Life of a Rooster

Memoirs of a psychiatrist, journalist and educator

The disease called Shyness

That year, as a new student in the first year of a high school, I finally experienced something tremendously meaningful for me. It was the first time in my life that I would start the school year not only on time, but with a group of students who all were new too. For once, I would not be the circus clown with all eyes on me. I would not be the odd one out, in a place where everyone already had fixed social circles. That in itself was a wonderful experience I was looking forward too expectantly!

entrance to Taipei First Girls High School

Entrance Gate to Taipei First Girls High School

The first thing I noticed, was how well planned the registration, orientation and other start-of-school affairs were. Thousands of students, and we all lined up in a long queue that took us from booth to booth — or rather, doorway of classroom to doorway of classroom with a desk across it —  and by the time we finished the obstacle course, we had everything processed, from Student ID card to fee payments, to picking up books, uniforms, etc.

On the first day of school, I happily surveyed the faces around me. All shy and uncomfortable. I suddenly felt like a veteran of first-day-in-schools-filled-with-unknown-faces. I felt on top of the world. Poor girls! I was going to mentor them all! Say hello and make friends with everyone, put them out of their misery! Yes, Fawzia to the rescue!

mighty mouse to the rescue

Then, we sat in class for our first meeting with our homeroom teacher. She had already lined us up by height and assigned class numbers, then seated us accordingly. Being tall — well, not in the West, but yes, I am supposed to be tall in Taiwan — I got seated somewhere in the back, I think it was the last row.  Then Teacher Yang asked us all to stand up in turn, starting with Number One, and introduce ourselves. They were all very shy, and murmured rather than speak out loud, and all followed the same format: “My name is so and so; I am ranked Number such and such among my siblings; I come from such and such Junior High School. Please direct and guide me!” How very boring. I thought my speech out. I’m going to say my name, mentioning that my last name is Mai as in Buying something, that it’s a rare name because I’m Muslim; I’m going to tell them I came back from Paris, that my Chinese is not as good as theirs, … then I would add some interesting details, then end up with the proper Chinese etiquette, “Please direct and guide me!”

In the Far East, a common ending to self-introduction speeches is to ask for everyone else to guide the newbie.  This shows humility and knowledge of one's place in the pecking order.

In the Far East, a common ending to self-introduction speeches is to ask for everyone else to guide the newbie. This shows humility and knowledge of one’s place in the pecking order.

Happily, I waited for my turn to come. I stood up, opened my mouth, then it happened. Again. Again. The same thing as always. I stuttered. I stammered. I sweated and trembled, and choked on my words. I don’t think anyone understood what I managed to get out of my constricted throat. I gave up and sat down again. I felt my heart beating as fast as galloping horses and my hands were still trembling uncontrollably. I hung my head. I realized at that moment, that my shyness had spiraled totally out of control and was now pathological. A disease. Mortified, I heard some neighboring voice whispering, “She speaks very strangely…!”

Shyness, or social anxiety, can be extremely crippling.

Shyness, or social anxiety, can be extremely crippling.

 Today, I can analyze clearly the situation. Rewarding previous anxious moments with the relaxation of avoidance had led to today’s automatic switch to the default spasms in my throat and an outpouring of sympathetic nervous system transmitters. The unwarranted fear-fight-flight reaction exaggerated to an extreme.

I made a vow there and then that I must cure myself of it. Somehow. Face the world without fear. Or I would live a crippled life forever.

Strangely, it was the decision that led to the gradual recovery and near-total cure. I had no knowledge of how to cure myself at the time. But I knew I did not want this to happen any more. The only thing I recall to have done knowingly thereafter was that whenever I came across situations that would have frightened me previously, I would now purposely refuse to seek Saadia’s reassuring presence and brave the situation alone. As of today, I look back and see that long road to recovery, still strewn with obstacles and relapses, but slowly taking me to a strange new land, that of individual freedom and happiness.

Actually, a couple of years later, it swung to the total opposite, and I became obnoxious, and loud, and always the life of the party. But eventually it swung back again, back and forth with smaller distances, over the years, until I now find myself in a comfortable zone.

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Jade Vases

Thus in the fall of 1971, Saadia and I started school at the best girls’ high school in Taipei. Nothing else marked that summer except for the Chens leaving to return to France, and the arrival back to Taipei of our friend Ibtissam Ting.

Saying goodbye to the Chen family at the Sungshan Airport in Taipei.  I am the tall gangly and grouchy teen in the too-short-dress.

Saying goodbye to the Chen family at the Sungshan Airport in Taipei. I am the tall gangly and grouchy teen in the too-short-dress.

The Chens had spent the year trying to assimilate to life in Taiwan. The children had all attended the nearby elementary school while continuing their French studies through correspondence school. That was my first introduction to long-distance education. I was surprised to see how fast they would finish a month’s work, wondering whether they were geniuses or they were skipping work. I tended toward the former, for Marie-France, who was my age, read regularly L’Express, which is the French equivalent of Newsweek. I might have been a prodigy when it came to classical literature, but contemporary news and politics bored me prodigiously. I’m not quite sure what the reason was for their decision to go back to Paris. Maybe the job didn’t work out satisfactorily, or maybe the family could not adapt to a Chinese lifestyle. We saw them off at the airport. I have never met them again, though news of them still trickle to me now and then.

L'Express is a French news periodical similar to Newsweek.

L’Express is a French news periodical similar to Newsweek.

I was thrilled to see Ibtissam again. She had lived a life similar to ours, Chinese Muslim family, diplomat father, and fluent in French. She had spent a lot of time in Belgium and Lybia. She now joined us at Taipei First Girls High School. She was assigned to First Year Zhong (A) class; I was in First Year Hsin (E) class, and Saadia in First Year Yi (F) class.

Just a little explanation about these tags. In Chinese, there is no alphabet, so it is hard to name classes: Grade 10A, 10B and so on. Instead of the alphabet, they use any list of words that are usually presented in a specific order. Let’s say, in English, one example could be the months of the year. So you could say Grade 10 January, Grade 10 February, and so on. A common list is Jia, Yi, Bing, Ding, etc, which had been used to name the years, before the Chinese Revolution. But since that list had already been applied to the high school sections ( Jia denotes physical sciences, Yi denotes liberal arts, Bing denotes life sciences, and Ding denotes accounting) a different list needed to be applied to class numbers. They chose the list of  eight virtues described by Dr. Sun Yat-Sun: zhong, xiao, ren, ai, xin, yi, he, ping — loyalty, filial piety, mercy and kindness, universal love, honesty, righteousness, harmony and peace. Which is why I was in Class One Honesty, Saadia in Class One Righteousness, and  Ibtissam  in Class One Loyalty.

zhong xiao ren ai

It had taken me an entire year of 9th grade to move from the bottom of the class to 12th out of 57. Now, having joined the elite of the country, I found myself back again at the bottom of the class. Not quite though. There were two girls from Burma who scored less than I did. On the first monthly report card, I ranked 38th out of 59, only because so many girls tied for their average score. Competition was so fierce that the first in the class and the tenth had a fraction of a point difference in their average score. I thought I had done pretty well until I found out that Ibtissam had ranked 6th in her class. Hadn’t she just returned from Belgium? How come her Chinese was better than mine? I was so depressed that I cried all night and was unable to sleep properly for two weeks. I thought I must be really stupid and slow. Mama scolded me for behaving like a loser. “She used to fly back to Libya every summer and her father used to tutor her in Chinese,” insisted Mama. It would appease me for a minute or two, until I remembered that I had had a whole year’s advantage of Chinese schooling over her and yet ranked 38th in my class. And I would start crying all over  again.

Competition was good for me. Back in France, Saadia and I had no competition to speak of. We only competed with each other. Here, I learned about hard work. As my classmates told me, success is 30% genius and 70% sweat. At least in Taiwan it was. Because in France, I only put in the 30% and easily ranked first. In Taiwan, I learned what the 70% was all about. That year, 10th grade, I moved from 38th to somewhere near the 10th in my class. To be totally truthful, part of the reason why I tried so hard was because I wanted to join the marching band. Only students who ranked in the first 10 in their class, and were above 160cm were selected in Year Two to join the marching band. I had the height, just not the rank. Yet.

The Taipei First Girls’ High School marching band was very famous in Taiwan. The girls wore a white and green uniform with long white boots and performed often for visiting VIPs. I had never seen a marching band before and was totally mesmerized by them. I just had to be one of them. Later, I read somewhere an article by a visiting journalist who had watched our marching band’s performance, and she remarked how Taiwan had well absorbed all aspects of American culture, including marching bands, complete with Souza music. I felt extremely insulted. I had never realized before that marching bands were a staple of American high schools.

The drum and brass band in red and white, the marching team in green and white. These are the famous Bei Yi Nu Marching Team girls.

The drum and brass band in red and white, the marching team in green and white. These are the famous Bei Yi Nu Marching Team girls.

But in the meantime, I sat in my new classroom, in my new emerald shirt and black pleated skirt, among 58 other emerald shirts and black pleated skirts. On his first day, one of our teachers, a male, remarked how  honored he was to be teaching a classroom of jade vases. Jade vases indeed!




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