Life of a Rooster

Memoirs of a psychiatrist, journalist and educator

Slap Our Faces Swollen to Appear Fat

on May 19, 2014

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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