Former Prep Teacher Mark Johnson Talks About his Latest Book


Historian and former Collegio teacher Mark Johnson spoke to Junior Collegios on January 9.

Kelsey Hamilton, Managing Editor

Thanks to the student-run club APIC (Asian Pacific Islander Club), Seattle Prep was able to have former teacher Mark Johnson come and give a talk to the Junior collegios about his new book, The Middle Kingdom under the Big Sky: A History of the Chinese Experience in Montana. Writing a book was no small feat; it was certainly a journey to see it through to the end. 

Johnson works for the University of Notre Dame and teaches in their Alliance for Catholic Education program. He teaches teachers different teaching methods for planning, instructing, and assessing. Before his current job, Johnson used to work at Seattle Prep as a Collegio teacher from 2003-2007. He taught sophomore Collegio Juana and junior Collegios Rahner and Teilhard during those years. Johnson loved teaching alongside other professionals who were passionate about what they were teaching and connecting both subjects of English and History. Some teachers he taught with were Ms. Freeman, Ms. Slevin, Mr. Keen, Mr. Mack, and Mr. Arthur. Johnson absolutely loved his time at Prep, from the students to his colleagues and the families. 

In 2007, after leaving Prep, Johnson went to China for eight years and started humanities in Shanghai for freshman. A school program similar to Collegio. When he wasn’t teaching, Johnson loved immersing himself in the long history behind Chinese culture. Through his experience in China, he got the inspiration to start his project, which eventually led to a book. Johnson spent an academic year in China, then come summer, would go back to Montana, his home state. During this time, he realized that Montana had a deep Chinese history, and because of his curiosity, he decided to investigate further. 

It took Johnson 12 years to explore the history of Chinese people living in Montana, which eventually resulted in his new book, The Middle Kingdom under the Big Sky: A History of the Chinese Experience in Montana. During this long process, Johnson encountered two sets of letters written in traditional Chinese characters that had never been fully translated. After working for months with his students in China to translate them, the contents of the letters were revealed. The first set of letters was from the 1880s to 1920s and exposed the pressure Chinese men living in Montana were under at the time. The second set of letters was from the 1930s to 1950s and was a conversation between two brothers separated by war. These letters would later become a part of Johnson’s book.

 His goal for this book was to tell the history of Montana’s Chinese community through their own words and perspective. Through this process, Johnson wanted people to see them as active, empowered people who worked to overcome immense obstacles. “Oftentimes, I think the Chinese and American West are portrayed as a colorful backdrop to the story. I wanted to personalize and give them their humanity back,” said Johnson.

Currently, Johnson is just getting started on a new project. There are four cemeteries across Montana; in those cemeteries, around 40 have Chinese headstones. He hopes to translate the Chinese script and find the villages in China where the men and women came in an effort to connect the home village with Montana’s history. All of this is to add to the understanding of history and to show these people’s true humanity and individuality and not just make them an exotic element to the West.