Life of a Rooster

Memoirs of a psychiatrist, journalist and educator

Marshes and Mosquitoes

 

jeddah airport 1964

We made it to Jeddah before the end of December 1964. The entire embassy staff was at the airport to welcome us, right by the airplane, as we came down the stairs onto the tarmac. They were just four families! A long cry from the dozens of families in the embassy in Paris.

Saudi Arabia was indeed a backwater desert land in those days. Oil had been discovered but had yet to be felt or seen in the country’s infrastructure. We did not even have a full official embassy or ambassador there, but a charge d’affaires only. The ambassador in Iran flew in from Tehran once a year to inspect the staff. Charge d’Affaires Chao was in fact the only diplomat sent from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and not even a Muslim in this land ruled by Islamic law. The other three families were Muslim, but only local hires. This explained why my father had been selected to be posted in Jeddah, a formal diplomat and a Muslim.

The capital of Saudi Arabia is actually Riyadh, a city deep in the center of the country. But all embassies were located in Jeddah, a port city and gateway to Makkah (Mecca). They were mostly situated on one street which was nicknamed the embassy street.

We slept in our embassy the first few nights: a two-story whitewashed villa with wraparound veranda. Downstairs were the offices, and upstairs, Mr and Mrs Chao’s living quarters. Our flight had landed in the middle of the night, so the next morning, when I awoke, and walked out onto the veranda to an impossibly blue sky and warm sunshine, I felt we had arrived in heaven. Even Beirut and Jerusalem were cold.

I wandered downstairs onto the paved front driveway and met a little Chinese girl my age. She said her name was Shadia, and did I want to jump rope with her? I did. We jumped rope and then played hopscotch. I only remember that whenever my stone landed on the line, she would call it a foul. But if her stone landed on the line, she said it was in the square. I felt upset and walked back upstairs. “Where are you going? Where are you going?”  she called after me. Little did I know we were to become best friends.

We soon moved into our own one-story villa on the outskirts of the city, a property owned by Mr. Amawi. It seemed that this was a wealthy man and it was oh so posh to live in his property. Jeddah in those days had many marshes in and around the city, which bred mosquitoes like crazy. So Mama soon purchased and hung mosquito nets over our beds. That was such a new and fun thing for us, to have our own little private castles on our beds! These nets were rectangular box-like affairs, white and pretty, with the sides draped all the way over the edge of the bed. At night, once we rolled them down, we had to chase and clap/kill any stray mosquito inside it before going to sleep.

mosquito net

It was in Mr. Amawi’s house that Papa also instituted the nightly tradition of having us write our diary entries before going to sleep. In French, of course.

 

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The Holy Land

From Beirut, Lebanon, Papa then flew us to Amman, the capital of Jordan. This was the gateway to a tour of the Holy Land. In 1964, prior to the 1967 war, it was an easy drive. The embassy staff in Amman helped Papa get us tour tickets and off we went.

reading paper in dead sea

First stop, the Dead Sea. It did not look particularly pretty, not like the Mediterranean, but Papa told us that this was a very special sea. It was so salty that you could float in it and have your breakfast coffee and read the newspaper, all this without sinking. I wondered whether we were going to try it, but no. We took pictures and went on.

Then, on to Jerusalem. We visited the Dome of the Rock and now, for the first time in my life, I saw my father pray. I was mesmerized. I saw other people scattered throughout the mosque doing the same movements, standing, bowing, kneeling, prostrating… I pulled Mama’s sleeve. “Mama, Mama, what is Papa doing?” Mama tried to shush me, but I would not. “What is Papa doing?” Finally, Mama gave in, and in a whisper, she said, “He is praying.”

Praying? In all my books, which were French and described Catholic life, people knelt down by their bedside, joined their hands together, and talked to God. Was this then praying too? How? My whole world was turning upside down.

Mama had mentioned to us once before, in Paris, very solemnly, that we were Muslims. “What does that mean?” I asked. “You just need to know that you are a Muslim, that’s all.” Well, that certainly did not help at all. I mulled the statement in my head. “Is Francoise a Muslim? — No.” All right, so maybe that meant something like a Chinese. “Is Amy a Muslim? — No.”  That narrowed the field down considerably. So maybe it meant something like a family or a tribe. “Is Aunt Lily a Muslim? — No.”  I could not anymore fathom what that could possibly mean, then.

Now, in Jerusalem, the whole matter resurfaced. “This is how Muslims pray,” stated Mama. I am not sure what it was I felt then. I had just discovered that I belonged to a group of alien beings, and that we prayed in a very strange way.

dome of the rock

In Bethlehem, we followed the trail of Jesus’ life, with a tour guide. We walked on a street –known as the Via Dolorosa —  that climbed up a small hill, and was bordered with shops, hawkers, foods, smells, smoke, talk, and noise. A regular market place. We would stop now and then and the guide would describe what happened there. Thinking back, he must have been speaking in French, because I understood what he was saying. “Here, Jesus fell for the first time… Here, Jesus fell for the second time…”  He was a big guy with a fat belly. And somehow, he mistook me for Jesus. He would stick my head in a stone niche in the wall, and pretend to spank me on the behind. “Here, this is what they did to Jesus, this way.” After a while, I had enough of being beaten, dragged, whipped, etc. Not for real, but it wasn’t a pleasant thought.

via dolorosa in jerusalem

Then we reached the top of a hill. Inside a building, he showed us a cemented square on the floor, in which there was some vague pattern. The guide said this was the foot print of Jesus as he was raised to Heaven. Really? It looked much too small to be an adult footprint! I hovered my foot above it, to gauge its size. Swish! The guide sharply pulled me away, with an angry shout. Such a holy relic. How dare I put my foot where Jesus’ foot trod! Now, all of a sudden, I was not used as a model of Jesus any more. Anyway, I was not going to step on it, just hover above it… But, as usual, as a good little girl, I kept quiet.

 

 

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Beirut

It was also in Ankara that we got to keep our first pet.

One of the neighbours upstairs had a brand new litter of puppies and were looking for takers. We bugged Papa so much that he yielded and we came back downstairs, bright eyed, and hugging a little ball of black curly fur.

We named him Milou, after Tintin’s dog. Now, in the English translation, this white dog is named Snowy, which seems totally unsuitable for our little coal black little darling. But in the original French version, it is named Milou, which is cute and not related in any way to a color.

Milou was a very happy puppy and ran around like crazy to play with us. We got him a leash and the four of us, Janet, Joyce, Saadia and me, would take him for wild dashes in the building yard and across the vacant lot. It was not until his sister, who had been adopted by another family upstairs, daintily walked out, totally shaved naked with nothing left but tufts on her paws and tail, that we discovered Milou was a poodle.

black poodle puppy

But we only got to watch Milou grow for a few months.

Just as we were settling down to life in Turkey, the Ministry sent word to Papa that the transfer to Turkey was a mistake. The excuse was that pulling so many staff members out of Paris at such short notice was a little difficult to handle. But anyhow, there is a vacancy in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, and Mr. Mai would be just the right person to fill it.

Papa threw a royal fit. He stormed around our apartment, thundering about quitting diplomacy altogether. Did they think back in the ministry that moving a whole family around was that easy? And Saudi Arabia, really? That place was not fit for human habitation. All deserts and nothing else.

He later told us that it was a coffee cup that changed his mind.

One of the neighbors upstairs invited Papa and Mama to a farewell dinner, after which they offered them some Turkish coffee. This is a very rich coffee served in very small but beautiful cups. The best part is after finishing drinking it, you swirl the thick residue around a few times, then tip the cup upside down, and place it on the saucer to drip itself dry. This happens in a few minutes, after which the cup is ready for fortune reading.

So the neighbor read Papa’s coffee cup and told him that he was going to a place where he would be very very happy and have very good friends. That sounded promising. So Papa thought maybe he would give it a try, and decide later whether to quit or not.

And so, he planned for the move. This time, it being December, and the snows in Turkey being able to bury a child or a car, driving was out of the question. He decided to fly, but not in a straight line. He was certainly not going to pass up the chance to see the Holy Land and the Dead Sea, both of which lay on our path to the deserts of Arabia.

Again, we sold all furniture, and packed all clothing. We boarded a plane and flew to the first leg of our Middle Eastern trip: Beirut!

Beirut 1964

Beirut was then known as the Little Paris of the Middle East. It was filled with music, culture, tourists and tycoons.  Again, it looked nothing like a hot dusty desert country. On the contrary, it was very cold, and there was snow in the streets. I was starting to get used to have my stereotypes blown away by now.

We stayed in a hotel, and Mama took us shopping. I got to buy a toy guitar that made real sounds if you turned a handle on its side.  What a marvel! I played carefully with it, so as not to break it. The next day, we were to visit one of the embassy families that had invited us to dinner. Mama talked to me, saying this family had a child, and why don’t I give up my guitar so she wouldn’t have to go out buy another gift.  I had tears in my eyes. Why did I always have to be the one to give away my things? Papa joined in the conversation. He said that the guitar couldn’t go to Saudi Arabia anyway. Over there, music was forbidden. If the customs officers were to see it, they would take it and throw it away.

Just to frighten me some more, he added that this was a very very strict country. If you stole things, they would cut off your hand. Once a man found a bag of rice in the street and went to report it to the police. They asked him, “How did you know it was rice?” The man replied, “Oh, I just felt the cloth, and could tell it was rice. — Which fingers did you use to feel it? — These fingers here, on my right hand.” The policeman then ordered the man to be taken out and have his right fingers chopped off. For he had touched what did not belong to him.

Now, as I try to piece together the events of my childhood, I realize that the  embassy staff in Beirut must have had a field day telling him all sorts of scary stories about the ruffians in the Arabian Desert.

So I agreed to give away my guitar.

toy guitar

 

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Of Pumps and Raw Eggs

double happiness

It seems that one of the functions of an embassy is to officiate weddings. For, while we were in Ankara, yet another staff member got married. This time, it was an older bachelor by the last name of Bian.

Chinese employees have the custom of calling other co-workers “Old Smith” or “Old Jones” to express familiarity and friendliness. Therefore, you’d hear them say, “Hey, Lao Chang!” or “How’s it going, Lao Lee!”  But with a surname like Bian, you couldn’t do that.

You see, Bian also means “ease”, or “relief”, as in “to relieve oneself of bladder pressure”. So when the relief involves bladder tension, it’s called Small Relief, and when it involves rectal tension, it’s called Big Relief. It follows that calling someone Old Relief was bound to lead to problems. The solution? Everyone decided that they should call him not “Lao Bian” but “Bian Lao”, which translates roughly as “Relief The Elder”. Much better.

So then, Bian Lao was getting married to an old maid, and all the staff celebrated the event. I presume that the ceremony took place officially in the embassy, but this time we were not flower girls nor invited even. But we got to go to the newly weds’ apartment for the “Riot of the New Room”. Traditionally, the newlyweds’ bedroom is termed the Hole Room or the New Room. (Sorry, I don’t mean to be gross, but there you go, that is what it is termed.) And traditionally, after bowing to the Heaven and the Earth, to the parents and to each other, the bride and groom would be led to the New Room. Then the guests, usually close relatives and friends, would invade the room and raise a raucous riot of lewd jokes and pranks.

Witnessing a bunch of adults acting like naughty kids out of control is quite a sight for children. My usually stern and venerable father laughed and joked as loudly as all the others. At one point, they pulled out the bride’s high heeled shoe, filled it with wine, and made the groom drink it. Then someone hung a string over the chandelier and tied an apple to it. They asked the bride and groom to take a bite while the joker would tug and pull on the string.

Eventually someone noticed us children peeking in from the door, and shooed us away. Just as well, since we were getting really sleepy and tired.

Papa, obviously, could be jovial too. So far, I only knew him as the greatest playmate on earth, but one who could turn in a second into the most patriarchal of disciplinarians, as in the case of the chocolate and the shoe horn. He was inflexible once he laid a rule.

One day, as we were home for lunch break, I suddenly remembered I was to bring a boiled egg for our “Lecon de Choses” –Lesson of Things. Which meant Natural Science or Biology. Of course, this happened just as we were getting ready to board the car to go back to school. Papa immediately started rattling off his routine about my lack of responsibility, while Mama hurried to the kitchen to boil the egg. Trying to look unperturbed, I weathered Papa’s threats to drive off while pleading with Mama to boil faster. To which she would reply that this was as fast as it was going to boil. Finally, we both surrendered to Papa’s threats, and Mama fished the egg out of the water and wrapped it in a handkerchief. I ran to the car. Later, in school, our Maitresse, Mme Konyali, finally announced we were to pull out our eggs. I proudly unwrapped my egg. Now, she said, we were to knock them and peel them. Before I could figure out how, my egg rolled down my desk — our desks had sloping tops — and crashed onto the floor, in a magnificent mess of runny white and sunny yellow sprinkled with shell bits. The maitresse was not amused. “You were supposed to boil it, Fawzia! Don’t you understand what boiling is?” Students, like children, were to be seen and not heard. I was not to answer. Just listen. How could I explain that I personally did witness my mother boiling it?

broken egg

Winter arrived. Papa told us to be careful. He had heard that Turkish winters are harsh. Snow could pile up so high that small children could get buried in it. One morning we ran late for school. We jumped into the car (yet another second-hand Cadillac), but Papa just idled the engine without driving off. We tried to hold our panic in for a while then dared pipe a half question about why we were not leaving. Papa thundered back that it was our fault for being late. Did we not know that engines need to warm up before running? So we waited, stressed by our lateness and Papa’s temper. Finally we made it to school but alas, the bell had rung and the yard was empty. I headed to my classroom with my heart in my shoes, which I dragged along. I dreaded knocking at the door but finally had to do so. I walked in, head low, towards Mme Konyali’s desk.

That day was also the first day that our new ambassador’s son was to attend school, and he was to be in my class! I was really happy that another Chinese student was joining us in the French Embassy School and longed to show off my seniority.

But instead of showing off any school pride, I was told to go stand in the corner and face the wall.

Somehow, in my early life, all these little moments of pride never quite worked out the way I wanted them too. I always ended up being the trouble maker or was unjustly punished. And, little by little, through these vicissitudes, my shyness grew. Every month, my report card remarked, “Excellent student, but too shy.”

 

 

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Chinese Zombie

 

It must have been around that time that Papa himself told us another Liao Zhai tale of his own. Papa thought it important that we should learn about Chinese culture, and this particular tale introduced us to the jiang shi, the Chinese version of a zombie.

Supposedly, if a black cat jumps over a corpse, the static electricity from the cat would cause the corpse to sit up, then stand up. Which, of course, begs the question, why don’t you just bury that dreadful corpse quickly instead of laying it there for all black cats all over the world to come and jump over?

stormy night

So the story goes as follows: Three merchants — apart from poor scholars, merchants are the next most common travelers with adventures– were traveling. One very stormy night, they trek through a dark forest and finally see a light. Saved! It’s a country roadside inn. They knock. The innkeeper finally opens the door. The drenched and weary travelers are hungry and tired and beg for food and lodging. The innkeeper says sorry, because of the weather, all the rooms are full, go elsewhere. The merchants beg him, so he finally says, well, there is ONE room left after all, but you see, my wife died yesterday and her coffin is lying in that room. If you don’t mind the coffin, well, you are welcome.

The merchants are so weary that they say, pssh! Corpse? Coffin? no big deal.  At least the older two do. The youngest one feels creepy but keeps his mouth shut. After eating, the older two merchants fall on their bed and snore away. But the youngest can’t seem to be able to sleep. Good for him because soon a black cat jumps over the coffin. I knew it. What else could happen to a coffin that stays in a room, I ask you?

So the youngest merchant watches two bony white hands creep out of the coffin and push up the lid. The dead innkeeper’s wife sits up, removes the lid — I tell you, Chinese zombies are strong, even if they were frail before dying… — then steps out onto the floor. The youngest merchant tries to stay as still as possible. The jiang shi moves toward the sleeping forms. She bends down to try to figure out whether the man is breathing. Obviously he is since he is snoring.  Pffuit! She blows on his face. He stops snoring. She now moves toward the second one. She bends over his face, senses the breathing, pffuit! There goes the second merchant. She goes to the third one, who holds his breath in terror. What? no breath? She tries and tries to detect a breath. Ah, too bad. So she moves away.

jiang shi

The youngest merchant could not hold it any longer. He jumps out of bed, pulls open the window and jumps out. Why, I wonder, since the jiang shi was leaving anyway.

Obviously, this is the ground floor, for he does not sustain any injury, but starts sprinting for dear life. The jiang shi turns around at the sound and rushes to the window. She spots the guy and jumps out too. Now, said Papa, you must know that dead bodies are very stiff. So they cannot run the normal way. They sort of hop in little hops forward in a straight line. (As a medical doctor, I can tell you for sure that hops also need the leg muscles to contract, but hey, I’m not going to contradict Chinese tradition…). But they cannot turn very well, so they slow down and kyuuu, kyuuu, kyuuu rotate themselves as best they can like rusty screws.

So this young chap just runs for his life, now not minding rain or wind any more. The jiang shi hops swiftly behind him. Whenever she is about to grab him with her skeletal fingernails, he turns to the right or the left. So she needs to do the rusty screw thing, kyuuu, kyuuu, kyuuu, by which time, he has the lead again. Eventually, he gets really tired, and needs some rest. What to do? Ah, he spots a huge tree with a great broad trunk! He stands behind and plays hide and seek with the jiang shi. Right? Left? Yoohoo I’m here! Thus they go on for a while. Then, the jiang shi gets smart. You want to stay behind the trunk? Fine, watch this! And she opens her arms wide, and slams them around the trunk. The young man jumps backward, and the sharp fingernails stab themselves into the bark of the tree.

The jiang shi struggles and tries in vain to dislodge her fingers. Just as it seems that she might be able to do so, cocorico! or cockle-doodle-doo! The sun rises, and she collapses with a blood curdling shriek, hanging by the fingernails. The innkeeper appears, looking for his wife. End of story.

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Chinese Life in Turkey

We now made the acquaintance of a brand new set of Chinese families from the embassy. Either none lived close enough to our apartment building, or none had little girls our age. Although we would meet them now and then at various functions, we never became close friends with any of them.

The military attache, Ma Ming-Dao,  had two boys, slightly older than we were. They went by the nicknames of “Da Di” — Big Younger Brother; and “Er Di” — Second Younger Brother.  They were the terror of the entire Chinese community. If they were known to come visit any home, the housewife would hurriedly put away all breakable items, lock all private rooms, and prepare some sedatives (slight exaggeration). They were known to be uncontrollable brats who came up with wild schemes, routinely broke expensive objects, and bullied all other children.

My one recollection of them was a dinner party at some large residence, maybe the ambassador’s.  At some point during the evening, suddenly one of the kids came out from the bedroom area yelling that “THEY have got hold of Little Sister Yao!” Yao Xiao-Mei was only about two or three years old, and innocently would follow any older child around. Her mother came charging to the rescue, in the nick of time. The two older boys, probably 10 and 11 at the time, had forced her to eat an entire piece of chicken neck skin that they had possibly fished out of the chicken soup. The poor dear was choking on it, unable to either spit it out or swallow it down.

My mother told us that the only person the two tornadoes were scared of was their father. An army officer, the dad only had to raise his thunderous voice and call, “Da Di! Er Di!” and they would come scuttling, heads down, in silence. Uncle Ma would then say, “On your knees!” and the two of them would obediently kneel down. Mama’s story would always end here. We weren’t sure what came next. A shoe horn slapping session maybe?

kneeling, a time-honored Chinese method of discipline

There was another older girl –Jie Jie or Elder Sister– from the O Yang family. She was at least in high school if not more. As was the custom, whenever all the adults were to attend an embassy function, all the kids were pooled in someone’s house and the older ones baby-sat the younger ones. One evening, we were pooled with O Yang Jie Jie. Her idea of keeping us still was to tell us stories from Liao Zhai, a classical Chinese book of stories with paranormal or thriller elements.

Up till then, the scariest story I had ever read was Le Petit Poucet, a fairy tale by Perrault, where an ogre slits the throats of his seven daughters by mistake. I had yet to encounter the Chinese idea of horror.

liao zhai

The first story had to do with a poor scholar. Now, all you have to do is read any classical Chinese collection of stories, and there will always be a few poor scholars in there. I imagine it is because only a poor scholar could come across weird adventures, usually trudging his way to the capital where he was to attend the national examinations. Rich ones probably traveled in carriages with many attendants, and therefore were less prone to adventures.

So this poor scholar at some point meets a dazzlingly beautiful girl and marries her. Then he meets a monk who points out to him that he is losing weight and becoming paler by the day. He laughingly says it’s probably due to marriage (which made no sense to us then).  But the monk warns him repeatedly and advises him to spy on his wife. So one day, he pretends to go out to work, and then sneaks back home and peeks in on his wife. To his horror, she sits at her dressing table in front of her bronze mirror, and proceeds to take her face off, revealing a horrible monster. She carefully paints the face and puts it back on again. The idea was that she was some kind of vampire sucking away her husband blood.

As if this wasn’t thrilling enough for one evening, she told us to turn off the lights except for one small lamp. Then she told another story where some children’s mother had to go off to the next town. An old woman shows up at the door, claiming to be their baby-sitter. They let her in. She refuses food at dinner, but insists that the youngest child should sleep with her in her bed.  The other children hear some bone cracking at night and ask “Auntie” what that is. ‘Oh,” she replies, “I tend to grind my teeth at night.”  The truth was that she had been gnawing on the child’s fingers. I totally cannot recall the ending. My memory is stuck on this image. The old woman curled up in bed, holding a little child’s fingers in her mouth.

Of course, the story makes no sense whatsoever. How could the child not cry out in pain? Maybe she had already killed the child? I just was so terrified by the story I did not do anything naughty till my parents came back to pick us up.

At these baby-sitting parties, Saadia and I were not always the youngest. Once, we happened to be the oldest children in the group. It was a bright afternoon, and we thought that we should lead them all in games. Wouldn’t you say that was better than telling spooky stories? So we played all kinds of games, until finally we thought of the ultimate one. We would hold a younger one, Saadia by the hands and I by the feet, and we would swing the children one by one right and left. They thought it lovely and screamed in delight, or so we thought. The game went on until it came to the turn of the little boy from the Li family. He was four. We swung him slowly at first. He was exhilarated, “Higher! Higher! Faster! Faster!” So we did. Higher. Faster. Then, oops! He flew out. Crash! He howled and hollered and cried his heart out while a rather humongous giant swelling grew on his head. We tried to pat him and console him, so he wouldn’t make so much noise, but to no avail. As luck would have it, the adults all returned right then, in the midst of the wails.

We expected to be scolded, but surprisingly, no remonstrance of any kind came through. This is something I have observed again and again over the years. Many parents make a mountain out of a molehill. But when they are faced with a real mountain, they are at a loss.

 

 

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Summer in Ankara

Since we arrived in Ankara at the end of March 1964, I finished 10eme (Grade 2), and started 9eme (Grade 3) in the fall. This means that we spent the summer there. No wonder my memories of Ankara are full of sunshine and tree climbing.

Our apartment building had seven –or was it nine– stories. On the top floor there lived a family whose father was an American marine and the mother a Japanese lady. They had two daughters respectively one year older than Saadia and I: Janet and Joyce. We played together in the yard around the apartment building and in the vacant lot next door,  just about every day.

This is where the miracle of childhood comes in. They spoke English and Japanese. We spoke French and  Mandarin Chinese. Yet we communicated perfectly well, with the help of self-made onomatopeias and sign language. If Mama called us for lunch, we would sign to them: right-hand-holding-spoon- stuffing-food into mouth, accompanied by word: “miam miam!”  They would understand and sign back that they would go home too.

Janet and Joyce seemed immensely wealthy to us. They owned a dozen Barbies with all kinds of clothes and furniture. The two of us owned a grand total of one Barbie only, and of the old kind, whose knees could not bend. We had just one Barbie outfit, a swim suit, and so we made our own, and dressed her in the dresses cut out of Mama’s sewing scraps.

Barbie 1964

The American marines shopped at a wonderful store called the PX, where you could find all sorts of American goods. The  Japanese lady, who was very close friends with Mama, would take her there and Mama would show off her US foods and trinkets to her Chinese friends.

PX store

Mama spoke fluent Japanese, because Taiwan was occupied by the Japanese until the end of World War II, and all schools taught Japanese. Mama did not study in Mandarin until Junior High School (Middle School). Mama started imitating her Japanese friend in many way. For one thing, our clothes started changing from French formal styles to American informal styles. Mama was a great seamstress, completely self-taught, despite her attempt at attending some tailoring class in Paris, which ended in her dropping out due to our falling victims to chicken pox. So gone were our velvet dresses. We now ran around in pink cotton shirts and matching shorts with wide stripes.

shirt and shorts 1960s

Another playmate was the daughter of our doorman (concierge), a little Turkish girl named Sevkieh. She was around our age and was always dressed in a grey linen dress over a pair of grey linen pants, and ran around in flip flops. She must have worn some other clothes, but somehow I only remember her in that outfit.

Children play well regardless of culture, but sometimes culture does butt in, in the most unexpected way… One day, we antagonized Sevkieh. How, I just cannot remember. She was very angry, and glared at us for a while, looking like she wanted to insult us, or take revenge. We waited. Then she decided on the insult: She turned around, pulled down her pants, and bent forward, flipping up her dress! She was mooning us!

We had never heard of mooning, let alone understand its significance. To us, the area between the waist and the knees was private and belonged in the bathroom. Showing it was pure shame.

Our mouths dropped. Then we just burst out laughing out loud! Sevkieh got even angrier. She pulled up her pants and stomped away, red-faced.

full moon

There was another Janet, the daughter of the occupants of the 4th or was it 5th floor. She was much much older, probably a college student. She sometimes talked to us, and once saved us.

We four had decided that day to climb the lone tree that stood in the middle of the vacant lot. Janet, the oldest, led the vanguard. She would test out the branches, and Joyce, Saadia and I followed behind, scraping skin and pricking hands. All went well till Janet screamed, “Spider web!” We all screamed along. Janet commanded, “Go back! Go back!” I was the last one up, and therefore first one to go down. But I was only able to backtrack to the main fork. Then I looked down at the ground. How come it was so far now? “Come on, jump!” ordered Janet. “Can’t!” We tried to shift around the branches, and each took a turn at the main fork, only to give up too. When Janet’s turn came, she jumped and made it back to solid earth. We asked her to help us down, but she only laughed and walked away! How could she? Leaving us alone on the tree? We realized we were stranded. What to do? Joyce said,”We need to call for help.”  We yelled and hollered, “Help! Help! Au secours! Au secours!”  Time passed. No one came. We were on the brink of tears, but no one wanted to be the first coward to cry, so we all held it.

SOS

Finally, as we were giving up hope, there came Big Janet, in a demure skirt and shirt, holding a stack of books in her arms, walking through the vacant lot. We screamed as loudly as we could, waving our arms. She approached the tree, smiling. She looked up at us and just smiled. She put her books down and helped us down one at a time. Dear dear Janet, you were the best soul on earth! And I mean Big Janet, not Little Janet, who still called herself our friend after this episode!

 

 

 

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The Famous Chocolate Story

 

My permed look in 1964. This is the reject I got after my mother cut pictures for her albums and scrapbooks. Little did we know that these scraps would become our few remaining mementos.

My permed look in 1964. This is the reject I got after my mother cut pictures for her albums and scrapbooks. Little did we know that these scraps would become our few remaining mementos.

Since this story has reached my year in Turkey, I must tell that famous Chocolate Story that all my siblings, children, children-in-law, and all relatives and friends know so well. I have even told this story to many of my students. There isn’t really much to the story except what I learned from it.

In Ankara then, in 1964, we ordered goodies from a Danish catalog. I’m not sure what else Mama ordered, but what we really loved were those chocolate bars! There was an entire carton of them! I swear my parents never actually in so many words forbade us to eat them. They simply stored them out of our reach, and would occasionally give us some as rewards or treats.

Children: before the age of walk-in closets, we had real closets, large pieces of furniture for hanging clothes, with doors. These were called armoires (in French), or wardrobes (in English).

armoire

So the precious carton of chocolate bars sat on top of Mama’s wardrobe.

One Sunday morning, Papa and Mama went off somewhere. They never told us where they went. We just took it for granted that they regularly went to all kinds of functions; this was part of the life of diplomats’ children. The three of us, Saadia, 8, me, 7 and my little brother Ferdinand/ Abdul Kerim, 3 stayed in our room and played Lego on the floor. The hours ticked by, and we got tired. And hungry. And tired. And hungry. I looked at the two of them and asked, “Would you like to eat some chocolate?”

Their eyes were round and their mouths agape. “But… how are you going to get it?” asked Saadia. My brother was yet too young to participate actively in really important discussions such as this one. Obviously, she shared my opinion that we had never really been forbidden to eat it on our own. Only that they were out of our reach.

I had studied this problem often, theoretically. So, I led them to Mama’s bedroom and demonstrated it. “See, just like this!” I climbed on Ferdinand’s bed with my left foot, stepped then on the door handle with the right foot, held on to the top of the wardrobe with both hands, pulled myself up by swinging my left foot into the air, threw my left hand into the carton, grabbed the first bar I found, then jumped backwards onto my parents’ bed quickly before I lost balance.

I waved the bar triumphantly in the air! We ran back to our room, tore open the bar and broke those little squares up. We devoured them lustily, licked our fingers with gusto! What a great treat this was!

Being still young, we forgot to wash our hands and our mouths, leaving tell-tale dark spots everywhere.

This particular outing was really getting too long! Where were our parents? Finally we heard the key turn in the front door. Relieved and happy, we jumped up and all ran as fast as we could to meet them. “Papa! Mama!” we tried to hop up to their necks and embrace them as we usually did, but Papa seemed in a really foul mood!

He barely returned our hugs, then took one look at our brown-smudged faces and hands. “You STOLE and ate chocolate! ” he thundered.

Now, if a loving dad suddenly turns into Zeus and roars into your face, your normal reaction is to stutter, “No… No… No…” I don’t think I was really trying to say I did not eat chocolate. I was only trying to deny this suddenly very frightening situation. But Papa thought otherwise.

“What! Not only you know how to steal, you also know how to LIE!!! What has this household come to! These children need some discipline!”

If you are not Chinese, you do not know how we are disciplined. You need to line up, facing the authority, our patriarch, and kneel down. Papa looked around, and finally found a stainless shoe horn, with a long handle. He tried slapping it into his palm. Worked.

shoe horn

He came to us, ready for the session. My brother was forgiven for being too young. He probably was led to err by his evil sisters. Off he went to the kitchen for a bowl of noodles. Papa took my right hand in his. He swung the shoe horn in the air. “Now, tell me again, did you or did you not steal and eat chocolate, then lie about it?”

No way. I certainly was not evil. I certainly committed no crime. I would not admit to it. I looked at the shoe horn, and thought, “Well, how hurtful can this be? ” So I looked Papa in the eye, and replied, “No.”

“Is that how it is? OK, you asked for it.” The shoe horn slapped into my right palm. It burned so much tears just shot out of my eyes all by themselves. I certainly did not will them to. I kept my mouth shut and refused to cry out.

Papa now moved to Saadia. He held her right palm. “Did you or did you not steal and eat chocolate?” Da Jie looked at me. I wasn’t crying. At least not outwardly. It must be OK. So she looked Papa in the eye and replied, “No.” Swish! Slam! The shoe horn slapped into her palm. She screamed and collapsed onto the carpet, “I did! I did! I did! Wah…. Wah…” she sobbed uncontrollably.

Papa threw down his weapon and immediately gathered her in his arms. “That’s OK, that’s OK, Darling! Since you admitted it, it’s OK. Does it hurt?” Now, he was massaging her palm, and blowing on it. “We were just baffled, Dear, we didn’t know how you could possibly reach them. How did you?”  Wailing and crying, Saadia pointed an accusing finger at me, “It’s her! she got it!” Papa hugged and comforted her, then off she went to the kitchen to have a bowl of noodles.

Well, you know what, this is the last time I’m sharing chocolate with you!  How could you! Traitor! Coward!

Papa turned back to me. “Well, Da Jie has already confessed, so you may as well do so too. So, did you or did you not steal and eat chocolate?” I have no idea really what got into me. But I looked him straight in the eye and firmly stated, “No, I did not.” That really incensed Papa. “What? Do you intend to foment a rebellion?” Whack! whack! the shoe horn slapped my palms, right, left, right, left, so much that now I could not feel the pain anymore. Every two slaps, Papa would reiterate his question, “Did you STEAL and eat chocolate?” and now in a broken voice I would repeat, “No!!!! No!!!” The tears were behaving in a silly manner, not listening to my will, just pouring like a torrent. At least, my voice listened to me and I refused to groan, moan or whimper.

Papa was now tired. He was red in the face, and he had rolled up his shirt sleeves. He tried using psychological warfare in between more shoe horn slapping. “You are nothing but a liar and a thief. You will grow up to become a threat to and the scourge of society. How could I as a father allow such a thing? The best thing to do right now is to withdraw you from school. I will go tomorrow to your school and declare in front of your whole class that you are a liar and a thief…”  Now he didn’t know but I very nearly broke down at this point. I finally had been able to integrate myself into a classroom. My classmates did not isolate me and mock me. But if Papa did that, it was horrible. It would be worse than in Paris. Everyone would be horrified at my character.

Fortunately, Mama came in at this point. She told me later, after I grew up, that the two of them had an understanding. Whoever disciplined the children, the other was not to interfere. But she probably could not go on witnessing such a scene much longer. So she walked up to Papa and said, “Your noodles are getting cold. Why don’t you go and eat them first. You can always continue beating her afterwards.”

Mama was always the real diplomat in the family.

So Papa stormed off to the kitchen to eat his noodles. Mama knelt down and hugged me. I simply broke down and cried my heart out. She soothed me, and asked, “Since you ate the chocolate, just say you ate them. You ate them, didn’t you?”

See, the difference was that she asked whether I ate them. That was never the problem. The word I did not agree with was STEALING. So, in between sobs, I said, “Of course, I did.”  Mama pulled me up and said, “We couldn’t figure out how you got the chocolate. How did you?” So I led her to her bedroom. “Just like this!” and I re-enacted the little monkey climb, the left hand thrown into the carton, a grab, and backward hop and here you go! Another bar of chocolate!

Mama washed my face then led me to my bowl of noodles, rather cold by then.  She told Papa, “she confessed and showed me how she got them. Let her eat now.” Papa was only too happy to be relieved of his dilemma.

bowl of noodles

And the moral of the story is…

I really don’t know. As a parent and an educator, I have learned that you should never embark on a full-front confrontation. This only leads to a battle of willpower and a struggle for each side to retain some self-worth.

As a child, I learned what a lie was. And that lesson was so well learned that for many years afterwards, I would rather face a tsunami than lie. Because of my pathological insistence on telling the truth, years later, I was kicked out of medical school (I was able to get back in). But the full story is yet ahead.

 

 

 

 

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Ankara

To cross the Bosphorus with a car, you need to get on a ferry. We drove onto the ferry, and watched the ships and boats around us. We set foot on Asia!

But our good old Cadillac was tired. It decided it was not going to move on. So we had it towed to the nearest garage. There, Papa made a call to the embassy in Ankara. And got an earful. Where were you all this time? We thought you’d disappeared off the face of the earth!

At least we were back in contact with our own slice of civilization. I’m not quite sure how we made it to Ankara. Probably after the embassy wired money to the garage and the car got fixed, we drove all the way.

We also found out why the highway had been so deserted all the way from Greece. Having been out of touch with political news for a while, Papa had not been aware of the rising tension between Greece and Turkey over the Cyprus issue and the talk of war.  It was just on March 4 that the UN had passed  its Security Council Resolution 186 which authorized the formation of a peacekeeping force to be stationed along the Cypriot Greek-Turkish border. No wonder the border guards had been taken aback to see this car emerging  from enemy country with  a Chinese family and two American hitchhikers!

map of cyprus

UN

Once in Ankara, we moved into the basement apartment of a tall building. Papa enrolled Saadia and me in the French embassy school. This was my first experience with international schools.

Internationally mobile workers in those days consisted mainly of diplomatic families and UN workers. Today, we have been joined by families of employees of multinational corporations. But in the 1960’s there were very few international schools. Most of us had to attend the public or private schools of whatever country we happened to land in. In Paris, there had been a fledgling American school but it accepted only American nationals. Here in Ankara, the French Embassy School accepted any nationality.

The school, as do many with limited enrollment and resources, combined every two grades in one classroom. I entered Second Grade and Saadia Third Grade. Somehow my impression is that schoolwork was harder at this school than it was in Paris. My grades were not bad but I wasn’t first in my class any more; it was a little French girl named Frederique Bouquigny. Apparently, Saadia also struggled a bit in her class, because for the first time ever, I witnessed one day Papa being upset at Saadia over her Math grade.

The best part of school was that there was no more staring, gawking, or mocking me on account of my facial characteristics or name. There was a large number of French students, but the majority were non-French. My friends included a Vietnamese girl named Suon Dong, a Polish girl named Grazinka Bogdanka, a Turkish girl named Aydan Akmandor, and another Turkish girl named Idil Guzman. There were American students in the other grades, and just about all the colors in the rainbow for hair, skin and eyes. To me, this spelled heaven!

However, one day, there came to the school a new student named Elizabeth. She might have been French or Turkish, I am not sure. She had very normal features, hair and eye colors, but she had one trait that made her stand out like a sore thumb: she was overweight, obese, plump, fat!

At break time, I saw a large group of students riotously laughing and talking in a large group in a corner of the yard. I tried to join in, and pushed my way to the front of the crowd to find out what the attraction was. It was Elizabeth. Some of the boys had cornered her near the chain-link fence and were chanting out loud, “E-lizabeth est bete! E-lizabeth est bete!” The “beth” in Elizabeth is pronounced “bett” in French, which rhymes with the word “bete”, meaning both animal (noun) or stupid (adjective). The poor girl hung her head and had tears brimming on the edge of her eyes.

A terrifying familiar feeling came over me. I longed to rush over and hold her in my arms and reassure her. But another fear held me back. Would the crowd then turn its fangs upon me? Would I become again the victim of bullying? I froze in place, unable to move.

After school, I found that Elizabeth shared my taxi. Instead of school buses, there was a fleet of taxis that took us home, each with a different area to town as its route. I tried to make at least eye contact with her, just so I could show her that she had at least one friend in the school. But she sat in the far left seat and kept her face turned toward the window. I was just too shy to break into her sorrowful solitude.

I reached home, kicking myself inwardly. You coward, chicken, “poltronne“!  Not only did I not stop the tormentors, I did not help her during her hour of need, and did not even try to make friends with her afterwards. I swore to myself I would do so the next day.

But the next day was too late. Elizabeth never came back to the school.

Dear Elizabeth, if you ever read this, I want you to know you did have a friend in the French Embassy School of Ankara, albeit a cowardly one.  I have told your story to countless children and taught them to never ever bully others nor use any physical attribute to alienate others. That episode might have scarred you, but it has inspired many others.

 

Ankara 1964

 

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Kidnapped!

Istanbul

So here we were staring at an oasis in the middle of the desert: A Chinese Muslim restaurant!

We parked and invaded the small eatery. The truth is I have no recollection whatsoever of what we ate. My parents fell into conversation with the lady owner, a Mrs. Wang, and her brother-in-law who helped with the cooking.

As Papa often told us, all Chinese Muslims are related to one another one way or another. We are after all, only over one hundred million of us (as of today), and usually intermarry. So, upon some digging on mutual backgrounds, Papa was able to figure out who she was, who her late husband was, and how they ended up in Istanbul after the war. My parents finished eating but the three of them kept chatting on and on.

The three of us became rather bored and despite our good manners, started fidgeting. “Mama, can we go play outside?” Mama glanced at the street and nodded yes. We happily trotted out.

Inside, the conversation turned to life in Turkey. Mama had many questions for Mrs. Wang, and got more information than she asked for. Safety? Oh, you have to be very careful. Recently, there are many kidnappers prowling the cities. They have a sort of hallucinatory ointment on their hands. When they see a child that they target, they pat the child’s head, then walk away. The ointment gets absorbed through the scalp and the child sees a roaring tiger on the right, a precipice on the left and a wildfire behind him. But in front of him there is a wide road, so he follows that road as fast as he can. This road is the path taken by the kidnappers. This is how they kidnap children without any struggle. What do they do with the children? Oh, sometimes, if the child is cute, they chop off a hand or a foot and make them beg. Everyone takes pity on such an adorable child afflicted by such a handicap. Otherwise, they sew the child into a bear skin and make him dance in the street. Of course, such a well-trained bear attracts a lot of coins.

dancing bear in turkey

At this point, my mother looks at the front window and cannot see us. “Where are the children?” The three adults stop talking and run to the door. We are nowhere to be seen. Mama goes hysterical.

Mrs. Wang looks for her brother-in-law, who had already closed the kitchen and headed home. “Don’t worry, Mrs. Mai, he probably took the children home with him. Let me find out.” And indeed, that is where she found us, just about to ascend a big staircase in an apartment building. She raved and ranted at the poor brother-in-law who was only trying to take us to meet her children.

He had walked out of the restaurant only to see us on the sidewalk playing by ourselves. He asked whether we would like to play with other children. We were happy to do something more fun than ghost hopscotch and watching passersby.  We walked to a street filled with tall building and stopped by a wall. He pulled several times a string that hung down from an upstairs window. He waited a while. Then he said to us, “It looks like no one is home here. Let’s go to the other house.” And we traipsed behind him on to the other building where Mrs. Wang found us.

Mrs. Wang turned out to be the old woman who lived in a shoe. Her apartment was filled with children. Or so it seemed to me at the time. She had I believe nine children, all older than Saadia. As dinner was being prepared, Mama chatted with one of the middle schoolers. “How do you count in Turkish?” She took a piece of paper and a pencil and started writing them down in Chinese characters for ease of pronunciation. “Bir, iki, itch, baysh, dirt, yeti, sekiz, tokuz…” Mama looked up in surprise, “What? Did you say tokuz?”  The girl insisted, “Yes, Auntie Mai, eight is tokuz.”  Mama was laughing now, “Ah, really, tokuz? really! “tuo ku zi”? Hahaha, this is too funny!”  Indeed, in Chinese, Tuo Ku Zi means, take off pants.

When learning foreign languages, we always tried using mnemonics in other familiar languages. “Baysh” for example, sounded like “beche” in French, a spade or shovel. “Yeti” sounded like the yeti in Tintin in Tibet, the abominable snowman. Think of seven abominable snowmen walking towards you. You won’t ever forget that one.

Among the nine children in that room was a girl who was about 12 or 13 at the time. Maybe she was the one who taught Turkish numbers to my mother. Her name was Rosey. Many years later, she was to become my husband’s aunt. As Papa said, all Chinese Muslims are relatives.

But in the meantime, we just played together, ate together, and spent the night in their apartment. The next morning, we said goodbye to that big family and drove towards the Bosphorus.

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