Life of a Rooster

Memoirs of a psychiatrist, journalist and educator

Chinese Feasts

For the next month or two, I learned about Chinese feasts, hands on, or rather, palate and stomach on.

All of Mama and Papa’s friends and relatives started inviting us for welcome-home dinners. The first few we went to, I didn’t know what to expect. After the first round of three or four dishes, I would be too full and could only eat one or two mouthfuls from all remaining dishes. But before long, I got the hang of it. This is how to survive Chinese feasts:

There are at least three or four rounds of dishes served. Every round consists of three or more dishes of a similar type.

 

sliced lu beef shanks

sliced lu beef shanks

jelly fish and cucumber salad

jelly fish and cucumber salad

The first round always consists of cold dishes, such as “lu” sliced beef shanks, jelly fish salad, or seasoned seaweed. Next would come hot main dishes, at least two rounds of them. These varied from stir-fried, deep-fried to stew-type or gravy-type dishes. To be complete these should include at least the four categories of fowl, shrimp, fish and meat. Seafood being the most expensive items on the menu, prawns and crab were a must if the host meant to show sincerity. Alternatives would be sea cucumbers (at the time, I found them totally gross and disgusting), scallops or octopus.  Finally there would be served at least one or two rounds of rice, noodles or soups. These are traditionally served last because they are very filling. If soup were served first, the way it is done in Western meals, it would signify that the host is trying to fill you up with liquid so he doesn’t have to cook too much real food for you.  Finally there would be the dessert round, which often included a hot sweet soup of silver ears (white fungus), Chinese dates, lotus seeds and other such delicacies.

sea cucumbers

sea cucumbers

So, you may only eat one mouthful of everything, that is, if you intend to taste everything. Otherwise, you will end up only eating from a few dishes.

This was my first introduction to Chinese gourmet feasts. So far, as a child, I had been assigned either to the baby-sitting group, or to the performance crew at international and diplomatic functions. Uncle Lung and Aunt Lily had done their entertaining at restaurants, not including us, and very rarely at home, for just one family at a time. It was at these dinner parties that I first tasted bird’s nest soup (a sweet dessert) and shark’s fin soup (a savory delicacy).

shark's fin soup

It was also as a result of these dinner parties that I discovered I would end the evening with a severe shoulder and neck ache. It is the Chinese tradition that the younger generation be meek and humble when facing the elder generation. To show your humility, you need to sort of slightly bow your shoulders and head when talking to them. When you do that for a few hours a night, and a few nights a week, you end up with aches and pains.

That’s how I discovered that I had not grown up properly respecting Chinese elders all day long. How else was I so unaccustomed to the stooping posture?

I also found out what a large network of intersecting communities we were part of. First, there was, of course, Mama’s family. The majority lived in the central part of Taiwan, in Taichung or the surrounding areas. Only Second Uncle lived in Taipei because he was then studying Dentistry at the Veterans’ Hospital where he boarded as well. On the weekends, he would come and stay with us and bring his girlfriend along. Mama disliked his girlfriend because she would “put one leg on top of the other” (meaning, cross her legs), and comfortably proceed to eat watermelon seeds non-stop and drink tea and never stand up to help Mama. That showed no respect for elders (Mama was the eldest sister, and Second Uncle ranked number six), no knowledge of her own position, no manners and no assiduity to work. Mama managed to talk Second Uncle out of this relationship, even if she was a nursing student. We missed the trips to the ice-cream parlor as “light bulbs” (chaperones) but we did not miss the young lady, who never paid us much attention. Eventually, Mama matchmaked him with the daughter of a diplomat friend of Papa’s. She had studied fashion design in Japan, was well-mannered and very dainty and good-looking. I am happy to report that the matchmaking worked and the marriage was happy. She has been my aunt now for many years and produced two great cousins for us.

watermelon seeds snacks

watermelon seeds snacks

Mama had not just seven brothers and sisters, but also cousins, aunts and uncles galore. I could not keep track of who was who.  We even went once to a small town in central Taiwan to visit relatives who all spoke Taiwanese, so I felt totally like an outsider. There was a withered, weathered and wrinkled old lady sitting on a high bench, her feet curled up and her hand feeding her mouth with betel nuts. Mama introduced me and instructed me to call her “Ah-Zou”, or great-grandma. I looked down at her fabric shoes on the floor. They were TINY! Like for a five-year-old girl, but higher in thickness than normal shoes. Mama signed to me to keep quiet. After we were out of earshot, she explained that Ah-Zou had bound feet, Golden Lotuses. O-M-G!!! So they did exist?

Bound feet such as my great-grandmother had: golden lotuses

Bound feet such as my great-grandmother had: golden lotuses

Then there were Papa’s relatives. Pretty much, that was just one family, of the surname Shi (Rock). I understood that his first wife was Papa’s cousin in some degree or other, however she had passed away and he had remarried. He was Muslim, of course, but the wife was Buddhist. The children, having attended Christian schools, were all Protestants. Uncle Shi worked with the police or some related branch, and occupied a rather high position. Sometimes, we would get rides in his car, driven by a chauffeur in police or military uniform, I wasn’t quite sure which.

There was one other relative, whom Papa had discovered at the mosque. We called him Great-Uncle Mai. When Papa first met him and found out they shared the same surname –which by the way is a rare one, even among Chinese Muslims–  the two of them embarked on a conversation researching their mutual ancestors. Based solely on the generation characters, they were able to work out that Papa was one generation younger and therefore called him thereafter “Uncle”. He actually lived in HongKong, where his family still resided. However, since his business took him often to Taipei, he kept a home in Taipei as well. Although he had studied at an Islamic college, and was therefore qualified to be imam, he had chosen to become a businessman. His Islamic training had included the Sini style of Arabic calligraphy, so he would occasionally write beautiful scrolls and banners and donate them right and left. We had one framed and hanging in our living room.

Arabic calligraphy written in the Chinese brush style

Arabic calligraphy written in the Chinese brush style

 

 

 

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Golden Dragons

Papa had been able to enter beyond the gates because of his special badge for Foreign Affairs employees. The rest of the family had been waiting in the regular lobby. I met for the first time — well, in my memory at least it was the first time, for they remembered me as a little toddler — my maternal grandfather Chang, Ping-Nan, and my “dry” father (Chinese godfather) Wang Jie-San.  Mama held two multicolored leis in her hand, and placed them around our necks. Abdul Kerim and Iffat were there too, though  Iffat was a bit shy with us. I don’t think she really remembered us since she was barely a year old when we had left. We all packed into a van someone had rented, and off we went.

Le Hua Night Market in Yong He

Le Hua Night Market in Yong He

Aunt Lily and Uncle Lung owned a little villa in YongHe, a district on the south side of metro Taipei. Mama and Aunt Lily had discussed the matter and agreed that our family could live there during this period. As the van pulled into the narrow lane and stopped at a red gate, a long string of firecrackers hanging by the door was lighted.  I nearly fell off my seat at the loudness of the pops and cracks. Before I even got up from my seat, Grandpa Chang hopped off the van and fast as lightning, tore into the house. Slightly bemused, I wondered whether he had a bladder problem. When I entered the sitting-room, I found him crouched in front of the TV, intently watching a baseball game.  My brother was there already as well, and they were soon joined by everyone else. Saadia and I stood awkwardly on the side, not sure of what was happening.

 

The Chinese love setting off loud and smoky firecrackers to celebrate happy occasions.

The Chinese love setting off loud and smoky firecrackers to celebrate happy occasions.

I was slightly disappointed. So, that was how eagerly everyone welcomed us back? Then I understood. It was the game of the year, the game that made us, Taiwan, shine again in the world. I had read in the Torch of Victory, a magazine circulated among the overseas Chinese community, about the unexpected and amazing victory of the Golden Dragons, a kids baseball team from Taichung, Taiwan, who came out of nowhere, in a game where Taiwan was unheard of, to win the Little League world championship at Williamsport, Pennsylvania. I certainly had never heard of the game before reading about it, and still was in a fog about how it was played. But did it matter?

The Golden Dragons return triumphantly to Taiwan as  world champions.

The Golden Dragons return triumphantly to Taiwan as world champions.

Later, my classmates told me stories of how the team had been noticed by the expatriate American community who loved baseball. When the Golden Dragons won the national title in a game that was then little known in Taiwan, they had to scrape the money together to go to Japan for the Regionals. After winning the Asia-Pacific title, they were stuck. No funds whatsoever. How were they to travel to the US for the world finals?  They appealed to the government who did not even bother to reply. Finally, it was the US marines and the rest of the American community who fund-raised for them, and helped finance their trip to Pennsylvania. When they returned with the World title, they were a bit surprised to find a red carpet welcome at the airport, along with an open-car parade along the streets of Taipei all the way to the Presidential palace! The government had realized that in the then atmosphere of growing international isolation, country after country breaking relations with us and courting Communist China instead, this was a bright shaft of sunlight.

1969 little league champions

That was in 1969. This now was 1970. Was the miracle going to repeat itself? The winning team this year came from Jia-Yi, and was named the Seven Tigers. Their heated competition against the Golden Dragons, dubbed the “Dragon-Tiger Struggle”,  had sparked impassioned fan movements in Taiwan. Having made it to the Asia-Pacific Regional, they were right now fighting for the title, on that silver screen in our living room.

The Seven Tigers team

The Seven Tigers team

I forgave my grandpa for ignoring us.

Although the Seven Tigers defeated the Philippines and Japan to clinch the Regional title, they eventually lost to Nicaragua and placed fifth at the World finals. However, the golden era of Little League baseball in Taiwan had been ignited, and Taiwan went on a string of victories, winning ten years out of thirteen from 1969 to 1981. The streak continued at a lesser pace through 1996, with another seven world champions in 15 years. Taiwan withdrew from the Little League in 1997, following new restrictions of rules. From the introduction of Far Eastern teams in 1967 to 1996, Taiwan won 17 of the 30 championships, and was twice runner-up.

Seven Tigers, upon their return to Taiwan, shake hands with Chiang Ching Kuo, son of the President Chiang Kai Shek.

Seven Tigers, upon their return to Taiwan, shake hands with Chiang Ching Kuo, son of the President Chiang Kai Shek.

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Taiwan 1940s and 1950s

Taiwan had been ceded to Japan back in 1895, so Grandpa Chang had been educated in Japanese and had attended university in Japanese. Mama studied in Japanese up to sixth grade before Taiwan was returned to Chinese rule at the end of World War II and the entire education system reverted to Chinese Mandarin.

1945: people welcoming Nationalist troops in Taiwan

1945: people welcoming Nationalist troops in Taiwan

While helping Aunt Lily clean the squid or the chicken for dinner, I would listen to her stories about the war years. There was an electrical plant in the town where they lived. One day, the siren sounded and war planes (I assume they must have been bombers) flew overhead, dropping bomb after bomb, apparently aiming at the electrical plant.  But bombs do not always fall only on their target, and so the entire family dove into the basement which was also the air shelter. Grandpa was away at work, and Grandma hugged the little ones while Mama, the eldest, hugged the others. When finally the rumbling, booming, whistling and crashing stopped, the family crawled back out, only to find the house above ground in total ruins. Grandma told the children that they were going to flee to GuZhang’s banana plantation on the mountain. She carried the baby, Mama strapped First Uncle on her back, and Aunt Lily held Third and Fourth Aunts by the hand. They traveled as fast as they could, half running and half scuttling, finally reaching the hills. When Grandma called a halt in the thick of the banana groves, Mama half collapsed onto the ground, unstrapped First Uncle from her back and put him down. She then sat against the trunk of a banana tree, which is when she started feeling some pain in her foot. She pulled up her foot and found a huge nail stuck in her heel. In the panic of the moment, she had not felt a thing throughout their trek! Grandpa rushed home from work, only to find the entire neighborhood in rubble. He screamed and clawed frantically through the ruins of the house looking for his family, believing them all buried under the debris.

Banana grove, Nantou county, Taiwan

Banana grove, Nantou county, Taiwan

After the end of WWII, China struggled in the throes of civil war. When the Nationalists withdrew to Taiwan in 1949, they brought in their wake over 2 million refugees from mainland China. Mama was fifteen, and Aunt Lily fourteen when one day, a band of soldiers knocked on their front gate. Grandma told the elder girls to jump out through the window (this was on the ground floor) and squat and hide under it among the jars and boxes in the back courtyard. She would face the soldiers herself. “Why?” I asked Aunt Lily. “Because during wartime, you never know what these soldiers might do.”

“War must have been an exciting time, I wish I was there,” I remarked to Aunt Lily, dreaming of the Three Musketeers and d’Artagnan holding a conference in a bastion with bullets flying around them. She scolded me harshly. “Exciting? Exciting? You do not even know the first thing about it.  It is a very frightening time. You children are so fortunate to live in peace time, you do not even know what you are talking about.”  I changed the subject, “So what did those soldiers want?” Aunt Lily replied, “Ah, nothing, just food and stuff. They left after a while.”

It was also Aunt Lily who told me that Papa’s nickname among the girls was “My Darling”, a pun on his name Mai Deh-Lin.  I look at photos of Papa in his twenties and early thirties and can understand how he could have been the crush of the girls around him at the university or in the lumber mill. He was really very handsome: skin quite fair, the look of a classical scholar — a xiu cai. His “phoenix eyes” were very pronounced in his youth and offset by a very serious look accentuated by dark-rimmed glasses. My second son today looks so much like Papa then. History lives on.

Papa and Mama married on October 11, 1955, the day after the Double Tenth celebrations (National Day). However, soon after Saadia’s birth, Mama found she was pregnant with me. They decided to take Saadia back to Taichung and leave her in the care of Grandma Chang until my birth.  Fourth Uncle was then still in elementary school, and all the aunts and uncles had a great time doting on Saadia for a year.  Mama had a hard time with my pregnancy and had at first considered aborting me since I was so close in age with Saadia. Then at one point, she ate too much watermelon and had so much diarrhea afterward she nearly did lose me! Wow, I feel that I escaped twice not being born at all!  When my birth became imminent, Mama returned to her parents’ home. This is how I came to be born in Taichung. Then, when Mama was done with her month’s confinement, she took the two of us back to Taipei. At the train station, as they said their goodbyes, Saadia screamed her lungs out, “Ah Mah! (Grandma) Ah Maaaaaahh!” and grabbed Grandma tightly, not letting go. Poor Grandma was in tears, and Mama felt her heart broken to have abandoned her baby daughter so long that she wouldn’t recognize her as her mother. I wonder whether this guilty feeling lingered on throughout her life, for she forever doted on Saadia, and let her get away with stuff I couldn’t get out of, such as snapping retorts.

 

 

 

 

 

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Aunt Lily

There was then in Paris a young man by the name of Chang, Lung. He had just completed his PhD through all kinds of trials and tribulations.

China had been increasingly sending more and more students out to various Western countries on scholarships since the early 1900’s. Lung was one of these. He had been awarded a scholarship to Switzerland and had been doing quite well when suddenly, in 1949, the Nationalist government lost the war and had to retreat to Taiwan. All government funds evaporated and all scholarship students were left stranded in foreign countries.

Lung decided to continue with his studies one way or another. He scrimped and saved and did odd jobs. He scavenged trash cans for newspapers and magazines and resold them at street markets. Eventually, over ten years later, he earned his Bachelor’s, Master’s and Doctorate degrees. He now spoke and wrote fluently in French, English and German, as well as in his native Mandarin Chinese. He came to the Chinese embassy in Paris, in search of a job.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs normally holds Higher Exams, through which it selects its employees. But this was a different case. Lung had already proven his prowess in foreign languages and had sparkling qualifications. He was directly hired, without having to take the exam. Everyone at the embassy welcomed him warmly. “Now,” said well-meaning colleagues, “we need a Shuang Xi Lin Men (double happiness alights at the door)!”  or, good news come in two. Meaning, why don’t you get married. Immediately, all the ladies turned into matchmakers and looked for suitable candidates.  Mrs. Kung asked my mother, “Don’t you have three sisters?” Indeed, Mama was the eldest of eight, three younger sisters followed by four brothers. Aunt Lily was only a year younger than her. However, whereas Mama left school after Junior High to help contribute to the family finances, Aunt Lily was more ambitious. She took the national exams for high school entrance and managed to enter the Taichung First Girls School, the best girls high school in that city. Upon graduation, she tried the national university entrance exams, but failed. Given her brains and hard work, I wonder that she did not get into any college at all. In those days, there wasn’t really any gender equity, and I wouldn’t be surprised if there wasn’t some quota for female applicants.

Aunt Lily was quite pretty, and dressed well. After Mama showed him some pictures and bragged about her sister, Lung started writing to her.  Aunt Lily asked Mama how old Lung was. Mama said, “oh, round about Teh Lin’s age…” Papa was ten years older than Mama, yet they got along fine. So Aunt Lily finally agreed to accept the one-way ticket and flew to Paris. Once here, she found he was actually 18 years older than herself, but hey, too late. Plane tickets cost a lot back then. Still, he was a great catch, and the wedding took place in the embassy.

Saadia and I were the flower girls and the twins Antonio and Roberto were the flower boys. We carried  bouquets and held her train, and walked with her while the embassy ladies showered us with confetti –actually colored paper that the adults punched out with hole punchers.

Aunt Lily had an interesting make-up that day. Well, the excuse is that those years were the golden age of Hollywood, and the screen idols of the day were Elizabeth Taylor and Sophia Loren, Brigitte Bardot and Claudia Cardinale. So Mrs. Kung painted tons of brown foundation topped with thick and long black eyebrows, with rather skin toned lips. Aunt Lily did not like the result but there wasn’t time nor resources for a new make up, so her forced smile made its way to posterity in a Sophia Loren look.

Thus it was that in 1961, my little brother Abdul Karim was born in July, and my little cousin Therese in September.

Back row from left: Aunt Lily, unnamed, unnamed, Mama, Mrs. Kung, unnamed, Mrs. Wu. Front row from left: Saadia, me, one of the twins, my baby brother, the other twin, Amy Wu, Franklin Wu, George Wu.

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Paris!

forests of central TaiwanLiving in isolation on top of beautiful forested mountains in central Taiwan was my father’s idea of an ideal life for a while. Then 1949: the Occupation (according to the Nationalists) or the Liberation (according to the Communists). My father was now totally cut off from his family and his homeland. He suddenly realized that he was all alone in the world.

The day he turned 30, the head of the mill invited him to dinner. The gracious hostess asked him over succulent dishes: “Mr. Mai, the ancient say that “at 30, one gets established.” When are you thinking of getting married?”

The question was a thunderbolt out of the blue sky. My father had always assumed that whenever he was ready for marriage, all he would have to do was to let those pesky matchmakers know, and they would present him with an array of cousins to choose from. But now, he was living on an island on top of a mountain, surrounded by the beautiful green forests and not much else, with no matchmaker in sight, nor cousins for that matter.

So he looked around at available females in the factory and decided that my mother, working then at the factory library, was a good catch since she was also the niece of the factory owner. The owner  was a very wealthy man, since he owned not just the sawmill but also the whole mountain, banana plantations and the forests.

Despite his Western education, and watching plenty of Western movies, Papa still wasn’t quite well versed in the art of dating. My aunt told me of his first attempt at dating my mother, “He went to the library and could not even look your mother in the eye. He said, would you like to go see the movies? but no one was sure who he was inviting.  So your mother brought all the girls along…”

Eventually, they did start going out to movies and dinners and talked of marriage. My mother was on top of the world. With her junior high school diploma and only some previous experience as a bank teller, she had just won the lottery grand prize!  The young resident engineer, representative of the government, the one with the big seal, without which stamp no log could leave the mill, this most eligible bachelor had just proposed to her! She was the envy of all the girls in the county!

But that wasn’t her father’s opinion. When her uncle, the wealthy landowner, called Grandpa Chang, Ping-Nan, on the phone and declared, “I’ve just given my consent to Wan-Li’s marriage with Mai, Teh-Lin!” my grandpa spluttered, “Who’s he?”

When he found out Papa was a Mainlander, Grandpa Chang was crushed. When the Nationalist forces withdrew to Taiwan, there had been a lot of riots and clashes, and “Mainlander” had become a pejorative term. But since Grand Uncle, his rich brother-in-law, said so, so be it. “I still have three more daughters…” he said to Grandma after hanging up.

Worse still, Mama later told him she had to convert to Islam. “What’s that?” asked Grandpa. “Well,” replied Mama, “I won’t be able to eat pork any more. I can only eat beef now.” Grandpa was suitably impressed. Pork was the staple meat in Taiwan. Beef was imported and expensive. Wow, Mainlanders are rich, huh?

With marriage, Papa then thought of his career. Did he really want to stay working in forests for the rest of his life? He longed to see the world. So he decided to go to Taipei and take the Higher Exams for admission to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Mama was in tears, but Papa promised her, “I’ll be back! And I’ll take you to see the world!”

Papa, always a great scholar, and fluent in French and English — having studied at a private French missionary high school and a private university, nailed the exam easily, and the family moved to Taipei.  My eldest sister had been born by then. She was a cutie pie, had a baby face (to this day) and loved posing for Papa’s camera, one of those tall rectangular boxes with two circles in front.

Then I came along, one year later. I looked more like an ugly duckling than a baby doll. But Mama was great at tailoring and sewing clothes, and fabric was cheaper in larger quantities, so she dressed us in identical clothing. Since I was also big and fat, we two looked like twins to outsiders.

By the time I was one and a half, Papa received his first posting: Paris! He was ecstatic.

Taipei, 1958 or '59. Early family photo, probably at a studio. Papa is holding Saadia and I'm sitting in the middle.

Taipei, 1958 or ’59. Early family photo, probably at a studio. Papa is holding Saadia and I’m sitting in the middle.

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