When Haoer Zheng enlisted in the U.S. Coast Guard in 2018, she never envisioned that her Mandarin Chinese speaking skills would have international impact.
But just months after graduating boot camp, the fireman was playing a key role aboard the Coast Guard Cutter Stratton (WMSL 752) on a mission in the Yellow Sea enforcing United Nations Security Council Resolutions against illicit ship-to-ship transfers that violate sanctions against Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), .
Zheng joined the seagoing service hoping to see a bit of the world and aspired to eventually land a job in the field of Coast Guard aviation.
She was excited to be stationed aboard the Stratton, homeported in Alameda, California, especially when she learned that the national security cutter was scheduled to deploy to the Indo-Pacific.
Despite Zheng being one of the most junior members aboard at the paygrade of E-3, her ability to speak and interpret Mandarin and English was vital to the cutter’s operations.
“Stratton’s primary mission in the Yellow Sea was to detect, deter and disrupt suspected illicit ship-to-ship transfers to DPRK,” said Capt. Bob Little, Stratton’s commanding officer. “Our goal was to shed more light on illegal activity in the region and that’s exactly what we achieved.”
Zheng actively interpreted radio communications with the China coast guard, who closely monitored Stratton’s activities, as well as commercial ships in the area, including those suspected of illicit activities. She routinely expressed Stratton’s intentions, collected information over the radio, and issued verbal alerts regarding U.N. sanctions.
“Whenever we planned to make a significant change in what direction we were heading in, or if we decided to maneuver the ship in a way that could seem erratic to anyone without an understanding of our plans, it was my job to express our intentions to the China coast guard over the radio in Mandarin,” said Zheng.
Born in Shanghai, Zheng began to study English at the age of 8. She moved to Queens, New York, in 2002 with her parents at age 10.
She was initially overwhelmed to realize American English was different than the formal English she studied in China. But it wasn’t long before she brought herself up to speed.
“In one summer I went from speaking broken English, to being fluent in American English, pretty much by watching the Disney Channel,” Zheng said.
She grew up in New York and finished her public education before attending college at Parsons New School of Design where she earned a bachelor’s degree in fashion design.
After about two years in the post-college work force, Zheng got the travel bug.
“The work I was doing in fashion and graphic design kept me in the same place,” she said. “I had a friend in the Coast Guard who talked about his travels and experiences in the service and it really appealed to me.”
She decided to visit her local recruiting office. Before long, she was headed off to basic training at age 25.
“I knew I wanted to eventually work in a Coast Guard aviation job. My intention was to serve for four years and I wanted to spend some of those years flying as part of an air crew,” said Zheng. “I’m currently on a wait list to go to a Coast Guard school to be trained as an aviation maintenance technician.”
Zheng’s official job title on Stratton is non-rated fireman. She works as part of a team responsible for keeping all the auxiliary equipment running, which includes almost all the machinery aside from the main engines. She also takes turns with other non-rated personnel helping out in the ship’s galley with arduous tasks like washing dishes for a current crew of about 170.
A few days after reporting to Stratton, Zheng’s supervisor informed her about the service’s special interpreter and translator pay. She had to demonstrate her skills by first passing a test. Then she earned a spot as an official interpreter.
Zheng said she recalls the first time during the patrol she was asked to report to the ship’s intelligence center to interpret.
“I definitely felt stressed during my first few times interpreting,” admitted Zheng. “Being the only Mandarin speaker on Stratton, I definitely felt the pressure of my new role. But after receiving confirmation from the China coast guard that they had received and understood those initial transmissions, I felt relieved and proud. The Coast Guard asks everyone in its ranks to do important work. I began to realize this was a very unique and important way for me to contribute.”
Zheng’s contribution to Stratton’s mission success makes her an invaluable asset in the Coast Guard’s commitment to uphold international law.
“The U.S. seeks a constructive, results-oriented relationship with China, wherever possible,” said Little. “I could not be more pleased to have Fireman Zheng helping our country advance that goal. Our ability to operate in the East China and Yellow Seas, in close proximity to the China coast guard without issues or misunderstandings, is significantly enhanced by Fireman Zheng.”
As Zheng watched the sun set on the Yellow Sea from the flight deck with a group of her shipmates, Stratton’s intercom interrupted the otherwise tranquil moment with an announcement directing her to head inside the ship to interpret communications.
She smiled and went to work.