Life of a Rooster

Memoirs of a psychiatrist, journalist and educator

Hansel and Gretel

on February 18, 2014

I apologize for my whimsical titles. But I really did feel like Saadia and I were Hansel and Gretel when we flew from Jeddah to Paris, via Beirut. In those days, we didn’t even have the service of an air hostess to look after us. True, we had taken airplanes before, but we did so following adults around. Now, we had to figure out how to navigate the maze of an airport.

Beirut airport 1967

Beirut had a comparatively small airport, so it was not hard to follow the crowd of passengers out. There, a diplomat from the ROC embassy in Lebanon welcomed us and took us to his home. In the afternoon, another family from the embassy came to visit. It turned out they were the parents of that little boy whom Saadia and I swung and flung out onto the furniture back in Ankara. Talk about past phantoms. Which brings out the moral: do not err, for the memory of your error will never let you free!

They came supposedly to see us, Saadia and me. But, of course, they had nothing to talk to us about, and therefore chatted with our hosts on and on and on, while my eyelids gradually filled with lead. Strange, why were they so heavy? I struggled desperately to lift them and keep my eyes open, hoping against hope that the visitors would just get up and leave now. I guess they eventually did, but I do not remember seeing them do so, therefore I can safely deduce that I did fall asleep.

In Beirut, it was posh to learn and speak French. I was amazed to hear our hosts’ little boy tell his mom in Mandarin, that he had “tomber”. Yes, Saadia and I also spoke that unique blend of two languages that characterizes the tongue of immigrant children, but we did not have a funny Lebanese accent when using French words.

For dinner, the lady of the house served, among other things, cooked cucumbers. Well, cucumbers to me were salad material. They just had to be cold and crunchy. So I avoided them. But the lady was very kind and thought I was being polite. She scooped some and put them in my rice bowl. Oh, great, now I had to eat them. We had ¬†been well drilled on the duty of finishing anything in our rice bowl, for God was sure to unleash thunder and lightning on us, if we dared disdain food while our compatriots in Mainland China died of starvation. I submitted to the torture:warm and disgustingly mushy and squishy cucumbers… ugh! I eventually managed to hide a bit of them under my bowl.

boiled cucumbers

Then, the kind lady told me to take my evening bath before sleeping. I went to the bathroom with my clothes, and tried to lock the door. People who have never traveled internationally do not realize what great annoyance it is to meet with different locks, different taps, and different gadgets everywhere. For a child of ten, it was very baffling to find that there was no slide lock, or hook, the way we had them in Jeddah. I wondered how these people locked their bathrooms. It never occurred to me that I could go ask someone about this mystery. So I just decided that they would figure out I was in there and would avoid coming in.

Ah, heaven! Warm water and pretty soap bubbles… I started to imagine stories again, and played with the foam dreamily, when suddenly, someone turned the door handle!!! What to do! What to do! I frantically beat the water with my hands, trying to be very noisy. The lady pushed the door half open, exclaimed, “Oh, you are still here! Why didn’t you lock the door?” and she demonstrated how to turn the key in the keyhole.

How to turn the key in the keyhole. Dummy.

That wasn’t the dumbest thing I did yet. I also dried myself, and happily dressed and went to bed, forgetting to let out the water. [slap head! slap head!]

The next day, our kind host took us to the airport and put us on the plane to Paris. On the plane, we relaxed and enjoyed playing with the cute trays and eating the cute packaged food. Then we arrived at Orly airport (which had not yet been renamed Charles de Gaulle.) This was in comparison, an immense maze of hallways. I held on tightly to Saadia, who had been tutored by Papa on the art of finding one’s way in an airport. My parents always thought of Saadia as the eldest, the responsible one, the reliable one, so they would give her the responsibility, as in this case, of navigating foreign concourses. Later in life, I was shocked to find out that as much as I resented Papa and Mama’s lack of trust in me, she had resented the burden and onus of always having to bear responsibilities.

The line at the immigration booth was not just long, it was unending! We were relieved to see, far away, beyond the glass partition, Uncle Lung waving at us. We waved back. And we waited on, and inched forward, and waited more, and inched some more. Finally, what seemed like hours later, we reached the immigration officer. Saadia handed him our passports. He flipped them open, and asked her something. She could not answer him. So he sighed long and loud, remarked angrily out loud why people would send children flying all by themselves without proper paperwork, what kind of irresponsible parents these were, and pointed at a desk somewhere in the back. Saadia led me back to the lobby.


“What is it? What did he say? What happened?” but Saadia would not explain. We stood in line behind a few people, in front of a tall counter, so tall that our heads barely reached its top. After another long interval, we reached the counter, but the lady did not see us, since we were too short. We were too shy to speak up and so we waited quietly, until finally, an announcement came over the loudspeaker, and the lady looked around, stood up, and saw us. Uncle Lung had squeezed through the crowd to the very exit right by the immigration booth, but we had disappeared. He waited for a while, but we did not appear. He was sure he’d seen us, so he had gone to make inquiries. I marveled at how clever Uncle Lung was!

The whole problem turned out to be that the immigration officer was looking for our visas and had not found them. Visas then were a piece of official looking paper. Papa had stapled them onto a back page of the passport and folded them neatly to fit within the size of the page. I remembered then that he did show us these visas. “Da Jieh, why didn’t you tell me that’s what he was looking for?” but I guess it was a rhetorical question. The tall air hostess led us back to the immigration booth, past the long line of travelers, and scolded the poor guy vehemently. She then handed us safely in the hands of Uncle Lung.

Today, such incidents would never happen. Not only children, but seniors, or handicapped persons, or persons not speaking the right languages, can be consigned to the care of stewardesses, who hand the duty over like a baton to the next airport or airline worker, and one is safely cared for, from paperwork to food to wheelchair all the way from departure to arrival. I cannot to this day understand how airline and airport workers could see us, two children, walking around, alone, in a bewildered manner and do absolutely nothing.


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