Life of a Rooster

Memoirs of a psychiatrist, journalist and educator

Stranger in my own homeland

The wave of humid heat that hit us in the face when we stepped out of the plane in Taipei was very similar to that in Jeddah, but the smell was different. I welcomed it and embraced it, for, to me, this was home, H-O-M-E!!! All those years of longing to belong to a people that looked like me now finally came to an end, for I was home!

Well, wanting something, however badly, does not make it always come true. And I learned it then. Not all at once, though. I looked around me in the streets, and marveled at how many people there were, that all looked just like me, or so I thought. I held my head a bit higher, and my back a bit straighter. Strangely, they thought I looked different. I looked like a stranger.

It is hard to put one’s finger on what made us look different. Maybe I was on the tall side. Maybe I was fairer in skin tone. Maybe my eyes were more slanted that most. Was my gait and posture different? People still glanced at me the same way they did abroad. I still looked different.

Taipei, 1970, busy shopping district "XiMenDing"

Taipei, 1970, busy shopping district “XiMenDing”

Once I opened my mouth, they knew for sure I was a stranger. I had an ACCENT! Here most people spoke Mandarin with a Taiwanese accent. Mine was a lilting French-flavored Mandarin with a Beijing pronunciation, thanks to Teacher Sui back in Jeddah. You know how one sings slightly up a tone at the end of a question? Well, in Mandarin, you do not do that. You speak each word with its correct tone, just make sure to add whichever interrogative character is required at the end of the sentence to indicate it is actually a question. For example, “hello” is “ni hao” — you good. But to turn this into “how are you?”, you simply add the interrogative word “ma” at the end: “ni hao ma”. But you do not, absolutely not, sing your sentence upward as in English or French.

Despite all, speaking was not our main issue then. Much more urgent was the fact that our reading and writing skills were at Third Grade level three years prior and had probably taken a downward slide since then.

Mama’s first and most pressing concern was to find us a school and get us a tutor for, obviously, this time, it was not going to be easy to catch up. A friend of hers had a daughter who majored in Chinese literature. Perfect! Mama hired her immediately. The first time she came, we all sat at the dining table, Miss Chang, Saadia and me. She pulled out a Chinese textbook for Grade 9 — called here Chu San (third year of Junior High School).

I must explain here that we inadvertently skipped a grade because Chinese elementary schools have six grades, while French ones have five.

My first shock was that the textbook was small and thin!  It was a paperback printed with cheap paper, barely larger than a pocket novel, and maybe a centimeter in thickness. It turned out we needed one textbook each semester. “Aha,” I thought to myself, “this is going to be a piece of cake!”

Not quite. Lesson One. Miss Chang explained that the two short texts on the first page were a short bio of the author, then a short introduction to the text. Why don’t we just copy these down first, and then memorize them. We tried. By the end of our first two-hour lesson, we had managed copying only one sentence of the bio. We sweated over those complicated characters with dozens of strokes each, and could not figure out in which sequence to draw each stroke. Then again, we had no idea how to pronounce them, nor what they meant. Miss Chang picked up our masterpieces, looked at them dejectedly, shook her head involuntarily and sighed a huge sigh.

Sun Yat-Sen's names

Dr. Sun Yat-Sen’s names

I’m not trying to find excuses, but really, there were new obstacles and abysses every step of the way. For example, when she said this is the author’s biography, I thought, OK, I know what that is, piece of cake. Then, she proceeded to read, “Sun Wen, ZI (something), HAO (something), also HAO Yi Xian, and also known as Zhong Shan…” So I asked her, “What does that mean, Zi and Hao?” She replied that every Chinese had a Zi (alias #1) and a Hao (alias #2). Which of course was strange because I certainly did not have them.

“What are those things? –Oh, they are names. — But isn’t Sun Wen the author’s name? — Yes, but you don’t use it. — Why not? — It is rude to call someone by his name. — Huh? Really? — So, you have a Zi and a Hao, so people call you by these nicknames. — So what do we call him then? — Oh, we all call him Sun Zhong Shan Xian Sheng! — Huh? Not the Zi nor the Hao?”  I tell you, the FBI would have had a field day with this guy, a string of different names sounding totally different. It wasn’t that John becomes Johnny, or Robert becomes Bob. No, John becomes Michael and Christopher. And then, everyone proceeds to call him Sir Middle Mountain Sun!

Eventually, after plodding through his names, we got to his place of origin. China is big, I found out. It is divided into provinces, which are divided into “hsien“, which I suppose are departments, which in turn contain cities, towns, villages and hamlets. We were expected to memorize all of these for this one author. The Chinese are identified not just by their names but also by their place of origin, which is why, after reciting all the names, we now had to go through the recital of his place of origin. I challenge you, my readers, to go to Wikipedia and look up Winston Churchill, for example. You will go through the entire five-paragraph summary and still not find out where he was from!

So, after a week we managed to learn to read and write the author’s name and place of origin. (Miss Chang gave up making us memorize them.) Then we came to the meat of the matter: who he was. Ah, now I found out this guy was a medical doctor who ended up becoming our Father of the Country! The very founder of our young republic! He masterminded the movement which eventually overthrew the last Emperor of China. Well, it sounds easier said than done. The revolutionaries actually failed on their first attempt. And their second. And their third. It was on the eve of the tenth attempt, that they set off the revolution by mistake, and actually succeeded! And that happened on the tenth day of the tenth month! Anyone feels like being superstitious here?

The presidential palace, bedecked with flags and the Double Tenth symbol (two crosses) on the National Day.

The presidential palace, bedecked with flags and the Double Tenth symbol (two crosses) on the National Day.

This explains why our National Day is called the Double Tenth. And all those years ago, I had to walk on stage with a lantern hanging down from a dowel, singing, “Let’s celebrate the Double Tenth Festival…” with no idea what that festival was all about. Oh, and by the way, our multi-named Father of the Country is called in English Dr. Sun Yat-Sen, which is none of the above-mentioned names. In fact it is the “also alias #3”, Sun Yi-Xian, but pronounced in Cantonese.

Dr. Sun Yat-Sen, the Father of the Country

Dr. Sun Yat-Sen, the Father of the Country

By the end of the summer, we had managed to finish copying the bio and intro, and nearly finished studying the main text. To be fair, since we had arrived at the end of July and started taking lessons in early August, we only manage about one month of tutoring. Miss Chang said she was going to give us a test on the material we had covered. She had written by hand two copies of her test. I took one look and asked, “What is this? What am I supposed to do?”

If you remember, the tests in France were usually essay type. Something like, “Discuss the author’s influence on the causes of the Revolution. Illustrate with examples from the text.” But here, there were two pages of numbered questions. Miss Chang read her test: “True or false.” Huh? What? What is true or false? Oh, these statements? She introduced us to the concepts of multiple-choice questions and fill-in-the-blank questions as well. I was fascinated. Wow! Is this the way tests were given here? We finally finished the test and handed it back to her. She happily whipped out a red pen and corrected them. Then she shook her head again dolefully. She seemed on the brink of tears. Later Mama told us she didn’t want to take her pay, saying she had failed to teach us properly and we were still way below level. But Mama managed to force her to accept her pay.

And now, we were ready to face our Goliath: school in Chinese.



The Circles in our Life

A game of mah jong requires four players. The rounds can last many hours.

A game of mah jong requires four players. The rounds can last many hours.

Papa also had a number of old pals, classmates from college and high school, who often dropped by for mah-jong parties. Papa and Mama did play mah-jong when we were abroad, but only occasionally. In Taipei, this became nearly a weekly occurrence.

My dry father, Uncle Wang (Wang Be Be) had a strangely unique relationship with Papa. It took me years to unravel his history. Many years ago, he had been posted in the old Mai homestead in Nanjing as a security guard or maybe a government spy, I’m not sure which. But, as time wore on, he became good friends with the members of the Mai family. I’m not quite sure whether it was when Papa hopped onto that ship to Taiwan, or whether it was when the Mai family decided to sail back to the Mainland, but it remains that Grandpa Mai ordered him to stay with Papa and be his bodyguard. Papa became such friends with him that they swore to be blood brothers. There was a third person, Uncle Chen, who was Eldest Brother. Uncle Wang was Second Brother, and Papa was Third Brother.  Uncle Chen was a doctor and had moved to the United States. He was Saadia’s dry father. Uncle Wang went into business and became my dry father upon my birth.

Uncle Wang probably looked like this back in the early 1940's, when he was posted at our homestead in Nanjing.

Uncle Wang probably looked like this back in the early 1940’s, when he was posted at our homestead in Nanjing.

In 1970, Uncle Wang had still not married. He lived in an apartment which also served as his office. The most interesting thing about his place was the fact that this was where Mama had shipped and stored all the stuff that she wanted to save every time we moved from one country to another. And so, whenever the adults were having their mah-jong marathons, I would go look at the shelves or the storage room and dive through our old belongings. It was during one of these treasure hunts that I came upon my piano exam comments from the Paris Conservatoire de Musique, mentioned previously in “Music and Dance”.

I’m not sure whether Mama was the matchmaker, but Uncle Wang managed to get married the following year to “Ah Kiao”, a young Taiwanese girl from the countryside barely in her twenties. We couldn’t bring ourselves to call her Auntie, so we just called her by her name. She learned cuisine from Mama and would talk in Taiwanese most of the time, peppered with Mandarin words. It is quite possible Mama and Papa worried that Uncle Wang would leave no descendants and hoped this would solve his problem. Well, it didn’t. Ah Kiao would constantly be going with Mama to the gynecologist. I’d ask Mama, “Why?” and she’d answer mysteriously, “Women’s diseases…”

Yang Ming Shan, a mountain developed into a beautiful national park in the suburbs of Taipei

Yang Ming Shan, a mountain developed into a beautiful national park in the suburbs of Taipei

Another social circle consisted of Papa’s colleagues from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and acquaintances from his work. The Chen family — the one with the French mother and five children — that we used to know back in Paris also moved to Taiwan that year, a bit later than we did. Uncle Chen had been offered a post at the Culture University, which was located on the beautiful YangMingShan mountain right outside Taipei. We invited them over for dinner. As they entered the gate to the front courtyard, we greeted Odile, Marie-France and the rest of the children the French way, as we had always done: we grabbed our guest’s shoulders, bent forward, and kissed the air next to their cheeks. Second Uncle stood by watching us, unable to control himself, and just laughed his heart out as politely and silently as he could.

Chinese people in general are not physically demonstrative. That is why even shaking hands was an imported custom. Ancient Chinese just bowed to each other. Today, they smile, nod, say hi, or whatever. Shaking hands is a business practice. Papa had adopted many Western customs partially because of his upbringing, a very modernized father, and schooling in French and German missionary schools. Mama tried her best to adjust herself to Papa’s requests, such as having us all hug Papa every morning as he went to work and every afternoon as he returned home. When we would try to hug Mama too, she’d laugh in an embarrassed manner and say, “OK, OK, that’s enough.”

One final social circle that we belonged to was the Muslim community.  Muslims are supposed to be a minority in China. But because we are such a large population, even minorities number in the millions. On Taiwan, at the time, the official number was around 40,000. Papa often said that all Chinese Muslims were related one way or another.

The Taipei Mosque

The Taipei Mosque

The reason was simple. Muslims could only marry other Muslims.  That is what the Chinese Muslims said. Actually, although it is correct that Muslim girls may only marry Muslim men,  Muslim men can also marry girls from among the “people of the Book”, meaning Christians, Jews and Zoroastrians. But since the last two categories were pretty rare in China, and the first one only a modern alternative, it wasn’t totally wrong of our ancient elders to state that Muslims whether boys or girls, could only marry other Muslims. Therefore over the centuries, Muslims intermarried so much that if you study your genealogy, you are bound to find yourself related one way or another to any other Chinese Muslim.

Papa’s ancestor was Arab, a man by the name of Malik. He and his brother Mahmoud were sent by the caliph of the time to pay a visit to the then emperor of China with a hundred Arabian horses as goodwill present. In those days, traveling to China took a couple of years, and once there, they rested another couple of years before mentioning going home to the emperor. This guy was so happy and impressed with them that he asked them to stay. Hey, just marry one of our princesses, take up a Chinese name and I’ll confer an official post on you. They decided it wasn’t such a bad idea. So Mahmoud took the first syllable of his name and called himself Ma, or 馬 in chinese, a character meaning horse. Today, the saying goes that nine out of ten Ma’s are Muslims.

The other brother, Malik, took also his first syllable and turned it into the Chinese character 買 which means “to buy”.  He seems to have been less successful at the production of descendants, for today, Mai is a rather rare surname, even among Muslims.

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Chinese Feasts

For the next month or two, I learned about Chinese feasts, hands on, or rather, palate and stomach on.

All of Mama and Papa’s friends and relatives started inviting us for welcome-home dinners. The first few we went to, I didn’t know what to expect. After the first round of three or four dishes, I would be too full and could only eat one or two mouthfuls from all remaining dishes. But before long, I got the hang of it. This is how to survive Chinese feasts:

There are at least three or four rounds of dishes served. Every round consists of three or more dishes of a similar type.


sliced lu beef shanks

sliced lu beef shanks

jelly fish and cucumber salad

jelly fish and cucumber salad

The first round always consists of cold dishes, such as “lu” sliced beef shanks, jelly fish salad, or seasoned seaweed. Next would come hot main dishes, at least two rounds of them. These varied from stir-fried, deep-fried to stew-type or gravy-type dishes. To be complete these should include at least the four categories of fowl, shrimp, fish and meat. Seafood being the most expensive items on the menu, prawns and crab were a must if the host meant to show sincerity. Alternatives would be sea cucumbers (at the time, I found them totally gross and disgusting), scallops or octopus.  Finally there would be served at least one or two rounds of rice, noodles or soups. These are traditionally served last because they are very filling. If soup were served first, the way it is done in Western meals, it would signify that the host is trying to fill you up with liquid so he doesn’t have to cook too much real food for you.  Finally there would be the dessert round, which often included a hot sweet soup of silver ears (white fungus), Chinese dates, lotus seeds and other such delicacies.

sea cucumbers

sea cucumbers

So, you may only eat one mouthful of everything, that is, if you intend to taste everything. Otherwise, you will end up only eating from a few dishes.

This was my first introduction to Chinese gourmet feasts. So far, as a child, I had been assigned either to the baby-sitting group, or to the performance crew at international and diplomatic functions. Uncle Lung and Aunt Lily had done their entertaining at restaurants, not including us, and very rarely at home, for just one family at a time. It was at these dinner parties that I first tasted bird’s nest soup (a sweet dessert) and shark’s fin soup (a savory delicacy).

shark's fin soup

It was also as a result of these dinner parties that I discovered I would end the evening with a severe shoulder and neck ache. It is the Chinese tradition that the younger generation be meek and humble when facing the elder generation. To show your humility, you need to sort of slightly bow your shoulders and head when talking to them. When you do that for a few hours a night, and a few nights a week, you end up with aches and pains.

That’s how I discovered that I had not grown up properly respecting Chinese elders all day long. How else was I so unaccustomed to the stooping posture?

I also found out what a large network of intersecting communities we were part of. First, there was, of course, Mama’s family. The majority lived in the central part of Taiwan, in Taichung or the surrounding areas. Only Second Uncle lived in Taipei because he was then studying Dentistry at the Veterans’ Hospital where he boarded as well. On the weekends, he would come and stay with us and bring his girlfriend along. Mama disliked his girlfriend because she would “put one leg on top of the other” (meaning, cross her legs), and comfortably proceed to eat watermelon seeds non-stop and drink tea and never stand up to help Mama. That showed no respect for elders (Mama was the eldest sister, and Second Uncle ranked number six), no knowledge of her own position, no manners and no assiduity to work. Mama managed to talk Second Uncle out of this relationship, even if she was a nursing student. We missed the trips to the ice-cream parlor as “light bulbs” (chaperones) but we did not miss the young lady, who never paid us much attention. Eventually, Mama matchmaked him with the daughter of a diplomat friend of Papa’s. She had studied fashion design in Japan, was well-mannered and very dainty and good-looking. I am happy to report that the matchmaking worked and the marriage was happy. She has been my aunt now for many years and produced two great cousins for us.

watermelon seeds snacks

watermelon seeds snacks

Mama had not just seven brothers and sisters, but also cousins, aunts and uncles galore. I could not keep track of who was who.  We even went once to a small town in central Taiwan to visit relatives who all spoke Taiwanese, so I felt totally like an outsider. There was a withered, weathered and wrinkled old lady sitting on a high bench, her feet curled up and her hand feeding her mouth with betel nuts. Mama introduced me and instructed me to call her “Ah-Zou”, or great-grandma. I looked down at her fabric shoes on the floor. They were TINY! Like for a five-year-old girl, but higher in thickness than normal shoes. Mama signed to me to keep quiet. After we were out of earshot, she explained that Ah-Zou had bound feet, Golden Lotuses. O-M-G!!! So they did exist?

Bound feet such as my great-grandmother had: golden lotuses

Bound feet such as my great-grandmother had: golden lotuses

Then there were Papa’s relatives. Pretty much, that was just one family, of the surname Shi (Rock). I understood that his first wife was Papa’s cousin in some degree or other, however she had passed away and he had remarried. He was Muslim, of course, but the wife was Buddhist. The children, having attended Christian schools, were all Protestants. Uncle Shi worked with the police or some related branch, and occupied a rather high position. Sometimes, we would get rides in his car, driven by a chauffeur in police or military uniform, I wasn’t quite sure which.

There was one other relative, whom Papa had discovered at the mosque. We called him Great-Uncle Mai. When Papa first met him and found out they shared the same surname –which by the way is a rare one, even among Chinese Muslims–  the two of them embarked on a conversation researching their mutual ancestors. Based solely on the generation characters, they were able to work out that Papa was one generation younger and therefore called him thereafter “Uncle”. He actually lived in HongKong, where his family still resided. However, since his business took him often to Taipei, he kept a home in Taipei as well. Although he had studied at an Islamic college, and was therefore qualified to be imam, he had chosen to become a businessman. His Islamic training had included the Sini style of Arabic calligraphy, so he would occasionally write beautiful scrolls and banners and donate them right and left. We had one framed and hanging in our living room.

Arabic calligraphy written in the Chinese brush style

Arabic calligraphy written in the Chinese brush style




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Golden Dragons

Papa had been able to enter beyond the gates because of his special badge for Foreign Affairs employees. The rest of the family had been waiting in the regular lobby. I met for the first time — well, in my memory at least it was the first time, for they remembered me as a little toddler — my maternal grandfather Chang, Ping-Nan, and my “dry” father (Chinese godfather) Wang Jie-San.  Mama held two multicolored leis in her hand, and placed them around our necks. Abdul Kerim and Iffat were there too, though  Iffat was a bit shy with us. I don’t think she really remembered us since she was barely a year old when we had left. We all packed into a van someone had rented, and off we went.

Le Hua Night Market in Yong He

Le Hua Night Market in Yong He

Aunt Lily and Uncle Lung owned a little villa in YongHe, a district on the south side of metro Taipei. Mama and Aunt Lily had discussed the matter and agreed that our family could live there during this period. As the van pulled into the narrow lane and stopped at a red gate, a long string of firecrackers hanging by the door was lighted.  I nearly fell off my seat at the loudness of the pops and cracks. Before I even got up from my seat, Grandpa Chang hopped off the van and fast as lightning, tore into the house. Slightly bemused, I wondered whether he had a bladder problem. When I entered the sitting-room, I found him crouched in front of the TV, intently watching a baseball game.  My brother was there already as well, and they were soon joined by everyone else. Saadia and I stood awkwardly on the side, not sure of what was happening.


The Chinese love setting off loud and smoky firecrackers to celebrate happy occasions.

The Chinese love setting off loud and smoky firecrackers to celebrate happy occasions.

I was slightly disappointed. So, that was how eagerly everyone welcomed us back? Then I understood. It was the game of the year, the game that made us, Taiwan, shine again in the world. I had read in the Torch of Victory, a magazine circulated among the overseas Chinese community, about the unexpected and amazing victory of the Golden Dragons, a kids baseball team from Taichung, Taiwan, who came out of nowhere, in a game where Taiwan was unheard of, to win the Little League world championship at Williamsport, Pennsylvania. I certainly had never heard of the game before reading about it, and still was in a fog about how it was played. But did it matter?

The Golden Dragons return triumphantly to Taiwan as  world champions.

The Golden Dragons return triumphantly to Taiwan as world champions.

Later, my classmates told me stories of how the team had been noticed by the expatriate American community who loved baseball. When the Golden Dragons won the national title in a game that was then little known in Taiwan, they had to scrape the money together to go to Japan for the Regionals. After winning the Asia-Pacific title, they were stuck. No funds whatsoever. How were they to travel to the US for the world finals?  They appealed to the government who did not even bother to reply. Finally, it was the US marines and the rest of the American community who fund-raised for them, and helped finance their trip to Pennsylvania. When they returned with the World title, they were a bit surprised to find a red carpet welcome at the airport, along with an open-car parade along the streets of Taipei all the way to the Presidential palace! The government had realized that in the then atmosphere of growing international isolation, country after country breaking relations with us and courting Communist China instead, this was a bright shaft of sunlight.

1969 little league champions

That was in 1969. This now was 1970. Was the miracle going to repeat itself? The winning team this year came from Jia-Yi, and was named the Seven Tigers. Their heated competition against the Golden Dragons, dubbed the “Dragon-Tiger Struggle”,  had sparked impassioned fan movements in Taiwan. Having made it to the Asia-Pacific Regional, they were right now fighting for the title, on that silver screen in our living room.

The Seven Tigers team

The Seven Tigers team

I forgave my grandpa for ignoring us.

Although the Seven Tigers defeated the Philippines and Japan to clinch the Regional title, they eventually lost to Nicaragua and placed fifth at the World finals. However, the golden era of Little League baseball in Taiwan had been ignited, and Taiwan went on a string of victories, winning ten years out of thirteen from 1969 to 1981. The streak continued at a lesser pace through 1996, with another seven world champions in 15 years. Taiwan withdrew from the Little League in 1997, following new restrictions of rules. From the introduction of Far Eastern teams in 1967 to 1996, Taiwan won 17 of the 30 championships, and was twice runner-up.

Seven Tigers, upon their return to Taiwan, shake hands with Chiang Ching Kuo, son of the President Chiang Kai Shek.

Seven Tigers, upon their return to Taiwan, shake hands with Chiang Ching Kuo, son of the President Chiang Kai Shek.

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I’m coming home!

So Uncle Lung and Aunt Lily prepared to move to Switzerland. Papa and Mama discussed our situation at length, with Papa tending towards our continuing our education in French, and Mama insisting that it was time we went home and learned Chinese. Mama won.

And so, finally, at the age of 13, I was finally going to head back to Taiwan after having spent almost twelve years abroad.

I was ecstatic! Primarily, because I was going to join my own family again. I loved Aunt Lily, and my cousin Therese had become more of a sister than a cousin now, but home is home, mother is mother, and no one can replace that.

dreaming of home and mother

I was also happy to finally get to know my homeland. Well, technically, since Papa was from Nanjing, then so was I. But given the political situation, and having never set eyes or foot on the Chinese mainland, I called Taiwan home. I peppered Aunt Lily with questions. What were the schools like? Would we have to wear uniforms?

Aunt Lily acted all cool and matter-of-fact, even a little snippy. But I could sense her tears under it all. Just as I thought of her as Mama Number Two, she had come to love me as her daughter too.  She sewed dresses for us just like Mama used to, even though she kept complaining about my neck — too long, and set too low in front, causing her to redo the neckline several times. Aunt Lily would sprinkle her speech with Taiwanese words, unlike Mama, who had tried very hard to acquire Papa’s Mainland speech and accent.

Chinese adults equate love and care with scolding and rebuking, or, at best, advice. The more they scold you, the more they love you. Aunt Lily was no different. She kept calling me “kong-kong, gong-gong”, which meant crazy-stupid, in Taiwanese. At dinner time, she’d call out, “jia-beng la!” — time to eat!  and afterwards, she’d tell us to go “kee sey ka tseng!” before bedtime — go wash your buttocks! An operation which entailed filling a plastic basin with hot water, then squatting over it for the washing. Mama had not taught us that Muslims actually need to wash that part of the body after every single toilet use, so we did so only once a day.

Diane Briere de l'Isle -- entry in my cahier de souvenirs

I had my friends and teachers write in my cahier de souvenirs, and then it was  time to pack. Uncle Lung took Saadia and me to town to purchase our airline tickets. There was no parking space in front of the airline office, so he dropped us and left to find a spot. We entered the place and walked up to the counter. We were now taller, and our heads did stick out above the counter top, but the airline workers sitting there acted as if we were still short little dwarves and they couldn’t see us. We patiently waited and waited silently for someone to give us some attention, but none did. They chatted and laughed but totally ignored us. Just then Uncle Lung entered. The hostesses suddenly transformed themselves into smiling and assiduous clerks. They almost fell over each other trying to flirt with Uncle Lung. Thinking back, I guess he was kind of handsome, tall and straight, with glasses giving him a scholarly aura. Aunt Lily often commented resentfully on the female clerks of whatever office she had business in. They would treat her with rudeness or even give her the cold shoulder, but the minute her husband appeared, these women would suddenly fawn all over him. Ah, Aunt Lily, today I feel so much with you!

Anyway, our tickets were finally purchased. They indicated that we were to fly Lufthansa to Frankfurt, then BOAC to Tehran, New Delhi, Hong Kong, and finally Cathay Pacific to Taipei. Quite a long journey, with plenty of breaks on the way. Again, Hansel and Gretel set off on their own. Airline services had improved somewhat by then, for Uncle Lung managed to get a stewardess to oversee our transfer in Frankfurt. Which was a good thing, because I barely knew a few words of German gleaned from the girls in school who were in German class. Then, it was the land of the unknown, for all announcements were now in English and the language of the country where we landed. Our English wasn’t that good yet. We had started formal English classes in 6eme and 5eme, but as any student of foreign languages can attest, classroom English does not equal fluency to understand “This is your captain speaking…”


Having each other’s company gave us more courage, and Saadia and I started enjoying playing with the little tray tables and cute utensils. In Iran, I tried to look outside the windows to see the famous roses of Ispahan, but of course, to no avail. Finally, we landed in Delhi, took a turn in the transit lounge and re-boarded the plane. But… what was taking them so long? It started getting hotter and hotter, and everyone was pulling out magazines and fanning themselves. Then, the speakers crackled, and made an announcement in English. A unanimous sigh of annoyment broke out. Even before the captain stopped talking, passengers were getting up, opening the overhead compartments and pulling their bags out. Everyone was grumbling and talking. We were shocked. What was happening?

BOAC stewardess

We also pulled our bags out and followed the crowd. What was going on? Why were we heading back to the transit lounge? Finally, a stewardess came up to us to talk to us. We tried with ers… and ahs… to ask the question, what exactly was happening? A cute Indian stewardess located an English middle aged lady who could remember her high school French. The husband could not speak French, but we couldn’t care less. Finally, between our broken English and her broken French, we could communicate. It turned out the plane had some mechanical problem and would require a longer time on the ground. In the meantime, we, the passengers, would be taken to a hotel to rest and eat.

I became worried. Did we have to pay for all this? We only carried a little cash on us. The kind English lady and her husband were appointed our mentors and translators. She said, no, don’t worry, it’s all on the airline. I worried still about our visas. We did not have visas for India. But I suppose that in cases of such emergency, the immigration officers had the authority to allow two little Chinese girls onto Indian soil without visas. Please, I asked the stewardess, can you send a telegram to my parents to inform them that we would not be arriving on the expected flight? She assured me she would take care of that. So finally, I relaxed. Little did I know that no one took care of it, and my parents went frantic with worry.

new delhi

So, I stared at the dusty streets and colorful pedestrians filling the city of New Delhi. The English couple decided to go out for a walk, but we were too scared of missing the flight. Saadia managed to take a nap but I was way too excited. I decided to jump on the mattress and enjoyed a great trampoline session, something neither Mama nor Aunt Lily ever allowed for fear of damaging the springs. In the evening, the cute Indian stewardess came to take us to the buffet where we met the English couple again.  They took great advantage of the free food and drinks! As for us, since we didn’t know how to ask whether there was pork or lard here, there and everywhere, and were too shy to do so anyway, we ended up eating very little, only dishes that looked obviously vegetarian.

Taipei SongShan Airport

Taipei SongShan Airport

Finally, the plane was fixed, and we flew off again. By the time we landed in Taipei, we were exhausted. As we descended the steps to the tarmac, there was Papa, waiting for us. We ran to him, “Papa! Papa!” and embraced him. He was so happy and laughed from ear to ear! He gave us a great big hug, then stepped back to take a good look at us. In later years, he loved recalling that moment. As he took that look, he suddenly realized we were much taller than what he remembered, and had an instant’s frozen fear that he had hugged the wrong girls!




Slap Our Faces Swollen to Appear Fat

Among the staff posted in Paris was a lady who worked with the Information office. Her husband worked with the office in Brussels. They had three sons. Everyone lauded this talented and highly educated couple. Unfortunately, they had an eldest son who was brain damaged and was kept in a nursing home in Taiwan.

“He spends his days tearing newspapers,” said Aunt Lily. And he needed feeding and cleaning round the clock. That was the first time I’d heard the term “vegetable” used for a human. The other two sons lived in Paris with the mother. They studied at the  Ecole Polytechnique, one of the most prestigious universities of France. Every weekend or two, they would drive to Brussels to visit the father, or vice versa.

ecole polytechnique

One day, disaster struck. The mother was driving while the older son occupied the passenger seat. At one of the bends on the highway, the car flew off the road, somersaulted onto the adjoining field and ended resting on its side, smoke fuming from the engine. The mother, who had omitted wearing her seat belt, had been ejected onto the grass. The son, strapped in his seat with his dutifully locked seat belt, died before the ambulance could reach the hospital.

Aunt Lily took us to their home to give our condolences. The poor mother, in a black dress, sat forlornly in her chair, tearing up. I stared at the floor, not knowing what to say or what to do. I noticed that her stocking had a “ladder” — a snag or tear.  She had always been very sophisticated and professional looking, and her dress had always been impeccable.  I stared at this symbol of her life fraying at the seams.

ladder in stocking

“Ah, what a pity!” sighed Aunt Lily on the way home. “Three beautiful and intelligent sons, yet she is now left with only one.” This remark struck me deeply. Indeed, is it not terrible to give birth and raise and educate three sons, not even daughters but sons… and now, be left with just one? I swore to myself there and then that I had to have at least three sons if in the future I wanted to have at least one surviving to adulthood.

The twins who played with us back in the early 1960’s, Antonio and Roberto, also returned to Paris around the second or third year we were there. I do not recall why, but the mother brought them back on her own, along with the little daughter Melina (named after Melina Mercouri).  The father was not there. It is possible that he had been posted in some other country, and the family had made the decision to split up for the sake of the kids’ education. This separation scenario replayed itself time and again among diplomatic families, and very few survived intact, often ending in divorce.

They too did very well in school, being enrolled in some prestigious lycee, a couple of years ahead of us. They visited us once, typical teenagers, brooding and quiet, not talking to us girls. We later visited them at their modern apartment which boasted, an absolute marvel then …. wall-to-wall carpeting! Unbelievable! I had never seen such luxury before and greatly relished the feeling of being able to sit on the carpeted floor to play Monopoly.

french monopoly

I heard through Papa many years later that they became very successful engineers, and one of them, I’m not sure which, was the main engineer who masterminded the switch of all the French telephone numbers from seven to eight or nine digits. Aunt Lily’s remark haunted me for a while, and I feared for their mother. Would she lose one or two of them? Did she have enough children to survive the vicissitudes of life?

The Wu family, whose daughter Amy was our closest playmate in our early childhood, had left the diplomatic service and emigrated to America. Apparently, they had settled in New York, having decided that there was no point serving a country that had to cut down on its diplomatic staff, as country after country severed official ties with us.

One evening, Aunt Lily returned from a dinner party at the Venezuelan embassy. She sighed deeply, “Ah, penniless diplomats, penniless diplomats that we are! Da Zhong Lian Chong Pang Zi! (Slap our faces swollen to appear fat!) Look at the Venezuelan ambassador’s home! Gold curtains hanging from ceiling to floor! The delectable dinner courses! The expensive china plates and golden utensils… Ah! We just can’t compare! Forced to take guests out to dinner at restaurants only once a month because that is all we can afford with our entertainment allowance. Working for a penniless government. Poor us, penniless diplomats!”

In Chinese tradition, being fat means being wealthy. So a poor person would slap his own face to make it swell and pretend to be fat and rich.

In Chinese tradition, being fat means being wealthy. So a poor person would slap his own face to make it swell and pretend to be fat and rich.

The Communist Chinese had taken over our previous embassy on Avenue George V as well as the old consulate grounds. I assume their staff replaced us now at all the formal events, yet I wonder how well they were able to carry out their functions. Once, I accompanied Aunt Lily to a shopping area close to the Champs-Elysees. She wanted to select some pretty fabrics to sew us dresses. We spotted them: three Communist Chinese dressed in the dark blue Mao uniform. The two men stood outside the fabric store, not quite at ease. The woman was bathed in a glow of admiration and envy, touching and palpating the flowery rainbow-colored gauzes and silks, pulling them up to gaze better at them, then sighing and placing them back.

chinese in mao uniform

Aunt Lily avoided them, did not talk to them, and picked her fabrics as quickly as she could. As we walked home, she explained that the Communists never came out of the embassy alone, but always in groups of two or more. The idea was to have one spy on the others. The poor lady could not wear anything but her uniform, so touching and admiring the pretty fabrics was all she could do with them. Had we attempted to speak with her, she would have been severely interrogated once the group returned to the embassy.

beautiful fabrics

By the summer of 1970, the order arrived: Uncle Lung was being transferred to his new post in Geneva.


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Curtsies and Hypocrisy

Since the Republic of China (on Taiwan) did not have official diplomatic relations with France, our office wore a different name — either Taiwan Cultural Center, or Taiwan Educational and Cultural Office, or some such title (I cannot manage to remember it, and Google did not tell me either; apparently, it was upgraded in 1974 to Bureau de Representation de Taipei en France) . Consequently, the ambassador was also given a different title, that of “Representative”, or, in Chinese, “dai biao”.

However, those among the staff who were of the sycophant variety would still call him “ambassador” in his face, or in Chinese, “Da Shi”. Which is written as大使.Actually, the Representative was an employee of some other ministry — I believe it was the Ministry of Education  — because of the apparent nature of the office. As such, he had very little experience in international affairs or in social functions, which were a large part of the activities of the diplomatic corps. The number and scope of all functions were dramatically reduced for whatever reason,  and consequently, we did not have to attend or take part in as many social functions as we had been used to. 

As for our Representative, the staff criticized him greatly in his back for his performance and his personal life.  In his face, they bowed and smiled and called him “Da Shi”, which he never denied. I particularly remember one gentleman, who came a couple of times to visit Uncle Lung at home. He would get so incensed with his criticism that he would yell out, gesticulating and waving, ramming his finger downward to illustrate his opinion, and call our representative “Yao Da Bian” instead of “Yao Da Shi”. It may sound like two different titles, but if you read this in Chinese characters, there is a very minor difference. The word “Da Bian”, meaning feces, to put it politely, is written 大便 . The slight difference is an extra horizontal stroke inside the rectangle, and the tip of the central vertical stroke cut off. The gentleman would think himself very smart and laugh at his own demeaning jokes.


I was appalled. I did not particularly like Representative Yao or his family, but I would never smile and bow in his face while screaming insults in his back. This was my earliest exposure to blatant hypocrisy. I could not believe that every time we went to the Yaos’ home, an expensive and expansive luxurious apartment in a chic quarter of Paris, this person’s wife would always be there, like a shadow of Madame Representative. She would be choosing curtains or bringing wrapped presents or sharing recipes, bobbing and bowing and smiling. “Pai Ma Pee!” — patting the horse’s rump —  Aunt Lily would mutter. Meaning, buttering them up! I would walk up to the lady of the house and shake hands, and my knee would choose that moment to unlock  and re-lock itself — my genetic loose ligaments, I presume.  And the hostess would smile and exclaim, “A curtsy, is it? What a courteous and well-mannered child indeed!”


Their daughter had a hard time catching up at school, because she had never been exposed to anything but schools in Taiwan and was dropped smack in the middle of high school in France.  All of us, children of internationally mobile workers, knew the drill. We would spend one to three months catching up with the language, and thereafter become first in class. Which is why we felt very little pity for the poor girl who was crumbling down between school work and tutoring.

The few functions that we did attend were usually of the Chinese-community-networking type.  Once a year, an entire movie — whichever was an office box best seller at the time —  would arrive with the diplomatic pouch, in large reels of celluloid film, the good old way.  These would be then projected at a theater rented for the purpose.  Our community was quite large then, regardless of the lack of official recognition, for the theater would always be full. This was in the days of real cinemas, when the capacity of each hall was much larger than that of today’s multiplexes.  I am aware that Taiwan-made movies then were no match for Hollywood, but I relished them. They were such a rare treat.

The Duck Farmer was a best-selling Taiwan-made movie in the late 1960s.

The Duck Farmer was a best-selling and award-winning Taiwan-made movie in the 1960s.

In the three years we spent with Uncle Lung and Aunt Lily, we managed to go three times to the cinema: once with Chang JieJie to see the War of the Buttons, which I greatly enjoyed; and twice with the family to see Asterix et Cleopatre, and Jungle Book.  The first was too colorful and too busy and the second was condemned by Uncle Lung and Aunt Lily as too colorful and too noisy as well. They felt Walt Disney’s greatest movie to be Snow White and Jungle Book did not match its style. We nearly went to see Oliver Twist, but at the last minute, Uncle Lung remembered that in the story, Oliver was taught to pick pockets and rob houses. Not good for children. So the outing was cancelled. To our great disappointment.


French cartoon feature, based on the comic book of the same name.

French cartoon feature, based on the comic book of the same name.

The most memorable event with our Chinese community however, was a camping trip to La Baule, a seaside resort on the southern edge of  the province of Bretagne (Brittany).  There were at least a dozen tents, some with families, like us, and others with a mix of singles, planted in a square on a grassy lot. On the third day, we held a cooking competition.  Aunt Lily was greatly excited, although the challenge was in creating a great dish over a butane stove, and having a very rudimentary supply of ingredients.  She and her friend Mrs. Teng decided to prepare a dish entitled  “Ants Climbing up a Trunk”. I believe they did win a prize even though the bean vermicelli surprised them: once thrown into hot oil, it deep fried itself instantly by puffing up into a white, fluffy and crunchy snack-like nest. The “ants” were minced beef cooked in soy sauce with Mu Er (Tree Ear fungus). They did not have any more supply of bean vermicelli and so were forced to serve their dish as is.

This is how Ants on a Tree Trunk looks like traditionally.

This is how Ants on a Tree Trunk looks like traditionally.

Ants on Tree Trunk, with the bean vermicelli deep fried.

Ants on Tree Trunk, with the bean vermicelli deep fried.

Aunt Lily was and still is really a great cook. She taught me a dish of tomato, egg, scallions and shredded beef that she had invented. In later year, I named it “Spring Garden” when I wrote its recipe up. I have taught it to my children, and it remains the number one favorite dish in the family, on its way to become a family heritage.

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Change is the only constant.

If changing one school a year taught me anything, it was that nothing in life was constant, and nothing stayed important if you changed the context.

Since my essays had so impressed my previous French teacher, I expected the same from this new one in 5eme. French literature and writing was not only rather tame at Lamazou, but the teacher never seemed to notice anything exceptional about my or Saadia’s writing. I tried my best descriptions, my most astounding vocabulary, my amazing acrobatics in grammar and rhetorics, all to no avail. I was totally unable to draw one word of praise from my new French teacher.  Eventually, I stopped trying. I would just hand in my essays, and that would be that.

Biology this year was non-flowering plants. Although I was a bit surprised to find that algae, mosses, lichens and ferns had a really strange reproductive cycle, this could not compete with cow teeth, dog skeletons, or a thick folder herbarium filled with primroses, violets and lilies-of-the-valley.

Juggling algebra

Juggling algebra

Actually, my biggest surprise was Math. I discovered in the depths of myself a passion for algebra. It was really nothing more than a bit of pre-Algebra and the first steps of elementary Algebra, but it fascinated me. I relished the neatness of line-by-line work to reach the final solution.  It was a wonder that perfect order and sense could produce the solution to a mystery: the value of x! Our Math teacher would regularly assign one measly problem to solve as homework. Occasionally, she dared assign TWO!  But one day, she picked up enough courage to hand out THREE math problems for just one evening!  The students could not believe their ears. I mean, they did have a life, after all! Three math problems? Did the teacher go crazy or what? They argued and bargained, and finally, the entire class decided to go on strike the next day. Well, in a manner of speaking. First of all, I had not agreed to strike, but no one had asked for my opinion. Secondly, striking really meant not doing the Math homework. I was in tears. No! Please! I wanted to do it! I really really would have LOVED to do my algebra homework, the one passion I had that year! Come what may, I did it anyway. And enjoyed every bit of it. The teacher was forced to re-assign the homework for the day after, with Number 3 downgraded to a bonus question, since it involved material she had not taught us in class. But with the principles already in hand, we should have been able to derive the solution. It turned out that I was the only student who succeeded in solving it. The Math teacher duly praised my work in class. And I decided that Math was my new love.

binary system

The year had started in a rather strange way, for we had been introduced to set theory and the binary system, with the comment that this was Modern Math, “New Math”, and we would need that for computers, which were the way of the future. Now, 45 years later, I still haven’t used — ever — the binary system for anything, and especially not for computers. I won’t deny that trying to use a home computer — once they came on the market — did throw me a tough learning curve. Even so, the hardest thing about it was using DOS (remember that dinosaur?). Everything since has been a piece of cake, comparatively.

To come back to New Math, I could not believe how easy elements and sets, and union and intersection were compared to trains that chugged toward each other at differing speeds, or converting cubed millimeters to cubed decimeters. Gone were the sweats and drudgery of long divisions. I did regret a bit the fun of constructing angle bisectors and such, but the sheer satisfaction of manipulation symbols to come to an elegant solution was absolutely incomparably amazing! It was the epitome of puzzle solving!

As a result, the Math teacher loved me. She also happened to be our Art teacher. One day, we had the choice of drawing and painting any landscape we felt like. I started  sketching a cliff, like the ones I’d seen on Chinese paintings. The teacher looked over my shoulder at the sketch. “The Chinese are supposed to be really good at painting. Tell me, what are you painting here?” I stuttered and stammered, because I didn’t really know. Nothing like high expectations, voiced out, to make you unable to produce anything good. I got stuck. I didn’t know what to do with that cliff. I added a winding river, but something looked wrong. I wondered whether to paint the cliffs green or brown. Eventually, the whole thing turned into a messy disaster. The teacher walked by again, and she looked disappointed. I felt disappointed too, for having disappointed her.

Chinese landscape painting, cliff

Chinese landscape painting, cliff

Today, as I teach my students to paint landscapes, I realize that no child is born as an artistic genius. All children have creative seeds inside of them, but we need to give them the tools, not expect them to re-invent the wheel. No one expects children to solve quadratic equations without any instructions, yet we do expect children to pop onto paper a wonderful painting if their parents claim they are artistic. Yes, we read in the news stories of artistic prodigies like Alexandra Nechita, but we forget that she was given colors, paper and the freedom to experiment and practice. All children who are allowed to doodle and sketch for endless hours, days, months and years do turn out to be great artists. That seemingly effortless winning painting did not spring out of nowhere!


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How to set up a lose-lose situation

volleyballThe other PE hour in the Ecole Lamazou consisted not of dance but of volleyball. I started figuring out what the syllabus was: one weekly hour of prescribed gymnastics, and one hour of in-depth study of a specific area of sports. Since our History and Geography teacher, Mlle Mounier, happened to have been in a volleyball team, it was only logical that she should teach us her favorite sport.

It actually started quite well. She would arrange us in a circle and stand in the center. Then she would throw the ball to us using the tips of her fingers, with her hands in a claw position. She repeatedly stressed the importance of keeping the wrists, hands and fingers tough and strong and in the correct position. Very quickly, I was able to excel at throwing the ball in this manner. Then she gave us more exercises on how to serve, four fingers closed upon the palm yet straight and strong. She also taught us to receive and bounce back the ball using both hands combined into a single fist, with the thumbs straight and tightly against each other.  She specified that one had to kneel one of the legs to get this right. And I got it right. She praised me for a good job and I glowed. After all, PE had always been my worst subject, and being able to conquer my waterloo was more satisfying than continuing to score at the top of the class — after Saadia, of course.

wrist hit volleyball

Then, one day, Mlle Mounier announced that we were ready for a match (game). What was that? Oh, so it wasn’t just throwing the ball to one another? There was more to it?  OK, I was ready. So, she picked her best players, meaning, me included. The net was set up, and she gave the signal to start. I wasn’t quite sure what was happening. Oh, the ball is coming my way! Quick, hit it! I hit it to the opposite side of the net. Everyone yelled. “No, Fawzia, to the other side!”  Oh, sorry. We played again. The ball came to me again. I hit it to our side this time. Everyone yelled. “No, Fawzia, to the other side!” Now I was totally disoriented. So, which side did they want me to throw it to? Since I had no clue, I would play it by ear. Sometimes I hit the ball this way and sometimes that way. Round about half the time, it was the wrong way.

That did it. I did not like the game at all. How many people enjoy being yelled at constantly? With no way of figuring out what was wrong and how to correct it? I did try another class of this riddle then gave up. The next week, when Mlle Mounier would be picking out her players, I would hide behind the stage curtains so she couldn’t see me. Thus my career as a volley ball player fizzled out.

the end

It is very interesting to observe how many well-meaning teachers set their students up for failure without realizing it. I suppose all my team mates knew the rules from previous experience or from watching television. Since Aunt Lily did not have a television set at home, I had never seen a volley ball game in my life and had no idea what it was all about. I did not even know there were rules to it.  It would have taken a simple question from the teacher to find this out, and remedy it by teaching me the rules, or point me in the direction of a rule book.

As it was, I assumed it was my inborn, lifelong inability to excel at sports, and managed to get out of the games for the rest of the year.

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Climbing to the top

At the Ecole Lamazou, the general PE class, or Gymnastique, included, again, rope climbing.

I really cannot fathom why France puts such emphasis on rope climbing. Since I already grumbled about this in previous posts, I shall refrain from doing so here. So in all the intervening years, while I gallivanted around the world, little French girls had been honing their skills in rope climbing. And therefore, by the time I was in 5eme (Grade 7), they were all regular little monkeys, scooting up and down a smooth rope to the ceiling of the gymnasium in a matter of seconds. No more knotted ropes by then, only smooth ones. And the PE teacher would time each climber, click! the moment her feet left the floor and stop it, click! the instant she touched the ceiling with her hand. The times varied between 9 to 11 seconds or so. The distance was around one and half floor’s height, so I would say, maybe 15-20 feet.

girl climbing rope

 Climbing a smooth rope

All the girls, including Marie-Therese the Vietnamese, would take turns walking up to the hanging rope, grab the rope with both hands, raise one foot, and hop! off they would go. Fist over fist, raise feet, fist over fist, raise feet, etc. all the way up, touch the ceiling (click!) then fist under fist, lower feet, fist under fist, lower feet, until they hopped off back to the floor. Very neat, very fast, clean cut. Then Marianne the English girl, Saadia or I would take our turn, grab the rope, raise one foot, and hop! kick wildly in the air trying to find the rope with the other foot, swinging round and round like a Tarzan wannabe, our buttocks seemingly heavier than a ton, until our arms got tired, then we would fall back to earth, totally humiliated. Marianne had the worst time of the three of us, because she was heavier, and also because her white skin showed the pink and red of embarrassment so much more clearly. Clearly, they don’t make students climb ropes in England either. So every week, when it was time to climb rope, we’d sit criss-cross apple sauce on the floor, in line, waiting for shame time, go through the embarrassing experience, then go back and sit down again. Week after week.

The teacher never made a single effort at coaching us. She actually did not bother to even time us. She would just wait till we finished hanging and swinging and then go on with the clocking of the remaining students. And occasionally mutter about foreign girls being hopeless.

This so bothered me that one day I decided to study the phenomenon. There must be a reason why all the French girls could climb and we could not. I tried to visualize the monkey climbers and contrast that image with that of the heavily sagging and hanging Marianne or Saadia. Suddenly, it struck me! When the French girls stood at the rope, ready to go, their hands were in front of their chest while we reached up as far as we could to grab the rope high. So in order to pull ourselves up, we had to use pure arm power to lift our entire body up.  Since we had no muscles to speak of in our upper limbs, this feat was totally impossible. The French girls on the other hand, used leg power to go from a squatting to a standing position, using the hands only to steady themselves.  Now the whole thing started to make sense. That’s why they were going: fist over fist, fist over fist. They would raise their crossed feet with the rope tightly held between the feet only a little at a time, straighten the knees to raise the body up, fist over fist, then do it all over. Aha!

Holding the rope too high up means having to use only arm power to lift the entire body upward.

Holding the rope too high up means having to use only arm power to lift the entire body upward.

So, armed with this knowledge, the next week, I awaited my turn eagerly, hoping my theory would work out. My turn came.

I walked up to the rope, and this time, placed my hands only in front of my forehead instead of as high as I could reach above my head. I looked at the teacher. She just looked at me in a bored way, knowing this was all a show until I fell back down. So I hopped and grabbed the rope between my feet the way I had been taught in first grade. Wow! What a great feeling! My arms were not stretched out and I did not feel heavy! OK, what next? Ah, yes: fist over fist. Slowly, instead of the tak-tak speed of the other girls, I placed my left hand above my right, then my right above my left. Ouf! Still there, still in the air! All right, slightly loosen the grip on the rope between my feet, slide up a bit, grab and step on the rope again. Good. Now my fists are back in front of my chest. At this point, I heard “click!”, the teacher had pressed her stopwatch. I glanced down at her. She had a wide-eyed look that held a mixture of puzzlement and awe. That felt good. I can do this. OK, so left fist, grab, right fist, grab, feet slide up. Then it happened, the ceiling was right on top of my head. I looked down. Big mistake. I nearly fell off my hands went all sweaty. OK, don’t look down. Don’t look down. What now? Oh, yes, I have to touch the ceiling. I tried to take my right hand away from the rope. It took two tries for my hand to finally be able to leave the rope, but it was trembling. Slowly, slowly, I lifted it, all sweaty and trembling, and “tap!” I touched it. I touched the ceiling! Quickly, I grabbed the rope again. Fist under fist, lower feet. Fist under fist, lower feet. Then I thought, oh, just slide down! And I tried. Big mistake. No one had told me about rope burn. My palms were on fire by the time I touched the floor again. Click!  “Forty-two seconds!” said the teacher. But she still had that awed look on her face. I walked back to my place in line. And noticed that all the girls had a similar awed look on their faces too!


And I don’t want to pretend it wasn’t a big deal. I felt so great! The feeling was incredible!

Today, I look back and realize that it was the victory of mind over body. There is a system to everything. Learn the system and you win. I was still weak in body and not particularly good at PE, but I had learned to climb a rope despite all.

The next week, the PE teacher went on maternity leave to deliver her baby. So it looked like God decided that since I had mastered this challenge, it was time to move on to the next one.


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