few weeks later, she got an offer to teach English at a college in northwestern China’s Lanzhou. They reached out to her in August 2007 and asked if she could start in September.
She accepted right away. With enough savings for only the visa and a one-way flight to China, Rohina didn’t look back. “I didn’t talk to anybody about it. I just packed my bags and said bye-bye.”
It wasn’t until she stepped off the plane in Lanzhou that she realized she did it.
She finally got out. And for the first time in her life, she felt like she could actually breathe.
Life on her own terms
Rohina was off to a good start. She had a solid teaching job. A furnished apartment provided by the college. There was only one problem: she’d never lived alone before and had to figure out on her own all the responsibilities that came with it. Everything – from groceries and cooking to laundry and sweeping the floor – was a learning experience for her.
But though it was chaotic at first, she started settling in. Just like Mrs. Solomon, she found a way to connect with her students. They, in turn, brought her into their social life.
Hot pot dinners. Karaoke nights.
“In a funny way, it seemed like I could relive my childhood or my younger days,” Rohina said. “They had so much freedom and…they can live a different kind of life that I couldn’t.”
The reciprocity continued as she became mentor and friend to some who opened up about their hopes, dreams, and insights into Chinese culture. For the next 11 years, she taught all over China while also learning about herself.
“I loved…making my own decisions,” Rohina said. “Even if I was making wrong decisions, it was all on me…And that really made me more mature in my head. To understand that the choices that you make, really, you need to deal with the consequences. You are accountable. You can’t really make somebody accountable for what you do.”
Discovering herself also led her to discover someone else: Milind. And in 2015, they got married.
Her husband was in India at the time while Rohina continued teaching in China. It was important to her that they took their time choosing where they want to build their life together. As they weighed their options, it came down to two countries: China or the U.S.
When Milind got a job offer in the U.S., that decided it. In 2018, Rohina finished her last teaching contract in eastern China’s Chaohu and moved to the U.S.
The long way home
The Trump administration, however, had other plans. It decided to bar spouses of H-1B visa holders from working in the U.S. That meant Rohina had to either put her career on hold or find a more welcoming country next door. She chose the latter.
They set their sights on Canada and by October 2019, they were able to move for her husband’s new job in Saint John. It all happened very quickly and they had to match that speed to keep up.
Rohina credits Lina Gharbiya of the Saint John Newcomers Centre for being there every step of the way to answer their long list of questions. Lina helped them prepare for the fast-approaching winter and even showed them where to buy bus passes. All the minute details that everyone who’d grown up around here often take for granted.
Bit by bit, Rohina got used to the rhythm of life here and developed a clear vision of her future. Just this year in July, the University of New Brunswick accepted her into the Master of Education in Critical Studies program. From there, she would like to work with newcomers and to branch out into a career beyond the classroom.
From not being able to breathe in her hometown to helping others catch their breath, Rohina is an inspiration of self-determination.
“I want to be mentoring, helping, guiding…Because we are all here to help everybody move forward, you know. Everybody, irrespective of where they come from. We are all standing together…just help each other move forward. And not leave anyone behind.”
Winluck Wong is a freelance writer helping growing companies and organizations tell their story. He writes custom-crafted stories in business, sustainability, personal finance, and productivity. Follow his twips or visit his shop.