Life of a Rooster

Memoirs of a psychiatrist, journalist and educator

What is the Trinity?

on May 1, 2014

This time, there was no hiding what our religion was. No more riddle in installments.

Before registering us, Uncle Lung had chatted at length with the Headmistress about our religion and our dietary restrictions, as well as the understanding that we would be exempted from Bible study and Mass. Except for Saadia and I, everyone was Catholic this time. Although we were exempted from formal religious classes and activities, we were immersed in the general Catholic atmostphere of the school nevertheless.

Every morning, we started class with everyone standing up, making the sign of the cross and reciting a prayer. Obviously, we two, who again ended up in the same classroom, had to stand up too. We did not recite the prayer, but after listening to it a few hundred times, we do know by heart the “Notre Pere, qui etes aux cieux,…”  (Our Father) and the “Je vous salue, Marie, …” (Ave Maria).  In the lunchroom, before eating, again everyone recited a prayer, and everyone made the sign of the cross.

Since this was a girls-only school, I suppose the overall culture was more subdued and well-behaved. At least, I did not have to dodge food launched from spoons-turned-catapults at lunch or scotch-tape-balls at break time. I cannot vouch however, for what the girls did after school though, because some of them made a point of mentioning quite brow-raising things in their conversation, to show they were actually very worldly.

Maria Marta's entry in Spanish and French in my Cahier de Souvenir

Maria Marta’s entry in Spanish and French in my Cahier de Souvenir

What was really interesting was the sprinkling of girls with an interesting and different background, like us. Maria-Marta Mantel was an Argentinian girl, and like us, her father worked in a diplomatic mission. He was the Military Attache at the Argentinian embassy. Diane Briere de l’Isle was French, but her father worked with the UN and had been posted previously in New York, so she was more open-minded than her compatriots to globalism. Marie-Therese Le was Vietnamese. She had a slight inferiority complex because as a refugee, she attended the school on a scholarship. But I loved her gentle personality and we became great friends. Marianne Powell’s father worked with the BBC, but unfortunately, he was British and more unfortunately still, Marianne’s mother was German. The deadliest mix.

Marie Therese's entry is on the left page, and Christine's on the right, along with a generous sample of her long hair

Marie Therese’s entry is on the left page, and Christine’s on the right, along with a generous sample of her long hair

For the first time in my life, I was thankful to be Chinese. Oh, of course, we still got discriminated against. That subtle type of discrimination that is not out in the open usually but unmasks itself now and then upon demand. One day, we were getting our history tests back and our teacher had returned all the papers except one. “In all my years as history teacher,” she began proudly, looking at the last paper in her hands, “I have never ever given a full mark for a history test.”

I must explain here that in France then, a history test was usually an essay-type question, with the response running through three to five pages. That particular test, I remember, asked us to describe the life and culture of Romans under the reign of, I cannot quite recall which emperor, but it could have been Augustus. Quite by chance, I had taken the trouble to study for it. I normally just scanned through the pages, and that was enough to make me top of the class, after Saadia, that is. But this time, I bothered to count the aspects of culture: clothes, architecture, food, leisure, etc and so made sure to mention and discuss all of them.

“Today is the very first time I have done so,” the teacher continued. “There was truly nothing I could find missing in this essay. This student…” At which point, a contemptuous voice somewhere behind me on the right sneered, “Ah, we know well… It’s the little Chinese…” — On sait bien… C’est la p’tite Chinoise, la…” The pink cloud I was riding on suddenly vanished in a puff, and I fell down amid storm and rain back to the muddy earth. I lowered my head and wished I had failed the test. I wasn’t just Chinese, I was a “little” Chinese. A despicable one. You know, you turn good somersaults, indeed, but since you are nothing but a circus monkey, we expect you should do so…

But whatever scorn we got, it was nothing compared to the blatant spite Marianne received. She was blamed for burning Joan of Arc, poisoning Napoleon, using chemical weapons in WWI, and so on. In brief, all the anger and hate accumulated from centuries of defeat at the hands of the English and the Germans were directed towards her. A few times, we caught her with shining dewdrops in her eyes, trying very hard to hide her flaming cheeks. And so, despite her long blond hair and porcelain skin, she hung around with us, the Yellow, the Hispanic, and the Cosmopolitan.

In the second trimester, a Lebanese girl joined us for a couple of months. I was happy to meet someone from the Middle East. I told her I understood Arabic. “Really?” she said, and immediately asked me, “How do you say… er… “tree” in Arabic?”  I was stunned to discover I could not remember. “It’s… it’s…” There it was, on the tip of my tongue… but what was it? I frowned hard, trying to squeeze the word back up from the recesses of my memory. She looked at me half doubtfully. “It’s shajarah. — Ah, yes, of course, it’s shajarah!” I rejoiced. And then, in the morning, she would greet me with, “Marhaba!” (hello) and I would stutter, tongue tied. In Saudi Arabia, we would say instead, “Assalamu ‘alaikum!” (peace be upon you) though I had heard the term “marhaba” from people like our doctor, who also used to say, “ahlan wa sahlan!” (welcome) but for the life of me, I couldn’t recall the correct reply to those!

The Arabic word for hello, "Marhaba"

The Arabic word for hello, “Marhaba”

No one bothered much about the fact that Saadia and I were Muslims. Actually they envied us the fact that we could skip Scriptures class. Until one day — I am not quite sure what triggered it, perhaps some missionary zeal from Bible study– a few girls took it into their heads that it was their duty to convert us. Christine Frachet, a kind tall heavy-boned girl with two long auburn braids, led the little group. They would corner us at lunch, at break time, wherever. They told us we should believe in God. We did, we replied. They told us Jesus could save us. We weren’t quite sure we needed saving. Finally, tired of the onslaught, I told them, “Look, I don’t mind converting. You convince me, and I shall convert. But if you cannot explain the Trinity to me, how could I convert into a belief I don’t understand?” And, surprisingly, they were unable to explain it. They would beat round and round the bush, and traipse all over it too. The Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, they are one but they are three, well it’s a mystery and you have to accept it and believe in it… I knew very little about my own religion, but I did know that God was One. And to this day, I marvel at the simplicity of God’s Oneness, and how that faith in His Oneness shone in its logic and protected me from straying.


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