Life of a Rooster

Memoirs of a psychiatrist, journalist and educator

Grade Two Again

on December 27, 2013

Fall rolled in. My parents, armed with the report card from the summer cramming school, requested the public school to let us skip a grade and go to Grade Three. But the headmistress was adamant. No, cramming school does not count as a real school. They are there only to rehabilitate failing students so they can re-test into the next grade.

So we re-entered Grade Two at the Girls School #13. We got a new set of grey dresses with white collars. This time, Shadia Chi joined us at the school. The students were tired of gawking at us all the time, so things were much easier this year. We finished at noon every day and the three of us would walk home together, holding our flat satchels over our heads to shade us from the desert sun. We were the only girls allowed to walk home by ourselves. Everyone else had to wait in the yard, which was securely enclosed by walls and gate. A swarm of cars would be parked outside the gate, with male relative or driver waiting. A male doorman stayed in a little brick room by the gate, and would call out from a speaker the name of the student being picked up.

girl in black abaya and scarf

girl in black abaya and scarf


I was then registered under the name of Fawzia Muti’allah Abdul Sherif. The registration form required our first name, father’s name and grandfather’s name. First name was fine, since we had an Arabic name, thankfully picked by the imam upon our birth in Taiwan. Father’s name was all right too, since my father knew his Islamic or Arabic name too. But Grandfather’s name was a problem since my father did not know his own father’s Islamic name. What with the cold war and absolutely no communication with his family in China, he could not ask anyone either. Mr. Chi told him to make one up, “Hey, who will know what it is really? Just say Abdul something. Everyone is called Abdul Something. How about Abdul Sherif?” And so it was that I became Fawzia Muti’allah Abdul Sherif.

Around that time, Charge d’Affaires Chao was transferred back to Taiwan and we got a real ambassador, Mr. Li. Finally, Saudi Arabia grew important enough to get its own ambassador, the first since the Ma BuFang debacle. The new head of the embassy were a striking elderly couple with panache. Ambassador Li had a full head of beautiful silvery white mane that he threw back in one swipe when he laughed out loud, and Mrs. Li was strikingly good-looking with large round and slightly protruding eyes, which we called “fish eyes”.

One morning, soon after the Lis’ arrival, we three girls were to accompany Ambassadress Li somewhere in the large embassy Cadillac. So we sat with her and tried to make some conversation politely. “What lovely little girls you are!” exclaimed Mrs. Li. “What is your name?” We all stated our Chinese names. Looking at Saadia, Mrs. Li asked, “Mai, Tai Wen? Which Mai, which Tai and which Wen?” By then, we had taken enough Chinese to know that in Chinese, when asked to spell a word, you do not say, “M-A-I” as we would in French, but you say, the Mai of “mai dong xi” (to buy something).

Coincidentally, we had already done our homework, and just recently had asked Papa what to answer if asked precisely that question. Papa had told her, your name is, the “mai” of “mai dong xi”; the “tai” of  “Lin Tai” (a famous Chinese movie actress of the 1950’s and 1960’s); and the “wen” of “wen zi” (literature and words). Now Papa had forgotten that we had no idea who Lin Tai was, and that the term “wen zi” was too literary for our poor little homestyle Chinese.

Lin Tai, Chinese actress

Lin Tai, Chinese actress

So, here was Saadia, proudly touting her knowledge of Chinese characters to the new ambassadress: “Oh, it is the Mai of “mai dong xi”, the “tai” of “ling tai” (necktie) and the “wen” of “wen zi” (mosquito, homonym of “literature and words”). Mai Tai Wen! (to buy necktie mosquito)!”  The ambassadress was quite taken aback. “What a strange name your parents gave you!”

The gateman never had to call my three-piece Arabic name. We just gave our names to him and would waltz out of the school, squeeze ourselves between the cars parked haphazardly and turn right into the street that led to the back gate of the embassy.

That day, we trudged in the dusty alley, dragging our black shoes in the yellow dirt, balancing our satchels on our heads, and chatting loudly as usual. Behind us, a motorcycle appeared, carrying two males.

We had been trained to recognize all non-Chinese as either males or females, indirectly and unintentionally of course, but nonetheless so. In school, the females were safe inside the walls, but outside, they had to don the black veils and abayas to keep them from male eyes. Once, when we were left to riot on our own without adult supervision, one of the girls climbed on a desk to get a view of the street outside that high window. Suddenly, she nearly fell over backwards with a great cry. When we asked her why, she gasped, “A male!”

We were a bit different, having seen and interacted with males all our lives. We were not as frightened of them. Still, we had by then absorbed ever so slightly that aura of fear of males.

A motorcycle with two men on it is not too alarming, so we merged right to let them pass, continuing to chat and walk. But then, upon reaching the end of the street, the motorcycle made a U-turn and came back towards us. The two young men laughed, chatted in Arabic, and stared at us all the way till they passed us. We lowered now our voices and walked with smaller steps, slightly faster. Then we realized that the motorcycle had yet again made another U-turn and was roaring back again towards us from behind. Totally scared by now, we stopped talking, glanced at one another quickly, and started running. One of my shoes fell, and I had to pick it up again with my toes, yelling, “Wait for me! Wait for me!” In total panic, the three of us stumbled on ourselves all the way to the back gate of the embassy, pummeling it with our fists and screaming ourselves hoarse. “Open the door! Open the door!”

Mrs. Chi eventually did so, not alarmed in the least. “What is the matter, yelling this way?” We were pale, sweaty and shaking. “Motocycle! Males!” was all we could stutter. Mrs. Chi stepped out and looked up and down the street. Only a little bit of a dust cloud showed where the motorcycle had turned away at the end of the street.

saudi men



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