Life of a Rooster

Memoirs of a psychiatrist, journalist and educator

Broken statue and empty pond

on October 21, 2013
Modern photo of the Chinese Embassy on Avenue George V

Modern photo of the Chinese Embassy on Avenue George V. It looks so tame now. To my childish eyes, it was grand and wonderful.

Papa and Mama loved Paris.

The embassy was situated on Avenue George V, in what must have been the home of some 19th century aristocrat. I remember a huge front gate, a porte cochere, leading to a paved driveway — under the building and between two sidewalks with their own doors, windows and offices —  that opened onto a large inner courtyard. We, the diplomats’ children, had many games there, when the adults were busy with work and functions. I particularly remember playing police and bandits, when I always ended up being a bandit and was pursued by the police. I hated it. If I got tagged, I had to “die” for a while: stand still and count till ten before resuscitating into another bandit.  But I always got too involved in the game and ran for dear life. I could hear the policeman shout at me, “Hey, you are supposed to die!”  “Not on your life, I won’t,” I’d think and keep running. If I fell or if someone caught me, I was so scared that I’d burst into tears . So I acquired the reputation of being a loser and cry baby who didn’t stick to rules.

In the back of the courtyard, there were more doors and gates. One of them led to a garage, which must have been stables or carriage houses back in their heyday. Above it all were living quarters for the upper echelon of the embassy’s employees.

Somewhere in that compound were beautiful dining halls and ballrooms: very high ceilings with ornate plaster moldings, gilded walls, and floor length draperies. The embassy regularly held receptions and dinner parties that my parents had to attend, dressed to the nines. Children were not included except for internal gatherings.

My father was only a Third Secretary, so we were housed in a different location. On the Rue Pergolese, also in the XVIth Arrondissement, was this magnificent (at least in our childish eyes) mansion, crumbling with age. We lived on the third floor, which was really an attic. But what a sumptuous attic! There was a living room, a large bedroom and a small bathroom. I’m not sure whether the toilet was there, because I remember using the toilet in the large second floor bathroom, the one where a ghost was rumored to appear at times. They said a woman was tortured and killed by the Nazis during the Second World War in there.

The immense kitchen was on the ground floor, because this used to be a single family home a couple of hundred years ago.  It had a dumbwaiter in one of the corners that we never used. Well, almost never. Once, some of the other embassy kids, always boys, and always older than us, thought it great fun to climb into the dumbwaiter and try to move it.  It ended up moving down to the basement where he jumped out and frightened greatly Mr. and Mrs. Geng who lived there.

This arrangement was also a bit difficult for my mother who had always to run up and down to get things done. One night, I remember waking up and finding no grown up in the bedroom. I cried in fright but no one came. I got up and started wandering around, ending up on the staircase landing and bawling my heart out. Finally, Mama, who was making beef “song” (dried seasoned beef fibers) in the kitchen, came running up the three flights of stairs to hug me and calm me down.

On the second floor lived two more families. One of them had a daughter who was a piano student, and serenaded us daily with octaves and finger drills. The other was an old couple, the husband of whom had chronic bronchitis. I would wake up every morning to the sound of his cough. Caw, caw, caw. Caw, caw, cawwwwwwgh! Ptooh! out came the mucus. He’d stop for a while.

I think we eventually moved to one of the apartments on the second floor, when one of the families moved out. Or maybe it was the other way around. We first lived on the second floor, then moved to the third?

We played everywhere, in our apartment but also in the front yard. The yard was huge and overgrown with weeds. There was a round cement pond with a statue by its side. The statue had no arms, in the style of the Venus by Milo, but I think it also had no head and a few more pieces of its body were missing too.

Fawzia, on the edge of the fountain, front yard, old consulate on Rue Pergolese

Fawzia, on the edge of the fountain, front yard, old consulate on Rue Pergolese

There was also an ancient carriage house that served now as a garage, with the driver’s quarters above it. I don’t know how we managed to sneak into there once, and found out that there was nothing but tons of furniture and boxes and plenty of spider’s webs in there.

The formal dining room was also on the ground floor. We had a birthday party there once. It must have been the year I was in First Grade because my best friend Francoise was there, and so were the twins from my class, one of whom was named Francis. After sitting in the high back chairs for cake, and eating fruits with tiny toothpick-sized swords that Mama had bought in Spain, the boys started getting tired of behaving themselves.  Next thing I knew, they were crawling and chasing one another under the gigantic long dining table with the swords…!

We had two sets of friends, those from the embassy, and those from school. Among our Chinese friends, there were two older boys from one the families that lived behind the embassy offices. They were twins (now that I think about it, I seemed to be surrounded by twins!) and had been born in Spain or Italy because their parents had named them Antonio and Roberto. We met again years later, in 1968, and didn’t have much to talk about because by then we were in the pre-teen years when girls just don’t mix with boys and don’t talk to them.

There was another family by the last name of Tao, with three children. The eldest was Jacqueline, already 12 or 14, who talked down to us. Then the youngest two were Charlotte and PangPang (Fat-Fat). He was the first person who made me realize that people are generally unkind to others regardless of their own shortcomings. I mean, if you get mocked at for your chubbiness, should you not try not to laugh at others? knowing how bad the victim would feel? Although my Chinese formal name is Mai, Tai-Chi, my parents called me by my nickname, Hsiao Wan. Little Grace. As in graceful, lithe, comely, elegant, you know… Well, the ignorant little brat suddenly found out one day what my nickname was and burst out laughing,” Hahaha! Xiao Wan! Little Bowl (bowl is also pronounced wan but written differently)! Hahaha! Little Plate! Little Chopsticks! Hahaha!”

I ran in embarrassment and cried, again. That was probably why I got into the strange habit of not wanting to tell anyone my name. In Grade 9, in Taipei, one day, the girls got it into their heads to ask for my “English” name. I said I didn’t have an English name. “OK, so your French name.” I said I didn’t have a French name. Which was true since I had an Arabic name spelled out in English. They sneakily went to my sister Saadia and asked her for my name. Now, Saadia has always been very handicapped in that way socially. She never suspects anyone of being unkind. Next thing I knew, the girls ran over to me, laughing away. “No wonder you didn’t want to tell us your name! Hahaha! Huo-Ji-Ah! Huo-Ji-Ah!” Many Taiwanese have a problem saying the letter F, saying H instead. So now they got Huozia instead of Fawzia. But since they also couldn’t say the letter Z, they now said the J sound instead. Which turned an originally beautiful Fawzia (meaning Victoria) to Huo-Ji-Ah which meant Turkey-ah, or: Oh, the turkey!  Turkey also is a term meaning streetwalker.

The opposite is equally a problem. Once, in Grade 7, or Cinquieme in France, an annoying classmate named Catherine also insisted on knowing my Chinese name, which I adamantly refused to tell. She also went to my darling elder sister, who innocently told her. What do you think? Now Catherine runs the entire diagonal across the school yard, laughing and yelling at the top of her voice, “hahaha, I know your name in Chinese! It’s Taxi! Taxi! hohoho, Taxi!” No, dummy girl, it’s Tai-Chi! But of course, I was too nice to say that. I just cried internally and hung my head.

The fact that Fawzia was spelled in English didn’t help. No French girl could pronounce it properly, or remember its spelling.  When we went to Saudi Arabia, you’d think that problem would disappear since it was an Arabic name. Well, not really. Arabic names, like English names, have fashions. At that time, Fawzia and Saadia were outdated names, and we said them with a funny foreign accent. So the girls in school would come in groups, smiling in anticipation at a good comedy show, and ask us, “What’s your name?” and we’d pitifully and dutifully answer in unison, “Saadia wa Fawzia…” and they would explode in laughter and walk away chattering and giggling still.

Our names were only one problem. There was another problem I couldn’t do a thing about: my face, my skin and my hair. I looked Chinese, in a place and time where very few French children had ever seen anyone of color.

 


One Response to “Broken statue and empty pond”

  1. sm22281 says:

    I am amazed at Fawzia recalling specific adults and children by NAME! I have the haziest recollection of that time. I do remember the multi-storied rundown grandiose structure and the general disrepair, “broken statue and pond”, yup!

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