Life of a Rooster

Memoirs of a psychiatrist, journalist and educator

A Mini Society

Other than learning the Chinese language, the biggest shock was definitely the 180-degree difference between Chinese schools and French schools. We had moved from adult-controlled institutions to a student-centered mini-society.

Morning calisthenics at an elementary school

Morning calisthenics at an elementary school

In France, everything was pre-ordained and regulated to the smallest detail. We lined up at specific places in the morning. In class we could only sit in specific positions. When writing classwork, we skipped three boxes on the top line, wrote the date in cursive, “Monday, the 4th of September 1969”, for example; then skipped one line, counted 8 boxes from the margin, wrote in capitals the word “DICTATION”, underlined it in red ink with a ruler on the lighter line, the skipped another line, counted one box, then started writing the dictation. Lower case “b” had to reach the third line up while the lower case “t” reached only the second line up. Using a planner to note down assignments was only one aspect of the detailed methodology we had to follow.

In Taiwan, the structure was pre-planned but everything else was carried out by the students. Class started at 8:00 am, but we had to arrive by 7:00 am. We just walked into the classroom without having to line up or being led. No teacher checked whether we were there by 7:00am, but we all arrived on time or before to attend the morning Study Hall in our classroom. This was the time when we exchanged conversations and homework. Indeed, it was understood that everyone could help one another solve whatever problems we could not manage at home by ourselves. The class president would write on the top right-hand corner of the blackboard the names of the two students on duty. These would go to the school kitchen and bring to the front of the classroom a rectangular stainless steel box-like container that had holes in its bottom and two handle-holes on the sides. We would all take out our lunch boxes and place them in the container. Our lunch boxes, or bian dang boxes, were small rectangular boxes with lids, made of aluminum or stainless steel, where Mama would place our lunch of the day, usually plain rice or noodles with some other dish or two, with maybe a boiled egg in soya sauce and spices, very much in the way of today’s Panda Express or Tokyo Bowl fast meals. This take-out lunch was called bian dang. Before 7:30am, the students on duty would carry away the bian dang container to the school kitchen where they would slide it into its numbered slot in the huge kitchen steamer.

Typical stainless steel Bian Dang lunch box from the1970s

Typical stainless steel Bian Dang lunch box from the1970s

By 7:30 am, we would all go to the school yard/athletic field and line up in the space assigned to our class, Number 1 student in front and me, Number 57, always the last in line.  This is when attendance was taken by the “Jiao guan” or discipline officer, a staff member dressed in khaki uniform, who always inspired awe and fear in me for they looked more like police officers or army officers than school counselors. The flag song would be broadcast and we would all salute, scout style, with three fingers of the right hand on our right temple, ramrod straight, until the flag students on duty raised the Azure Sky, White Sun, and Red Over Earth (the flag of the Republic of China) up the flagpole on the top balcony of the school. Then we would keep our arms straight by our sides and the whole school would sing the national anthem, “The Three Principles of the People“. A tiny figure in sports sweats would then appear on the top balcony to demonstrate the movements, and the speakers would broadcast the morning calisthenics, “One, two, three, four; five, six, seven, eight. Two, two, three, four; five, six, seven, eight. Three, two, three, four, etc…” It took me some time, but I did catch on eventually on the stretches, hops, bends, and so on; and memorized them to this day.

The flag of the Republic of China on Taiwan: Azure Sky, White Sun, and Red Over the Earth

The flag of the Republic of China on Taiwan: Azure Sky, White Sun, and Red Over the Earth

We would all then find our own way back to class, and get ready for the first period. All teachers were subject teachers, and one of them — the English teacher in our case — would be homeroom teacher. Teachers moved from room to room and had their desks in one of the teachers’ offices. During lunch break, the students on duty would go to the kitchen and bring the bian dang container from the steamer and place it again, steaming hot, in front of the class. We would then each pick up our lunch box and eat lunch on our desk, then put the empty box and chopsticks back in our school bag. Then, every one would brace their arms  on the desk, snuggle their head on their arms and take a nap. Yes, take a nap. This was Grade 9, but taking a nap was very normal. The two students on duty would then return the bian dang container to the kitchen.

After lunch, it is customary for Taiwan students to take a nap on their desks.

After lunch, it is customary for Taiwan students to take a nap on their desks.

During PE, which usually took place on the athletic field, the students on duty would remain in the classroom to guard everyone’s belongings.

All of these routines astounded the two of us. Oh, we were not SERVED lunch? Oh, we had to CLEAN our own classroom? Indeed, there was a system of class and school student government in place. Each class elected its own president, vice president, and a few other ministers, oh sorry, chiefs, each with their own portfolio.  There was a chief of service, a chief of recreation, and a chief of hygiene. The latter, who was in charge of the classroom’s cleanliness assigned the cleaning duties, which were usually performed before school, after school or during lunch hours. Each class chief of hygiene would then have her meetings with all other chiefs of hygiene, and get their instructions at general meetings. She would notify us of which Saturday the whole class had to come and clean the toilets on our floor.

Some other classes were assigned traffic duty, flag duty, and so on. Students on traffic duties would have to arrive earlier and leave later than everyone else, so they could man the long bamboo poles strung with little yellow triangular flags at pedestrian crossings near the school.

Then there were the academic “little teachers”. These were usually the top student/s in each subject, picked by the subject teacher. Thus, we had a Math Little Teacher, Chinese Little Teacher, and so on. Although Saadia and I were the top English students, we had joined the class two weeks late, so all selections had been made already. These “little teachers” had to distribute and assign paperwork, collect homework, help the teacher correct assignments, and so on.

Every now and then, we would get inspection rounds. There were hygienic inspections, when a small group of chiefs of hygiene would walk around, sweeping their fingers over random desks and window sills for dust, checking floors and trash cans. Sometime after the beginning of the school year, one male officer “Jiao guan” came to inspect the class. He barked to us, “Hair length is one centimeter above the edge of the ear lobe. I do my rounds with a pencil, a ruler, and a pair of scissors. Do not try to fool me by tucking your hair behind your ear. I stick my pencil above your ear thus (demonstrates), and pop out any hair hiding there. I measure the correct length with my ruler. If it’s too long, well, I am not a hairdresser, so I don’t know how to give a haircut. I will grab your hair and snip off what I grab. (And he demonstrated by grabbing a handful of hair, and placing his scissors five inches above the tips.) You will then find your own hairdresser and fix the rest.” That was enough to instill so much fear in me that I religiously visited the hairdresser every weekend for a trim. One centimeter above the edge of the ear lobe.



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Test-based Education

Like it or not, we were now immersed in a totally different type of education.  No essay-type exam any more. Real essays themselves were formulaic. The entire education system was geared towards exams and tests. National exams determined whether a student could move from middle school to high school, and from high school to college or university. They determined which high schools or universities the student was eligible for, and which major the student could enter. Up to 1968, such exams also determined which middle school an elementary school graduate could enter.

Sequestered for 7 days and 7 nights, testers slept in the same cubicle that they tested in.

Sequestered for 7 days and 7 nights, testers slept in the same cubicle that they tested in.

I suppose the root of this exam-based education grew from the ancient Chinese system of civil service qualifying examinations. Starting from as early as the Han dynasty and officially sanctioned by the Tang dynasty, scholars, regardless of the duration of his education or who his teacher had been, could sit for regional, provincial and national exams. Top scorers would then win official government positions. Although the system was supposedly abolished as of 1905, its remnants still infiltrate many aspects of Chinese life and bureaucracy.  My father himself, when he applied for a job at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, had to sit for an entrance exam called the Higher Exams.

Imperial exam in session

Imperial exam in session

As a result of this exam-based system, textbooks were written more in a review or exam preparation format than in an explanatory format. They were lightweight and printed on cheap paper, so students could underline (the highlighter had yet to be invented), circle or make notes in margins. The tests were numerous and easy to grade. There were quizzes, “small tests”, chapter tests, monthly tests, “big tests”, mock tests, and semester tests. Not to mention the dreaded actual National High School Entrance Exam.

As Third Year Junior High students, we were not only learning our curriculum for the year, but also reviewing the material of the last two years, and preparing for the national exam with a series of mock exams. To say that the two of us were overwhelmed would be an understatement. After the initial shock of the  4% in my first Chinese test, I slowly became inured to failing grades. Anything else was better. Slowly, my actual grades (not review tests or mock tests) moved from the tens to the twenties, then the thirties and forties. English came on top since we already had had two years of British English in Paris, moving to American English was only a hop and a skip. Then came History since the syllabus that year was World History, namely Modern European History, which was comparatively familiar. Although I must say, hard-headed teachers played an important role in how slowly we improved our grades.

When asked which two rivers bordered Mesopotamia, Saadia decided to write the answers in English (which the teacher had allowed). In French, these rivers are named Le Tigre and L’Euphrate. Now, translating these into English would be the Tiger and the Euphrate. The teacher could not accept them because the spelling was off. And she added sneeringly in the margin, in big red characters, “This is a river, not a tiger!” We finally looked this up and found that for some reason, the English name was spelled in Latin, Tigris, which, of course, does mean tiger too. But too late, teachers there never went back on their grading, probably because it would open the door to 60 times three or four classes of students asking for grade alterations. And that teacher probably did not know Latin anyway.

map of mesopotamiaAs for me, I tried to answer in Chinese, but had a really hard time with that too. For example the word Italy is transliterated into “Ee-Da-Lee”. Now each syllable sound could be written in a number of different ways, each with a different meaning. I’m not sure who determined which character to use, probably the first journalist or government official who ever had to translate that particular word, way back when.  But basically, History is about learning and understanding facts. A kind merciful teacher should have allowed me to misspell a few words, since I got so few points on my tests already, right? So I wrote the “Ee” of Italy as 義 (honor, integrity), instead of 意 (meaning, intent). Big red cross, minus 4 point. I don’t suppose the Italians ever minded being full of integrity, instead of being full of meaning.WWI, Italy

Math was a real nightmare. My love of algebra sustained me through the onslaught of Chinese math for a while. Whereas in France, we had just landed on the shores of simple algebraic equations with one measly little x sitting in an obvious lonely position, here, we were met with a multitude of them, not to mention their brethren the y’s, z’s, a’s, b’s, c’s, m’s, and n’s. They came in regular sizes and in smaller sizes as part of indices, you know, sitting next to the square or cube sign… And they came as part of decimals and fractions as well. Oh, the fractions! I knew that fraction line as a single bar,  whose importance was to lie on the main line on the notebook, between the two horizontal bars of the equal sign. Here, the fraction line had been elevated to an architectural element. It defined the ground floor from the basement floors and the upper floors. Algebraic fractions were a lot like Sim Tower creations. Entire commercial blocks with multi-floor hotels on top, and several layers of parking floors under. Plus and minus signs, or times and divide signs, were placed strategically like traffic lights between these giant structures. And living in these hotels were those italicized letters and their companions, the digits.

I was unable to find an illustration anywhere close to our algebra homework. No one today relishes anymore constructing those elaborate and ridiculous stacks of fractions within fractions with indices and roots thrown in for good measure...

Sim Tower: This is what our algebra homework reminds me of. I was unable to find an illustration anywhere close to our algebra homework. No one today relishes anymore constructing those elaborate and ridiculous stacks of fractions within fractions with indices and roots thrown in for good measure…

Imagine having to reduce an entire city to an elegant little 2- or 3-piece equation. Not realizing we needed someone to teach us and coach us on the gaps in our Math knowledge, we felt very stupid that others could do what we could not. I started developing a fear of indices and letters lurking in denominators.

During the review tests, we also had to answer questions on geometry, which had been taught some time over the two previous years. Gone were the precision drawing sessions using a triangle square, a compass and a protractor. Now I had to prove that certain angles were equal to others using rules I had never learned. Chinese examiners do not believe in asking students simple straightforward questions. If it is not complicated, it is not worth asking. And so, our geometry proofs, despite the simplified notation, ran for tens of lines. I actually did enjoy them, despite diving through a crash course of Euclidean axioms.

geometry problemOur class also had to take an accounting class, which was my first introduction to such a science. It pretty much consisted of columns of debit and credit numbers that we had to add and balance at the bottom of the page. Having never taken abacus in my life, I could not see the depth and history of Accountancy in China, and wondered why adding and subtracting columns of numbers had to be taught separately from Math.

The best illustration on the difference between French and Chinese education occurred at the end of a school day, on my way out to the front yard, together with a few thousand other students, when I overheard a classmate calling out to another girl from a different class, “Hey, how many kilos of math homework have you got today?” Our homework was usually a stack of handouts that averaged about ten problems per sheet. I dreamily reminisced about the day my class of Cinquieme went on strike when the teacher dared assign THREE problems…


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Wretched Dream of the Qing Palace

I finally did improve in Chinese, both reading and writing, both modern and classical, not because of a tutor, because we did not have one; not because of the teacher, because she would give her lecture and sweep out of the classroom, regardless of whether we got it or not; and not because of our textbooks or exercises. It was because of a new phenomenon for us, the Chinese TV drama.

In our last months in Paris, Uncle Lung had acquired a television, a legacy from a departing colleague. So we had learned about TV shows, which in France were partially French-produced and partially American imported. France TV series were called “feuilletons” and lasted around 30 minutes per episode.


Zhen Fei (Consort Pearl) in Wretched Dream of the Qing Palace. I was amazed by the huge headdresses worn by the consorts and empress.

Zhen Fei (Consort Pearl) in Wretched Dream of the Qing Palace. I was amazed by the huge headdresses worn by the consorts and empress.

Here in Taiwan, each episode was closer to an hour, minus the commercials, which popped up whenever they felt like it, unlike the French ones which only appeared after a short animated sketch announced that this was the commercial break. The stories were long, and I mean, long,with dozens of episodes. In December 1970, for the first time, Taiwan Television Corporation broadcasted a daily TV drama set in the declining years of the Qing Dynasty. Entitled Wretched Dream of the Qing Palace, it centered around the doomed love story of Emperor Guang Xu and his concubine Zhen Fei who was eventually ordered to be thrown down into a well by the Empress Dowager Ci Xi. I was incensed at the uselessness of the puppet emperor and his futile attempts at modernization and building up a strong army. I could not believe that the fate of China rested in the hands of an old woman who still believed, on the eve of the twentieth century, that China was the center of the universe, and that building a sumptuous summer palace to prop up her image would resolve the problem of foreign powers trying to eat up our land piece by piece. This was my first introduction to the fascinating world of Chinese history.

Today's Chinese TV dramas set in the Qing dynasty have come a long way: compare the sumptuous and intricate headdresses!

Today’s Chinese TV dramas set in the Qing dynasty have come a long way: compare the sumptuous and intricate headdresses!

But all this, I did not learn on the spot. What attracted me at first were the costumes, very pitiful compared to today’s splendid productions, but nonetheless an eye opener for me at the time. Then, the language and rituals. I was fascinated by the bows and curtsies, so different from European ones; here, a eunuch would go down on one knee, while snapping out his long sleeves and acquiescing with a “zha!” (in today’s movies this word has been updated to “zhe”) instead of a Yes, Ma’am! The emperor would not call himself “I”, nor even a royal “we”, but a new word, “zhen”.

At first, I could not understand a single word of this semi-classical Chinese. Fortunately, there were always subtitles. So I tried reading them. Lucky me if I caught one word before it flashed away. Gradually, I managed to catch a few words at a time, and finally I was able to read all the line in time. To this day, I advise foreign language learners to watch movies with subtitles for faster learning. You read, and hear the words pronounced at a normal speed with a realistic tone of voice.

Thus, every evening, I would camp myself in front of the TV, with my textbooks, notebooks, and pens, just so I could manage to do some homework during the commercials, and stay glued to it until the episode finished. My parents would occasionally remind me, half-heartedly, that it would be more effective for me to do my homework in my room. But they themselves would be so engrossed in the plot and background politics that they would forget about me. I am forever indebted to them, for it was thus that I finally started reading classical Chinese faster and with immediate understanding.

Empress Ci Xi, as portrayed in Wretched Dream of the Qing Palace. Leaving behind her on the throne a five-year-old  boy, she passed away three years before the crumbling empire was finally overthrown by revolutionaries in 1911.

Empress Ci Xi, as portrayed in Wretched Dream of the Qing Palace. Leaving behind her on the throne a five-year-old boy, she passed away three years before the crumbling empire was finally overthrown by revolutionaries in 1911.

However, reading subtitles was still a long way from reading our literature texts. They were still full of unknown characters. One day, the teacher assigned us an entire text to be committed to memory by the next morning. I could not believe she would do such a thing. I spent the entire evening and night trying. I had to look up each character to figure out its pronunciation and its meaning, note them in the margins, and then attempt to learn it all by heart. As usual, I fell asleep on my desk, and had to be dragged to bed by Mama, kicking and moaning about having to finish my homework. I got up at five, as usual, had breakfast, and then took the two city buses to school, studying all the way. I studied in between classes, but still, by the time Chinese literature came, I had only finished one paragraph and one sentence. I was crushed. This was the end. I was going to get a zero.

The teacher explained the procedure: #1 would recite paragraph 1; #2 would recite paragraph 2, and so on. All the students in each class had a class number, which was separate from our school ID number. Having joined the class a week late, Saadia and I had been assigned numbers 56 and 57. I looked at the board to check how many of us were absent. I subtracted that from 57, then divided the resulting number by the number of paragraphs. This should tell me which paragraph I would have to recite. I prayed it would be the first one. Too bad, it turned out to be the second one. Well, I still had some time. I tried and tried, but one by one, the students stood up, recited and sat down, and my turn came closer and closer. I was devastated. I still could manage only one sentence and a few more words. My neighbor on the left said, “Just keep the book propped up in front of you, the teacher won’t see.” The neighbor in front kindly cooperated by sitting up straight so the book could lean on her back.

My turn came. I stood up, with my glasses on, so it would help me see the words more clearly. I said the one and only sentence I knew, then started stammering out the next few words. OK, let’s try to read off the textbook… I squinted as hard as I could… impossible! Too small! I just could not read the characters! My neighbor on the left whispered them to me, but the buzz of muted conversations was too loud and I could not hear her. “What? What? Louder!” I muttered under my breath.  At this point, I realized all these efforts were futile. The teacher must have noticed by now I wasn’t saying anything any more. She must be getting ready to scold me… Hey! Why wasn’t she? I lifted my head. Dear Teacher was nodding off, a slight snore curling out of her lips, totally oblivious to my despair.

Such an anticlimax triggered it. I burst out laughing. I tried hard to hold myself, but the more I tried, the more the hahahas forced themselves out, making me sputter and cough from the effort. The droning voices all stopped suddenly, all heads turning towards me. My neighbor whispered, “What’s the matter? Why are you laughing? Just say it, the next sentence is…” The sudden silence replacing the soothing lull of whispered conversations woke the sleeping teacher. She flipped her head up, wiped the dripping saliva, blinked, and surveyed the landscape. Severely, she scolded my neighbor, “Why are you teasing Mai Tai-Chi?”  Then, to me, “All right, you may sit down.” and she wrote some grade in her grade book.

Thank You, O God! For having listened to my desperate prayers and protected me from an ignominious and unfair failing grade!

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Why reading and writing Chinese is a struggle

My greatest struggle was definitely Chinese reading and writing.  At our first Chinese literature quiz, which we studied for as glibly as we were used to back in Paris, I managed to score a glowing four out of 100!  What a come down from the status of genius-in-residence I had been accustomed to! I found that first of all, there was not a single question on the meaning of the text. No discussion of the author’s theme, message or purpose.  All we had were direct questions on vocabulary, translation and spelling. Some grammar too.

Yes, translation. Many of our texts were written in classical Chinese, which is a drastically different language from modern Chinese. Already, modern Chinese (mandarin) is a compact language compared to French or English. A 1,000-word essay in French would fit in no more than 300-400 Chinese characters. If you then translate this into Classical Chinese, you could take away easily another 50% of the characters. No wonder you see in movies these ancient scholars reading an entire book that would fit on just one roll of bamboo slats.

bamboo scroll

The word “said/say” for instance, in modern Chinese, is “shuo” = 說. In Classical Chinese, it is “yue” = 曰 . Totally different words. So, the sentence “Confucius said” would be in modern Chinese “Kong Fu Zi shuo” : 孔夫子說 , while it would contract to just two characters in Classical Chinese “Zi yue”: 子曰。Thus the need to translate.

Confucius, who said many things, causing us to have to memorize his sayings...

Confucius, who said many things, causing us to have to memorize his sayings…

Our homeroom teacher was our English teacher, a plump jovial lady in her thirties. She immediately announced to the class that she expected us to catch up with the language within a month.  She was the daughter of a military attache, and had lived in Iran in her childhood. Which is why she knew the phenomenon of diplomats’ children performing well in schools regardless of the language used. However, I found, to my detriment, that Chinese language was a different species altogether. Without the help of a tutor, our progress was painfully slow.

If reading was a Herculean task, writing was no less arduous. There was something called the Weekly Journal which we had to write using a thin brush and Chinese ink and turn in every Monday morning.  My first attempts looked horrendous. Not only my characters did not sit straight nor well-balanced, they looked like caterpillars having a bad hair day. The teacher kindly allowed us to use marker pens instead. The result was not much better. The caterpillars looked now like dead ones instead of live ones.

Essay writing was also a total paradigm shift. Whereas in France we had been practicing how to describe landscape without using “there is” or “he saw” (you can say instead, “The plain unrolled itself” or “the sky stretched above his head”), here we were asked to debate questions. I was stuck. “How do we debate this?” I asked my neighbor on the right. “Very simple,” she replied. “First paragraph, you say why yes. Second paragraph, you say why no. Third paragraph, you state your opinion. Then make sure to put in a few quotes from the ancients, and you are done!”

Easier said than done. I did not know any quotes from the ancients. I also found that written modern Chinese is closer to Classical Chinese than spoken modern Chinese.  Even the simplest statement is often written as a “cheng yu” or proverb. If you want to say, “it was very crowded”, you write “people mountains people seas”. If you want to say, “he returned home to die”, you write, “the falling leaf returned to the roots”.  I did not know any proverbs, therefore my essays sounded too verbal, which is a sign of mediocre writing. So I did not astound my teacher with my writing prowess.

people mountain people sea

My skill in brush writing actually improved under the mentoring of an old friend of Papa’s, Chang Yeh (Grandpa Chang). He used to work at the lumber mill that Papa joined when he first arrived in Taiwan. Being Muslim and older, he was delighted to meet another younger Muslim. He offered to share the Islamic diet he cooked himself with Papa, and by extension, he also offered to do his laundry, which has nothing to do with Islamic requirements. Papa was then a “young master” who had never had to cook or launder in his life and so welcomed this service happily. I always thought God Almighty has taken special care of Papa, who would not have survived in the mountains all by himself.

So it was Chang Yeh, now retired and often hanging around our house, who first looked over my shoulder one Sunday as I panted and struggled over my “large script” (there were large and small script pages of brush writing to hand in as well). “That’s not how you should write a horizontal stroke!” he exclaimed. And thus he started coaching me. It turned out that a horizontal line is not just a line in brush script. You write it always from left to right, but start about 1/3 into the line, go left, press, turn the brush, creating a neat angled corner, then pull the brush evenly over the line you just made, all the way to the right, then press again, turn the brush again, creating another neat corner, and finally lift your brush swiftly about 1/3 of the way into the right end.

brush horizontal stroke

By the time I managed to master the horizontal line, the vertical line, the turns, the hook, the sweep, and so on, I would notice that the entire structure was out of synch and threatening to topple. No wonder Chinese brush calligraphy is considered an art and great calligraphy is exhibited as a painting would. There is a particular stroke that took me years to finally perfect: it is a sweeping oblique downward stroke in the four o’clock direction, which looks rather like the foot of a ballerina pointed to one side, or if you prefer, like the tail end of a snail. It starts thin, then thickens as it stretches towards four o’clock, then touches the floor forming a crisp angle and finally gracefully thins down to the right, horizontally on the bottom though on a slant above. If I concentrated too much on getting the angle and slant correct, the stroke often ended up too long. More commonly, it would end up too short, looking like a stump.


The infamous stroke down towards four o'clock is named the "Nah" and is extremely difficult to master.

The infamous stroke down towards four o’clock is named the “Nah” and is extremely difficult to master.


Trying hard to fit in

The Chinese are not shy about being direct. No such thing as political correctness. I knew my Chinese language was poor, but that fact was constantly driven in almost on a daily basis by all kinds of well-meaning people.

In the registration office, a clerk asked us to fill forms. Name, Mai Tai-Chi. “Mai? (買)” asked the clerk. “Are you sure you didn’t forget a horizontal stroke? You do mean Jia (賈), right?” I was a bit taken aback. I mean, I do know how to spell my own name. “No, no, it’s Mai.” The clerk shook his head. “Are you sure there is such a last name as Mai?…”

The Chinese character Mai = to buy, is a very rare Chinese surname.

The Chinese character Mai = to buy, is a very rare Chinese surname.


The Chinese character "Jia" is a much more common surname.

The Chinese character “Jia” is a much more common surname.

Address. Chinese addresses are nothing as simple as American ones. You start with the province, then the department, then the city, then the closest main road, then the side street, then the smaller street off it, then the alley off that one, then finally the house door number. Hmmm, alley, how do I spell alley (xiang)? Oops, I had said that out loud. The clerk said, “The word xiang (巷) is just like the word gang (港) as in Xiang Gang (Hong Kong = 香港), minus the prefix for water.” I looked at him, “Well, how then do you write gang?” He stared back, “Ah, my goodness, if you can’t even spell gang, how do you expect to be able to study in Third Year Middle School?” So much for the vote of confidence.

Someone then walked us to class, Saadia and me. The schools in Taiwan, the country with the highest population concentration in the world,  were in a totally different league than even the CES Noyer-Durant. There were 27 classes of Third Years, and each class had between 55 and 60 students. This particular class had only 55 students, (plus the two of us, that made it 57) and was ranked a B class. After First Year, students were streamed into classes with other students of similar achievement levels. Eight of these classes were ranked A, meaning their students were all expected to make it to high school and college. The B classes had to work hard, and maybe some of the students there might make it to either academic or vocational high school. The remaining classes were ranked C, and were also nicknamed the “fang niu ban” or “roaming cow classes”. Meaning that the teachers allowed the students to graze at will in the wild pastures, hoping to keep them out of trouble.

A class C primarily does not expect its students to study beyond Middle School level.

A class C primarily does not expect its students to study beyond Middle School level.

Carrying our book supplies, we were ushered into the classroom in the middle of class, interrupting them. Great beginning. The grand entrance. The teacher introduced us as the new “qiao sheng” (Chinese students from overseas) from France, further confirming our status as being different. Ah, and I so wanted to melt in the crowd.

I was assigned a seat where a vacant one was available. Good. I tried to listen to the lesson. Oh, this was a Chinese literature class, my luck. The teacher wrote notes on the blackboard. Everyone started copying them down in their textbook. Their textbook? It was allowed to write in the textbook? Oh, was that why they were made of cheap paper? Disposable textbooks? All right, let’s copy them. Hm, what is that? How come I can’t read this? Oh, I see, just like our tutor in the beginning, she was writing in “cao xie”, or “grass style (hand-written draft)” characters. We had been learning to copy characters exactly the way they appeared in books, meaning in  “print” (kai) characters. When writing by hand, people generally would slur the strokes, for instance, four dots in a horizontal row might become a horizontal line, while two oblique arms on either side of a vertical stroke might become a blurry convex arc. I stared at those unrecognizable squiggles on the board and my hand stayed frozen in mid-air. How was I to copy these?

The character "long" =dragon in formal print style

The character “long” =dragon in formal print style

The character "long" = dragon in "cao" = grass/draft style

The character “long” = dragon in “cao” = grass/draft style

My neighbor on the right looked at me and took pity. “Here,” she whispered, “I’ll copy them for you.” And copy them she did, in “hand-written” characters, just like the teacher. Now I had the notes, but I still couldn’t read them. Well, Chinese literature promised to be fun.

At the end of class, the teacher gave out her assignment. Hm, I wondered, where do we note the assignment down? I looked around me. No one was writing anything down. In France, we all had a school planner with tabs labeled with the days of the week. We used to write our “lecons” (reading or memorizing work) and devoirs (written work)  in there. I could not bear not to write it down. So I pulled out a blank notebook I had brought with me. Embarrassed to do something no one else was doing, I placed the notebook on my lap and started writing the assignment down, in French,  since I did not know enough Chinese to do so in Chinese. No sooner did I do so than I heard from    behind me, a voice in an intentionally loud whisper sneer, “Oh, she’s trying to show off that she knows English!”

A "cahier de textes" is a school planner where students write down their assignments on the due date. It is a ubiquitous part of the French student's school bag yet completely absent from that of the Chinese students.

A “cahier de textes” is a school planner where students write down their assignments on the due date. It is a ubiquitous part of the French student’s school bag yet completely absent from that of the Chinese students.

My heart sank. What a great start. Again, I was the outsider, the one who was different, and now I was a show-off again although that could not have been further from the truth. This time, it was not a matter of catching up with the spoken language, since I was passably fluent in it. It was going to be an impossible uphill battle with the written language.

I did learn one thing that day: all Chinese students have a tremendous memory and can remember all their assignments by heart.

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Not all short hairstyles are cute bobs

I awaited impatiently the day we would go and register at the school my parents had picked: Jin-Hua Girls Middle School.

I had heard from Aunt Lily and checked out the fact that all middle school girl students were supposed to have a “uniform” hairstyle: a short bob. I was ecstatic. My favorite singer then was Mireille Mathieu, who sported a cute bob. I so wanted to look like her!

Mireille Mathieu, famous French singer

Mireille Mathieu, famous French singer

After registration, and checking in with the uniform supplier, we went to the hairdresser next to the school: “We want a middle school haircut, please!” The young ladies, all smiles and questions, proceeded to wash our hair and give us a healthy dose of scalp massage, which I enjoyed a lot. Then she chopped off my long hair. OK, when the hair is wet, it won’t look its best, let’s wait and see. She then grabbed an electric shaver and proceeded to shave the bottom of my scalp’s backside. What!!!! I nearly jumped out of my chair with horrified indignation.  “Why are you shaving it?” I managed to ask, overcoming my shyness.

“Ah, but that’s the rule,” answered the young lady. “One centimeter above the ear lobe, all around the head. Anything below it is shaven away.”  I sat dejectedly, my vision of a Mireille Mathieu hairstyle evaporating in the humid heat. “Here,” she added, “free hair pins.” Huh? I was a bit puzzled. “Jin Hua Girls’ Middle School requires middle parting, with a hair pin on each side to hold back your hair off the face.” I looked at my new head in the mirror. Very silly look. But then, my sister Saadia looked equally silly. And outside the window, the passing students all looked just the same. I figured no one would laugh at my hair. Still, I could not get rid of the anger swelling inside me. “Thank you and please come back!” sang the two young ladies. “In your dreams… grrrr!” I answered between my teeth, biting down on the free gift, a little plastic ball of shampoo. Well, my enraged teeth managed to poke a hole in the plastic, and next thing I knew, I was swallowing shampoo. So much for nurturing anger.

Middle school hair uniform: cut one centimeter above the ear lobe, all around, central parting, two hair pins on either side.

Me with my middle school hair uniform: cut 1 cm above the ear lobe, all around, central parting, two hair pins on either side.

Next, we had to get the uniform. Our school dictated a black pleated skirt below the knee, a white sailor shirt with tie attached to the collar, and a black jacket in winter. Plus short white socks and black flat shoes. Plus the silly short hair and the shaven chicken butt under it.

I didn’t mind the sailor shirt too much. It was cute. The strange thing was that only Third Year students (9th graders) wore this uniform. First Years and Second Years wore blue pleated skirts and khaki shirts. The reason was because we were the last batch of “Girls Middle School” and the following batches were “National Middle School”. Taiwan had implemented free public education all the way up to Middle School two years previously — up from only free public elementary school.  The free public middle schools also implemented mixed education, and so there were now both boys and girls in the first two years.

Uniforms were only the beginning of the total paradigm shift we went through at the time.


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