Life of a Rooster

Memoirs of a psychiatrist, journalist and educator

The River Ran Through China

yellow river

Dr. Umar Faruq Abd-Allah liked Islam to a river: Its waters are pure, sweet, and life-giving but — having no color of their own — reflect the bedrock over which they flow. Well, the river turned yellow and became quite unique when it flowed through China.

Papa belonged to what I term the “old Chinese Muslims”, that generation that is now vanishing, the generation that religiously avoided any form or shape of pork or lard, and refused to eat in a home or restaurant that had ever cooked pork. However, many of these same Muslims who retched and felt nauseated at the sight of bacon and sausages –even turkey or beef ones, for they looked and smelled like the pork ones — would happily drink alcohol and totally omit the five daily prayers. They would fast during Ramadan and attend Friday and Eid prayers, though. Most of the women from this sub-cultural group did not wear scarves except when they would go pray in the mosque. And even then, it often was a tiny bandana square that left the front and back hair exposed. I even saw women in knee length dresses, wearing transparent nylon stockings, and praying.

I really am not pointing fingers, only describing the result of pre-Reformation Islam in China. Sorry for borrowing the term. Today, with the explosion of the internet and the availability of religious information literally at the tips of ones fingers, it is very difficult to remain secluded in a corner of semi-ignorance. I have personally witnessed the change in many elders and contemporaries, towards a more mainstream practice of Islam.

Today the Islamic restaurants have multiplied in Taipei.

Today the Islamic restaurants have multiplied in Taipei.

But back in the 1970s, in Taiwan, we could not eat out except in Muslim restaurants or vegetarian Buddhist restaurants. That greatly limited Mama’s shopping time and radius. She would have to head out very early to be back in time for lunch, or then leave right after lunch to be back by dinner time. Alternatively, she would plan her shopping itinerary just right so that around lunch time she would be in the vicinity of the only two Muslim restaurants located in the shopping heart of Taipei, the XiMenDing area.

Our favorites were of course, the dumplings (jiao zi), steamed or steam-fried buns (bao zi), and meat-stuffed pancakes (xier bing).  We would stuff ourselves and buy extra to take home.

Xian-er bing, or pancakes stuffed with meat

Xian-er bing, or pancakes stuffed with meat

I do remember once, a new Islamic restaurant opened at the top of a commercial building, and we were treated there by the owner. It was there I first ate Peking-Duck-Three-Eats, meaning, the roasted skin served first, with little pancakes, shredded scallions and plum sauce; then the meat shredded and stir-fried with shiitake mushrooms and other vegetables; and finally the bones boiled into a light broth and served with cilantro and ginger. Since then I have found that different restaurants serve their own variations, some do the Two-Eats, meaning that the skin and meat are served together. The little pancakes, I have seen in a multitude of varieties, from flat and transparent all the way to raised and steamed and folded in two. And to top it all, we — actually my husband, not I — have even cooked and served it at our restaurant, — during the two years we had one — not telling anyone we had never roasted one ever before and reading out of a cookbook while making it. Amazingly, we were congratulated for the best Peking duck our discerning customers had ever eaten! But I am years ahead of my story, and this will have to wait a while.

The remaining bones are boiled into a soup.

The remaining bones are boiled into a soup.

Crispy slices of roasted duck skin with shredded scallion and hai-xian sauce in a flat steamed bun.

Crispy slices of roasted duck skin with shredded scallion and hai-xian sauce in a flat steamed bun.

 

The traditional pancake however is not raised, flat and thin, and used to roll the contents in.

The traditional pancake however is not raised, flat and thin, and used to roll the contents in.

The duck meat is shredded and stir fried with various vegetables. Here, with bean sprouts.

The duck meat is shredded and stir fried with various vegetables. Here, with bean sprouts.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Taipei is known to be a real heaven of street hawker foods. Yet, there were very few we, Chinese Muslims, could eat.  One was Stinking Tofu, that Papa relished. He kept telling to try some, and I, holding my nose, would just step back and shake my head. Papa always said, “Try some! If you don’t like it, just spit it out!” This was a philosophy passed on to him by his uncle. We all knew his famous Watermelon Story. The first time fresh watermelon was brought to their house, Papa as a child shrank from the new fruit. When urged to try some, he ran and hid himself in a bed cover closet. Finally, his uncle found him and brought him back to the dining room. He told him to just try, and that spitting out was OK. Papa was happily surprised to find that he did love the taste of watermelon! Somehow, that kind of bravery did not trickle down genetically, for I have never yet had the guts to try Stinky Tofu, or durian for that matter. A durian is a South East Asian fruit, large and spiky, that will kill you if it falls on your head, or if it sits in your dining room, since you will mistake its fragrance for that of unprocessed sewage, and die from its fumes. 

Mama, on the other hand, introduced us to the cool delights of shaved ice. Today, it has mutated into the ubiquitous smoothies and boba teas and invaded the West. Back then, shaved ice was precisely that: a block of ice shaven into fine snow and served on a plate. You could then have your choice of toppings, condensed milk (not for me), chopped seasonal fruits, syrup, green or red beans, or my new crave: tiny little balls of tapioca.  The large balls were not yet in fashion then.

A plate of shaved ice in Taipei. Here, shown with condensed milk, mango cubes and topped with a scoop of ice cream.

A plate of shaved ice in Taipei. Here, shown with condensed milk, mango cubes and topped with a scoop of ice cream.

Since most Islamic restaurants were small affairs, Muslim weddings were generally held in vegetarian Buddhist restaurants or strictly seafood restaurants, some of which were really grand. There I discovered a brave new world: vegetarian chicken, vegetarian sausages, and vegetarian just-about-any-type-of-meat-dish-you-can-dream-of. They looked and tasted just like the real thing! But they were made generally of tofu derivatives.

vegetarian chicken

It was also in Taipei that I was introduced to Japanese food, namely sushi. Grandpa Chang one day took Saadia and me to a real Japanese restaurant, one where the tables were low and you had to sit on flat cushions on the floor. For customers unused to cross-leg sitting, there were pits under the tables, so you could actually let your legs down in those pits. When I saw fish being served raw, I was totally put off. But one did not say no to Grandpa Chang, and when he insisted in his Taiwanese accented Mandarin that it tasted really good and proceeded to pick juicy chunks of fish in our plate, we had no choice but to comply. All it took was “try it!” like Papa said. I loved it! And ever since, I have turned into a sushi junkie.

However, we still ate home-made meals most of the time. Cooked by Mama. She still felt that cooking was her sole responsibility and only asked for our help if she was overwhelmed. I tried showing off the few dishes I’d learned with Aunt Lily, but that did not seem to impress Mama.

No Comments »

Memory versus reality

So, I just got the great idea of checking my diary versus what I have written so far. Interesting how those golden years shone in my memory with certain pretty stars, and my diary speaks of other things.

The diary my third aunt gave me in 1970, and that I have kept till today.

The diary my third aunt gave me in 1970, and that I have kept till today.

Yes, we did keep up the habit of writing our journals, though they were more weekly or monthly entries rather than daily ones. When we arrived back in Taiwan, all the relatives gave us gifts. My third or fourth aunt gave me a beautiful little diary book, good for a year, with a hard cover and lined with embossed red velvet and the golden characters Beautiful Life up front. It even had monthly divisions with picturesque photos on one side and little essays on positive character traits on the other.  On top of every page, there was a little quote and a cute drawing. To top the whole, it even had a blue ribbon I could use to keep the page!

My first entry, upon arriving in Taiwan, was about the cockroaches! Yes, my dear little nemeses from Jeddah were here too, with a vengeance! I can tell I still wrote very much in French romantic style then (and in French still):

“August 1, 1970. I arrived in Formosa on July 27. I am really happy to see my family again and my only terror, it is the cockroaches (babarottes) also known as “blattes”, I think. The other night, I was so frightened that I rolled myself well in my bed cover. Result: heart tight with anguish, body dripping with sweat, I managed to fall asleep only in the early hours of the morning. So, last night, I went to sleep in Mama’s room…”

Speaking of cockroaches… They were of the big, huge, black variety. My old flying friend that triggered my cockroach-phobia. I guess they should not have been a surprise, considering the humid and warm climate as well as the open sewers that ran along the sides of all streets and lanes. They loved the kitchen and the bathrooms best, though no room was immune. I thought Papa was quite the hero, for one day, Mama managed to make him mount a campaign to eradicate the ones in the small bathroom  under the stairs. Papa armed himself with a few cans of insecticide, a large tall broom, a brush and pan set, and a pair of slippers. He marched triumphantly off to war with us clapping and cheering him on. He shut himself in the small bathroom and we heard thumping and stomping, spraying and slapping, and finally after what seemed an eternity, he reappeared, victoriously brandishing a trash can filled with hundreds of the filthy little pest. I promptly ran away from the disgusting sight.

lots of cockroaches

One day, I was showering in the bathroom in the evening. Just as we did in Jeddah, I would sit on a little stool in the bathtub, scoop hot water from a plastic bucket with a dipper, and pour it over myself. I picked up the loofah to soap and scrub myself, and to my intense horror, two huge ferocious dark cockroaches crawled out of it. Faster than it is taking me to type this, I threw the loofah on the floor, jumped out of the bathtub, and out of the bathroom, totally regardless of who was in the house at the time… and oh yes, I was screaming too, all the while… Papa and Abdul Kerim chivalrously killed them for me.

And finally, to top it all, I drank cockroach tea one day.  Mama always had a large cup of tea half filled with green tea leaves at the ready. She would brew a new cup every morning and refill it again and again with hot water throughout the day and night. One morning, I was quite thirsty and grabbed the first container of liquid I saw, which was Mama’s tall cup, still partially filled with leaves and cold tea. I gulped it enthusiastically, until, as the liquid drained out and the leaves gradually dried up, I saw a large dark mass dead among them… Well, I’ll spare you the screams, and retching, and spitting that followed… Needless to say, I never ever again picked up an unknown cup of liquid or placed one anywhere near my lips.

Another interesting discovery transpired when I flipped through the 1970 entries in my diary. Now that we are all adults, and not only that, we are all parents, and I am even a grandparent, I suppose it is all right to admit certain things I am not proud of from my childhood. Here is an excerpt from the entry of August 13, 1970. Which, by the way, surprised me a lot, because I always thought I was a very good elder sister, loving and protective toward my younger siblings. Here we go:

My brother, Abdul Kerim, back in 1970

My brother, Abdul Kerim, back in 1970

“… By the way, in his (Abdul Kerim’s) journal, he said that ‘in the past, his second elder sister used to love slapping him, but nowadays, she only did so occasionally, and that it didn’t hurt either.”

Really? I thought it was my brother who one day slapped me and got away with it even though I ran to tell Papa about it. In my memory I never ever slapped him. Well the next comment makes things worse…

“Evidently, since I dare not overdo it. Then in conclusion, he said that he loved me still anyway. That really touched me.”

Dear Brother, if you read this, I want to officially apologize to you for ever raising my hand to you. I’m sorry!

I'm sorry

 

No Comments »

Hibiscus nectar and shamanism

Reuniting with my family was a warm and lovely experience, albeit heavily overshadowed by school work.

Abdul Kerim was now a third/fourth grader and Iffat went to preschool. As mentioned previously, a new little sister, Nadia, was born in December of 1970. And so, all of the siblings were now spaced five years apart, except for me who arrived only one year after Saadia. We often joked that Mama followed the example of the government of Taiwan, who followed a series of five-year-plans for its economic development.

Mama had a very hard time with the delivery and her life was in danger at one point. She and Papa decided to have her tubes ligated afterwards.  She had tried giving the Mai family at least one  more heir to carry on the name, but it was not to be. Papa asked Saadia and me for opinions on a name for the new baby. He chose two characters: Lei, meaning flower bud and Wei, meaning little rose or fern. Which did we like better? Saadia liked Lei and I liked Wei. So Papa elected to use Lei for her formal name, Mai, Tai-Lei, and give her the nickname WeiWei.

Taiwanese shaman

Taiwanese shaman

WeiWei was not an quiet baby. Was it three-month colic? She would wail and cry and writhe continuously. Mama was at her wits’ end. Then, behind Papa’s back, she secretly took her to a Taiwanese shaman who incanted  and chanted  and shook incense burners around her, and wrote illegible characters on a piece of paper folded and refolded into a tiny little packet. This he gave to Mama to pin on the baby’s clothes, together with more instructions on how to keep her soul in her body, which was the cause of her continuous crying. So upon alighting from the taxi that took her home, Mama called out in Taiwanese, “Wei Wei, deng ai la! deng ai la!” WeiWei, we are back! We are home! Supposedly telling the baby’s soul to not forget to come into the house with her. I think Saadia had accompanied her to the shaman, so Mama made her do the calling too. Mama claims that Nadia did calm down a lot afterwards, though I think it is possible all the smoke could have calmed her equally well.

Papa discovered under the baby’s clothing the thick red thread and the little packet some time later. He exploded at Mama, ranting against superstitions, and told her to get rid of those devilish things.

The red hibiscus has delicious nectar located deep inside the flower, at the base of the pistil.

The red hibiscus has delicious nectar located deep inside the flower, at the base of the pistil.

Iffat had grown into a lively, bright-eyed, cute and quick-minded imp, a little ball of energy. She had well-muscled, tanned little calves and ran everywhere at will, inside and outside the house. She showed me the wild red hibiscus bushes that grew across the road. “Come, Er Jie, come!” She picked one of those huge red blossoms, pulled off the petals, and picked carefully at the bottom of the pistil. “Here, Er Jie, have some!” Some what? I took the remains of the hibiscus, not sure what to do with it. “Like this!” Little Iffat picked another one, plucking it the same way, and stuck the bottom of the pistil into her mouth, sucking the nectar. “It’s sweet and delicious, Er Jie, don’t you like it?”

Abdul Kerim attended an elementary school which was attached to the Women’s Normal College (Teachers Training College). It was supposed to be, as a result, extremely good, since all trainees did their student teaching there. So, just like we did, he would have to walk ten minutes to the bus stop and take the city bus to school. Today, we dare not send a nine-year-old on his own to the corner store, let alone allow him to go on public transportation to and from school all by himself. But everyone did so in those days. The streets and public buses were filled with students in cleanly ironed uniforms, a canvas school bag slung across the chest, or hanging off one shoulder. Abdul Kerim reported to us over dinner one day that there were some Bei Yi Nu high school girls on his bus that day, and that his classmates had been whispering about them in an awed hush. My little brother just threw them a haughty glance and stated out loud that his own sisters also attended Bei Yi Nu!

1969 Sports Day at the Elementary School attached to the Taipei Women's Normal College

1969 Sports Day at the Elementary School attached to the Taipei Women’s Normal College

No Comments »

The Famous Suspension Bridge Story

Memories are often a jumble of images, sounds and feelings thrown together in the mists of time. I am not sure whether the trips to Sun Moon Lake and LiShan, another mountain in Central Taiwan, belong in this trip or some other trip. It is possible they are part of family outings, because I seem to remember Mama and my younger siblings being there…

But since I’m on a roll about doing the tourist thing in Taiwan, let me continue.

I believe it must have been a trip with Third Uncle or Fourth Uncle, who lived in the vicinity of Central Taiwan. We went to visit LiShan, or Pear Mountain, yet another famed sightseeing spot. I remember astounding gorges and tunnels dug out of sheer rock, and then that famous suspension bridge. I don’t mean the bridge is famous, I mean my story is famous. Well, for me, at any rate. I don’t really tell it often, because I’m ashamed of how young, reckless, thoughtless and idiotic I used to be.

Suspension bridges in Central Taiwan, just as flimsy and dangerous as I remember it.

Suspension bridges in Central Taiwan, just as flimsy and dangerous as I remember it.

So we started crossing this suspension bridge, which is pretty much a series of parallel wooden boards maybe 3 or 4 feet wide, and thick ropes on either side to hold on. Papa went first, after a challenging order to follow him or to be cowards. I went next, stepping carefully and slowly at first. Saadia followed me. Soon, I realized it was quite easy and safe so long as I did not glance down into the distant and steep valley. So I sped up my pace a little bit. Wow, how fun it was! the bridge was now swinging softly up and down to my step and I nearly started singing. So I increased the force on each step, making the bridge wave up and down even more markedly. Just as I was happily enjoying the wonder of it all, swing, breeze and sunshine, a sudden and blood-curdling scream paralyzed me in my stride. I paused and turned around. Saadia was crouched on all fours some distance behind me, pale and distraught, and screaming for all her life, “Stop it, Faw! Stop it!!!!!”  What was the whole fuss about? I wondered. And just then, I found out why.

As I stood there, the bridge continued swinging up and down, but the hand-rail ropes did not swing in the same wave. So whenever my feet bobbed up a dozen inches, my hands on the railing would go down a dozen inches as well, making me feel that my hands had reached the height of my ankles. Pretty much, one was standing on a few flimsy wooden planks that flew up above the handrails, hundreds of yards above the tiny silver ribbon of a  river at the bottom. Or so it felt. It was my turn to be so paralyzed with fear, I could not even scream.

LiShan hot springs

LiShan hot springs

Well, as the laws of physics are eternal and immovable, waves without new incoming force tend to die out eventually. So the bridge stopped swinging finally and came back to rest in its proper place, below my feet. I managed to walk more or less steadily to the other side. Then I got an earful. Which I rightly deserved.

There were also some famed hot springs in LiShan, but I barely remember any of it. Definitely, the suspension bridge took the prize.

Sun Moon Lake I think was part of a trip organized by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. I think. Not sure. I remember a coach filled with people, a night spent in a sort of hotel, and getting up, yet again, before the sun did, to admire the famed sunrise over Sun Moon Lake, which once again, did not materialize.

The breathtaking view of sunrise over Sun Moon Lake, a photographer's paradise

The breathtaking view of sunrise over Sun Moon Lake, a photographer’s paradise

 

But as usual, sunrise eluded us and we just saw mist everywhere that day.

But as usual, sunrise eluded us and we just saw mist everywhere that day.

It was rather cold, so now I am sure it was not that graduation summer trip. So I grumbled when dragged out of bed to admire the sunrise. And I grumbled more when the sun did not deign to rise for me.

I really want to apologize to Papa now, albeit too late. He tried to show the beauty of Taiwan to his dear daughters, knowing full well that it was highly probable we would not have that chance again for years to come. Yet, all I could think of was to grumble and be grouchy and complain about everything.

 

No Comments »

Pond of the Two Sisters

The trail in the forest on Alishan.

The trail in the forest on Alishan.

The entire touristic range of Alishan was more than the sunrise terrace and the sacred tree. Uncle Chen took us on a hike around the main stops. Saadia and I walked more or less silently while Papa and Uncle Chen continued chatting and squabbling. We stopped by a little pond in the middle of the forest. A sign said this was the Pond of the Two Sisters. Uncle Chen said that the legend goes that a young girl threw herself in the pond because of an unhappy love story. Out of love for her, her sister threw herself into the pond too. Just as I was wondering about why native mountain girls didn’t know how to swim, Papa challenged Uncle Chen on the legend. He replied, “Ah, we just made it up in the department. Got to have something to feed the tourists. In order to have people stop and take pictures of the pond, you need something, like a legend.”

The famed Two Sisters Pond, which ignited the blase tourist in me.

The famed Two Sisters Pond, which ignited the blase tourist in me.

That struck me deep. Really deep inside. In France, all tourist stories were historically true. Here was the bed that Napoleon and Josephine de Beauharnais slept in.  Here was the cottage where so and so kept his mistress.  This was the hall where such and such peace treaty was signed. This is where the Bastille fortress stood before it was destroyed by the revolutionary mobs.  It never occurred to me that tourist departments could sit there making up stories to attract more visitors. Suddenly, everywhere we went, I felt like in a sort of Disneyland. Made up structures and stories for tourists.

E-Luan-Pi, the  southernmost tip of Taiwan, and the lighthouse at the visitors center

E-Luan-Pi, the southernmost tip of Taiwan, and the lighthouse at the visitors center

In southern Taiwan, we went to E-Luan-Pi, the very southern tip of the island, where the Pacific meets the Taiwan Strait. Papa told us of his previous trip there many years ago with a colleague. The colleague asked Papa to take a picture of him standing with his bare feet in the water. He shouted victoriously while Papa was adjusting his lens, “The Pacific Ocean is my foot washbasin!” Just then a huge wave rolled towards him, and the ocean conqueror ran for his life. Papa rolled with laughter, “Ha, Ha, Ha… your foot washbasin nearly drowned you! Hahaha!”

We also visited Ken-Ting National Park, a tropical land and marine nature preserve and the first national park in Taiwan. I don’t remember much of it, except that we took pictures at the entrance. The truth is that by then, I was resenting the heat. Summer in the humid tropics is not fun. And that is when my old friend, my bad health, resurfaced, leaving me weak, exhausted, half dehydrated, and dizzy most of the day. Since I was hitting puberty and acted like a typical pouting and resentful teenager, Papa and Saadia assumed it was my normal disagreeable self, and let me be. The pictures we took attest to my angry look.

Saadia and I, standing on the Nine-Corner-Bridge, on a lake in Kaohsiung. Both of us are very bothered by the heat, and looking like grouchy teenagers.

Saadia and I, standing on the Nine-Corner-Bridge, on a lake in Kaohsiung. Both of us are very bothered by the heat, and looking like grouchy teenagers.

In Kaohsiung, the southern port city, we visited a lake and a pagoda. I tried finding them online and assume it must have been Lotus Pond. But I am very sure those two grotesque sculptures of a dragon and a tiger were not there at the time. I do remember the nine-corner-bridge, as Papa explained something about deflecting evil spirits, and an empty modern pagoda with no purpose except to attract tourists. I felt very scornful of it, imagining a few people at the tourism department sitting around a table dreaming up some new touristic gimmick. We climbed up to the top story, and purposely took a picture next to a sign that expressly forbade it. The whole building was empty, with no purpose except to let us get some exercise and get a good view of the lake and surroundings. Today, if you go on their website, you will find that this pagoda must have made good money, because now there are two of them side by side, with the ridiculous sculptures mentioned above, just so one could name them the Dragon & Tiger Pagodas. There is also a huge statue of Guan Gong in garish colors down by the other side of the lake. Poor Guan Gong. Such a great personage, heroic deeds and chivalrous loyalty, all summed up in a gaudy vulgar toy-like structure. Could they not at least hire a good artist for the project?

The garish monstrosities of Guan Gong, Dragon and Tiger at the colorful Twin Pagodas. Back in 1971, there was just one pagoda and it was yet only whitewashed, and had no attending sculpture of any kind or color. Much better then.

The garish monstrosities of Guan Gong, Dragon and Tiger at the colorful Twin Pagodas. Back in 1971, there was just one pagoda and it was yet only whitewashed, and had no attending sculpture of any kind or color. Much better then.

 

 

No Comments »