Over the weekend I read Mr. Ding’s Chicken Feet: On a slow boat from Shanghai to Texas (University of Wisconsin Press, 2006) by Gillian Kendall. It’s a short read, about 240 quick pages and kept my attention from start to finish.
Kendall wasn’t the first 30 year old American woman to travel alone to Shanghai, but she may have been the first in modern times to spend six weeks aboard a small vessel with 20 Chinese male sailors and one American man. In 1991, she was hired to teach English to the sailors on their voyage from Shanghai to the Gulf of Mexico. Some spoke a few words of English, but most spoke none at all.
I loved reading about her navigation through cultural differences, whether it was discovering the Chinese crew got drunk every night, or that they spent hours discussing Kendall’s personal life, assuming she was as loose as the women they watched on American television shows.
I don’t think I could have survived such a trip. Since I get seasick on Lake Michigan, I can’t imagine crossing the Pacific on a small ship. At one point, high waves from a heavy storm threatened to tip the boat over. She wondered if the sailors would even remember to find her when jumping into the life boats.
But by the time the ship arrived in Galveston, Kendall was not only well-versed in Chinese culture, but gained a camaraderie unimagined before she embarked on the voyage.