Life of a Rooster

Memoirs of a psychiatrist, journalist and educator

The Circles in our Life

on May 26, 2014
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.

One Response to “The Circles in our Life”

  1. Saadia Mai says:

    I love that family lore about our ancestors. I wish we could prove it somehow and maybe find relatives somewhere in Persia or Turkey or wherever. Papa said we were Han people, not Hui. How does that work out?

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