Life of a Rooster

Memoirs of a psychiatrist, journalist and educator

Curtsies and Hypocrisy

on May 17, 2014

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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