Life of a Rooster

Memoirs of a psychiatrist, journalist and educator

Yeh Liu and Alishan

Despite the immense weight of homework and tests, our class was allowed one field trip that year. We were to go visit Yeh Liu.

Of course, I had no idea up till then about Yeh Liu. What was it? To my amazement, it consisted of a number of strange rock formations resulting from sea erosion. We got there by coach. A young lady with a perky cap acted as our tour guide. Seated up front near the driver, she spoke into a hand held microphone and tried to get us all into a touristy mood. To no avail. We were middle school students, drummed into discipline and submission. She sand a song and asked us to sing along. We all muttered along. She asked us to clap along. We did so dutifully, with pitifully weak tapping of palms. She gave up after a while and stared at the scenery and occasionally chatted with the driver. We were relieved and started chattering among ourselves, albeit in muted tones.


Sea candle rock formations at Yeh Liu Geopark

Sea candle rock formations at Yeh Liu Geopark

Yeh Liu is now called a geopark, short I presume for geological park. We walked among the rocks and admired them and took photos. I must have been a rather silly goose because the only picture I have of that trip is one of us, a little group of friends in our school’s sailor uniform, somewhere near the parking lot with a water tank in the background. It was grey and rainy, a normal situation for the northern Taiwan area, and a bit cold. We had more fun feeling liberated and talking to our hearts’ content than admiring the rock formations.

Hoodoo rocks at Yeh Liu Geopark

Hoodoo rocks at Yeh Liu Geopark

After graduation, Papa decided to take Saadia and me on a tour of southern Taiwan. Mama stayed in Taipei with Abdul Kerim and Iffat. And, … although I am getting ahead of my story, another little sister had been born in December 1970, Nadia, Mai Dai-Lei.

Papa had the heart of an adventurer, something which he passed on to me, and probably the result of reading all those adventure classics. He had left behind his photography phase, which had produced many albums of our years in Paris, courtesy of his old faithful grey Konika box camera. I knew Papa was only a “paper tiger”, stern and strict on the outside, when need be, but a wonderful friend and story-teller when the mood took him. However, on that trip, I saw a new side of him I had never seen before.

A good friend of his, a Mr. Chen, who had been a schoolmate in his university days and a colleague in his Forestry days, remained behind when Papa moved on to the Foreign Ministry. He was still working with the Forestry Department in central Taiwan. We took the train southward, and Papa took us to visit his family. We slept on “tatami” beds –woven mats, Japanese style —  and fanned ourselves to sleep with a hand fan, which also doubled as fly swatter. Their daughter, all goggle-eyed, asked her mother, “Are they so white and foreign-looking because they lived in France?” The mother was slightly embarrassed and tried to hush her, “No, it’s because, well it’s because… no, they are not, well, whatever.”

Why did everyone think so? White? Was I white? Sigh. Still the outsider, I guess.

The next day, Mr. Chen took us on the rickety train up Mount Ali — Ah-Li-Shan. The train was rather empty, so he and Papa occupied one pair of benches that faced each other, and Saadia and I occupied another pair. We gazed absent-mindedly  outside the window at the changing landscape. But soon, our attention was on the comedy show that Papa and his friend were presenting! Our stern and strict father was behaving like a teenager! The two of them were arguing over everything and nothing.

“Haha!’ exclaimed Mr. Chen, “just admit that you have forgotten everything about plants!  — No, I don’t. I still know them all! — No, you don’t! This one here, this one right here, what is it? — Oh, I know, it is… it is… — Too slow! You’re too slow! You just forgot! — No, I didn’t! It’s an oleander, there! — Ha! What about that one then? Quick, say it! — It is… a cactus! Oh, no, oops… — Hahaha! A cactus indeed! Hahaha!” We were flabbergasted. We looked at each other. Was this our father?

The train made one stop halfway up the mountain. We got off and admired the “sacred tree”, supposedly a very very old tree, over 3,000 years old. It looked dead to me, a tree trunk that seemed broken

Fortunately, I found this picture on the web, taken in February 1970, a few months before our trip. The train and the tree are just the way I remember them. This tree finally collapsed in 1997 and now the Lulin Sacred Tree has been crowned king.

Fortunately, I found this picture on the web, taken in February 1970, a few months before our trip. The train and the tree are just the way I remember them. This tree finally collapsed in 1997 and now the Lulin Sacred Tree has been crowned king.

off on top. We dutifully took pictures. Back on the rickety little train, and we choo-chooed on. Once on the mountain top, it was lovely. I mean, the temperature was lovely. Nice and cool, and not as humid as down in the plain. We stayed overnight in a guest house, compliment of the Forestry Department. Papa called us up early, so we could go on the terrace admire the famed sunrise. It was rather dark and cold out on the terrace, so we scooted indoors in the restaurant and ordered some hot breakfast, keeping an eye on the glass walls around us.

Papa winked to us and said in French, “Look at the two guys at the next table.” Actually, I had already noticed them. They both wore a furry hat with ear patches folded up. With a conspiratorial half-smile, Papa whispered on in French, “They must be Russian spies…” I half froze. Papa had a way of talking like it was true, yet you knew it couldn’t be so. No, why would Russian spies wear Russian hats in Taiwan, where they would stand out like sore thumbs? And anyway, didn’t Russians all speak French? Should he not switch to Chinese?

Ah...! What beauty! Sunrise over a sea of clouds. That's the famed scene that we missed.

Ah…! What beauty! Sunrise over a sea of clouds. That’s the famed scene that we missed.

Outside, the mist did not lighten for a long time. Finally, we walked out to the terrace to survey the situation. Where was this famous sunrise over a sea of clouds? Papa pointed at a white round shape through the mist. “Ah, I guess we are too late. There! The sun is already up!”


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A glimpse of eternity

Most of what I remember from that year (1970-71) is trying to catch up with school work. Doing homework. Going to school. Testing. Testing. And Testing.

However, there is one brief shining moment in that year when I had a flash of intuition, or a moment of truth, or a glimpse of eternity, whatever one may call it.

It happened right in the middle of a physics test. I was sweating and trembling with anxiety, and overwrought with the fear of making a mistake in my answers. My heart drummed alarmingly. My chest started wrenching in pain. Then I stopped. I put my hand down for a second, and lifted my head.

tree, sunlight


Through the glass of the large window right next to me, the tree tops were waving softly in the breeze. It was spring, and birds were singing. The sun was bright but not overbearingly hot. A butterfly managed to flutter all the way up to our second floor window. Ah, this is a day when one should be outdoors enjoying nature and the joy of rebirth. And all of a sudden the life I was leading, the test I was taking, the classroom full of anxious students, the physics test, all this seemed suddenly so pallid, so fake, and so unimportant in the larger picture of the universe in motion.


In that one moment, my anxiety melted away, and I suddenly thought — or maybe angels put the thought in my head? — “This is not important. In ten or thirty years, no one will care to know how much I scored in that physics test back in 9th grade.” And this has come true, by the way. It has been 43 years now and no one ever has asked me how much I scored in that particular test. The truth is, I myself do not remember at all how much I scored, nor whether I passed or failed it.

Although it may seem like an unimportant short instant; although no one saw anything or noticed anything at the time; and although I myself did not realize the impact of that realization, that single moment marked the beginning of a new era in my life. Before then, I would get immersed in the anxiety of trying to swim against the current and catch up with language, and school work in all the schools and systems and countries I had been through. After that moment, I still did. But the difference was that I now knew it was NOT important to do so, and when needed, I was able to stop the anxiety and step back. And smell the flowers.

It must have been after that moment that one day, although there was a test the next day, I decided to go see a movie instead of studying for one last minute. I wasn’t able to convince Saadia, and had to go with my younger siblings. After all, the theater had put up banners proclaiming “Nailed in iron:  last day!” Meaning that this was for sure the last day they were going to air that particular movie. Well, for all that I believed them, the next day, they had another banner proclaiming, “Nailed in steel: last day!”



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Green Shirts and Yellow Shirts

The primary characteristic of Grade 9 was that it was a test year: the year leading to the High School National Entrance Exam. Everyone was stressed out, from teachers to students, to parents. All of the Far Eastern educational systems were pretty much organized on the same mold: spoon feeding style of education, much stress on memorization, strong belief in drills and homework, and testing to get through various stages.

The well-respected emerald green shirts of Taipei First Girls School

The well-respected emerald green shirts of Taipei First Girls School

All Junior High students would sit for the exam in June. On the registration form, they would fill in their top 10 choices for high school. High schools were then still segregated. So the best boys’ high school was Jian Zhong and the best girls’ high school was Bei Yi Nu — short for Tai Bei Di Yi Nu Zhong, or Taipei’s First Girls High School. Everyone filled this in as their top choice, unless you were very sure you had no chance of getting in at all. Bei Yi Nu was known for their emerald green shirts and black skirts, and the students could be spotted from a mile. Everyone in the streets would pretend not to notice the green shirt but automatically would give some respect to students wearing it, since they represented the cream, the elite of our youth.

Then the second best girls high school was Jin Mei, whose students were recognized by their lemon yellow shirts and black skirts. The rumor going round was that Jin Mei girls were more creative and flexible than Bei Yi Nu girls who were more nerdy. But wait! That is not the whole story.

A more recent image of the lemon yellow shirts of the second best girls high school in Taipei. In 1970, only pleated skirts, not pants, were allowed. Hair was uniformly cut at ear lobe length.

A more recent image of the lemon yellow shirts of the second best girls high school in Taipei. In 1970, only pleated skirts, not pants, were allowed. Hair was uniformly cut at ear lobe length.

Because of overpopulation as well as lack of space and resources for an adequate number of schools, all high schools ran two shifts: day school and night school. Night school started around 5 PM and ran into the night, I am not quite sure what time it ended, probably 10 PM. I understand that it taught just the core subjects and cut out things like PE, art and music. Therefore, night school was considered a few steps below the level of the day school.

Saadia and I had been almost a year back in Taiwan by the time the National Exam rolled in. Lucky us, we had returned in July. Therefore, we qualified as “less than one year” returnees, and as such, did not have to take the National Exam. For returnees of 2 and 3 years, they would be given a handicap (extra points) on their National Exams, whether High School or University entrance. If one were unlucky enough to have been back more than three years, then too bad, she or he would have to tough it out like everyone else regardless of whether s/he had caught up with the academics. This actually happened to my little sister Iffat ten years later, when it was her turn to enter high school. In her application form, she filled in only the top three schools, leaving the rest blank. Papa nearly fainted when she came home and reported her choices. Iffat answered that there was no need to fill more blanks since she did not expect to enter any school less than the top three. Papa went ahead and applied on her behalf for overseas scholarships for Chinese Muslims in Muslim countries for her, just in case. Iffat was right, she made it to Jin Mei. And Papa wiped the sweat on his brow, and threw away the scholarships to Libya and Jordan.

Needless to say, Papa opted for Bei Yi Nu for us. But, we still had to sit for a test to determine whether we should attend day or night school. I was quite confident I would make the day school, for, after all, did I not average a 65% by now in Chinese tests? But Papa decided not to leave things to such flimsy chances. He contacted a Muslim Congresswoman (or, LiFaWeiYuan, member of the Legislative Assembly– a Ms. Tung, and asked her to help in this matter. I have always wondered in what way she could possibly have helped. Make a call to the principal? Whatever the case, both Saadia and I made it to the day school. I believe to this day that it was on the strength of my scores, though Papa maintained we should thank Congresswoman Tung for it.

The one interesting point in this whole episode is that little did I know then that one day I would become related by marriage to Congresswoman Tung.

The tomb of Congresswoman Tung and her husband

The tomb of Congresswoman Tung and her husband



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