I spent the autumn of 2005 in Beijing, not entirely happy about it. I’d left behind enchanting Kyoto for love. My boyfriend was studying Mandarin and applying for graduate programs in the US. I was teaching English at Berlitz, trying to finish a novel that I was just beginning to sense was an unpublishable disaster, and missing everything about Japan. I didn’t have high hopes for the year, but all that changed following this conversation with my boss, V.
V: Do you remember when we talked about you going to work on an oil rig?
Me: Um… no.
V: Yes, yes, we talked about it last week! I’ve got a contract for you!
Me: I don’t remember that conversation. I’m an English teacher…
V: Well, they want a woman.
Me: … What?
V: Have a look at the contract and see what you think. But I need an answer by Friday.
Me: It’s Thursday.
V: *hands me contract and sails out*
Several weeks later, I was on a helicopter that looked to be held together with duct tape, bound for the FPSO Ming Zhu, an oil processing ship in the middle of the Bohai Bay. My job was to give English lessons to the one hundred plus Chinese employees, from supervisors to deck crew, in order to facilitate communication between them and the handful of British and American operations managers off-shore. The foremen and supervisors were keen students, as they needed a good grasp of English to move up in the company (a British-US oil company that shall remain nameless). The deck crew saw English class as an opportunity to come inside, sit down, and drink coffee, and so they were fairly keen too. I worried a bit about being the Only Woman out there, but the guys were, to a man, for the entirety of my contract off-shore, absolutely lovely to me and entirely respectful. We all worked on rotation off-shore. In my case, that meant that I was working 6 months out of the year for twice as much money as I’d been making before. I’d work four weeks, and then I’d have four weeks off (and a bundle of cash) to go traipsing around China with my boyfriend. Things were looking up.
In December the sea was rough, the ship pitching about so that I often had to chase my whiteboard-on-wheels across the classroom (much to the delight of my students) and it was frigid outdoors. Not that I had much occasion to go outdoors. Twice a week, though, I taught classes over on the WHP (Well-Head Platform – the drilling rig itself), and getting there was no small feat.
At 5:30 a.m. I was out on deck, in the pitch dark and the snow, bundled absurdly into what was called a “survival suit” – a giant rubber outfit that I could barely waddle around in but which would apparently keep me alive for an extra five minutes should I happen to fall into the freezing water. The Safety Officer strapped me into a contraption inexplicably called “The Frog.” This was a pyramid-shaped thing with three seats and a big hook on top. A crane lifted it from the huge processing ship and lowered it down to the deck of the transfer boat.
The Safety Officer pulled the straps tight across my gigantic rubber body, brushed the snow off my helmet in a rather motherly way, and waved my T-card (indicating my presence or absence from the ship) in my face. “You must give this to the frogman when you leave the FPSO!” OK, I nodded, thinking, the frogman? Although it sounded like a comic-book villain, this apparently referred to the bosun, standing by and beaming. “The frogman will give it to you when you get back and you must put it back at your muster station!” OK, I nodded again. And then he said my favorite sentence that has ever been uttered to me, with an intensity that made it sound almost like a threat: “When you get back, THE FROGMAN WILL BE WAITING FOR YOU!” (Da-da-DUMMMM!)
He backed up, waved, the crane lurched, and I was dangling in the black sky over the FPSO Ming Zhu, snowflakes spinning around me. Down I went, onto the deck of the transfer boat, where some other rubber-suited crew members helped me out of the frog, which went sailing upwards again. The transfer boat was a small vessel that crashed and lurched on the great waves. The crew suggested I might want to go inside, but I was sure I would get seasick if I did, and besides which, I was transfixed by the sight of the drilling platform.
It took about fifteen or twenty minutes to cross from the ship to the rig, depending on how rough the sea was. I remember that approaching the rig in the dark winter sea that first time, it struck me as one of the loveliest sights of my life. Ugly by day, in the dark it glittered with lights in a whirlwind of snowflakes, towering on great legs above the black, surging water. Giant icicles many times larger than a man hung from its lower platforms in fierce, jagged formations, lashed by foaming waves. It was like some kind of sci-fi fairyland, icy and twinkling and terrible, magical.
The rig had fewer men on it, and there was a charming sense of scrappy camaraderie among them. They were all terribly concerned about me and how I was faring off-shore for the first time, wondering if I was going to (metaphorically) jump ship now that I saw the reality. I admitted that my ears got cold on the transfer but that otherwise I had no complaints about my life off-shore. When it was time for me to go back in the evening, I found attached to my helmet a thick leather cap with ear-flaps, and a note that read: “Dear Miss Kat, Keep your ears warm! From the boys on the WHP.”
I waited on the heli-deck while the crane operator waved to me and brought the frog up from the transfer boat. I was lowered down, wearing my fetching new cap, and we went bouncing back over the waves, leaving the twinkling rig behind us for the larger, rocking FPSO Ming Zhu. I was full of the thrill of being out of my element, wide awake with brand new experiences. When I got back, the Frogman was waiting for me.
Winter now is dripping snowsuits hanging by the door, assembling pairs of mittens, hot chocolate, shoveling the car out and then shoveling it out again, my artistic failures bemoaned by my children because I cannot make a snow-fox that looks like a fox, my voice shrill and unfamiliar yelling: “No snow in the face! No snow in the face!”
The truth is, I love winter with my kids because they love it and happiness now means something different than it used to. I am anchored by love and obligation. For most of the guys I taught off-shore all those years ago, it was a hard job, not a good story, and they did it for the money. I did it for the money too, but still, my not belonging (and the temporary nature of the gig) made it something else for me, not just a job but an adventure. I think of that year alternating off-shore rotations and travel as a kind of last hurrah, before I moved to the US, got married, tried to start a vegetable garden, had children. I think of it, maybe a bit sadly, as the end of my youth and freedom. Back then I didn’t belong to anybody. I could tell my boyfriend I was going to work on an oil rig and he could laugh and then say, “seriously?” and it was all OK, because I could do whatever I wanted.
I used to feel like all I wanted was adventure: the new, the strange, the unexpected. If you think of the hours of your life as a kind of currency you trade in for experiences, then travel and living abroad have always given me the best bang for my metaphorical buck. Now, all the tired old routines, all the been-there-done-that-old-hat I fled for unfamiliar places and odd (to me) situations, all that is new again with my kids. Vicariously, at least, the simplest things become great adventures. Like getting a Christmas tree – a tree in the house, strung with lights and tinsel and decorations! The two-year-old stands before it, marveling: “It’s so beautiful,” he whispers, again and again. “It’s so beautiful.” They catch snow on their tongues, crowing at their whole world buried in white, changed utterly, the trees encased in ice that rains down, tinkling, with every gust of wind. We read a Little Golden Book version of the Christmas story, and my space-obsessed four-year-old wants to know: “OK but where is heaven? Is it in the solar system? Is it in the milky way galaxy? How big is it? Are angels real or is this just a story? Mom, is this true?” and I have no answers that suit either of us. The look of blissful concentration they get once I’ve peeled them out of their wet things and they are warm and dry and drinking hot chocolate. Everything is new. Nothing is old hat, for them, not yet. Their enthusiasm, their wonder and delight, even their fears: this is the antidote to the anesthetizing grip of habit and routine.
The difference, maybe, is that I’m no longer at the center of my own story. I’m in the background now: arranging wet boots on a towel, mopping the slush off the floor, pouring the hot chocolate. I send the sled roaring down the hill and watch them fall off at the bottom, a tangle of booted feet and snowy scarves, shouting with laughter. My joy isn’t in the thrill of the descent anymore, but the sound of their laughter. That might be sappy, or kind of pathetic, but either way, it’s the new truth. I would be lying if I said I never missed going at my own speed, starring in my own story, doing my own thing. I miss it all the time. But I was going at my own speed, starring in my own story, doing my own thing, for years and years, and at some point none of it was any good because it all got buried in the totally irrational longing for children. So here we are. I go slipping and sliding down after them, the two-year-old starting to get agitated because he can’t get up in his puffy snowsuit, the four-year-old already shouting, “Again!” I help the little one to his feet, and we all pull the sled back up to the top of the hill.