Mr. Ding’s Chicken Feet
On a Slow Boat from Shanghai to Texas
Publication Year: 2006
Published by: University of Wisconsin Press
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My boyfriend and I had just walked into the English Department’s grotty “graduate student lounge”—a gray, drafty room with a stained carpet, a hundred mailboxes, and a bulletin board. As I went to check my mail, a flyer caught my attention:
Chapter One: An English Rat Chases Her Luggage
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In the two weeks between June 3 (when I signed the contract) and the morning of June 18 (when I was to fly out), I had to do at least a thousand things. Olaf hadn’t been exaggerating about my needing to prepare everything for the on-board classroom. Initially I’d planned just to buy textbooks, but as the days passed, I realized how much work it took to set up a school. Not only head teacher, I became also principal, book supplier, and audio-visual coordinator.
Chapter Two: Shanghaied
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As I was getting off the plane in Shanghai, it occurred to me for the first time that I had not prepared well for arrival in a tightly controlled foreign country where I didn’t know the language. I had neither currency nor contacts. If no one showed up to meet me, I couldn’t even call the ship, because I’d neglected to bring along a phone number. Since it was Sunday, I’d be reduced to waiting in the airport for twenty-four hours, until Olaf got in to work in Houston.
Chapter Three: The Tan Suo Zhe
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At 7 a.m. I was waiting with Barry in the hotel foyer. Still thrilled with my purchases, I was trying to tell him about the friendship store, but he seemed hungover and uninterested. “So anyway,” I trailed off, “I hope you get to see it before we go.”
Chapter Four: One Arm’s Distance
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As the journey began, I took preventive measures against depression. Something about a long sea journey—probably the confinement and lack of stimulation as well as separation from loved ones—tends to bring people down. True sailors (Tristan Jones, for example, whose books I’d been reading, or Thor Heyerdahl) possibly didn’t feel this way, but practically everyone on Navy ships, including me, had shown signs of distress, even emotional illness. On those other trips I’d slept too much, eaten too much, worried too much, and suffered too much homesickness.
Chapter Five: Ma, Not Ma
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My first duty as teacher was to establish a baseline record of the students’ skills. Olaf had explained that I could earn a bonus, depending on how much improvement the students showed in their speech. I figured that in order for him to see improvement, he had to know where they were starting from. So, my second day on the ship, I took my cassette recorder down to the main deck.
Chapter Six: Two Miles to the Bottom
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Underneath me, waves thumped the keel. Every now and then, we hit a massive wave at a bad angle and the impact sounded like a cannon going off. Vibrations shuddered down the hull, and the whole ship shook as if coming apart.
Chapter Seven: Enough Beer to Float the Titanic
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By morning the worst of the storm had passed. The rain thinned and finally eased off, leaving a thick fog; the waves chopped against the sides of the ship, rough but no longer threatening. Delighted to be still alive, I went out on deck for my morning walk.
Chapter Eight: Dolphins Are Not Fish
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Along the journey between continents, certain customs changed from Chinese or American to Chinglish. Having read that it was most polite to address Chinese people formally, I’d begun by calling the men Mr. Wang, Mr. Zen, Mr. Zhao, and so on. And I’d thought the crew would like to call Barry and me by our last names, as well.
Chapter Nine: How to Remember
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Confucius, discussing student-teacher relations, said that the student must be insatiable in learning, the teacher indefatigable in teaching. Fatigue came easily to me on that ship, but my students, especially the older ones, seemed endlessly hungry for knowledge. They gobbled up vocabulary words like sweets, and they seemed to like many of our lessons.
Chapter Ten: Unfit Company
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It always made me feel better, on that small, slow vessel, to cross a time zone. No matter where we were, the ocean looked the same and endlessly changing, and the navigation charts showed edgeless water, no land within their margins. For all I knew, we could have been moving at nine knots an hour toward India. But each time we turned the clocks an hour forward, it showed that we were approaching the United States: home.
Chapter Eleven: Bridge of the Americas
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On July 29 I saw land again. When I woke up, the view of an island filled my porthole, and I rushed out to the weather deck. A month had passed since we’d glimpsed the mountains of Japan, so it was exciting to see something on the water that stayed still. As we were nearing the Panama Canal, dozens of tiny green-gray islands dotted the water, drifting back to the horizon like clouds. I could see three ships, too. I felt happy to be once again within swimming distance of safety.
Chapter Twelve: The Face of a Friend
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After weeks of enjoying the black, starlit nights as we rocked east and south over the waves, we’d finally come within a week of home, and the sight horrified me. Grim, industrial oil rigs broke up the horizon as we passed them during the day, and at night the Gulf of Mexico was lit up like a circus.
Publication Year: 2006