Life of a Rooster

Memoirs of a psychiatrist, journalist and educator

Je Sais Tout

on November 11, 2013

Papa nicknamed himself Je Sais Tout (I Know All). I remember some kind of encyclopedia entitled Je Sais Tout lying about the house, and a simple Google search shows that it was actually an encyclopedic magazine.

je sais tout

Papa knew everything indeed. We could ask him anything and he would have an answer. Sometimes, he would not answer, and we would think he did not hear us. He would then get up and leave the room. A little later, he would come back and say, “What was that you were asking?” then give us the answer. We would marvel, “Oh, Papa? How come you know that?” And he would say, “Because I am Je Sais Tout. To be a father, you have to know it all.”  That really awed me. How I wished I could be a father!

At other times, he would play with us. In the huge kitchen on the ground floor, he would go on all fours and let us ride his back like a horse. My mother would smile indulgently while cooking dinner.

When Saadia turned five, my parents somehow decided it was time for her to skip the third year of maternelle and go to Onzieme (Eleventh = First Grade) ahead of me. Papa would help Saadia every evening with her school lessons. I would be terribly jealous, because she would be sitting on Papa’s lap, and they would read books together and joke and laugh together. I would try to join them, but Saadia would say, no, you don’t know how to read yet. And Papa would laugh, and they would go on. I would go to the corner and start crying. Papa would then say to Saadia, “Look! a water tap!” and she would join him, “a water tap!”  And Papa would say, “you can turn it on and off at will. Look, let’s turn it wider!” and wipe his arm at me magically. I would feel very hurt and sob harder.  Saadia would laugh, “oh, it works! More! More!”

Well, maybe this happened only once. But to a little child’s mind, it seems to repeat itself again and again until it takes on the proportions of a daily torture. Soon, I was convinced I must be an adopted child since Papa loved Saadia so much more than me.

Being a year younger in toddlerhood means a great deal. I was always less agile in my movements, less clever in school work, less cute and doll-like, less good at posing for photos, and pretty much second-rate in everything. It wasn’t just Papa who thought Saadia was better, even family friends and guests seemed to think so. They took great pleasure in calling me into the salon while ladies were having tea and cakes, and asked me inane questions such as, “Who is more beautiful?”

“Da Jieh (Eldest Sister),” I would answer pathetically.

“Who is more clever?”

“Da Jieh.” Mournfully.

“Who is better at school work?”

“Da Jieh.” And break down into sobs.

Papa would instruct us in the Chinese social traditions. I could not call Saadia by her name but must call her Eldest Sister. She, on the other hand, could call me by my name. Similarly, all ladies were Aunties and all men were Uncles. Our jobs, when guests came to the house, was to shake hands and greet them by their titles, then go to the kitchen and help serve tea and other refreshments. Then we were to retire to our rooms, not to be heard or seen again until the guests were to take their leave. We were then to shake their hands and say goodbye at the door.

Sometimes, Papa would bring some treat home, fruit or pastries. He would lay them out and call us. He would repeat his instructions, “The duty of the elder sister is to love and protect the younger one. The duty of the younger sister is to love and respect the older one. OK, who wants to pick a pear first?” Saadia would immediately say, “Let Faw pick first!” Upon which, Papa would praise her for being so selfless. Then he would turn to me. So, I would dutifully say, “Let Da Jieh pick first!” while dying inside.  Papa would smile with satisfaction at our great show of sisterly love, and tell Saadia to take her pick. She, of course, would pick precisely the one I wanted. Isn’t that the way things always turn out?

As we started to read more and more fluently, I started to love books more than any other gift. In school, we routinely got a book as prize every month for being the first in class. When that happened, Uncle Lung, the great family scholar, would get us from the bookstore a beautiful book each. It would always be a huge hard cover book of fairy tales, and on almost every other page, there would be amazingly beautiful illustrations. I particularly remember the Tales of Andersen, with whimsical, detailed, pastel and grey drawings. I would spend hours just staring at every single curl and flower around the  children lost in the forest, the wonderfully beautiful rags of the little matchstick girl, or the white tresses of the mother trying to shield her baby from Death.

The other book that etched itself deeply into my memory is the one about Chinese fairy tales. The drawings were much more colorful but just as wonderful. The stories were strange and very un-European. Turtle princes and boat dancers that fell into the water, all were depicted in much detail. Looking back, I see how inaccurate the drawings were, with every single male character sporting the Manchu queue (1644-1911) and every girl looking at me with very attractive long slanted eyes.

Papa said that those eyes were rare and called Feng Yan (Phoenix eyes). As I grew older and thinner, it became apparent that I also had phoenix eyes, but at the time, no one had noticed them yet.

 


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