Life of a Rooster

Memoirs of a psychiatrist, journalist and educator


on October 21, 2013

forests of central TaiwanLiving in isolation on top of beautiful forested mountains in central Taiwan was my father’s idea of an ideal life for a while. Then 1949: the Occupation (according to the Nationalists) or the Liberation (according to the Communists). My father was now totally cut off from his family and his homeland. He suddenly realized that he was all alone in the world.

The day he turned 30, the head of the mill invited him to dinner. The gracious hostess asked him over succulent dishes: “Mr. Mai, the ancient say that “at 30, one gets established.” When are you thinking of getting married?”

The question was a thunderbolt out of the blue sky. My father had always assumed that whenever he was ready for marriage, all he would have to do was to let those pesky matchmakers know, and they would present him with an array of cousins to choose from. But now, he was living on an island on top of a mountain, surrounded by the beautiful green forests and not much else, with no matchmaker in sight, nor cousins for that matter.

So he looked around at available females in the factory and decided that my mother, working then at the factory library, was a good catch since she was also the niece of the factory owner. The owner  was a very wealthy man, since he owned not just the sawmill but also the whole mountain, banana plantations and the forests.

Despite his Western education, and watching plenty of Western movies, Papa still wasn’t quite well versed in the art of dating. My aunt told me of his first attempt at dating my mother, “He went to the library and could not even look your mother in the eye. He said, would you like to go see the movies? but no one was sure who he was inviting.  So your mother brought all the girls along…”

Eventually, they did start going out to movies and dinners and talked of marriage. My mother was on top of the world. With her junior high school diploma and only some previous experience as a bank teller, she had just won the lottery grand prize!  The young resident engineer, representative of the government, the one with the big seal, without which stamp no log could leave the mill, this most eligible bachelor had just proposed to her! She was the envy of all the girls in the county!

But that wasn’t her father’s opinion. When her uncle, the wealthy landowner, called Grandpa Chang, Ping-Nan, on the phone and declared, “I’ve just given my consent to Wan-Li’s marriage with Mai, Teh-Lin!” my grandpa spluttered, “Who’s he?”

When he found out Papa was a Mainlander, Grandpa Chang was crushed. When the Nationalist forces withdrew to Taiwan, there had been a lot of riots and clashes, and “Mainlander” had become a pejorative term. But since Grand Uncle, his rich brother-in-law, said so, so be it. “I still have three more daughters…” he said to Grandma after hanging up.

Worse still, Mama later told him she had to convert to Islam. “What’s that?” asked Grandpa. “Well,” replied Mama, “I won’t be able to eat pork any more. I can only eat beef now.” Grandpa was suitably impressed. Pork was the staple meat in Taiwan. Beef was imported and expensive. Wow, Mainlanders are rich, huh?

With marriage, Papa then thought of his career. Did he really want to stay working in forests for the rest of his life? He longed to see the world. So he decided to go to Taipei and take the Higher Exams for admission to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Mama was in tears, but Papa promised her, “I’ll be back! And I’ll take you to see the world!”

Papa, always a great scholar, and fluent in French and English — having studied at a private French missionary high school and a private university, nailed the exam easily, and the family moved to Taipei.  My eldest sister had been born by then. She was a cutie pie, had a baby face (to this day) and loved posing for Papa’s camera, one of those tall rectangular boxes with two circles in front.

Then I came along, one year later. I looked more like an ugly duckling than a baby doll. But Mama was great at tailoring and sewing clothes, and fabric was cheaper in larger quantities, so she dressed us in identical clothing. Since I was also big and fat, we two looked like twins to outsiders.

By the time I was one and a half, Papa received his first posting: Paris! He was ecstatic.

Taipei, 1958 or '59. Early family photo, probably at a studio. Papa is holding Saadia and I'm sitting in the middle.

Taipei, 1958 or ’59. Early family photo, probably at a studio. Papa is holding Saadia and I’m sitting in the middle.

2 Responses to “Paris!”

  1. sm22281 says:

    This was the epitome of a glamorous posting! I remember the family photos of Papa holding each one of us on one arm, with Mama, standing on the tarmac waiting to climb up the stairs to the waiting plane. The bright and promising young diplomat with his beautiful young wife and two precious baby girls, being sent off by a group of family relatives and well wishers. Those were the days when people actually walked all the way to the airplane to say goodbye!

  2. sm22281 says:

    I don’t recall if it was a TWA or PanAm airplane. Traveling by plane was glamorous adventure in those days… 1959?

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