Life of a Rooster

Memoirs of a psychiatrist, journalist and educator

Little School in the Desert

on December 10, 2013


across the world


Papa had one philosophy regarding family: Never split the family. For the sake of a better education, the other diplomatic families often had the mother staying in one country with the kids, while the father continued to roam the world, but not we.

When Papa asked the other Chinese families about schooling, they all said, forget about Saudi public schools. All they teach is Qur’an memorization. We had then established a Chinese Embassy school behind the offices, and that was where all the children were educated.


wooden table and bench

It was just one room, furnished with a blackboard, four long wooden tables made by the local carpenter, and four wooden benches. We could sit three or four at each bench. The headmaster was Papa, and Mama was the music teacher. Mr. Sui spoke perfect Mandarin with Beijing accent, so he was the Chinese teacher. An old Mr. Ma with a wispy little white beard was the math teacher.  Then there was Mr. Lin, a Yunnan Muslim, who acted as Arabic teacher.

We were usually around twelve students. The eldest two were Fawzia (not me) and Kobria, the eldest two girls from the Ma family. We called them Ma Da Jie (Eldest Sister Ma) and Ma Er Jie (Second Elder Sister Ma) I believe they were 12 and 14 around the time we arrived. I thought Kobria to be the smartest person on earth. One day, we arrived at school half awake, having missed the alarm somehow. She took one look at our unwashed faces and said, “You woke up late and did not have time to wash your face, right?” I was totally amazed. Wow, how did you know?

Then, in our younger group, there was Saadia, me and Shadia Chi, the same little girl I had met on my first day in Jeddah. Next, there was Rabia Ma and Abdul Hamid Chi, two years our juniors, whom we called “Ah-Bee” and “Ha-Mee”. The youngest group consisted of my little brother whom we now called by his Arabic name, Abdul Kerim, then Kobria’s little brother, also named Abdul Kerim, and Shadia’s little brother, Nuruddin, which transliterated easily into Chinese “niu-rou-ding”  or little cubes of beef.

The first challenge was to catch up with Chinese language. Mama had done her best to teach us while in Paris. I remember weekends of sitting at the dining table labouring over columns of “pa-pa” and “ma-ma” and “jie-jie” and “mei-mei”. I would promptly forget them over the week and relearn them again the next weekend.

But before even tackling reading and writing, we had to fix our accent. I never knew I had an accent until then. It turned out we were speaking Chinese like little foreigners, French foreigners with tinges of Nanjinese and Taiwanese accents. Classical Mandarin is spoken with four tones, plus a fifth “light” tone which is something like a slight staccato. I often see First Tone like a G in music, a “sol”. Then Second Tone is somehow sunnier, rising like a D or “re”. Third tone is a diphthong of sorts, starting as a lower G, strong and short, then moving into a C higher, softer and longer. Fourth tone is a sort of a snort, like a sneering “humph!”

Sui Laoshi (Teacher Sui) would patiently spend hours trying to fix our accent. “When you want to scratch yourself, what you feel is “yang… yang… Third tone! When you say ‘yang, second tone, you are talking about those “Maaaa…. maaa… ”  sheep in front of your house.” With the help of little pictures on the blackboard, he would explain the difference between “tang -1”, soup; “tang -2”, sugar; “tang -3” , to lie down; and “tang – 4” , burning hot!

It wasn’t just our tones. Even our usage was wrong. In French as in English, there is just one way of describing falling down, regardless of who is falling. But in Chinese, you use “die dao” to talk about a living person tumbling to the ground, while you use “diao -4” to describe an object hurtling downward. My parents would laugh their heads off when we would exclaim “Oh, my glass just fell down (die dao)!”

Shadia was given the job of being my mentor. She was four months younger than I, so she greatly enjoyed bossing me around. She obviously delected in imitating the teacher, commanding me to read and repeat after her. So I did, albeit reluctantly, with the thought that if I learned fast and passed her, I would finally get rid of her mentorship.

Ma Laoshi was also very dedicated to our advancement. I discovered that I was very behind in Math. Our Chinese Math books were already in long division when in the French school I had only reached the table of 5 in multiplication. I just could not figure out why long divisions had been invented unless it was to torture children. All the others would be out playing in the back of the embassy, while I would stay in, struggling over those long divisions. Ma Laoshi patiently sat across my table, waiting for me to figure out my quotients. He would sigh now and then, his gaze lost in the distance. “Ma Laoshi, what are you thinking about?” I asked him once.

“I’m thinking about my family,” he replied. That’s when I found out that Ma Laoshi, who was still young enough to ride a horse when the Communists took over, had left his wife and children behind in North West China. The leaders had jumped on their horses and galloped through the villages, telling everyone to run away for the Communists were coming! He could ride, but his parents could not, and his wife had to tend to them and to the children. So he left alone, promising to be back once the war was over.  The men all rode their horses across the Himalayas to India. Fifteen years later, here he was, stuck in a little room with a ceiling fan in the middle of the Arabian desert, tutoring a recalcitrant student, and he had no news whatsoever of his family. A common story for the great Chinese diaspora post World War II.

But our favorite teacher was no doubt Lin Laoshi. He taught us the Arabic alphabet, which we learned willy nilly. Then, we would wink at one another, and one of us would ask Lin Laoshi about Charlie Chaplin. That was his favorite movie star. He would tell us about Chaplin’s movies, and in the heat of the moment, would stand up and give us a lively rendition of the famous Chaplin penguin walk, complete with cane (teacher’s board stick) and melon hat (Muslim little white skull cap). We would laugh and clap, which caused him to act even more happily. Then he would catch sight of the clock, and guiltily say, “Oh, dear, time is up! Everyone, dismissed!”




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