Life of a Rooster

Memoirs of a psychiatrist, journalist and educator

Jack of All Trades

To blame my classmates for not tapping into all of my abilities was actually a bit unfair. I was still struggling in the shadow of the dreaded disability of shyness and would shrink from any bit of limelight.

Classroom poster competitions are very common in the Far East.

Classroom poster competitions are very common in the Far East.

The school ran a competition for best class poster and class decoration. A committe was formed and during our weekly class meeting, I suggested making a huge wall poster that would be a quilt-like combination of flower squares. The flowers could be cut from colored pages of magazines. The committee adopted my idea but I shrank from asking to be included in the team, and the final result was far from my original vision. It was a garden scene with a low fence in front. We did not win.

There were a lot of school competitions. Considering that we were twenty some classes of fifty some students in Year One alone, there was plenty to compete about. One day we were told to form a basketball team in each class, and we would compete for the best basketball team. Only the tallest could join the team. Alas, I was among the few tallest. I had to join.  I laugh even today, remembering how the few of us poor tall gangly girls, bespectacled and nerdy, gathered on the court at lunch times, and milled around, listelessly trying to get the ball into the basket. We’d try to do something that looked like dribbling and then look at our watches and say, oh, oh, time up! Needless to say, we didn’t win.

These are the real school basketball team in jade green uniforms. We looked nothing like this.

These are the real school basketball team in jade green uniforms. We looked nothing like this.

Then we were told of the solo singing competition. Each class had to have a representative. My closest friends immediately nudged me in unison, “Mai Tai-Chi, you! You! Let’s nominate her!” What? How did they know I had a good voice? I was scared of the limelight and of being again shunned as the outsider. I glared at them, and with a steely and dangerous voice, warned them not to even try or else. They opened their eyes in wide surprise but all brought down the hands they had raised. So I didn’t sing. The poor girl who was eventually chosen tried hard. She took private lessons that she paid for out of pocket, and still lost. Thinking back, I feel really bad for her.

And then there was the swimming competition. I kept remembering that Saadia alone had the courage to take part in it. But I cannot believe, upon reviewing that year in my diary, that I too took part in it. Really? When the girls heard that we’d had swimming lessons in France, they pushed me. Well, if only they knew… right? For the readers who have not read about my school days in France,  let’s just say I was lucky I didn’t drown. One classmate, who was a swimmer, cornered me one day and asked me about my flip turns. How did I do them? Er… what are flip turns? The pool was a murky-looking affair that was more like an overgrown pond probably more suited to biological experiments in protists and algae, and I never walked by it without thinking of some cheap thriller. I still can’t believe I actually swam in there.

dictionary stand

But I made up some really exciting competitions of my own. One month, my neighboring (neighbors in seating)  friends and I were assigned during lunch hour to dust the 4th floor of the library. So we’d swallow our lunch as fast as possible and head to the brick building that was the library. Dusting was a quick chore then we’d make a bee line to the beautiful wooden stands that held huge English dictionaries. I’d open a random page of the largest tome, and pick a word. On the count of three, we each started flipping like crazy through the dictionary in front of each of us, and the fastest one to find it would win. I always won. Silly game, and obviously rigged, for, looking up words with Latin letters was what I’d done for years in my childhood. My friends never thought it so, because this was English, not French, and they greatly enjoyed the game.

Speaking of French, two of my classmates, Chen Chian-Mei and Shao Lei-Yin, took French classes outside of school with a French nun. Chen was the top ranked girl in my class and I was rather in awe of her. She also dared have a layered hair cut instead of the uniform bob! The two of them would often ask me for help with their French homework and with other problems such as pronunciation or vocabulary. Interestingly, I met Chen’s father some years later abroad and reconnected with Shao in recent years through the internet.

One day, as Chen and Shao returned to their seats after a session of French with me, another girl in my vicinity, Luo Wei-Jing, remarked out loud, in an emotionless tone, “It is true you may know more languages than we do, Mai Tai-Chi, but you are not good at any of them.”

Jack of all trades and master of none

Jack of all trades and master of none

To the extremely competitive me of the time, this was a slap in the face. In other words, she was telling me I was a jack of all trades but a master of none. I thought about it at night, tossing and turning in my bed. I used to be years ahead of my peers in French, but now that I was in Taiwan, all of my French classmates probably had caught up and surpassed me. I knew some English, but obviously, although I was the best in English in Taiwan, I was still a second language learner and couldn’t compete with a native speaker. I knew Arabic, but that was water under the bridge and still at a second grade level. Chinese, it was painfully obvious that I was still trying to compete for the top spots in class. Conclusion, Luo was right. I was master of none.

I then made a decision. I had to excel at one language at least. I had to. I pondered long and hard and wondered which it should be. French was still my best language then. I do not remember whether I chose French then, because the only way to improve it then was by reading more books and writing more diary. But definitely, a few years later, I clearly remember deciding it had to be English. Again, I am jumping ahead of my story, and I shall tell about this in a further post.





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