Life of a Rooster

Memoirs of a psychiatrist, journalist and educator

Chinese Life in Turkey

on November 26, 2013

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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