Life of a Rooster

Memoirs of a psychiatrist, journalist and educator


on April 10, 2014

My constant state of chronic anxiety was best relieved by books. Books by the dozens. Between the municipal library (two per week), both our class libraries (3 per week) and our friends, Saadia and I averaged ten books a week. The municipal library was quite a treasure trove: I found there all the Tintin books that we didn’t have at home, and since they could not be checked out, spent hours giggling as silently as I could over the antics of Captain Haddock and the Thompson twins — who are actually called Dupont and Dupond in French. Only once was I unable to control myself, and broke into a sudden fit of laughter to the condemning stares of other library patrons.

tintin books

We still read a large amount of classics, but now also absorbed a healthy dose of children’s classics, either French or translated from the English, such as Frances Hodgson Burnett’s A Little Princess, Little Lord Fauntleroy, The Secret Garden, as well as the Pollyanna series. My favorite authors were, Alexandre Dumas, of course, and now Jules Verne as well. It was a good thing that both were prolific authors, for I dug and searched for their works and managed a good couple of dozens from each.  When I tried to introduce these to my own children, I had a very hard time finding any Jules Verne books in English for my children, other than Around the World in 80 Days and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.  He penned not only his well-known “technologically prophetic” novels, but also a number of historical adventure novels such as Mathias Sandorf and Michel Strogoff.  Other adventure novels explore whimsical geographical phenomena such as The Green Ray.  Thank God for the internet and the rise of e-books, for now I am able to finally find again these old treasures and re-read them.  It is very probable that the “father of historical novels” (Dumas) and the “father of geographical novels” (Verne) were very much behind my great interest in Social Studies.

poster for 2004 movie of Arsene Lupin (a prequel)

poster for 2004 movie of Arsene Lupin (a prequel)

I also became engrossed in the adventures of Arsene Lupin, the “gentleman thief”, who is France’s retort to Sherlock Holmes. Actually, in one particular book, he does compete with “Herlock Sholmes” in solving two mysteries. No prize for guessing who wins! Here on the other side of the Atlantic, not many are aware of the rivalry between France and Great Britain, which dates back probably to the Normans and may have been fueled by the Hundred Years War and the English burning Joan of Arc.  The French’s worst beef is probably Wellington’s role in Napoleon’s demise. No wonder author Maurice Leblanc was very popular. With his gentleman thief, he managed to redeem French honor from the English!

A new classic author for me was Honore de Balzac, I think the Balzac books actually belonged to Uncle Lung. We just picked them out of his shelves and read them. The one that made the strongest impression on me was La Cousine Bette. The ending image of the old hag on her deathbed still plotting hate and destruction just haunted me for days.

But the best stories, the ones I enjoyed most during those three years in Paris, were not from our tons of books, but the oral history passed on by Aunt Lily. Aunt Lily is a talker. She enjoys talking like no one else I know, and is great at weaving background scenes, analyzing events and characters, and injecting her own opinion into everything she related. She is very light-hearted, and can laugh happily at almost anything. Looking back, I realize she must have influenced me a lot as a story-teller.

As a witness to my parents’ courtship and early days of married life, she was an unending source of tales about them. When I told her that Papa had proposed to Mama by going down on one knee, putting his right hand over his heart and asking Grandpa Chang for his precious daughter’s hand, Aunt Lily burst out in peals of laughter. “Your father? Hahahaha, your father did not even dare talk directly to your Grandpa! Hahaha! Is that what he told you? No… It was Gu Zhang (Father’s Sister’s Husband) whom your father talked to, the owner of the lumber mill. He then called your grandpa saying he had approved the marriage. Ah, your grandpa wasn’t happy at first, but when your father came to Paris and mailed him French cigarettes, he was so proud! He would put a pack of cigarettes in his shirt pocket, just so, with the top showing, and go to work. Everyone would ask him what strange cigarettes they were, and your grandpa would proudly say, pretending it was nothing important, “Oh, this? It’s French cigarettes, foreign-made in France, you know. My first son-in-law sent them to me…”


Cigarettes were then very fashionable and smoking them was sophisticated and Westernized. Aunt Lily said Papa was not a smoker, but Mama convinced him to learn how to smoke so he could look sophisticated since he was now a diplomat. This is true, since years later, every time Mama would try nagging Papa to quit smoking for his health’s sake, Papa would reply, “First you want me to smoke, now you don’t want me to smoke. Just make up your mind!”

banana tree

Aunt Lily also told me stories of her and Mama’s childhood and youth. They grew up in the countryside in central Taiwan, in Nantou county. They moved several times, so I remember the names of various places, Shui Li Keng (sounds like Gulch in Water), Ji Ji (sounds like In a Hurry, In a Hurry), Pu Li (sounds like In the Garden) and Shui Li (In Water, without the Gulch). To go to Taichung from Taipei, you take the train, which chugs along amid fields and banana groves. All you have to do is stick your hand outside the train window to pick bananas to eat. A lot of sugar canes also grew there and Aunt Lily and Mama would run after the rumbling truck that was carrying the canes away. They would grab a stick of sugar cane and pull it down, then run away, hide somewhere, cut it up then suck the juice out.

sugar canes

Mama was the eldest, and Aunt Lily the second born, only a year after Mama. Just like Saadia and me, I thought. Grandma Chang ended up having eight children, four girls at first, then four boys. Aunt Lily said that there had been a fifth girl. At the time, Grandpa Chang had a friend whose wife had been unable to conceive for years. He begged Grandpa Chang to give him his fifth daughter, promising to dote on her and raise her well. She apparently was a pretty and smart girl, who loved her adopted parents as much as they loved her. She would run over whenever her father came home, bring him his slippers and put them on for him. Unfortunately, she was still just a toddler when she contracted some childhood disease and passed away. Her adopted parents were terribly heart-broken. The father came to Grandpa Chang, knelt in front of him, prostrated himself and kowtowed to him,  sobbing uncontrollably. The girl’s soul had probably missed home too much and had been unable to stay with her new family, he said. Had he not adopted her, she probably wouldn’t have died. This was all his fault. Ah, the self-accusing habit of Chinese romantics. When one is sad, it feeds one’s sadness so much to accuse oneself of everything, and take responsibility for God’s plans for humanity. It satisfies the hunger for tears, sobs and wails and creates a delectable despair.

But these are not the only maternal uncles and aunts I had. Many years later, probably in 1990, I was visiting Mama in Taipei, and she called me into her bedroom one day. “Here,” she said, putting a gold necklace and medal in my hand, “this is for you, from your Fifth Aunt.” My fifth aunt? What fifth aunt? I thought I only had four, since the fifth died in childhood! Mama looked at me exasperatedly. “Just your Fifth Aunt. From your grandpa. We have known about her for many years, but would not recognize her as legitimate. Now your grandparents are long gone and everything is water under the bridge. We all decided to formally recognize her. She happens to be very wealthy, so she gave a “First Meeting Gift” to all your aunts and uncles and all of our children as well. So this one is yours. Just take it. It means you accept to recognize her as your aunt.”

Well, that was totally unexpected. Though it shouldn’t have. Grandpa Chang was a handsome man, even in his old age. And Aunt Lily had told me stories of him coming home late from dinner parties and, fearing Grandma’s wrath, would pretend to be dead drunk so he wouldn’t have to answer her questions. Grandma would take one look at him and loudly call Mama and Aunt Lily, “Girls, quick, go get a bucket of sewage from the toilet, and pour it down your father’s throat to wake him up from his drunkenness!”

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