Life of a Rooster

Memoirs of a psychiatrist, journalist and educator

Stranger in my own homeland

on May 31, 2014

The wave of humid heat that hit us in the face when we stepped out of the plane in Taipei was very similar to that in Jeddah, but the smell was different. I welcomed it and embraced it, for, to me, this was home, H-O-M-E!!! All those years of longing to belong to a people that looked like me now finally came to an end, for I was home!

Well, wanting something, however badly, does not make it always come true. And I learned it then. Not all at once, though. I looked around me in the streets, and marveled at how many people there were, that all looked just like me, or so I thought. I held my head a bit higher, and my back a bit straighter. Strangely, they thought I looked different. I looked like a stranger.

It is hard to put one’s finger on what made us look different. Maybe I was on the tall side. Maybe I was fairer in skin tone. Maybe my eyes were more slanted that most. Was my gait and posture different? People still glanced at me the same way they did abroad. I still looked different.

Taipei, 1970, busy shopping district "XiMenDing"

Taipei, 1970, busy shopping district “XiMenDing”

Once I opened my mouth, they knew for sure I was a stranger. I had an ACCENT! Here most people spoke Mandarin with a Taiwanese accent. Mine was a lilting French-flavored Mandarin with a Beijing pronunciation, thanks to Teacher Sui back in Jeddah. You know how one sings slightly up a tone at the end of a question? Well, in Mandarin, you do not do that. You speak each word with its correct tone, just make sure to add whichever interrogative character is required at the end of the sentence to indicate it is actually a question. For example, “hello” is “ni hao” — you good. But to turn this into “how are you?”, you simply add the interrogative word “ma” at the end: “ni hao ma”. But you do not, absolutely not, sing your sentence upward as in English or French.

Despite all, speaking was not our main issue then. Much more urgent was the fact that our reading and writing skills were at Third Grade level three years prior and had probably taken a downward slide since then.

Mama’s first and most pressing concern was to find us a school and get us a tutor for, obviously, this time, it was not going to be easy to catch up. A friend of hers had a daughter who majored in Chinese literature. Perfect! Mama hired her immediately. The first time she came, we all sat at the dining table, Miss Chang, Saadia and me. She pulled out a Chinese textbook for Grade 9 — called here Chu San (third year of Junior High School).

I must explain here that we inadvertently skipped a grade because Chinese elementary schools have six grades, while French ones have five.

My first shock was that the textbook was small and thin!  It was a paperback printed with cheap paper, barely larger than a pocket novel, and maybe a centimeter in thickness. It turned out we needed one textbook each semester. “Aha,” I thought to myself, “this is going to be a piece of cake!”

Not quite. Lesson One. Miss Chang explained that the two short texts on the first page were a short bio of the author, then a short introduction to the text. Why don’t we just copy these down first, and then memorize them. We tried. By the end of our first two-hour lesson, we had managed copying only one sentence of the bio. We sweated over those complicated characters with dozens of strokes each, and could not figure out in which sequence to draw each stroke. Then again, we had no idea how to pronounce them, nor what they meant. Miss Chang picked up our masterpieces, looked at them dejectedly, shook her head involuntarily and sighed a huge sigh.

Sun Yat-Sen's names

Dr. Sun Yat-Sen’s names

I’m not trying to find excuses, but really, there were new obstacles and abysses every step of the way. For example, when she said this is the author’s biography, I thought, OK, I know what that is, piece of cake. Then, she proceeded to read, “Sun Wen, ZI (something), HAO (something), also HAO Yi Xian, and also known as Zhong Shan…” So I asked her, “What does that mean, Zi and Hao?” She replied that every Chinese had a Zi (alias #1) and a Hao (alias #2). Which of course was strange because I certainly did not have them.

“What are those things? –Oh, they are names. — But isn’t Sun Wen the author’s name? — Yes, but you don’t use it. — Why not? — It is rude to call someone by his name. — Huh? Really? — So, you have a Zi and a Hao, so people call you by these nicknames. — So what do we call him then? — Oh, we all call him Sun Zhong Shan Xian Sheng! — Huh? Not the Zi nor the Hao?”  I tell you, the FBI would have had a field day with this guy, a string of different names sounding totally different. It wasn’t that John becomes Johnny, or Robert becomes Bob. No, John becomes Michael and Christopher. And then, everyone proceeds to call him Sir Middle Mountain Sun!

Eventually, after plodding through his names, we got to his place of origin. China is big, I found out. It is divided into provinces, which are divided into “hsien“, which I suppose are departments, which in turn contain cities, towns, villages and hamlets. We were expected to memorize all of these for this one author. The Chinese are identified not just by their names but also by their place of origin, which is why, after reciting all the names, we now had to go through the recital of his place of origin. I challenge you, my readers, to go to Wikipedia and look up Winston Churchill, for example. You will go through the entire five-paragraph summary and still not find out where he was from!

So, after a week we managed to learn to read and write the author’s name and place of origin. (Miss Chang gave up making us memorize them.) Then we came to the meat of the matter: who he was. Ah, now I found out this guy was a medical doctor who ended up becoming our Father of the Country! The very founder of our young republic! He masterminded the movement which eventually overthrew the last Emperor of China. Well, it sounds easier said than done. The revolutionaries actually failed on their first attempt. And their second. And their third. It was on the eve of the tenth attempt, that they set off the revolution by mistake, and actually succeeded! And that happened on the tenth day of the tenth month! Anyone feels like being superstitious here?

The presidential palace, bedecked with flags and the Double Tenth symbol (two crosses) on the National Day.

The presidential palace, bedecked with flags and the Double Tenth symbol (two crosses) on the National Day.

This explains why our National Day is called the Double Tenth. And all those years ago, I had to walk on stage with a lantern hanging down from a dowel, singing, “Let’s celebrate the Double Tenth Festival…” with no idea what that festival was all about. Oh, and by the way, our multi-named Father of the Country is called in English Dr. Sun Yat-Sen, which is none of the above-mentioned names. In fact it is the “also alias #3”, Sun Yi-Xian, but pronounced in Cantonese.

Dr. Sun Yat-Sen, the Father of the Country

Dr. Sun Yat-Sen, the Father of the Country

By the end of the summer, we had managed to finish copying the bio and intro, and nearly finished studying the main text. To be fair, since we had arrived at the end of July and started taking lessons in early August, we only manage about one month of tutoring. Miss Chang said she was going to give us a test on the material we had covered. She had written by hand two copies of her test. I took one look and asked, “What is this? What am I supposed to do?”

If you remember, the tests in France were usually essay type. Something like, “Discuss the author’s influence on the causes of the Revolution. Illustrate with examples from the text.” But here, there were two pages of numbered questions. Miss Chang read her test: “True or false.” Huh? What? What is true or false? Oh, these statements? She introduced us to the concepts of multiple-choice questions and fill-in-the-blank questions as well. I was fascinated. Wow! Is this the way tests were given here? We finally finished the test and handed it back to her. She happily whipped out a red pen and corrected them. Then she shook her head again dolefully. She seemed on the brink of tears. Later Mama told us she didn’t want to take her pay, saying she had failed to teach us properly and we were still way below level. But Mama managed to force her to accept her pay.

And now, we were ready to face our Goliath: school in Chinese.


2 Responses to “Stranger in my own homeland”

  1. Saadia Mai says:

    I sort of remember that young lady who tried so hard to tutor us. She began with the goal of catching us up six years of Chinese, one year per week, or something like that… She sort of revised her goal after the first lesson. Teaching starts with an assessment, ha ha! We were a challenging pair, I know, I know. It was a matter of learning to read and write and learning the entire system of Chinese language and history and the way it is taught. It was not just a new language, it was a world beyond our comprehension.

  2. Saadia Mai says:

    Yes, we looked Chinese (or “Asian” as people say nowadays) but we held ourselves differently. Our facial expression and minute body language nuances gave us away. We were newcomers to that society. We probably still are “strangers” even today.

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