Life of a Rooster

Memoirs of a psychiatrist, journalist and educator

How not to forget past learning

on March 14, 2014

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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