The Unluckiest Captain in China
“Mayday. Mayday. Mayday. Call sign Alfa Bravo Charlie Delta. Mayday, Pacific Ocean. I am on fire in No. 4 hold and have dangerous goods on foredeck.” It is a Wednesday morning in Guangzhou, China, and in a recording studio on the 22nd floor of a Zhujiang New Town skyscraper, terrible things are happening to ships.
I am the captain of this and other distressed vessels — or rather, I have been hired to play one in a series of listening exercises for nautical trainees to accompany a textbook. I record various scenarios with the person who has been hired to play the vessel traffic officer, who is the hero of every situation — a Jedi knight of the seas.
Whether he is monitoring a tanker with 60,000 metric tons of wheat, a vessel laying cable or a ship heading blithely into the harbor with a load of TNT, the traffic officer always knows how to avert danger. During our stilted radio conversations, he dispenses such wisdom as, “Warning. Please check your anchor position and ensure it’s dragging anchor or not. Over.” and “Warning: One fishing boat on your starboard bow is forming risk of collision. Over.”
I have no special qualifications to be a voice actor in a nautical exercise. As the spouse of a teacher in Guangzhou, I am merely a native English speaker adrift in greater China, which opens you up to some unusual offers of employment.
Everyone here takes English in school starting at a young age, but relative to the number of people, native speakers are still in rather short supply. To those learning English, exposure to someone who speaks it as their native language, whether on a recording or in person, can be a big help. And then, of course, there is the novelty factor.
One American I know was hired to read a novel aloud on a tram as part of an art exhibit, shouting over the stop announcements. Another was hired to be photographed pretending to marry a Chinese woman on various golf courses around Shenzhen. For me, despite having no formal training in teaching, every Friday I help four grade schoolers read American children’s books under the heading of enrichment. (“Strega Nona,” the Tomie dePaola book about an overflowing pasta pot, was a big hit. But “The Polar Express,” about a boy’s journey to the North Pole, was something of a misfire, since they didn’t know who Santa was.) The recording job came to me through a text message forwarded through a friend of a friend of a friend.
我认识的一个美国人受聘在电车上朗读小说，声音要盖过停站通报——这是艺术展的一部分。另一个人受聘在深圳多块高尔夫球场拍照，假装娶了一名中国女子。而我，尽管没有正规教育培训，但每周五都会帮助四年级学童阅读各种各样的美国童书，美其名曰充实头脑。（汤米·狄波拉(Tomie dePaola)撰写的有关一口满溢的意大利面条锅的故事《巫婆奶奶》[Strega Nona]很受欢迎。但是讲述一个男孩的北极之旅的《极地特快》[The Polar Express]却一点都不火，因为学童不知道圣诞老人是什么。）我之所以得到这份录音工作，是因为一位朋友的朋友的朋友转发的一条短信。
In the car on the way to the studio, I met the voice actor who had been hired to play the traffic vessel officer, an American student. We weren’t sure whether we should try to correct errors in the recording script, which had not so much been translated as converted by brute force. In the studio, we lean into the single microphone like bobbing birds to speak our parts, trying not to stumble on the Chinese grammar filled with English words. We do not know which of it might be nautical lingo, and we have no information as to context. It seems possible that the errors have been printed in a textbook already, and our corrections might cause further confusion.
“Understood,” I say. “I will slack more anchor chain.”
The people using the listening exercises I’m recording may be surprised that a young American woman is captaining every ship. But considering all the other coincidences, maybe not. On these ships, there are always 23 crew members, and it is an oddity never remarked upon by the traffic officer that many of the ships have the same call sign. They are also almost uniformly in danger.
You would think the captain would be losing her mind, her tanks leaking, her ship sinking, fire all around — 23 crew members to save. But because I have been asked several times to speak more slowly, I must lean into the microphone and say, in the voice of a somnolent robot, “My engine room is explosion.”
And all of these disasters occur at exactly the same place. As I read out the latitude and longitude for the 10th time, I reflect that this spot should have been cordoned off long ago, marked with a buoy and put on the charts: “The Bermuda Triangle of the Pearl River.”
Hiring foreigners suggests, on some level, a desire for authenticity, and I’m happy to provide what I can. When the recording coordinator mentions offhandedly, halfway through the recording session, that we can make corrections if we wish, I do. When we are done, she will stop in the lobby of the skyscraper and hand me a brown envelope with nine 100-yuan bills, or about $150. I will count it, feeling like a gangster. I will tell her that if the need arises for further recording, she knows how to contact me.
And if she does, chances are that I’ll agree. I too want, if not authenticity, some sense of connection with this place where I’m living. Somewhere in the space between their good intentions and mine, we meet, and even though everything seems to happen at the last minute, in the least well-thought-out way, and the work is invariably strange, I enjoy these odd jobs. Their beautiful absurdity is one of my very favorite things about my life here.
So here I am. “My vessel has only slight damage on forecastle and bulb,” I intone. “No flooding was found. Now I keep pressuring her with engine dead slow ahead … Over.”