Life of a Rooster

Memoirs of a psychiatrist, journalist and educator

Of Mountain Villages and Talking Clocks

Mme Forhan did not just assign essays. In the third trimester, she divided the class into two groups, those who would continue with essays and exercises, and those who would collaborate on a novel. I was drafted into the novel group. I was absolutely in seventh heaven!  My best friend, Pascale Salles, who had started the year as a rather mediocre writing student but then suddenly seemed to have flipped on a switch and morphed into a poetry-spouting wordsmith, also joined me in the novel group.

We first worked on the setting and the characters. Every week we would work in class on a particular point, then go home and produce the segment assigned and bring it back to class. The teacher would then select one of the papers to be incorporated into the final draft. We worked very hard to find a mountainous spot for our setting (which is probably why I later selected a mountainous setting too for my flop of a novel on orange paper), and settled eventually on a little village in the Pyrenees that I had picked out of a map. It had a very pretty name, with a touch of olden aura, but darn it if I can remember it. So, after a prolonged search on Google map, I did find it! It was Vielle-Aure! and it looks really picturesque though at the time we had no idea what it did look like, and only described it based on our imagination and the assumption that all mountainous villages looked the same! Ah, the miracle of technology! I can only deduce that it is much easier today than 50 years ago, to write about a place one has never seen.

Vielle-Aure, as pictured on Google images

Vielle-Aure, as pictured on Google images

A house in Vielle-Aure

A house in Vielle-Aure

Then we started deciding on the characters. And since most of the class had read the “Club des Cinq” and the “Clan des Sept” books by Enid Blyton (that’s the French translation of The Famous Five and The Secret Seven series), we all naturally wanted to create our own version of a group of children solving mysteries. Writing a novel is painstakingly arduous, but writing one as a collaboration among a dozen pre-teens is painfully time-consuming. We never got further than the characters before the end of the  year.

Mme Forhan was not the only teacher to be impressed with me. In the beginning of the year, most teachers did not pay me much attention, or rather, tried not to look down on me. You see, this was France in the 1960s, not America in the 21st century. Here, today, Asians are stereotyped as over-achievers, but not there and then.  There was no open deriding of my foreign-ness as in kindergarten, but I felt it simmering under the surface.

One bright morning, soon after the start of the school year, Saadia and I left home and walked out into the street as usual to go to school and immediately were struck by the feeling that something very strange was happening. The sun was warmer than usual, and the streets emptier. In the metro, the usual crowd was replaced by a thin sprinkling of passengers. We felt as if we were in movie where we had been transported to some other parallel dimension, and walked faster.  When we arrived in school, the yard was empty, and as we looked up at the huge clock on the wall, we realized why: it was a quarter to nine, not a quarter to eight! We looked at each other, not comprehending. She walked to her classroom and I to mine. She knocked and went in. But I, frozen and paralyzed by my pathological shyness which had by then grown to full proportions, held my knuckles trembling over the door for maybe five full minutes before I was able to bring it demurely down. However soft it was, the teacher heard it, and called me in. I walked, trembling, sweating, and heart thumping, to her desk. This was our English class, and the professeur was a rather older lady named Mme Loche, with the strict, no-nonsense attitude of the elderly. She asked why I was late. I really had no idea, so I said, “the clock wasn’t working.” Which was my self-explanation for the extremely odd phenomenon that had just occurred. Mme Loche sniffed unbelievingly, “Nonsense! Can’t you call the Talking Clock? You had better come up with a better excuse!” and followed that with a strong remonstrance. I had then no idea of what the Talking Clock (horloge parlante) was. And in case you are wondering too, it is simply a number you can call by phone, and you get a recorded voice telling you the time by the minute.

Modern Internet version of the Talking Clock, l'horloge parlante

Modern Internet version of the Talking Clock, l’horloge parlante

So I shuffled, head down, to my seat, cheeks aflame and heart sobbing. I hated her very guts for making look like a liar and a lazy bum (paresseuse) when I had just lived through a harrowing experience.  Looking back, I assume it might have been the day the country set the clock an hour back for daylight saving, and Aunt Lily had probably missed it. Whatever the case, the lesson went on, and Mme Loche was in a very bad mood, because no one seemed to be getting the lesson at all. She kept trying to ask everyone questions and no one could come up with the correct answer. She was, I believe, trying to pioneer the idea that the French should start studying English using international phonetics, before switching to actual English spelling, so that their pronunciation would not be influenced by the similarities with French words. Phonetics was a blast for me. I don’t mean to brag or sound arrogant, but after all, I did come through the French, Arabic and English alphabets, as well as the Chinese ZhuYinFuHao phonetic system. So the international phonetic system was a piece of cake. But even if lightning was to strike me at the time, I would not have raised my hand to answer HER questions. Stumped and having no one left to vent her frustration on, she called on me, asking whether I knew what the answer was, and if I could do something other than being late. Very slowly and reluctantly, I stood up, and muttered the correct answer. Her eyes widened in surprise. She asked me more questions, again and again. I continued to mumble all the correct answers, in an equally resentful manner. She was saved by the proverbial bell, from expressing praise for the pupil she had just chastised stridently and unfairly.

International phonetic alphabet

International phonetic alphabet


Zhu yin fu hao, the phonetic alphabet invented after 1911 and in use in Taiwan for reading and pronouncing Mandarin Chinese

Zhu yin fu hao, the phonetic alphabet invented after 1911 and in use in Taiwan for reading and pronouncing Mandarin Chinese

As the year wore on, Mme Loche grew to prefer me over all other students and praise me openly in class. If I missed a third person singular “s” and lost 1/4 point in a test, she would joke with me and ask why I purposefully avoided a full mark. But the sting of that early rebuke never quite faded, and I was never able to relax and interact with her in a friendly manner.

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Mme Forhan

If I have to name one person who made me aware of the beauty of the written word, that would be Mme Forhan, my French teacher, or “professeur”, as they are called in Europe, in 6eme, my first year of middle school.

She had short wavy hair, and bright eyes. The one thing I remember well about her is her smile. The first day I saw her, with a big wide grin on her face, I knew she had no discrimination or bias towards me. Never underestimate the power of a good genuine smile. She herself obviously loved good literature and was a good writer. This made her a good teacher of literature and writing. First day of class, she told us, this is not elementary school any more. We are NOT going to learn the vocabulary of every text we study, or the spelling of these words. This is literature we are concerned about. You look up the words you do not know, you learn how to spell them, all by yourselves. You are expected to know all the words in the text.

So we read our first text together. Then she looked at us, 30 or so eleven-year-olds with subdued miens. She asked us, “What did you think of this text?”  We were at a total loss. What were we supposed to answer? Were we supposed to have thought something? Yet, nine months later, when June came around, we had all become experts at discussing a text, analyzing it, criticizing the author, giving our opinions on how well it was written.

She also made the essay-writing class, “composition”, turn into the most exciting activity there could ever be.  Mme Forhan told us how bored she had been as a child when she had been asked to write about “My Life as a Pencil Box”. So she would assign more interesting topics. Not only so, once a trimester, she would assign us a “free topic”, meaning we could choose our own topic.

We would sit in class, and write for an entire period, after which she would collect our essays. She would correct them and return them the next week. She would keep a few in her hands, those that she thought particularly good, and read them out loud to the class. Mine would always be one of the selected pieces. I believe that one of the reasons why I kept improving was the fact that I knew she would read it and I had better make it worth everyone’s attention. She even pointed out special parts of my writing that were outstanding, for example, as in my description of an old lady “tottering” — not just “walking” — across the street.

For the free topics, I chose the first time to write a poem, and the second time, a scary story. For that first free topic, when Mme Forhan returned the papers, she read more essays than usual, then finally, held two last ones in her hands. “There were only two students who chose to write poems,” she said. The first was by a boy named Philippe Le Noaille, about his pretty garden and the flowers in it. Then, she pulled out mine. “This one,” she stated, “is not just a very well written poem, it actually also contains a philosophy!”

“What is a philosophy?” I wondered. And she read out loud,

seule la lune luit

“Dans la profonde nuit, (In the deep night) / Seule la lune luit (Alone the moon shines) / Les lutins, les farfadets (The goblins, the imps) / Dansent sur l’herbe fanee. (danse on the wilted grass.)/ …

I won’t bore you with the entire poem, which I don’t completely remember by heart anyway. But I am quite proud of the fact that the couplets and quatrains had matching rhymes and feet.  It was pretty much molded on the fables by La Fontaine that we had been weaned on since kindergarten.  So, it started with a warm night setting, then a lone whiny voice rises from the pond. It moved on to the first person: “Je suis l’escargot des champs” (I am the snail of the fields), narrating how a snail complains about a naughty boy that plucked him from his lunch, threw him into the pond for fun, and caused him to end up stranded on this lily pad. All the little fairies and elves stop dancing, and listen. Then the voice starts whining again, when suddenly it is interrupted by a centurion duck (“canard centurion”), who quacks loudly and tells him that, “I’ll save you from your terrible situation, I’ll gobble you up!” And he does so. As the silence returns, the little goblins start dancing again, but this time it is a funeral dance.

Well, Mme Forhan asked me what inspired me to write this poem. And the fact was that Aunt Lily had returned one day from the market with a lettuce and found a snail in it. I happily picked the snail and placed it in a pot with soil on my window sill and attempted raising it for a while. To tell the truth, I didn’t exactly plan the entire poem beforehand. More like, I wrote up the opening stanzas, and then it was pretty much a matter of what rhymed within the couplet or the quatrain. So you may say that the rhymes led the way through the plot.

So at the time, I didn’t think it was a big deal, but today, if one of my students at age 11 could write me something like that, I think, yes, I would be impressed.

Mme Forhan gave me a 17.5 out of 20. Which was unheard of, and which she had never ever awarded to any student in her career. Let me explain. In the States, A’s and 90’s are happily and easily handed out to students. But in Europe, they are very rare. In France, an A would be equivalent to 12/20. Getting a 13 meant an A+, and a 14 put you in an Honors class. I rarely got a 14. Usually, my compositions earned me 16’s or 16.5’s.  The prof said that giving a 19 or 20 meant you were a professional writer and didn’t need to come to school.

The second time she assigned us free topics, I chose a scary story, modeled on those Liao Zhai ghost and ghoul tales of my childhood. I picked that tale of the jiang shi (Chinese zombie) who ran after the young merchant in the stormy night. Mme Forhan gave me a 17 and 3/4 for this one, but for the first time ever, refused to read it in class, for fear of causing nightmares to the students. Well, that didn’t exactly work, because the minute class was over, all my friends crowded around me asking to read it.

Saadia had been placed in a different class, for this school was large enough to have four classes of 6eme.  Both her French teacher and mine would often hold warm discussions on the causes of our prowess in writing. They could understand perfect scores in dictation (spelling), vocabulary, grammar and even great marks in literature, but they could not fathom how, after missing the Great French Educational System for two and a half years, we could write at three or four grade levels above our own grade level. They would both take our essays to their students of 8th or 9th grade, and read them out in class, telling them that two little foreigners in Grade 6 wrote better than they did.

Every now and then, they would catch us after class and pepper us with questions on what we did back in Jeddah. We truthfully answered that no, we did not attend French school or French classes. No, we did not have a French tutor. Finally, they asked, “Did you read a lot of French books?” Ah, yes, that we did. Certainly. So, what books did we read? Oh, well, and we rattled off what we could remember, on and on… Their eyes grew big. What? All these books? Original, non-abridged, non-simplified? Even the entire works of Moliere? Wow.

Still, they had more questions. Did we write book reports? Oh, no. Did we look up words in the dictionary? Oh, no. Although, I added, Saadia did run out of books to read and started reading the Petit Larousse for fun… And Saadia harvested even better grades than I did with her free subject essays. She got a 17 and 3/4 and an 18!

The Petit Larousse, 1960s edition. This dictionary includes a Proper Nouns section, which is a sort of mini-encyclopedia.

The Petit Larousse, 1960s edition. This dictionary includes a Proper Nouns section, which is a sort of mini-encyclopedia.

One day, Mme Forhan grabbed me after school. I think it was the day she read my poem. She asked me what I planned to do when I grew up. Oh, I said, I want to be either an architect (result of playing too much with Legos) or a historian (result of reading too much Alexandre Dumas). What? She looked appalled. No, no, you must write! I felt bad to disappoint her. Oh, well, yes, I probably will write historical researches. No, she insisted, you MUST, absolutely must become a writer.

So, Mme Forhan, if you ever get to read this, I am finally coming full circle back to where I started. I promised you I would one day write for pleasure, and I am doing so now. Over half a century late, but I am.


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First Foray in Writing and Editing

That summer, the landlord decided to sell his apartment, and the new owner wanted to occupy it. So we moved to a newer apartment in the 19th arrondissement. This is a section of Paris on the north-eastern side of town, where the buildings were certainly much newer, and probably built in the 20th century, because there was an elevator, and not the type with clanging iron doors. We lived on the 5th floor, I believe, and somewhere in the building there was either a dentist or a radiologist, who left stacks of orange paper on top of the large trash cans, in the utility room on the ground floor.

15 ans fillette

I loved those orange reams of paper, and would stuff them in my empty trash bucket, along with copies of 15 Ans Fillette, a teen magazine for girls, since defunct.  The inhabitants of our building subscribed to a variety of magazines, which all ended up in stacks under our bed. My favorite was of course, 15 Ans Fillette, but there were plenty of other interesting periodicals, from fashion magazines, to roman-photos. This is a very French, or perhaps, European form of romance, which I have not seen elsewhere. It looks like comics, but with real people posing for photos. The topic is usually a romance. Recently, such roman-photos have made it online, and are available for free, even! Among the features I loved most in magazines were the whodunnit comics. These are usually a one-page, or occasionally, two-page story in comics, and the last frame would ask you the question: who do you think did it? You would have to scan the pictures for clues. This was almost as exciting as reading an Agatha Christie novel!

Nous Deux, the only magazine which still publishes roman-photos today.

Nous Deux, the only magazine which still publishes roman-photos today.


Aunt Lily, like Mama, did not believe in pocket money. So we never carried any cash on us and never bought anything. We could not have possibly bought either magazines or writing paper for ourselves. And since yard sales are purely an American phenomenon, in other countries, one had to scavenge the top of trash cans for treasures.  I read the magazines from cover to cover, over and over. Then, I would create my own magazine, using the orange reams of paper. They did not lend themselves very well to writing with a ball pen, but I did not mind in the least. The pieces of paper were large enough to be cut and folded into a workable format. I would then poke holes in the fold and sew together the pages. I put in there news articles, advice columns, comics, especially of the whodunnit type, contests with prizes, and also serialized fiction.

Those were the days when daily newspapers still published novels in installments. My uncle subscribed not only to Le Monde (think, New York Times), and L’Express (think Newsweek) but also to France-Soir, which was much more to my liking. It contained articles I was able to understand — not just about politics and economics– as well as comics. But the cream on top were the serialized novels. I still remember following the adventures of a 17th or 18th century young  lady named I think Caroline, who got kidnapped by pirates. But let us come back to my own periodicals.

My readers were Saadia, Therese and my classmates. Not that many. But even so, I would make sure to publish on time and respond to their concerns. As time went on, a year later, I even started writing novels, though I never had enough time to pen an entire one. So, I would start with the outline of a novel, some sort of condensed version. Then I would have my classmates read it to gauge their reaction, before launching into the full scale writing of the grand novel. I chose a mountainous setting, since I loved cool climates, having suffered a life of semi-dehydration for years in the hot Arabian sun, and despite the fact that I had no experience whatsoever of living in mountainous regions. Like Jules Verne, I considered myself an armchair traveler and thought I could give a pretty good description of life in the mountains by reading about it.  Then I contrived to come up with a really really dramatic scenario, something that would just make tears spurt out of my readers’ eyes. I created a heroine who would be around my age, 11 or 12 years old.  Then I made sure to give her a miserable start on life. Her parents would die in a car accident, and she would be left alone in the world to fend for herself, in the manner of Oliver Twist, David Copperfield, Sans Famille, and En Famille. I created unlucky happenings, evil characters, and sinister coincidences to push the poor girl into a final miserable ending. My classmates had a really good laugh over it. They crowded around my manuscript, guffawing and howling with laughter, and the hilarious ruckus was such that the good nun who was passing by stopped and asked what caused such mirth. I should have realized there and then that I was not a writer of tragedies but rather of comedies. But I am getting ahead of myself.

En Famille, by Hector Malot, a must-read of French children's literature, at least in the 1960s

En Famille, by Hector Malot, a must-read of French children’s literature, at least in the 1960s

Without Family, by Hector Malot. This novel had a much greater fame than En Famille, and was known pretty well in China and Taiwan as well.

Without Family, by Hector Malot. This novel had a much greater fame than En Famille, and was known pretty well in China and Taiwan as well.

So we now had graduated from elementary school, albeit without a ceremony, as mentioned previously. The Ecole St Sebastien reopened after all riots and strikes abated, but only for a couple of weeks before it closed for the summer. Uncle Lung found and registered us at the nearest public middle school, the CES Noyer-Durand, which we could reach by metro. It was there that I discovered I had a passion for writing.



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How to stop young children from bothering you

In the meantime, my little cousins grew as well, as children have the tendency to do. Therese was the same age as my little brother Abdul Kerim, i.e., four years my junior, and the three of us shared always a bedroom and usually the same bed. My favorite activity was to tell her stories at bedtime. No, not the Peter Rabbit variety, but more like the Thousand and One Nights variety, minus the PG13 factor. I made the stories up myself, long and tortuous sagas of some hero or heroine on a quest, that were “to be continued” the next night. She was a great audience; she would listen, spellbound, and react appropriately at the right time. She never failed to remind me eagerly the next evening to continue the story.

1001 Nights

I believe it must be then that I honed the story-telling skills I first developed in Jeddah, leading the gang of six through games of made-up stories. One story would test Therese’s fear limits, while another would explore what twist of events could bring her to tears. Sometimes, I would chuck all stories away and play a game of evoking emotions. How to make the other person laugh, or cry, without touching or tickling her. Therese would try grimacing, jumping, joking, and I would keep a poker face. Then I would make a great show of wanting to tickle her, blowing in my palms, rubbing them, pulling my arm back like the string of a bow, making great sound effects to rev up the suspense, and then point a tickling finger in toward her at slow motion speed and shrill ululations. It never failed to drive her insane with giggles and laughter, trying to protect her tummy from my tickles, which of course never happened, since the rule was: not to touch the opponent.

Even better, I would love making her cry. She would try first. Again, I would either keep the poker face on, totally immune to whatever she would do or say, or just laugh and say, “Hahaha, I don’t care!” Then my turn would come. I’d start with really sad facts, and she’d imitate me and laugh and say, “Hahaha, I don’t care!” So, I ‘d start digging my brains for what she really cared for. I would remember that she was not just her parents’ cherished daughter, but also Grandpa Chang’s favorite, back in Taiwan. So I would make up a drawn out story ending with Grandpa Chang hating her guts and not wanting to even look at her face, followed by all our uncles and aunts also turning away from her, unjustly, for some wrong she had not committed. Poor Therese would bawl, and dissolve in tears, and pummel me with her fists in anger, and shout, “It’s not true! It’s not true! No!” and I would finally stop it, and laugh, “Hahaha! I won! I made you cry!” But she would not snap out of it, and continue sobbing and shouting angrily.

When I asked for her permission to write memories of her, Therese said that I should make sure to mention how I scared her stiff with my bedtime stories and caused her many sleepless nights. Strangely enough, I do not remember that at all… (wink, wink!)

Other favorite games would be card games. Most of these had been taught to us by either Aunt Lily or Chang JieJie (Elder Sister Chang). Chang JieJie was a neighbor of Aunt Lily’s, from back in Taiwan. She had majored in French and came for a prolonged visit that year. Therese was a smart and quick learner, but a sore loser. We dreaded seeing her lose, because she would kick a fuss and cry and throw the cards at us. Thankfully, since she was a respectable opponent and gave us a good fight, that did not happen often. Of course, children never ever lose a game on purpose, even if they want to avoid fusses, and we made sure to play fair. Therese had a particularly good memory, and if we played the memory game, she often beat us all to it.

playing cards

However, my favorite hobby was still reading, and if I was plunged in the middle of a stormy cape-et-d’epee novel, I really could not put it down just to play with Therese. She would tug my sleeve and keep pleading, “Er Jie, Er Jie (Second Elder Sister), please let’s play cards!” Finally, I thought of a great solution. If I taught her to read novels, then she would be engrossed in them too and would stop bothering me. So I pulled out my favorite, none other than good old Three Musketeers, and started reading it to her, sitting side by side in the great bed.

Here is the grand secret to teaching young children to read. I’m sure many have discovered it too, but for those who despair and want a foolproof method, here goes: First, it has to be an enjoyable adventure, both in the book’s content, and as an experience. You sit up in bed, snuggle comfortably with pillows arranged to give maximum comfort, give the learner your whole attention, and read with great expression. Exaggerate the expression. Shout for exclamation marks. Sing for question marks. Make funny voices whenever those quotation marks open up. But most importantly, stop now and then to discuss and comment on the plot, the characters or the setting. Do not act like a schoolteacher. Just act like you yourself are greatly enjoying this moment, and this book. Second, make sure the child’s eyes on on the text. She has to figure out the relationship between those words on the page and that wonderful story unfurling around her. Thirdly, gradually, start involving the child in the reading process.

the three musketeers

So I started reading The Three Musketeers, which, as previously mentioned, I had already read ten times over, and gradually, complained of a sore throat, lack of voice, etc, to make Therese take over some of the reading. So she would read a sentence here and a paragraph there. Whenever difficult vocabulary presented itself, I would just say it and explain it in a quick way, and go on. Eventually, she would be able to read an entire page. Then, a hundred pages or so into the book, I put it face down, said I was tired, and walked off. Therese was devastated. “Er Jie, Er Jie, come back! Please! I want to know what happens next!”  To which, I replied that all she had to do was to read for herself, I was tired and would not do it. So she picked up the book, and forced herself to continue reading all by herself, the same way we did so in Jeddah. We wanted to know what happened next, and no one was going to tell us.

Now, it may sound too easy to be true. Of course, Therese was smart, and she had already learned to put words together and to sound out new words in school. But, and this is where it gets important, there is one important step at this stage, which very few parents or teachers are aware of. It is the step of how to move from reading phonetically — sounding out words — to reading metacognitively, or, to put it simply, to read with the eyes, while the brain is busy enjoying the plot, or analyzing the details, or predicting the outcome, and so on. No, it is not unrealistic to leave the reader to his own devices in a hundred pages. Usually, an author has his or her own set of vocabulary within which he or she moves comfortably. And in a hundred pages, most of these words have already appeared. So the reader is not bogged down by the meeting of unknown words and is able to keep on reading, powered on by the pull of the plot, which should have set into high gear by the hundredth page.

Years later, I taught my sister Iffat to read the same way. And it worked equally well, though it was in English this time, and I needed to get my hands on an English translation of The Three Musketeers. It was also then that I discovered, being now more mature, that the content was not really suited for young children, if you really wanted them to understand every detail of the plot. Now, my cousin Therese ended up going to Harvard and my sister Iffat to MIT. OK, OK, I can hear from here all the scientists telling me this is not a scientific study and the results might be totally coincidental. I also told the method to my professor of Methodology of Teaching English As A Foreign Language, who shook his head and said he had never heard of such a method. Well, much later I also taught my own children to read this way and, if I may say so, they did not end up badly either (more details in later entries.) Whatever the case, being able to read by oneself is the most crucial skill you can give a child. He or she can teach herself almost anything, if only she can read it.

So, I beamed when I finally could read in peace, and our cards or Monopoly sessions spaced out to a weekly basis.


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May 1968

I looked forward to graduating from elementary school, but as destiny would have it, I never would attend a graduating ceremony from any of the milestones of grade school, not elementary, not junior high school, and not senior high school.

We were to graduate in June of 1968. But before June, May 1968 happened.

poster May 1968

Very few people outside of France still remember May 1968. It was a movement that started locally in February in Nanterre, a suburb of Paris,  and could have ended up in a blood bath like the 1832 June Rebellion depicted in Les Miserables. It was something that started as student unrest, morphed into a nation-wide workers’ unions strike,  and ended up nearly toppling the government of Charles de Gaulle, the WWII hero who led the government in exile, the founder of the Fifth Republic, who was then serving his second term as President of the Republic (at that time, a French presidential term lasted seven years.)

Then French President, Charles de Gaulle

Then French President, Charles de Gaulle

Little children see very little beyond their world of school and home. So in my memories, I only see snippets of my uncle excitedly or gloomily relating the news over dinner; workers chanting and holding placards walking down the Avenue de la Republique (me, trying to stick my nose on the glass panes to view the excitement, and Aunt Lily restraining me and telling me to step away from the window); the school closing down and sending all the students home for an indefinite period of time; Saadia, Therese and I playing school in the previously taboo front sitting room. Then, the most striking piece of memory: the trash piling up in all the streets, which finally had to be removed by the army after a couple of weeks.

protesters marching during May 1968

Student unrest during May 1968

Student unrest during May 1968

Another image stands out strikingly: photos on the newspapers of university students holding up the Little Red Book, that quasi-Bible authored by Mao Tse-Tung. I couldn’t believe it. Did they not know what hell the people of China were living through because of that Little Red Book? Why would they want to bring that here?

Pro-socialist and pro-communist fervor during May 1968

Pro-socialist and pro-communist fervor during May 1968

Reading now, 46 years later, accounts and analyses of the events during those two weeks, I can see a perfect example of a teenage rebellion, or one of those restless phases that releases itself as a sudden storm, then if allowed to brew and gather energy, may find enough discontented and disgruntled souls to energize it, give it direction, and eventually focus into a revolution. If not nipped in the bud. De Gaulle had enough clout and strength to do so, dismissing the entire cabinet and calling for new elections. In other times and countries, things might not end up so quickly and quietly, witness the massacre of TianAnMen.




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How long was a king’s foot?

Actually, I recently looked up what I have called for years the French method of regrouping in subtraction, and found on the internet that it is called the Austrian method. Well, I suppose we might as well say it is the continental European method, and I would assume several European countries probably share this method.

At the risk of boring my readers, I will mention just one more arithmetic trick that might make learning math so much easier for our American elementary students. It is the subject of learning about metric units. The metric system is also called SI or International System of Units, so few people know that it originated in France, and was proposed by the French back in 1799. Note the date: it indicates that it happened ten years after the great French Revolution, and when you overthrow one thing you want to overthrow other things you are unhappy about, such as measure units named pied (foot), pouce (thumb), toise, lieue, arpent, roquille, perche, vergee, demiard, chopine, feuillette, litron, boisseau, quart, minot, etc. You are giving up? Me too. Apparently, these units were set by the great Emperor Charlemagne, (the one who was crowned in the year 800, according to my forever-etched-in-mind history lesson) (by the way, I loved Emperor Charlemagne, because he had the good sense to get crowned in a year that was easy to memorize!) who wanted to unify the way people measured stuff within his large dominion. So he used his own foot length and called it the official “king’s foot”, shortened later to just “foot”. And I assume he also used his own thumb to set in stone the “inch”. I don’t think it’s the length of his thumb as much as the width, otherwise it might have been a thumb badly mutilated during battle.

Charlemagne, whose foot is used as the standard for a foot.

Charlemagne, whose foot is used as the standard for a foot.

This was a wonderful innovation, except that as humans love to always do their own thing unless forced to do otherwise, soon variations of these measurements sprouted like mushrooms all over Europe. For example, that famous King’s Foot (pied du roi) is actually 1.066 of the English foot, while the French pinte actually equals 1.68 of an imperial pint. Just imagine travelers to other countries or trans-continental merchants trying to buy and sell goods, why they would be fighting and calling each other cheaters and liars.

And that’s only Europe. I was surprised to see that in Taiwan, oh, about 20 or 30 years ago, when I went home to visit my parents, they still used traditional units of measurement in small stalls in the markets. I wanted to buy eggs, and Mama said, go here and there and turn here and there, and there is a shop selling nails and hammers, and you will ask there for eggs. Really? hardware with eggs? Whatever. So I got there, and asked for eggs. The shop owner stared at me stone-faced. I thought it was because he was thinking, Can’t you see I sell nails and hammers? Do you actually see eggs anywhere in this tiny dark black place? But then he asked, “How much?” That got me. Don’t you all buy eggs in cartons like I do? So I wanted to say, maybe a couple dozens, when he asked again, “how many liang?” Wow! A liang? What’s a liang? I knew vaguely that it was a unit of weight/mass, but how much should I say? What about a nice round figure like 10?  I didn’t want to sound stupid. What if I said 10 liang and ended up with a hundred eggs? Then ping! Lightbulb time! I suddenly remembered a phrase that we often used, “ban jin ba liang!” which meant “it’s all the same!” So then, “ban jin” is half a jin or half a pound, and it’s equal to ba liang, or eight liang. So far so good. Thankfully, I did know that a Tai jin (Taiwanese pound) was a little less than half a kilogram, but how much did an egg weigh? At this point, the egg seller interrupted my musings by repeating in a very exasperated and impatient tone, “So how many liang do you want?” I took a deep breath, and said, pretending to be very sure of myself, “Ba liang!” Eight liang.  He got up, went to the side of the shop, squatted down, and pulled open a metal drawer, which was padded with straw and had brown eggs in it. He picked up a few eggs, placed them carefully in a tiny plastic bag, tied the bag with a long string of straw, and hooked it to a metal scale, the type that looks like a long metal arm hanging from a chain. I actually wanted at least a dozen eggs, but decided I was going to leave that to someone else to purchase.

Traditional Chinese scales. For eggs, remove the plate and hang the bag of eggs directly on the horizontal bar.

Traditional Chinese scales. For eggs, remove the plate and hang the bag of eggs directly on the horizontal bar.

To come back then to the SI, since the metre des Archives (prototype of a meter) and the kilogramme des Archives (prototype of a kilogram) are kept and displayed in Paris, it takes simple logic to deduce that the French are very good at teaching the metric system. It is such a logical system that I did not know anyone was learning it differently until I tutored American school children. We encountered somewhere in a word problem, the case of converting cm to m. The child said, “Wait, is it times? or divide? Is it 100 or 1000?”  Then only did I discover that in US Math textbooks, both imperial and metric systems are taught, and the latter is taught only partially. You get to learn about the kilogram and the gram, then about the kilometer, the meter and the centimeter. Children do not understand the logical relationship between all units, and come up with strange questions, such as the one I got recently from a little girl. “Teacher, I can’t measure centimeters on my ruler!”

International prototype of the kilogram, made of platinum iridium alloy

International prototype of the kilogram, made of platinum iridium alloy

“Why not?” I was puzzled. “Your ruler has inches on one edge and centimeters on the other edge!”  The little girl looked at me like I was stupid. “No, Teacher, it has millimeters! not centimeters!” Indeed, it did have a “mm” printed under the zero line. I couldn’t believe my ears. Did she not know that ten millimeters were a centimeter?

So here is how little French children are taught. You get a table that looks like the one below, with all units heading the columns, from left to right: kilometer, hectometer, decameter, meter, decimeter, centimeter, millimeter. Say the question is: how many meters are in a kilometer? You write 1 in the column for km, and add zeros, one per column, until you reach the target unit: m. Now read the answer: 1,000.  Really simple. You can try for example, 53 meters equal how many centimeters? Write the 53 as follows: the 3 in the meter column, the 5 in the decameter column. Then add zeros until you reach the cm column. Answer: 5,300. It works equally easily the other way around. How many km is 270 meters? Write the 0 in the meter column, the 7 in the decameter column, the 2 in the hectometer column, and add zeros (only one in this case) until you reach the km column. Now put a point (comma, in Europe) after the first zero. Answer: 0.270.  You can easily substitute -gram or -liter to -meter and master all unit conversions like a dream.

How to convert numbers from one unit to another in the metric system.

How to convert numbers from one unit to another in the metric system.

This table system is excellent also for moving into areas and volumes. Say you want to teach conversions of squared meters to squared centimeters. Your table should now show two columns per unit. The rest is exactly the same. As for volumes, just add one more column, three per unit.


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Calcul and Arithmetique

As promised, I shall give credit where credit is due. The French education system in the elementary grades is excellent in some aspects. I shall address here the subject called “Calcul” (Computation) in the lower elementary grade, and Arithmetique in the upper elementary grades.

french subtraction with regrouping

I cannot say that they were good at making us learn to calculate, because the Chinese are vastly superior in that aspect (more on that later). But there are a few points which are taught very differently than on the American and Asian continents. The first one is the way they regroup during subtraction, which is sometimes called “borrowing” a ten.

In Taiwan or the US, somewhere between Grades 1 or 2, all children meet for the first time subtraction with two digits, and all of a sudden that number in the second row has a unit digit which is smaller than the one above, and the child wonders how to deal with this problem. For instance, you may have 42 – 18 = ? How do you take 8 away from 2? Good teachers of course, teach how to do this, before they confront their students with this question. But little children have a tendency to disconnect things from each other, and may not remember that those blocks they were playing with the day before had some relationship to the problem they are meeting today. Some children, to this day, are very creative and expedient. Well, just turn things around. Take the 2 from the 8 and you get a 6. Oh, why is it wrong?

But I diverge.

How to regroup or "borrow" a ten in subtraction, according to the American method.

How to regroup or “borrow” a ten in subtraction, according to the American method.

So, the regular non-creative American child will cross out the 4, write a 3 above it, add a small 1 next to the 2, which makes it a 12. Now you can take 8 away from 12, which yields a 4. Then 3 – 1 = 2. Result: 24. Very good. How do the French do this? The maitresse back in Grade 2 told us to borrow a ten from the neighbor above (the 4) and write it as a small 1 next to the 2. So far, it is the same as in the American method. But do not cross out the 4 and do not write that 3 above the 4. Then, “what do you do when you borrow something? Yes, you must return it. So now, let’s return the ten to the neighbor below.  Let’s write a small 1 next to the 1 of 18. 12 – 8 is 4, and 4 – 2 = 2. Answer: 24.  Any questions?”  This was before I had turned pathologically shy. Maybe this was one of the factors that did turn me pathologically shy. Whatever the case, I raised my finger (in France, you raise an index finger, not the whole hand). “Yes?” asked the maitresse.

How to regroup or "borrow a ten" in subtraction according to the French method.

How to regroup or “borrow a ten” in subtraction according to the French method.

“If we borrow from the neighbor upstairs,” I asked, “why are we returning the ten to the neighbor downstairs? Shouldn’t we return it to the neighbor upstairs?” Does it not make sense to you, my reader? When you borrow sugar from your neighbor Mrs. Smith, you do not return the sugar to Mrs. Jones. You might make Mrs. Jones very happy, for she just got some free sugar, but that is not the point. I mean, I really truly wanted to understand this thing.

The maitresse stood still for a moment and glared at me. She did not look happy at all. She took a step forward and stared hard. Slowly, with buried roars in her voice, she asked, “What-do-you-do-when-you-bor-row-some-thing?”

“Er… we.. we… er… return it?”  I was cowed into stuttering.

“Precisely. A-ny ques-tion?” she asked with threatening thunder.

“No. No questions.” That shut me up for good. Did I dare have any more questions?

Today, as an educator and a trainer of educators, I can see that she did not know why. She knew HOW to do it, but not WHY. And when a student shows you up, you take revenge by terrorizing them. I can tell you why, dear readers, if you wish to know. The answer to a subtraction question is called a “difference” for a very good reason. It indicates the difference between two quantities. So the difference between 3 and 1 is the same as the difference between 4 and 2. Instead of making the upper digit smaller, you make the lower digit larger. Same difference.

So why should the French method be better? For something simple like 42 – 18 = 24, it might look as if both methods require an equal amount of time, intelligence and effort. But let’s look at something like 40,102 – 15,849. American method: You want to take 9 from 2, but cannot. You want to borrow from the neighbor on the left, but oops, it’s a zero. OK, no panic, go to the next neighbor on the left. Cross the 1, write a 0. Write a little one next to the 2 to make it a 12. Now, you can take that dratted 9 away from the 12 and get a 3. What next? Oh, OK, take the 4 from the 9 and get a five. Easy. Then, darn it, it’s another zero. Go to the neighbor on the left, crumbs! It’s another zero! No panic, no panic. Go further left, ah… here’s a good digit, a 4! Cross out, write a 3, put a small 1 next to the zero to make it a 10. Now what? Oh, OK, now cross out the 10 and write a 9 above it. Where was I? Oh, yes. Go back to the 100s column. 8 taken from 10 is a 2. Then five from 9 is a 4 and finally 1 from 3 is a 2. Is your head spinning by now? How many of you tried doing it on your own before reading all this? How many of you made no mistake at all? Really? Try 201,010 – 98,999. OK, be truthful now. How many of you made no mistake at all and had no hesitation at all? Now imagine a small child, especially one who is a bit hyper and has a very short attention span and has a messy handwriting. Do we really expect this child to do this complicated manoeuver with no mistake whatsoever? Is our goal to see how to trip him or is it to help him?

Compare the clean lines and clear view of your numbers in the French method. The child's mind is equally clear while performing this operation.

Compare the clean lines and clear view of your numbers in the French method. The child’s mind is equally clear while performing this operation.

Let’s look at this same operation with the French method. Instead of traveling up and down the columns and across the tops back and forth, you only go down the columns one at a time. This is what you say to yourself: “Zero minus 9, cannot be, borrow return (write a small 1 next to the zero and another small 1 next to the 9 — neighbor below), 10 minus 9 is 1.” You now move to the second column and say, “1 minus 10, cannot be, borrow return (small 1, small 1), 11 minus 10 equals 1.” You move to the third column: “Zero minus 10, cannot be, borrow return (small 1, small 1), 10 minus 10 equals 0.” and so on. You only deal with one column at a time, you do not need to cross out or rewrite and build a pyramid of digits on top of one another. You need not fear zeros and ones, just work on one column at a time. That’s a successful method, one that can be used with confidence by any child, steady or hyperactive, regardless of what numbers you throw at him.


Ah...! The beauty of a streamlined subtraction!

Ah…! The beauty of a streamlined subtraction!

And so, while my own teacher scarred me when teaching it to me, I teach it to all my students so we won’t have a subtraction error sneaking into otherwise beautifully worked word problems or algebra problems. And I always ask them, “Do you want to know why it works? I can explain it to you if you want to.” And so far, none has been interested in knowing why.

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Like a fish in water

Every winter, the St Sebastien Elementary School would organize a ski trip for two weeks. It so happened that the grade level that got to go that year was the one I left behind, the 8eme. Sigh! Promotion to the 7eme caused me to miss going skiing. However, that same year, two major disasters happened in France. Two separate school trips to a lake and a seaside ended up in a shipwreck where most of the students drowned, the teachers having been unable to save all students. As a result, the Ministry of Education decreed that every single school child in France had to learn to swim, as part of their elementary PE curriculum.

So it was, that in the middle of the year, we started going every Wednesday to the municipal swimming pool, two classes at a time, by metro. I was overjoyed that I could finally learn how to swim! For back in Jeddah, despite our frequent weekends on the Red Sea, I was just playing around in shallow water, not really swimming. The smell of chlorine mixed with French armpit sweat was a bit off-putting at first, but I soon learned to bear it and grin. Let’s swim! Let’s swim!

Well. May I say, very politely, that the French are not good at all at teaching swimming. The system doesn’t make any sense at all. I really admire other facets of French education, and I will make sure to mention those later, to give credit where credit is due. But really, the Americans teach swimming so much more effectively!

First, we were divided into three groups, the beginners, the intermediate and the advanced swimmers. I cannot speak for the latter two groups, since I could only observe them from afar, but I really tried very hard to follow instructions and learn as a beginner. We first spent many hours on the floor, learning and practicing the arm and leg movements for breast stroke, called “brasse” in French. “One!” join the hands under your chin like you are going to pray (Catholic style). “Two!” push the joined hands straight forward as far as they will go. “Three!” flip the hands so they are now joined back to back. “Four!” pull your arms outward until you form a T shape. “One!” you pull your hands back into the praying position. And repeat again and again. A similar drill was taught for the legs. Then we got to lower ourselves into the water, on the shallow side, of course. Holding onto the edge of the gulley, we would practice the leg movements, and then we would stand up and practice the arm movements. Eventually, we got to swim across the pool, width wise, heads sticking out of the water, first with foam boards, and then finally one day, without any swimming aid. We would look a bit like frogs, heads out, arms drawing circles, and the rear end and legs sinking at various slants into the water. It was slow, but we would be able to get across to the other side. I wasn’t doing too badly — or so I thought —  and was quite proud of myself, though I didn’t understand why Saadia got promoted to the Intermediate class but not I.  And Annie Paumier, who started in the Intermediate class, was also promoted to the Advanced class.

breast stroke on deck

Then one day, our coach disappeared and a new substitute coach appeared. This young man was very strict and very angry most of the time. I wonder what they told him we knew, but he started something totally different from where we were at. First thing I knew, he said, “You will swim across to the other side, head under water, three strokes, take a breath while gliding, then repeat.” Since I had never seen anyone swim a real breast stroke before and did not know that the head was supposed to be in the water normally, I did not grasp what he was saying and did what I understood. Which is, I did three strokes the way we had always done them: head out of the water. Then I would stick my head in the water and glide, then repeat. Happily I reached the other side, the last to do so, grabbed the edge of the gulley and looked up. The coach stood right there above me, big thick hairy legs in front of my eyes. He was NOT amused. Arms angrily crossed on his chest, he thundered, “Vous vous moquez de moi?” which can translate as, “you are mocking me?” or “you are making fun of me?” Meaning of course, that I intended to be disrespectful and disobedient and did something to show I knew better than he did. Which of course, couldn’t be further from the truth. As usual, good students are not to reply. I bowed my head, cheeks flaming, and kept quiet. From then on, it was very obvious he did not like me. At all.

Another day, instead of starting class on the shallow side, the coach lined us all up and told us to march to the deep side, and stop by the diving board. Don’t you just love having to guess what the lesson plan or lesson goal is? You are never told, so you just have to guess. The girls, at first, had fought about who would be first in line. But when they realized we were going to dive, they all chickened out and started furtively running to the back of the line. By the time the coach turned around, I ended up being the third in line. He explained the pencil dive: just jump in straight, feet together. Then swim to the side, and come up the ladder. Sit down in a line, criss cross apple sauce, and wait. The first two did just that. It seemed a piece of cake. I can do this. My turn. I walk to the end of the board and look down. Oh. My. God. I wished the water had not been so clean, so pure. Because I could see clear through to the bottom, which looked like a few stories down. Am I supposed to jump? I glance back hopefully. Forget about it. The coach is wearing his angry face, arms crossed on the chest, a hateful look across the frowning eyebrows. I look at the first two girls, hair dripping, who are sitting cross legged, quietly watching me. No help there. I look at the line of girls behind me, nervous and edgy, fearful. No help there either. The coach thunders, “Jump! Now!” All right, dying is better than facing the coach. And if I drown, he will have it on his conscience. Well, it is his job to save me. Serves him right! I jump. Amazing. The beautiful turquoise water flowed upwards past me, until I slowed down and stopped. Then it started flowing down until my head popped out back into fresh air. Wow! I swam to the edge and climbed out. Such a wonderful experience!

diving board

As I watched one by one the girls jump in, I started to relax and even get a little bored. But then the last girl reached the board. Having scooted down the line to become the last, she had already worked up her anxiety level to an all-time high, and bordered hysteria. She walked to the end, took one look, and turned back. No, she was not going to jump. The coach walked to the board and blocked her way. “Go back! Jump!” She refused. No way. She tried turning around to face the water, but that was too much for her. She started crying and begging, but the coach kept his arms crossed, a statue of inflexibility and one step at a time, forced her to back up to the far end of the diving board. She was shouting and wailing by now, but to no avail. The coach was adamant. “Jump!” She fell on her knees now, sobbing and yelling. “I beg of you! Please! Let me go!” She started grabbing the coach’s feet and legs, dripping tears and snot on them. He seemed annoyed, and kept pushing her slowly with his feet toward the edge. Eventually with all her frantic movements and his pushing, she tumbled off the edge, but still hung on to his feet, screaming in terror. He shook her off his feet and she finally fell in the water. But by the time her head bobbed back out of the water, she took one long breath and hollered at the top of her lungs, arms flailing. The coach kept sternly telling her to swim to the ladder, but her ears were deaf. She was totally hysterical now, and shrieked, “Au secours! Au secours!” Help! Help! We all knew she was able to float or swim, but she had forgotten that in her panic. She kept on swallowing water, choking, crying, and screaming. The entire pool hall resonated with her howls. Everyone was now watching the show. The coach threw her a foam board, but her flailing arm threw it away. He threw more and more and she managed to hit them all, like a good tennis player. He started throwing swim rings, but all were also knocked out of her reach. He eventually had to jump in among the dozens of foam boards and rings, and pull her out, as she finally showed signs of  tiring, and possibly drowning.

To pass the first stage, we had to take two tests. One was the Brevet de Sauvetage #1, which consisted of saving an unconscious person  floating on the water. And the other was to swim fifty meters, no time limit. The saving part was not difficult. One girl had to act as the victim and lie quietly on her back, waiting to be saved. The one acting as a lifeguard would then pull her under the arms while doing the frog stroke, oh sorry, the breast stroke with the legs. The 50-meter seemed easy at first. Just swim forward from a certain point 3/4 of the way along the length of the pool, on the deep side, toward the shallow end. Touch the end, turn around, and swim back to the deep end, touch the side. Done.

Well, easier said than done. I had forgotten I had a bad health until then. The wonderful French climate had cured me of my previous debility, almost. I had begun showing some plumpness in my cheeks, and my paleness had turned a bit rosy. Cool weather obviously was good for me. But I realized that I still did not have enough endurance, a bit too late, while I was in deep water. I was so tired I was pulling maybe a stroke every five seconds. Many a time, I almost turned to the side edge to call it quits. Only the fear of that angry coach and the mockery of my classmates kept me going. I decided that dying (again) was better than facing that. So although I was by then completely dizzy and almost in darkness, I moved forward somehow until, after what seemed like hours later, my fingers touched solid land. I hung on, for a few more minutes. Thank God Coach was busy timing the next girl.  Then I managed somehow to reach the ladder. And minutes later, I managed to haul my tons of body weight out before collapsing face down on the deck. I lay there for an eternity, until I was able to move something again. The coach never asked how I was. It was incredible. I was still alive, and had achieved my fifty meters.

The 50-meter certificate, which I earned at the risk of my life. Which is why I have religiously kept it for all these years.

The 50-meter certificate, which I earned at the risk of my life. Which is why I have religiously kept it for all these years.



Now, you might ask why I still say that the French swimming system is no good though I did learn to swim. The fact is I have now seen my children learn to swim the American way. First of all, there is no terror involved in the teaching method. Secondly, they start by accustoming the child to have his/her head in the water and get used to the swishing of water on the face before anything else. For good swimming is done with the head in the water, coming up only for breath. Like a fish or rather, a dolphin or a whale, or a penguin. Or even a frog. But what good is it to teach one to swim with a completely incorrect posture, head out of the water, only to then unlearn it and relearn how to keep the head in the water? And finally, today, any teacher or coach would be informed beforehand of a child’s health condition, and not push one to her physical limit through sheer terrorization.

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How not to forget past learning

I actually grew slightly wiser by then. After all, I was ten years old. I asked my cousin Therese, who asked her mother, Aunt Lily, what religion SHE was. Since they were not Muslim, like our family, nor Catholic, like the girls in school, what were they then?

They rehearsed an answer provided by Uncle Lung, which was that they were Confucianists. Actually, the majority of Chinese do not seem to follow any particular ritualistic religion. And yes, indeed, they do follow the precepts and principles prescribed by Confucius — Kung Fu Zi — who was not a prophet, but a philosopher. It is very interesting to note that though the Chinese do not seem to believe in any religion, they actually do believe in some transcendent being above not just humans, but any other immortal beings, be they named gods/goddesses or fairies. In their daily speech, they would refer to “Lao Tian Ye”, meaning Old Grandfather Heaven, or a shortened form, “Lao Tian” — Old Heaven, or even shorter, “Tian” — Heaven. For instance, they would say, “Tian zhi dao!” meaning, Heaven knows!  Or “Lao Tian yo yan” — “Old Heaven has eyes”, meaning that He is omniscient and knows the truth even if you don’t believe me. And in hours of distress or dire need, they would turn their eyes to the sky, and supplicate Old Man Heaven for help or deliverance. Who is omniscient, omnipotent, all-seeing, all-hearing, and merciful, except for God? The same God worshipped by all the monotheistic believers? I think it is highly probable that some prophet did come to China in ancient times and left this long-lasting belief in God, even if no one seems to remember where this belief came from. Despite all the minor gods and goddesses from Buddhism, or the traditions of ancestor worship, all Chinese do believe in one God, although they don’t know it.

On weekends, Saadia and I copied verses and chapters from the Qur’an following Papa’s orders. Thus, he tried to prevent us from forgetting whatever Arabic and Qur’an we had learned in Jeddah. Aunt Lily and Therese greatly enjoyed watching us sweating over our Arabic handwriting. Aunt Lily called it “bean sprout writing” and Therese thought it gross when I tried to teach it to her. But I now realize that my pretty flowing Arabic penmanship today is a result of those weekly sweatshop sessions.

Arabic script for "in the name of Allah the Merciful the Beneficent". This phrase is found at the beginning of each chapter of the Qur'an.

Arabic script for “in the name of Allah the Merciful the Beneficent”. This phrase is found at the beginning of each chapter of the Qur’an.

We also had to write a letter to Papa and Mama every month. In Chinese. So we wouldn’t forget the Chinese we had learned at the embassy school. Oh, such torture. It would take two to three weeks to finally compose the letter, and the fourth week to copy it legibly. Aunt Lily would read it for editorial purposes, and laugh her heart out, “laughing her big teeth off”, as she put it. She would try to correct our poor spelling, but the letter would still end up peppered with French words here and there. Papa would receive it two weeks later, correct it in red, and then send it back again, after having “laughed so much that his belly skin would burst”.  Well, I suppose I should be glad to be a provider of entertainment with all that sweat and effort.

If you have never attempted to learn to read and write Chinese, then you wouldn’t understand why it is so hard to spell it correctly. In a language whose writing is based on some sort of phonetical alphabet, you try to sound it out, then spell what you hear. Mistakes are possible, but not that funny. However, Chinese is the only writing left in the world that is based on ideograms — little pictures that used to represent drawings of objects but eventually have become stylized and used for meaning or categorization as well as sound. So say you want to write: a book. First, of course, you need to figure out what it sounds like. Then, you need to think of which “measure word” to use. Is it a “generalized word” book? A “stick of” book? A “sheet of” book? A “stack of” book? A “slice of” book? etc. All right, so you find that you need to say a “ben” (pronounced bn) of a book. Now, how to write “bn”?  Fortunately, you remember that the character “ben” (3rd tone), meaning root, or source, looks like a tree with a little horizontal line near the bottom of the trunk to indicate the root. Simple enough. However, is it this character? Or is it one of the multitude of variations of this character with a side symbol or top symbol added on to signify its category? I mused long, and decided that since this is a book, and in the old days, books were made of bamboo slats, it follows therefore that the “ben” of book should be the one with a “bamboo head”. So I proudly add it on.

character "mu",  meaning tree or wood. Originates from the drawing of a fir tree.

character “mu”, meaning tree or wood. Originates from the drawing of a fir tree.

Now if you know Chinese, you are already laughing. Because for some strange reason, it was not the right character. It should have been the one without any additional category at all. Just a “root of” a book. Go figure. The word I used, the one with the bamboo top, well it means “stupid”. So I had written “a stupid book”. Methinks it’s the logic of it all that is stupid.

character "ben" meaning root, source, or origin.

character “ben” meaning root, source, or origin.

character "ben" with the bamboo top, meaning stupid.

character “ben” with the bamboo top, meaning stupid.




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What religion are you?

I had been very wary of meeting again the type of segregation and discrimination I had encountered repeatedly a few years ago.  So, when the girls behaved rather politely, comparatively speaking, I heaved a sigh of relief.  However,  one day, one of my classmates, Jocelyne,  took it into her head to ask me what my religion was. I hemmed and hawed, tried be evasive, then changed the subject.

The question was not really out of the blue. One by one, my classmates would be taking time off for their “First Communion”, a sort of coming of age ceremony for Roman Catholic girls upon reaching around age 10. They would come to school with a stack of little cards and give them out to all. There would be various forms of a little girl all dressed in white, praying on her knees, and a golden cross or a cup somewhere on the card, and on the reverse, there would be a date, time and the name and address of a church. When neither Saadia nor I handed these out, it was obvious we were not Catholic.

Having lived through the Six Day War of 1967, however far we were from it, while in Jeddah, I knew somehow vaguely that Muslims and Jews did not get along. The only thing that had marked the occurrence of the war was the painting of our car’s headlights and our house windows in black. Papa had told us that this was done so planes at night could not see the lights of the city. And we excitedly would turn off the house lights at night and peer outside at the darkened city, whispering, “This is the war!” The war was punctuated by our Yemeni houseboy, Ali’s, shouts and yells to announce some new development, with his transistor radio in his arms.

six day war

In the 11th arrondissement, there seemed to be a lot of Jews. They looked just like other French girls to me. No large hooked noses or dark skins. And you wouldn’t know until they told you they were “juives”.  One good friend of mine, named Etoile Sellam, was a Jew. And so were Jacqueline Cohen, a tall, beautiful and self-confident girl who seemed much more mature than the rest of us; Patricia Tordjeman, who was always in trouble for talking in class; and Veronique Tordjeman, her sister. I was scared stiff that they would find out I was Muslim and the racist ostracism would start all over again.

So, when Jocelyne asked me what religion I was, I gave an evasive answer. She would not give up, “You are not Catholic, so are you Protestant then?” I said no. The next day, she came armed with more religions, “Are you Orthodox, Baptist, Unitarian, Mormon? Jewish? ”  I still said no. The next day, she had more, “OK, so then, are you Buddhist, Confucianist? Taoist? Shinto?” Every day, she would find more. The closest she ever got to Islam was, “Are you Arab?” and I truthfully answered, “No.”

So many people confuse Arabs with Muslims. To me, the difference was clear, since I was a Muslim but definitely not an Arab. But once I said no, Jocelyne never again wandered around that religion in her guesses, and I was safe. Jocelyne finally came up with what she thought was for sure the correct answer, “You must be an atheist!” I was shocked, “Oh, dear God, no!”  I now feel very sorry for having misled her. And if she ever reads these memoirs, I want her to know that I am Muslim and proud to be one who has good Catholic friends.

Jocelyne Henry's entry in my cahier de souvenirs

Jocelyne Henry’s entry in my cahier de souvenirs

I guess that the worst thing that can sink a child’s pride in her self identity is not knowing about her heritage. I had resigned myself to being Chinese, for those two and a half years of reading elementary texts at the Chinese embassy had inculcated some rudiments of Chinese culture into me, and with them, some beginning of pride.  But those endless droning hours of Qur’an memorization had not done much to teach me about Islam. And what in Jeddah had helped me integrate, I tried to hide from everyone here.  My academic achievements brought me respect from my classmates, and so, I tried even harder to excel.

Aunt Lily and Uncle Lung were not Muslim, but tried very hard to avoid cooking pork at home to accommodate us. During the month of Ramadan, Saadia and I attempted to fast over the weekends, using the sky color to guide us to the correct hours. Regular prayers had flown out the window the minute we had stepped off the plane. I would occasionally remember them, and feel terrible guilt at having neglected them. I would pull out my prayer mat, and perform my ablution, then carefully lock my door so my cousins would not see what I was up to. Once, tired out by the exercise of praying (which involves standing, bowing and kneeling down, repeatedly), I crouched on my mat for a bit of rest, and felt so good I stayed there for maybe half an hour. I made a chart of the missed prayers, so I could make them up eventually. But they just kept piling up so fast I realized that I would never be able to catch up with them, ever. There are two rakats (a set of standing, bowing, prostrating twice and kneeling) in the dawn prayer, four in the noon prayer, four in the afternoon prayer, three in the sunset prayer, and four in the evening prayer. Plus three almost obligatory ones after the evening prayer. That was a total of 20 rakats per day. Since I would remember them only every month or so, you can imagine the amount of exercise I condemned myself to!

My cousin Therese would ask me why I had to lock myself up, and I would refuse to answer her. One day, she laughed happily, “Er Jie, (second elder sister), I know how you pray!!! You just crouch on the rug there!” Oh, goodness! She had seen me exhausted, trying to catch a respite! “No,” I tried to explain, “that’s not how I pray…”  But she would chip on, “Yes, it is! I saw you! I was peeping through the keyhole!!!”

The moral of the story is, hiding yourself leads to even more misunderstanding and mystery, or even ostracism.

prayer mat

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