Life of a Rooster

Memoirs of a psychiatrist, journalist and educator

A rooster is born

on October 21, 2013

Why life of a rooster? Because I was born in the year of the rooster, I often call myself a rooster. Rooster is a better translation than hen (think mother hen) or chicken (think coward) or phoenix, which is the Chinese interpretation. A rooster is the earthly or more realistic depiction of a phoenix. But my innate Chinese modesty forbids me to aggrandize myself as a phoenix, earthly or otherwise. So  I stick to rooster.

So this rooster decided that as of today I shall consider myself retired. This means I must finally embark on that project I dreamed of since I could read and write: penning my memoirs.

So here we go.

I was born on June 13, 1957, the second daughter of a young diplomat, Muti’allah Teh-Lin Mai and his Taiwanese wife Wan-Li Chang.  My father, a newly minted employee at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Taiwan, Republic of China, was a bit disappointed to find out I was a girl. Again. Being Chinese, having a boy is quite important since a son will carry on the family name. For him, it was even more important for several reasons.

My father was the first-born son of one of the wealthiest families in Nanjing. His family owned half of downtown Nanjing as well as a shipping company and their own cargo ship. My grandfather had several nicknames that I learned from various Chinese Muslims I met later on in life. Some called him Mai Mai Cheng (buy, sell, done). Others called him Mai Ban Cheng (buy half the town) or Mai Ban Bian (buy half the side, meaning one side of the main downtown artery).

Back row, left to right: Aunt DeJuan, Grandpa Mai, his brother; front row: left to right: Great Aunt #1, her daughter, Great Aunt #2, a neighbor

Back row, left to right: Aunt DeJuan, Grandpa Mai, his brother; front row: left to right: Great Aunt #1, her daughter, Great Aunt #2, a neighbor

Papa had an older sister, De-Juan; a younger brother, De-Shen,  and a younger sister, De-Yi. But when he was a teenager, my grandmother died of “diarrhea” –probably something more than just that, maybe cholera or dysentery. Whatever the case, her death devastated my father. Traditionally, Chinese parents are not physically demonstrative of their love. So my father’s interactions with his own father consisted of bowing and giving his respects morning and evening, and presenting his report cards. Even meal times were not interactive because adults sat at one large round table and children at another. A number of relatives lived in the family compound and worked at the company. He never detailed his interactions with his mother but it was obvious there was a lot of love there.

My grandmother Mai, nee Jin, Yu-Hua, was a refined lady.
My grandmother Mai, nee Jin, Yu-Hua, was a refined lady.

So, when his father remarried within months of her demise, he decided he could not stay home any more. He remained in Shanghai for his bachelor studies in Forestry and upon graduation, joined the Department of Forestry. He chose a remote province for his first post, somewhere to get away from his stepmom, the matchmakers and jet life in general: Taiwan.

(to be continued)

3 Responses to “A rooster is born”

  1. sm22281 says:

    I hope we can write a more detailed biography about Papa and the Mai family, as well as Mama and the Chang family. It would be fascinating.

  2. sm22281 says:

    How very little we know about our own family members… In conversation with Aunt DeYi and also Uncle Deshen, I learned a few interesting details. Our grandmother’s health was worn out through the deprivations of the war (8-yrs!) and she developed an intestinal situation which proved fatal, and could probably have easily recovered with today’s medical care — IV fluids, antibiotics… Who knows? So our Father lost his mother at age 20. Apparently, Grandfather still had Aunt Deyi as a young girl of 10 at home, and was urged to remarry by the extended family clan. The candidate wife ended up being a “cousin” (Fawzia talks about all Chinese Muslims being related to one another, ha), a playmate of our Papa, barely a few years older. Papa, who was still grieving his own beloved Mother, had great difficulty accepting his Father’s remarriage and his new “stepmother”. Then, the extended Mai family clan started pressuring him to marry and “settle down”, upon graduation from college. All of these reasons prompted our Papa to seek a job as far away from home as possible! It is hard for us modern folks to visualize the murky repressed emotions in those times and the enormous difficulties imposed by the expectations of one’s community!

  3. sm22281 says:

    By the way, Fawzia does not mention it but both Mama and Aunt Lily have frequently said that Fawzia very much resembles our Grandmother Jin YuHua in physical appearance. “Those sloping shoulders!” I remember the sighs from Mama or Aunt Lily when trying to custom fit homemade clothing to Fawzia’s frame.

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