Life of a Rooster

Memoirs of a psychiatrist, journalist and educator

Lab Sciences without Lab

Not the least of my struggles was with Sciences.

I did not know then that I would pursue a career in the sciences, or I probably would have paid more attention at the time. I never was bad at sciences before then, since it mainly consisted of biology.  I certainly had loved vertebrates and flowering plants much better than invertebrates and non-flowering plants. But I did not realize that in Taiwan, Physics and Chemistry were taught in 8th and 9th grades, or in other words, everyone had had a year of them before I got there.

So, here I was, in second year Physics and Chemistry, totally baffled by capital letters mixed with numbers in various combinations, with arrows thrown in, and absolutely no idea what it all meant. Eventually, my friend explained that all I had to do was take the first half of a formula and switch it with the first half of the formula it was added to, then write the resulting new combinations on the head end of the arrow. That helped, for now, instead of having every equation wrong, I only got half of them wrong. Balancing equations was an easier affair since the answers for chemical formulas on the right side of the equation were already filled in, and so no switching was involved; it was just a simple matter of addition and multiplication. 

Balancing chemical equations

Balancing chemical equations

I decided that the magical kingdom I had imagined Chemistry to be — alchemists working mysteriously among fumes and glass apparatus in a dark dungeon — was not for me.  The reality of the class was nothing mysterious or magical. That is, until the day the teacher took us to the lab. It happened only once throughout the entire year, and she only did just one demonstration, but that was enough to change my mind completely about Chemistry.

In my imagination, Chemistry was the grandchild of good old alchemy...

In my imagination, Chemistry was the grandchild of good old alchemy…

First, she showed us a white powder and told us that was copper sulfate in its solid form. OK, if you say so. Then she put water in a glass beaker and added the white powder to it. As the powder touched the water and dissolved in it, the entire water changed gradually to an astoundingly beautiful turquoise blue shimmeringly transparent liquid. Wow. Magic. This, she said, was copper sulfate in its liquid (aqueous) form. I believe you, Ma’am. This is certainly not the Mediterranean, though it could be a sample of it…

Electroplating a coin with copper

Electroplating a coin with copper

Then, she proceeded to explain the process of electrolysis. She pulled out a coin — I cannot remember its color but I think it was silver colored, so probably made of nickel… —  and she promised to coat it with copper. Really! I thought. Got to see this to believe it. She ran electricity between the two graphite sticks, and lo and behold! The coin really started getting covered with copper and finally looked totally like a copper coin.  I was flabbergasted. I fought through the mass of classmates to hold that copper coin and turn it in back and forth between my fingers. And just like that, my faith in the magic kingdom was restored. There was such a thing as alchemy after all…! It was not just a boring pile of worksheets. The real magic, however,  was that after this session, my grades in Chemistry improved overnight.

The lesson to be drawn from this is that teachers too often forget the true aim of learning and get addicted to, OK, not addicted;  bogged down in the mire of worksheets, tests, quizzes, homework, grading, and so on. These are really only the by-products of mass education. Real learning transcends these trivial matters. Show your students what the subject matter really is, show them your enthusiasm for it, and they will be hooked for life!

I had an easier time with Physics, because we took electrical circuits, levers, gears, lenses and such down to earth, easily understood topics.  Actually, I instantly fell in love with Physics. I think by now my readers are thinking, wow, she changes her favorite subject every single year.  Well, as a much more mature educator now, I realize that the topic/subject of course has to do with liking or not liking it, but the teacher needs to be passionate about her subject matter. Passion is a highly infectious emotion.

These are what I had to work with back in 1964. I had to remove the grey rubber tires then use elastic bands to connect them together.

These are what I had to work with back in 1964. I had to remove the grey rubber tires then use elastic bands to connect them together.

Today's lego blocks have evolved tremendously. These were designed specifically for such purposes as being levers and gears.

Today’s lego blocks have evolved tremendously. These are designed specifically for such purposes as being levers and gears.

All of a sudden, memory flashes of the gears and levers I had built out of Lego pieces back in Jeddah came back to me. Now, I understood why they worked, and figured out how I could improve them. Unfortunately, the teachers did not provide labs or hands-on manipulatives of any kind at all. Our Lego sets had long disappeared so I could not test my new theories.  But my imagination coupled with my memories managed to sustain me through the classes. Occasionally, I’d be playing with my eraser or pencil as a fulcrum and my ruler as a lever and try balancing various objects on it.  There was too much homework to allow time for more complicated play.

And here comes Lesson Number Two. What if playing with miniature gears and levers, or wires, bulbs and batteries took the majority of our time in class, instead of listening to lectures, taking notes, and filling worksheets?  What result would we get with students? The answer did come, but many many years later, in my own experimental school. Readers, you will have to bear with me for a good number of  more posts to find out what happened to students thus taught.


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Manga craze

Art as taught according to the syllabus was one thing. Art the way it was practiced among the students in our Taipei middle school was totally another.

Everyone seemed to be able to draw. Our favorite topics were of course, girls and women. Those were the early days — maybe not that early, since it existed already in the pages of Er Tong Le Yuan (Children’s Paradise) magazine back in our Jeddah days —  of Japanese style manga.

Typical manga style girl, found on the "mailbox" page of ErTongLeYuan

Typical manga style girl, found on the “mailbox” page of ErTongLeYuan

Typically, every character is good-looking, including all the evil ones,  has huge oversized eyes, and amazingly beautiful hair. Eyes were big black pools (if done in lead pencil) where a few white highlights would gather in one corner and were fringed with enormous curly eyelashes. Hair could be any color, depending on your color box, but the skill lay in how to position bunches of curls or fringes. The trick to a good hair style or hair “flow” consisted in dividing the total hair into handfuls and drawing those individually.

Back in Paris, in 7eme,  we had to make little angels once for a class project, maybe for Christmas trees. We were given little cones and ping-pong balls, and had to stick the former into the latter, and paint them into angels. I drew my angel’s face Manga style, and admired it proudly. The teacher took one look at it, and asked whether she was wearing sunglasses! What an insult! When I insisted they were eyes, she pityingly explained that those things were too big to be eyes. Then one classmate also came to admire it and said that she liked my “petite bonne femme“! That was adding insult to injury! Or injury to insult! Whatever. Petite bonne femme indeed! It is hard to translate the exact shade of meaning of this term: somewhere between “little woman” with none of the cuteness, to “lowly housemaid with a matronly air”.

typical manga girl, ErTongLeYuan

But here in Taipei, no more ignoramuses. Everyone drew immense eyes in various styles. Before the year was over, I had purchased a notebook and asked the best among our resident class manga artists to draw me a girl. Some wore modern clothing, others ancient Chinese clothing. Some were full body while others were only portraits. One was even drawn with Chinese brush and ink. I highly prized my collection, and kept it for quite some years, until, like many of our belongings, it disappeared sometime along our travels and moves.

Manga was everywhere: not just on children’s magazines, and serialized comic books, but also on anything a child might buy, such as pencil boxes, erasers, pencils, bookmarks, and undersheets (word I just made up to translate dian ban, a hard plastic sheet the size of notebook page, that you place under the paper for easy writing).

manga on pencil box

And I, totally engulfed by the craze, would draw for hours on end, big eyes, multiple highlights, curls and floating tresses, and dreamy dresses. 

I must mention here a new discovery I have just made, as I was looking for images to illustrate this post:  While browsing for Er Tong Le Yuan, the Hong Kong magazine for children, I found that it was published between 1953 and 1993 when it folded. But one of the ex-editors decided in 2013 to upload online all the issues, and now we can simply go to and browse these defunct issues. I am quite amazed at it. It used to be beautifully illustrated, full-color, and had both short-series and featured comics. Some were in manga style, some others in classical Chinese style, and so on. There was a section that featured Chinese legends, another adapted well-known classics, such as Shakespeare’s King Lear, and other sections turned books such as Dr. Seuss’s, into comics. There was of course, a mailbox section for letters and drawings from readers. Considering all these were then hand-drawn, it is amazing that it was published twice a month, totaling 24 issues a year!

The now defunct Children's magazine from HongKong, Er Tong Le Yuan

The now defunct Children’s magazine from HongKong, Er Tong Le Yuan

Some topics covered general knowledge. Here: Abraham Lincoln

Some topics covered general knowledge. Here: Abraham Lincoln






Chinese legends were a staple of the magazine. Here: How silk was discovered.

Chinese legends were a staple of the magazine. Here: How silk was discovered.

Famous stories from around the world, such as King Lear, were presented in Er Tong Le Yuan

Famous stories from around the world, such as King Lear, were presented in Er Tong Le Yuan


Chinese Brush Painting

Not only were PE and Music well planned and taught according to a syllabus, Art was also a wonder.

The book wasn’t thick but I would pore over the pages over and over again. Truth be told, the teacher did not go over all of the material. For instance, there was a chapter on cartooning that I awaited eagerly but was skipped over. Whatever we did cover, I loved it.

charcoal busts

There were a few sessions on charcoal portraiture. The teacher brought a Roman or Greek bust and we all drew it. At the end, she held up three different drawings — and I’m proud to say, mine was one of them — and explained how although they were of different styles, they were all good. The other two were a “slabby” style, where every slope and corner was exaggerated into slabs; and a “soft” style where all shades of black and grey were carefully mixed and smoothed so no sudden changes along the meeting edges.

Another month, we studied Chinese brush painting. Now I discovered how to paint those dreamy landscapes I was trying to duplicate back in Paris. Chinese painting is a bit like Montessori education. Each little part is very specific and must be practiced at length in order for one to master it. Yet the artist is totally free to decide what to do with those parts. The real art and skill are in the design of the entire painting, and in the ability to infuse this painting with “chi/qi” or spirit. One might wonder whether such highly stylized paintings are not like stencilling. No, not at all. Stencil art is very dead looking, no life in it at all. On the other hand, a well-done Chinese painting should burst with vitality.

A stenciled image (left) is unable to convey ardent Qi because each element is pre-drawn. A brush painting (right) can show vital force because it is executed on the spot, with the hand and wrist moving in one direction. Perfection of stroke is secondary to movement.

A stenciled image (left) is unable to convey ardent Qi because each element is pre-drawn. A brush painting (right) can show vital force because it is executed on the spot, with the hand and wrist moving in one direction. Perfection of stroke is secondary to movement.

That year, we were slated to learn landscape elements such as rocks and trees. I was totally enthralled by it. Just by using black ink, and various dilutions of grey, old and gnarled pines would shape up three-dimensionally, and rocks would pop out of the paper. I practiced night and day the different types of pine needle formations, as well as straight trunks, tortured and bent trunks, roots pushing out of the earth, and squirrel holes. I delighted in slowly pulling out leaves of the grass orchid across the paper, in graceful curves thinning into a line where it bent.

The Ancient Palace Museum, in the suburbs of Taipei, exhibits relics from past dynasties saved and carried to Taiwan during the Nationalist Forces' retreat in 1949.

The Ancient Palace Museum, in the suburbs of Taipei, exhibits relics from past dynasties saved and carried to Taiwan during the Nationalist Forces’ retreat in 1949.

how to paint rocks

Maybe that year, or maybe the next, Papa saw a tiny announcement for a lecture at the Ancient Palace Museum in the suburbs of Taipei. “Hey, Fawzia,” he said, “There is a lecture on the comparison of Classical Chinese brush art versus Classical European art. Want to come and listen to it together?” So it was that one fine twilight, the two of us took the bus to the magnificent Ancient Palace Museum. The speaker was a French person whose job I cannot remember. But it had nothing to do with art, more with science or possibly engineering. Nor can I recall his name, so I apologize for not crediting his work properly. But his presentation made a profound impression on me. He had a collection of slides — and this was in the time of real photographic slides, not power point ones. You had to place them in order in a tray that was loaded into a slide projector.  He started with an introduction about how he had become interested in Chinese art and a disclaimer about not being a specialist. Then to the meat of the matter.

He showed a typical Western oil painting of flowers; and another; and another. They were all of cut flowers in vases; some were even cut flowers placed on a table, waiting to die. Then he showed slides of Chinese flowers: orchids, wisterias, chrysanthemums, all vibrant with life and in a natural habitat. Similarly, he went on contrasting Western classical paintings of animals: horses as cavalry, dogs in a hunt, hunted animals, butchered animals, fish on a plate, you get the idea. Then the Chinese animals, wild horses galloping, koi fish and shrimps in a pond, peacocks strutting among rocks, all alive and well, and enjoying their day.

Plants and flowers, Chinese classical style

Plants and flowers, Chinese classical style

flowers, Western style

Flowers, Western classical/impressionist style. They are usually cut flowers, displayed in a vase.

I cannot quote him exactly, and maybe my memory of his exact meaning is fuzzy. But I have often repeated to my students his presentation, or a version of it, now on a power point slide . Man reflects his attitude to life in his paintings. In the Europe of the Classical period, the European man sought to conquer and control his surroundings and other forms of life while the Chinese man tended to observe nature, admire it, preserve it, and learn from it. 

I cannot pinpoint when it started happening, but slowly, very slowly, and very surely, a growing pride in being Chinese germinated in my heart.

Animals, in the Chinese classical style, are alive and well, doing their own thing in a natural habitat.

Animals, in the Chinese classical style, are alive and well, doing their own thing in a natural habitat.


Animals, in the Western classical style, are usually, if alive, subjugated to human willpower.

Animals, in the Western classical style, are usually, if alive, subjugated to human willpower.

Chinese horses frolicking vs European horses glorifying humans.

Chinese horses frolicking vs European horses glorifying humans.


Typhoons & Earthquakes

Physical Education in Taiwan was another study in contrast. To start with, no more teacher of some subject or other doing the PE classes. We had specialized PE teachers.

No more discovering that volley ball was a game played by teams and that there were vague rules about it. Now each month, we had to take different areas of sports, and we also took all the rules about each game, on paper, in the classroom.  There were more rules than I cared to learn or be tested on. No room for guesswork.

The Chinese run a PE class like an army, regardless of whether they are in Taiwan or on the Mainland.

The Chinese run a PE class like a military drill, regardless of whether they are in Taiwan or on the Mainland.

Also, it was very discomfiting to discover that everyone was fit, very fit. Anyone could outrun me, or outdo me in any skill. Thankfully, they did not require us to climb ropes. When I asked my classmates about ropes, they were puzzled. Ropes? Never heard of. We do climb bamboo poles, though. But not this year. It’s not on the syllabus. (Oof!)

The only area I was any good at back in France, was gymnastics, as long as it was indoors. I was flexible enough. But here, everyone was an overachiever even in gymnastics. One day, the PE coach said,”Test today!  Here is how you will be graded: ten sit ups, that’s 60%, pass. After the first 10, one point per sit up. All right?”

In PE as in everything else, there was order. The PE Little Teacher always started class by commanding us to “Line… up!” and we would immediately line in six neat rows of ten students each (except for my row which had 7).  So she commanded us to sit down and we all waited for the students to go up front in pairs, one holding the feet and the other doing her sit-ups. The one holding the feet would count the sit-ups out loud, and the teacher simply recorded them.

I started sweating with dreadful anticipation. I knew I was not able to do a single sit-up. Try as I might, I could only come up halfway, with much panting and redness of face, and my abs in knots. Oh, great. What do I do now? Fail PE? That had happened only once in France, and despite my parents’ lack of reaction to it, I felt very ashamed at having a “red grade” again. My health had improved during my three years in France, with some flesh back on and some pink in my cheeks, and I had not fainted again since that episode in the souk.

Everyone could do ten sit-ups with no problem whatsoever. Some of them would look like a jack in the box, popping up and going down so fast I wondered they did not have a spring built-in somewhere. They would reach 100 points and still keep going.

The bell rang when there were still maybe 12 students left. The PE coach looked disappointed. “All right,” she said, “all the remaining students, I’ll meet you back here after lunch to finish the test. Dismissed!” I did not have a happy lunch. I did not practice because I knew it was pointless. I had tried enough times at home. The twelve of us gathered and returned to the PE yard. The teacher had forgotten, maybe, because we waited very long. She finally appeared. She too seemed fed up with the drudgery. “How many of you just want a 60% instead of trying for more?” I was the first to raise my hand. 

Once again, God had saved me from a failing grade.

So, we learned the “three-step-up-the-basket” in basket ball, then some softball. “What is softball?” I asked my classmates. “Oh, that’s baseball for girls.” Since I did not know much about baseball, that did not help. Our class — Third Year 27th class — included seven members of the school’s handball team. The team captain looked superbly healthy and tanned. Every now and then, the seven of them would be called out to practice, and sometimes, they would skip school to go to tournaments. They would meet other teams from various schools, including boys’ schools. As a result, they would receive love letters which they would share out loud in class, to an audience of giggles and laughter.

Handball is rather like soccer with the hands.

Handball is rather like soccer with the hands.

In 1970, the most famous athlete from Taiwan was Chi Cheng (Ji Zheng), a track-and-field Olympic bronze medalist who had broken three world records within the space of one week, and won the gold medal at the Bangkok Asian Games. She had been dubbed “Iron Girl” by the Taiwanese and “Flying Antelope” by the Japanese. Despite my little knowledge of the world of sports, even I knew of her. She had come to France to compete in an event, and Aunt Lily and Uncle Lung had gone to cheer her. Aunt Lily had returned home full of excitement and hoarse from screaming “Jia you! Jia you!” meaning, “Add oil! Add oil!” which is the Chinese equivalent of “Go!” or “Come on!”

The Flying Antelope, Chi Cheng

The Flying Antelope, Chi Cheng

Her latest achievements were followed enthusiastically by the girls at school. She was Women’s Track & Field’s 1971 World Athlete of the Year, and to this day Asian Athlete of the Century. Alas, it is a sad trait of humans to raise over-achievers to the status of savior then tramp on them as scapegoats should they fail. That year, Chi Cheng sustained an ankle injury in the middle of a race. She fell and was unable to finish the race. The injury was to cause her to stay out of the 1972 Munich Olympics. All 14 million of us Taiwanese were shocked and shattered. One of my classmates banged her fist on her desk. “What? How could she shame us by quitting the race? Even if she had to crawl on all fours, she had to finish the race!”

Chi Cheng,  Women's Track and Field  Athlete of the Year

Chi Cheng, Women’s Track and Field Athlete of the Year

One day, during lunch break, there was a sudden uproar in class. The girls ran to the windows or out the door, screaming hysterically, “Chi Cheng! Chi Cheng!”  Oh my, I thought, Chi Cheng has come to the school for a visit! And I got up too, and tried to get to the windows among the general riot. But before I managed to do so, everything died down, the students stopped running, and meekly returned to their seats. I grabbed my neighbor by the arm, “Where was Chi Cheng?” She looked surprised. “What do you mean?”

“I did not see her. Where was she?” I insisted. My friend pointed at the light bulbs hanging down from the ceiling. “Didn’t you see that?” What? The light bulbs? What would Chi Cheng be doing up on the light bulbs? She looked slightly exasperated, “The light bulbs were swinging during the “di cheng“, didn’t you notice?”

Oh… Now it dawned on me. Di cheng! not Chi Cheng! Di cheng means earthquake, spelled today di zheng according to the Pin Yin system. Lucky me, I just lived through an earthquake and felt nothing! Absolutely nothing! No fun at all!

Although earthquakes are frequent in Taiwan, few are as devastating as the 1999  7.6 earthquake that devastated Taiwan.

Although earthquakes are frequent in Taiwan, few are as devastating as the 1999 7.6 earthquake that devastated Taiwan.

Aunt Lily had told me about the earthquakes in Taiwan. After all, Taiwan was situated on the Pacific rim, the ring of fire. It also happened to be smack in the middle of the tropics. And so it also had a monsoon season during the late summer. In my geography classes back in Paris, we were told that the monsoon occurred mainly in India. Well, I suppose we were close enough to India to also have a monsoon.

I found out that rain can be hot. Parisian rains were always cold, so that was new. That raindrops can be huge; so huge that you could be totally drenched inside out in less than a minute in the hot summer rain. It seemed to rain every single afternoon, a loud flashy affair with much billowing clouds and giant drops that would end in no time at all, bringing back the sun.

Typhoons were a common occurrence in the late summer and early fall. They had foreign women’s names and if strong enough and headed towards us, then we would get a day off. Everyone would get a day off, even Papa. Rain would pour like Taipei was Noah’s ark, but thanks to the open sewer gulleys running on either side of every road, street, alley and lane, flooding never lasted long.

typhoons in taiwan

One day, Papa came off the bus from work (yup, no Cadillac in Taipei, it was back-to-public-transportation) amid the pouring rain. Fearing to damage his new patent leather shoes, he took them off, stuffed his socks in them, rolled up his pants, and ran across the road, holding his shoes in one hand and holding his document bag over his head with the other. A young couple snuggling under an umbrella called out to him, “Little brother! Xiao Di Di!  Come over here, we have an umbrella!”

Papa was delighted. He relayed the story to us, guffawing over the details. “Little brother! Hahaha!” Indeed, Mama had been religiously dyeing his silver strands black every month, so he still looked young.

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Moonlight on the Colorado

Music class was a new discovery.

de terre en  vigne

I had always been at the top of the class in music back in France and Turkey. I was told I had a good voice, and I did love and enjoy singing “la voila la jolie vigne au vin…”  or “Loch Lomond” and “Moscow Nights” usually with Part I. In Taiwan, I discovered that everyone could sight sing.

I am not even joking. Every single student, the first day of music class, picked up the textbook, opened to the assigned page, which showed the score of a song in a key that was not C major, and proceeded to sing it on the spot, what with the sharp signs and all. I was stupefied. In the French schools, the teacher would simply play it on her hand organ, and sing. We would then listen and repeat, and learn it by rote. Oh, we did learn music notation, at its simplest. I knew of sharps and flats only because of piano. I was the only person I knew who could learn a song by reading it and having never heard it. But I did that after poring over the score for hours, and figuring out the tones of each note painstakingly.

All of a sudden, even in Music, I was again at the bottom of the pecking order. I had to learn all 24 keys in a crash course from my classmates. The good part was that since the entire class sang together, I could just lip synch the first couple of times, till I learned the tune.

The second huge eye-opener was the discovery that young students could actually have trained voices! One girl in my class came from a private elementary school that specialized in art and music. She would open her mouth and the sound would fill the classroom. I loved it. I thought only opera singers had trained voices, and it had never until then dawned on me that a young student actually could learn to do that too. Thinking back, I didn’t even know there was such a thing as voice training until then.

The curriculum was well laid out. The textbook indicated which songs to learn, which parts of music theory to practice, and which pieces of music to listen to. Our singing repertoire were an interesting mix of world folk songs, classical lieder, and Chinese songs. Right at the front of the textbook were the National Anthem and the Flag Song — so bright and perky it was unanimously considered among my classmates as a better candidate for national anthem– for which I was very thankful. That helped me memorize them quickly for the morning assemblies. Then came a selection of patriotic songs, mostly dull but with the occasional gem, such as “Plum Blossom”.  The plum blossom symbolizes Chinese spirit because it blooms in late winter rather than early spring, thus seemingly braving the snow and low temperatures, striving hard when others have given up.

Flag Song, Republic of China (click here to listen to the Flag Song)

The Plum Blossom / Anthem of the Republic of China (click here to listen to these patriotic songs)

The world folk songs were my favorite. That year we had a number of American folk songs. These, by the way, have been made famous throughout the Far East by the early returning visitors from the West in the 1920s and 1930s. They were compiled into collections entitled “101 Best Songs” and such. I have not met a single American born and bred citizen who knows as many “American  folk” songs as a Taiwanese or Japanese does. Really. How many of you, dear Readers, can sing right off the bat “Moonlight on the Colorado”, and “I Dream of Jeannie with the Long Brown Hair”, and “Beautiful Dreamer” (all required songs for Grade 9), as well as “Home on the Range”, “Home Sweet Home”, “Yankee Doodle”, “My Old Kentucky Home”, and “Yellow Rose of Texas” ?  Well, once I discovered Stephen Foster, I went to the stores and bought all the collections of “Best Songs” I could find and learned them. Through sight reading.

moonlight on the colorado

I must insert here some comment on Chinese translation of English lyrics. However poetical one may think American English lyrics are, the Chinese have to trump them. Chinese poetry and song lyrics, at least classical ones, are extremely romantic. There is no way they could have translated as is, “We were to wed in harvest time you said / That’s why I’m longing for you / When it’s moonlight on the Colorado / I wonder if you’re waiting for me too.” Way too plain and sordid. And so, the Chinese version improved this to: “Come back, Friend, return to my side/ in the night sky, stars are twinkling / the bright moon in the heavens / is whispering to me / oh, Colorado, beautiful homeland…” and I’d sing the song to myself night after night, enjoying rolling the syllables “ke-luo-la-duo” (Colorado) around my tongue, with absolutely no idea of where that was. The overall tone of the song was romantic and almost classical. When I heard this version recently in its original Western country style, I was taken aback. So that’s what it was supposed to sound like?

Original American version: Moonlight on the Colorado

Chinese version of Moonlight on the Colorado

Then Saadia and I discovered the magic of pirated music. In those hefty days, copyright was still as irrelevant to industries in developing countries as traffic signs were to drivers in the Middle East. There was a record store right by the movie theater on the main road, and we spent many hours there browsing happily through the thousands of cheap pirated records and purchasing them for pennies. Now I could listen to those songs I had hummed to myself and relish the harmonies, accompaniments and instrumental renditions. 

It was through this record store that I discovered the Vienna Choir Boys. Entitled the Wiener Sangerknaben in German, they are pretty much the world’s most famous boys choir. In my fuzzy memory, I am not sure whether I found them first on record on through a German-language movie about the Vienna Choir Boys. I fell in love with the movie, its corny plot, and most of all, the lovely singing. I sniffed and blew my nose and wiped my profuse tears all the way home. Now I would grab any new LP that came out, and memorize every single word of the German lyrics on the back of the cover. Yes, even the entire text of the Blue Danube!

Moving Moment — Clip from the movie “Der Schönste Tag meines Lebens”

vienna choir boys

Of course, the lyrics were all in German. Which was just wonderful, because I had undertaken to learn German. All my ex-classmates from the Ecole Lamazou were taking now German in addition to English, and I felt terribly inferior to them for not taking it. So to remedy this deficiency, I found a German textbook and a set of records that went with it. On Sundays, I would be listening to the records and writing out German grammar exercises and drills instead of learning my classical Chinese. And so, those lyrics were a welcome exercise in verbal German.  It did not matter that no German would be walking the street saying, “Sah ein Knab’ ein Röslein stehn, Röslein auf der Heiden,…” (Saw a boy a little rose, little red rose on the heath, …); or for that matter, “Danube so blue, … your silver ribbon links country to country…”

But no matter, it was music to my ears. Literally. And I’d be standing by the phonograph (record player), imitating the little boys’ treble voices the best I could, holding the record cover, imagining myself in concert.

Mama must have been observing me secretly. One day, she showed me an ad in the paper. Voice lessons! Would I be interested? And here, I have to blame the debilitating shyness that paralyzed my life then. The fear of yet a new teacher, and even more so, the fear of being different and standing out were so predominant that I did not hesitate one second. “NO!” I replied to Mama, “absolutely not!”  She never mentioned it again.

After a lifetime of being the alien, the outcast, the outsider, I was trying very hard to blend in, disappear in the human sea of overpopulated Taipei. And so, I struggled very hard to appear “normal”, so no one could tell I was different in any way.  I managed to not stand out at all in Music class till one day, we had a monthly test, and had to take turns singing solo the assigned song. My turn came. I stood by the teacher, who banged on the piano the introductory bars. I started singing. The teacher’s head suddenly jerked upwards and stared at me. Oh, my! Did I come out too special? I immediately toned myself down, modulating my voice into the monotonous flat vocals that most people produce. She looked slightly puzzled, but bent her head again, seemingly thinking, “Must have misheard her. Plain as always…”  I breathed a sigh of relief and slipped back into my seat, incognito again.


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