Life of a Rooster

Memoirs of a psychiatrist, journalist and educator

I’m coming home!

on May 19, 2014

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…”

BOAC

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!

 

 


2 Responses to “I’m coming home!”

  1. Saadia Mai says:

    I want to make it clear that we didn’t know at the time the how and why of decisions that were made about us. I remember being told out of the blue that things had been decided and to mind my elders. To this day, I have problem with sudden disruptive decisions and need more information before I can feel comfortable, then support and “buy into” a surprise move.

  2. Saadia Mai says:

    Much later, Mama recalled how frightening it was for them when our plane did not arrive on schedule and how stressed our Papa was until he was able to get reassuring words from someone by phone or Telex. Nowadays, the world is so much more connected with nearly instantaneous electronic communications at our fingertips.
    Extended separations create a set of difficulties which most people do not expect: physical features change, especially for children; one forgets the physical presence of loved ones even if the underlying bond is still there. For me, it was very difficult to adjust and reconcile to living again with my parents, who were dearly loved yet practical strangers after 3 years of total lack of contact. No one prepared us or coached us through these difficulties and as children, we were expected to mind our parents and not speak up, so I lived with these inner unspoken uncertainties and difficulties, not the first nor the last of many.

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