Life of a Rooster

Memoirs of a psychiatrist, journalist and educator

Typhoons & Earthquakes

on July 5, 2014

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.


One Response to “Typhoons & Earthquakes”

  1. Saadia Mai says:

    Fawzia, I must have been living on another planet: I don’t remember anything about PE classes, zero, nothing! I must have been dreaming myself to be somewhere else the whole time, I was horribly unfit, uncoordinated and out of shape.

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