Life of a Rooster

Memoirs of a psychiatrist, journalist and educator

Nostalgia and Reunion

on April 25, 2014

Despite a busy life at school and a home life filled with books, where a swashbuckling Lagardere protected noble baby girls; despite a warm aunt who taught me about life and an early training as a tourist guide, I still had time to wallow in nostalgia. I owned then a soft pencil box shaped like a flat rectangle that could be opened with a zipper around three sides. The outside was a map of the world, and as such, mostly blue.  It was the most attractive, sunshiny blue you can imagine, that brought wafts of reminiscence from Jeddah.  Often, instead of studying Roman history, I would study the lines of latitude and longitude on my pencil box and trace the path of an airplane flying from Jeddah to Paris, and back from Paris to Jeddah.

map of the world

In my memories, the blue skies were wonderful and there was none of the stifling heat that kept me sick and weak. Life was bright with blinding light, playtime, and the warmth of a loving family. It is strange how when one misses a time and place, one remembers only the best and most beautiful aspects, and none of the stressful factors.

Once, I had a dream: I was back in Jeddah, playing in the back yard of the embassy compound with my friends, and having a grand time. Then, as we all sat on the white-washed brick ramps of the back stairs, I suddenly remembered that I was supposed to be in Paris. I wondered whether I was dreaming. The only way to find out, as we are told in books, is to pinch yourself. I was going to do just that, but feared the pain. Well, I thought to myself, the idea is that if you are dreaming, you cannot feel anything. No need for the test to be painful, then. Just test for feeling.  So I knocked on my brick seat with my fist, and felt that reassuring pressure hit my knuckles. Ah! Thank God, it was NOT a dream! I was back home in Jeddah! What delight! Of course, the delight did not last long since next thing I knew, I woke up to find myself knocking on the wall against which the bed was located.

Perhaps I missed most of all my little sister, who was barely a toddler when we left. Saadia and I had been her unofficial caretakers, maybe Saadia more than I. We changed her diapers, we gave her her bottle, lulled her to sleep by crooning Papa’s favorite — Brahm’s lullaby, potty-trained her, ran after her with her bowl of food for hours, begging her to finish it so we wouldn’t get scolded, and often sneaking some of it into our own mouths to make the job faster.

Brahm's Lullaby, the lovely tune to which every child in our family slept to.

Brahm’s Lullaby, the lovely tune to which every child in our family slept to.

In my monthly letters home, I kept asking for news of her. Mama told us that she was growing up into a regular little imp. She was maybe the most curious, active, and imaginative of us yet. The pictures she sent us showed a plump and solid little thing with a bib on, eyes bright, shiny and naughty, hair cut short in a boyish style. Mama told us later the famous Rat Story. One day, Ambassadress Li came to visit Mama to specifically talk to her. “Mrs. Mai,” she said rather seriously and formally, “it is indeed important to discipline children, but one should have limits and not overdo it…” Mama was slightly bemused. “Ah, indeed, I agree…”  But Ambassadress Li continued, “I condone scolding, even some spanking, but really you shouldn’t have made Little Jade (that was Iffat’s nickname) eat a fried rat…” Mama screamed, “What! A fried rat!” for if there was one thing Mama was afraid of, it was mice and rats, especially baby ones. The one time I saw my strong and invincible mother melt into a jelly of shrieking hysterical fear was the day she cleaned the pile of boxes behind the hallway door of the second house and emitted a long and shrill cry followed by a heavy thump on the floor. She had uncovered a family of mice, the babies still naked, wiggly and blind. Papa had to clean them up and flush them down the toilet. Which caused me to become constipated for the next few days since I kept glancing down the toilet to check for mice crawling back up instead of sitting on it.

What transpired was that Iffat had told a long flowery story with much gory detail to Ambassadress Li, about having been naughty, and having been punished for it. Apparently Mama had caught a big black hairy rat, and then had deep fried it, and then made her eat it as a punishment. Mama did not know whether to laugh or cry. She finally was able to convince Ambassadress Li that the story and the rat had all been pure figments of Iffat’s imagination.  How could she possibly fry a rat when she did not even have the courage to touch one, dead or alive?

Believe it or not, I actually found this picture of a deep fried rat on Google images.

Believe it or not, I actually found this picture of a deep fried rat on Google images.

In the meantime, I would look up at the little triangle of grey Paris sky and make up beautiful stories where the doorbell would ring, and in would walk Papa and Mama, Abdul Kerim and Iffat, who would shout out, “Surprise!” It was either that or the other scenario where Mama and Papa would sit me down and with great seriousness, inform me that I had really been adopted.

And then, that year, Papa was transferred back to Taipei. He and Mama thought it over and over, and decided the two of us should remain in Paris with Aunt Lily, again because our education was more important. So the whole family minus Saadia and I packed their bags, and once again sold all furniture and flew off. On the way back to Taiwan however, Papa stopped in Thailand for a very important rendez-vous.

At the embassy in Jeddah, there had been records of all Chinese pilgrims coming for the Hajj, for a good number of years. Mr. Ma and Mr. Chi, upon their first meeting Papa, had remarked that our family name, Mai, was really very rare, even among Chinese Muslims, since it was only the second time they had met a person by that name. Papa was immediately interested. What was his full name? Where did he come from? Which year was it? And upon checking the records, Papa could not believe it. It was a long lost uncle of his!

Way back in Nanjing, at the height of our family’s fortunes, far relatives from the provinces would come to us to throw their destiny upon our doorstep. The shipping company and the family’s many businesses easily offered a variety of jobs, and so there were a number of such relatives living in the family compound. This particular uncle had been a good friend of my grandfather and his cousin, and as young men, had been hanging around together on a daily basis. My great grandfather then acquired a mistress, whom he kept in town in a separate house. It has never been clear to me whether she was a concubine — therefore a wife; or simply a “kept woman” without formal status. Whatever the case, my great grandmother became very distressed, and cried her heart out.  My grandfather, feeling very upset at his mother’s pain, told his buddies that it fell upon them to teach the woman a good lesson. So the three of them marched off to the lady’s place, and gave her a good fright by screaming, shouting, breaking the furniture and throwing dishes and vases around. They then went home, feeling very self-righteous for having taken revenge for my great grandmother. Of course, the lady complained to my great grandpa, who was not amused. He came home on his high horses, and I suppose, in good old traditional Chinese fashion, must have made the three kneel down for hours. He also berated and scolded them dreadfully, and beat them as well, though probably not with a stainless steel shoe horn. More likely a bamboo or rattan switch. Now, for Grandpa, it was merely a son’s duty to be martyred for his mother’s sake, so he took it stoically. For grand-uncle, it was bad luck but what to do, that was his aunt’s dignity he was standing up for, so he took it in stride too. But for the third culprit, that far-flung relative who had always felt like a second-class citizen in our homestead, it was the last straw. He would not take it. He ran away from home, leaving only a letter explaining why he could not stay any more. Many months later, the family received a letter from Burma. The uncle had gone to Shanghai, and from there, had boarded a ship for Burma. He now had established himself there and started his own business. That was the last Papa had heard of him.

Shanghai, 1940s

Shanghai, 1940s

Now, suddenly, in the desert of Arabia, he had found him again! Papa hurriedly wrote to the address in the records. Indeed, a letter came back soon. Yes, it was he, the long lost uncle from Burma! He updated Papa on his life during the many years in Burma. He had married a Burmese woman, who had given him a few children before passing away. He then had remarried, this time to a Chinese woman, who also gave him a few children. For Papa, who had by then been estranged from his home and family for almost twenty years, this was a ray of sunshine.

So, when planning his trip home to Taiwan, Papa fixed a stopover in Bangkok. As a government official from the Nationalist Chinese, there was no way for him to go to Burma, a socialist country. He therefore traveled north to Chiang Mai, and from there to the border with Burma. On the appointed day and time, the uncle and the nephew finally met again, in a firm embrace and with many tears, two lonely Mai men away from home.

Map of Thailand: Chiang Mai in the north

Map of Thailand: Chiang Mai in the north

A border post between Thailand and Burma, which is called today Myanmar.

A border post between Thailand and Burma, which is called today Myanmar.

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