Dancing on the Queen Mary

A couple of years after I got back from China, I gave a paper at the international conference for Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL). TESOL had seen that China was going to be a big market for English as a Foreign Language Teachers and dedicated the whole conference to teaching in the People’s Republic. Many professors from throughout China had been invited and many attended my session. The thing is, my paper wasn’t directed at these men; it was directed toward young teachers who hoped to find jobs as Foreign Experts in English in China.

Even though China was developing quickly, in 1986 most places weren’t “there” yet and the conditions under which I lived in Guangzhou were still prevalent throughout the country. The paper talked about living conditions (don’t expect hot water in your apartment), student expectations (these students aren’t used to open discussions in class), what I saw as the relationship between Confucianism and Maoism (turned out that was accurate).

The conference was held at the Anaheim Hilton — very nice — overlooking Disneyland. As I recall there was a field trip set up for all the Chinese to go to Disneyland! I might have gone, too, but (if you can believe it) back then I went to Disneyland a couple times a year with groups of students from the international school where I was teaching, so a trip to Disneyland wouldn’t stand out in my memory.

I gave my paper and afterwards it was challenged by the Chinese professors from big cities where conditions for foreign experts were pretty plush. I knew this because I’d traveled to Shanghai and Beijing and had stayed in the hotels where foreign experts lived in those times. My university, however, housed us in an apartment building where other Chinese professors lived. One of my points was that it was important to ask how one would be housed and to prepare for it. I did that by taking an electricity converter and a toaster oven, a year’s supply of tampons, and a supply of various medications. Chinese healthcare turned out to be great, but there were still things I needed from home.

Face is important to Chinese and my presentation had made these Chinese professor lose face, but not really. It wasn’t directed to them. It was an interesting reminder of the one and only not-all-that-great aspect of my year teaching in China. China was (is?) also a very paternalistic society and these were older men and I was a young woman. OH well. I didn’t care. Those who needed the message would hear it, I hoped. But I felt a little bad. I never wanted to disgrace China or the Chinese. The country and the people had been so kind to me. “Kind” isn’t even a big enough word. Things don’t have to be perfect for us to love them with our whole hearts.

That evening there was a “gala” on the Queen Mary which is parked/docked in Long Beach. It’s — with all its incredible history — now a beautiful, Art Deco floating hotel. I’d been there a couple of times as a tourist but the idea of a dinner dance in the grand ballroom! How amazing. I had brought my good dress — red silk, of course — and the Good X and I were gussied up and ready to go. It was beautiful. All the Chinese professors had been bussed over and sat at the round tables set up around the dance floor smoking (1986). The Good X and I danced and then one of the professors asked me to dance. He wasn’t from Beijing or Shanghai, but a city in the interior that had faced a lot of damage in the anti-Japanese war and was even then struggling with reconstruction after all the years of Mao and poverty.

He was an amazing dancer. As we danced a couple of dances I found myself in one of those those secret conversations held out in the open I’d experienced so often in China. “My colleagues think they lost face because of your talk, Ma Sa. But I know you are right. If American teachers know what to expect, they won’t be shocked. Some of our foreign teachers went home before the term ended. America is a very comfortable country.” I told him that was my purpose in telling prospective teachers what I had experienced teaching in one of China’s biggest cities.

“But you love China,” he said.

“I do,” I said, my throat catching.

“I love America,” he said in a soft voice. “When I was a young man, I studied in America. Then the war…” Like many Chinese in the earlier decades of the 20th century he’d earned a scholarship to study in the US. “All during the Cultural Revolution, I remembered those days even though…” He sighed. Lucky for him he wasn’t a language teacher but a science professor. I heard everything in his silence. “I never thought I would come back and here I am, dancing with a beautiful American girl on this historic ship.”

Memories like this have a way of receding into the dim recesses of “almost forgotten,” then some random thing stirs them up, thank goodness! As for “myocarditis,” the prompt this morning, this kind of memory doesn’t stimulate heart-muscle pain, but the sense that there really have been some miracles along the way. ❤

13 thoughts on “Dancing on the Queen Mary

  1. I went on a nightly “ghost tour” there once. It’s supposedly one of the most haunted places in the U.S. Liberace and all that. Didn’t see or feel a damn thing. :/

    • Ha ha! I saw those advertised and never thought of doing it. All the times I was on that ship I never felt the presence of anything ghostly except, you know, history. :p

  2. Dancing like that sets a tone for intimacy you don’t often get anywhere else. What a wonderful exchange between the 2 of you. To connect that way. I am impressed (and grateful) that you remember so many details of this story.
    And…a year’s supply of tampons! Now that’s excellent planning. 🙂

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