Life of a Rooster

Memoirs of a psychiatrist, journalist and educator

The Fork in the Road

As 1973 rolled into a hot dusty summer, my GCE test scores came out: I now had passed 9 “O” level subjects and 1 “A” level subject and was eligible for university. My father decided to enroll Saadia and me in the University of Jordan while I felt uneasy about it. I had barely turned 16 in June and had I stayed in the French education system, I would still have two years of study ahead of me before high school graduation. Looking for help, I wrote a letter to my old French teacher from Noyer-Durand — and that took some tracking down since she had tra

The Faculty of Science, University of Jordan

The Faculty of Science, University of Jordan

nsferred to another school — and she advised me to sign up with the CNTE (Centre National de Télé-enseignement). Both Saadia and I did so immediately.

At the same time, my father took us to the U of J to register us. The only two choices that taught all courses in English were the English Department and the Faculty of Science. Naturally, as an Asian, we had to select Science. But the snag was that they required two “A” level science subjects for admission, while we only had one subject, which was French literature. So, we were accepted as “special students” pending our getting one more GCE “A” level science or math subject. We looked over the list of possible “A” level subjects and opted for Applied Math. As “special students”, we were allowed only three courses per semester, and a transcript afterwards. Saadia picked Biology 101, Math 101 and Chemistry 101. I also chose Math and Chemistry but took Physics 101 as my third choice. We planned to take the other missing courses during the summer. Then we ordered the books necessary for studying Applied Math on our own.

When I wrote “The Fork in the Road” as the title for this entry, I was inwardly laughing. So we had two choices: complete our education in the French system, or move on to university with a British education. We did not select either, but both. I can imagine myself walking with one foot on each path, and as these paths start diverging, I eventually had to lift one foot and fall onto just one of the two choices.


In 1979, the CNTE became the Centre national d’enseignement par correspondance (CNEC), then changed name again in 1986 to Centre national d’enseignement à distance (CNED).

We spent the summer having fun with friends, learning Chinese folk dances with Anney Ku who was visiting from Saudi Arabia, and bowling our hearts out. As September dawned, our packets from the CNTE arrived, and we started taking the service and city bus daily to the U of J which was located outside town. So we immersed ourselves into the world of study, juggling all the work we had brought upon ourselves. I enjoyed Math and Chemistry, but since I only had one year of Physics in Taipei, I struggled in the Physics 101 class. Saadia and I both loved our Math professor and we decided to ask her to tutor us for Applied Math which, we had found out, was beyond self-teaching. She was flabbergasted when we told her why we needed that extra A level. She explained that British universities required indeed two A levels for university entrance, but these being equivalent to what here were first year courses, a bachelor degree at British universities only took three years to complete. Therefore, the U of J had placed its own bar above that of British universities. She told us that since we scored at the top of our class of over 200 students — indeed Saadia led her Biology class with a 98% in the first test while I did so in Chemistry with a 96% in mine– we should write a petition to the council of deans to convert our status to “regular students” without the need for that extra A level. We loved the advice and consequently submitted our petition.

French high school studies was great in all subjects except in Math and German. I had taken a couple of courses at the Goethe Institute but this was fourth-year German and studying it meant spending most of my time flipping through the dictionary. Math was a foreign language in itself. I had no idea what they were talking about. I figured that since the last math I took in Paris was called the “New Math”, this must be more of the same. English (yes, we had to take two foreign languages) was a breeze since I’d just come through Shakespeare, Tennyson and Jane Austen. Indeed, I remember clearly our first assignment: the first chapter of Pride and Prejudice; and the next one, an excerpt from Three Men in a Boat, which I promptly went on to borrow from the British Council library.

Now named the Yom Kippur War, or the 1973 Arab-Israeli War, the conflict disrupted my French correspondence studies.

Now named the Yom Kippur War, or the 1973 Arab-Israeli War, the conflict disrupted my French correspondence studies.

That year, Ramadan, our holy month of fasting, started on September 28. My long-standing health problems make fasting particularly difficult for me as I become thirsty very quickly. We went on struggling with our two-pronged studies when suddenly on October 6, the Syrian and Egyptian military forces attacked Israel.  One direct result was the shutting down of the post office. And this in turn directly resulted in our being unable to continue with our correspondence course with the CNTE. We had been receiving weekly printed handouts for the first four weeks and were supposed to switch to textbooks thereafter. The textbooks never arrived, so we were unable to do our assignments. Moreover, we could not mail out any homework or test anymore. I must confess that I breathed a sigh of relief. We now only needed to concentrate on our university courses.

Although the war was over as suddenly as it had started, the post office did not resume regular service until January. By June 1974, our textbooks finally arrived. So did a letter notifying us of our having failed the year since we had not been submitting assignments.  On the other hand, the Council of Deans finally approved our petition, while we failed the GCE A level Applied Math exam which we had registered for but not studied at all. In the summer of 1974, Saadia and I took the missing classes from our first two semesters and became regular students the following autumn.

This is how I entered university at 16, despite my best efforts not to.

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Learning German

Goethe Institut, AmmanHomework was again at a minimum, and allowed much time for other endeavors. It was that year that I began to produce poetry in large quantities, and decided to learn German at the Goethe Institute.

I was still harboring a feeling of inferiority because my classmates in Paris were now taking a second modern foreign language, namely German, as well as a classical dead language, namely Latin, while I wasn’t. I knew that the UK had a cultural center called the British Council, and France had the Centre Culturel Francais, but now I discovered that Germany had a Goethe Institut! As expected, they offered German language classes, so I asked Papa for the permission and tuition fees.

There is one expense Papa always agreed to. And that was anything toward education. We never spent much on food: Mama always cooked and Papa loved home-made meals best. Neither did we spend much on clothes: Mama made all our clothes. However, education was a different matter. Papa drummed it into our heads: education is the best investment there is. “I won’t leave you anything when I die,” Papa had told us since our tender childhood. “You can be robbed of anything except the knowledge in your head. Therefore the best investment is in your education.” And indeed, when it had been needed, they had even sent Saadia and me to Paris for that purpose!

So he agreed immediately. I signed up for the Beginner’s class, although I had studied quite a lot on my own already. I figured that I must have been a bad teacher to myself, so I might as well start afresh. Our teacher was a good-looking statuesque German woman who put me immediately at ease. My classmates were all adults who were there in preparation for work in Germany, or for other business purposes. I must say that although many things can be self-taught, nothing beats a live teacher for foreign language. At least you know how to model your accent and intonation. So I happily drilled my verbal greetings, followed by questions and answers about where I came from and where I was going (assuming one was in an airport). Then we started working on questions about how many languages we spoke. The teacher asked each one of us in turn, “How many languages do you speak?” The man on my right answered, “Drei! (Three!)”  The teacher was surprised and asked which three languages he meant.  “Arabic, English and German!” replied the polyglot proudly.guten tag

I nearly choked. Here he was, in German 101, barely able to answer correctly very basic drills, and he claimed to speak the language! I knew way more, having covered half a book of German grammar, and yet I dared not tell anyone I knew any German! Ah, the difference between Middle Eastern braggadocio and Chinese modesty! We had been raised to despise bragging. If anyone praised us for our school work or good manners, or anything else, my parents would immediately deny it, “Oh, no, not at all! She got lucky, that’s all!  Your daughter, on the other hand, is so smart!” Whereupon, the other mom would also put down her own daughter. The way to brag was to put down your child for something unimportant but throw in a fact about something you wanted to show off: “Ah, I really don’t know what to do with my daughter! She doesn’t even know how to cook! All she does is study or read books and bring good grades… tsk, tsk, tsk! What to do with such a daughter!”

But to go back to the Goethe Institut… I really was now in seventh heaven, and would proudly carry my blue hardcover textbook two or three times a week onto a “service” car on my way to the institute. In Jordan, at least in those days, there weren’t many bus lines, but there were instead “service” lines. They were really just taxis that ran along specific routes and stop anywhere along it. They could seat two passengers on the front seat (bench) and three on the back one. At home, I’d diligently write all homework neatly in a copybook and practice my oral drills out loud.

Next thing I knew, Saadia found a Russian Cultural Center, located also quite close on Jabal Amman. She asked Papa for the permission and the tuition for Russian language classes. How exciting!  Russian! I had always been curious about Russian, from the day we learned to sing Moscow Nights back at the Ecole St Sebastien. In my attempt to read Anna Karenina in Chinese, I had enjoyed reading the Russian names that covered entire lines once they had been split into Chinese characters. I jumped up. “Me too, I want to learn Russian too!” But Saadia immediately put a stop to it. “No, you learn your German and I learn my Russian. You may not learn Russian too!” Papa agreed with her, as he always did. So, I did not get to attend Russian classes, but I would secretly flip through Saadia’s Russian textbook, and call her “maya sestra”, answer “spasiba” when appropriate, and accompany her to the movies at the Russian Center. I thought Papa just always favored Saadia. But now, come to think of it, it was possibly that paying for yet one more class might have been weighing too much on his budget.

russian alphabet

I was growing up but still considered myself a child, Chinese-style. You are not an adult until you marry. Mama did not believe in talking to us about adult matters. She did not even discuss what dishes she planned to cook, let alone our family’s monthly budget. Papa would discuss any topic with us, from literature to politics, and from science to geography, but he never discussed home finances. Therefore, I knew our family budget was very tight, but just how tight, I wasn’t sure. Aunt Lily, back in Paris, in our daily conversations, had expressed very clearly her opinion and the facts of the life of a diplomat from Taiwan, “Penniless Diplomats, that’s what we are, penniless diplomats, slapping our faces swollen to appear fat!” (Translation: if you are wealthy, you can afford to eat well, and therefore to get fat. If you are poor, you cannot be fat. So you can slap your own cheeks until they swell up and then go out and pretend it’s obesity from too much rich food.) Then she would go on describing the ceiling-to-floor golden curtains at the Venezuelan ambassador’s residence, while she had to entertain at restaurants, because our apartment just would not show well.

Another result of the segregation of generations is that we generally classified anyone we met into child (our generation) or adult (older generation). One did not cross that gaping canyon between the two generations. So when one day, one of my classmates in the German class offered me a ride home, I thought that was such a kind gesture from that elderly “uncle”. Thinking back, that guy must have been in his thirties. But to me, a 15-year-old with the Chinese age-old distinction of generations, since he had a bulging abdomen and a balding skull, he belonged to the Uncles group, and only meant to spare me the trouble of walking, catching a “service” car, and paying the fare. I learned very fast that Jordanians did not see the world in the same light I did. The “uncle” proceeded to tell me that he had learned some Chinese words. And, with an inane grin, he went on to say some garbled sounds. “What?” I did not understand it. “oh, eye-nee…” repeated he, of the foolish grin. “Sorry, I am not getting it,” I kept saying, until suddenly, after his tenth or twelfth attempt, I realized he was trying to say, “wo ai ni,” or I love you. By then, he was red to the ears. I, on the other hand, was totally furious for being such a fool and having subjected myself to such an idiotic situation. When we reached the water tower circle, I got off, thank him drily and nearly slammed the door in anger. I swore never to take a ride again with any “uncle” from my class.


High School Teachers

Our teachers at the CMS were a mixture of Britons and Jordanians. As already mentioned, the English teacher was Scottish, and the history teacher was English. The math teacher, Miss Salah, was Jordanian. She had been sent to study in England on a scholarship with the provision that she had to teach at our school a number of years afterwards. She was everyone’s favorite, friendly and easy-going, without that “I know best” attitude that no teacher should have despite its prevailing preponderance in the teaching world.

I loved Math class because all of a sudden, it was easy again. After two years of battling worksheets by weight, we were suddenly faced again with easy problems and never more than a page of homework. One day, after the whole class agonized over some complicated problem, Miss Salah wrote out the solution on the board. Then Saadia (yes, we were back in the same classroom again) called her over, and there ensued a prolonged whispered conversation between the two. Miss Salah went back to the board, and told the whole class that Saadia had offered a different solution, and it was much shorter than her own. Good job!

good teacher

Now, this is what I call a good teacher. A teacher who slams down students has a deeply seated inferiority complex. She cannot allow her own deficiencies to be seen and treats all such people, even if they are little innocent ones, with hatred and aggressivity. But if teachers realize that no one is a walking encyclopedia and that teachers are merely guides or leaders, then they would not mind the occasional little voice piping up an answer better than their own, or a question they could not answer.

The Biology and Chemistry teacher was a shy and quiet Mr. Mouse. Actually his name was Mr. Far, which meant mouse or rat in Arabic. He lived up to his name and was generally soft-spoken and mild-mannered. The girls loved to tease him and make him blush, and would decide daily who he was in love with. Personally, I doubt he would be in love with any of those loud, silly and giggly teenagers, but such games are favorites among foolish young girls. He always ended the class by asking whether anyone had any question. One day, they pushed Saadia to ask him why knuckles made popping noises when cracked. He sensed a plot when everyone tried stifling giggles and simply said he didn’t know. I am told by classmates that they tried to embarrass him a lot when he had to teach the infamous Chapter 25, Reproduction. Frankly, I must have been blind and deaf, because I never noticed anything.

cracking knuckles

Neither did Roxy, the Pakistani girl, with whom I had become very close friends. Her name had been originally Rukhsana, which had been shortened to Roxy after her toddler pronunciation. It was later changed to Um Kulsum after the famous Egyptian singer, and that is what she was registered as, but she still preferred her old name, so we complied and called her Roxy.

The two of us came from equally conservative families and had not been told about the birds and the bees. So when one day during study hour we reviewed Chapter 25 together in view of a test, the question suddenly popped up.  After spermatogenesis (production of sperm) and after oogenesis (production of eggs), how did the two suddenly come to be together in the fallopian tube? Mr. Farr had conveniently skipped that section. We looked up the textbook. Hum! The textbook also omitted to tell us how. We pondered deeply and came to the conclusion that the sperm could have gotten in through the umbilicus. Still, how did it get from the umbilicus to the fallopian tube? Maybe by swimming inside the abdominal cavity? Then entering amid the fimbriae near the ovaries, just like the ova did after plopping out of the ovaries…

the birds and the bees

I turned around and called out to a group of our classmates who were “studying” or chatting as a group behind us.  One of them, a friendly round-faced blonde with an ample chest came to help us out. We shared our question. She looked at us in disbelief and giggled until that giggle bubbled out almost as a laughter. She pointed at the anatomical drawings and said, “This goes here.”  Then she left, still giggling, and probably sharing that unbelievable news with the rest of the class. Roxy and I just sat there, with eyes as big as saucers, mouths gaping, until finally one of us, I cannot remember which, finally said, “Ugh! Disgusting!”

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How to say Yes and No in Arabic

That year, 1972, was not only a year of improving English but also of getting re-acquainted with Arabic. Everyone took Arabic, but we the four foreigners got to skip those classes since the level was way too advanced for us. However, since we were surrounded by Arabic in the form of neighbors, shopkeepers, street signs, newspaper and television, the learning occurred despite our schooling.

Learning a foreign language directly from native speakers is the only way to speak just the right way. In many languages, there are associated gestures and expressions, or even just snorts, sighs and tones of voice that are never taught in language classes. For example, there is a typically Jordanian gesture which consists of a short jerky upward throw of the chin — meaning, of the entire head really — often associated with an upward lift of the eyebrows and always associated with a “tzz!” sound made by quickly sucking the tongue from the back of the teeth. A sound which is closely resembles the “tsk!” in English.

I first encountered it in a conversation with a beautiful Armenian classmate named Dalida while we were sitting on a bench in the school yard. I asked something, and she replied, “Tzz!” with the cute little snapping up of the head. Confused, I repeated my question, and got the “Tzz!” again. I cannot remember how I finally figured out the meaning of the “Tzz!” but, for my readers’ enlightenment, it means “No!”

yes and no

Mind you, these sound-gestures are usually confined to certain geographical areas. Years later, when I worked as a psychiatric resident in Jeddah, I met a patient from somewhere in the south of Saudi Arabia. She was quite dark, and so had probably some Sudanese blood. I had to take her history, and asked her whether she was married. She kindly retracted one corner of her mouth, the right one, I think, and produced from that corner a very loud, very distinct and well-rounded click! There was no accompanying head movement, no smile, no nod or upward thrust, nothing. Just that click. I was a bit taken aback. Then I repeated my question. Only to get the same click. I wondered whether it was the same as the Jordanian “Tzz!” which would mean “No!” But it didn’t sound remotely similar. What if it meant “Yes”? No? Yes? I was baffled.

Aha! I suddenly found the solution. If she has children, she must be married. So I asked her, “Do you have any children?” She replied with another loud and clear click! If she is not married, then she has no children. If she is married, then she has children. I felt like I was trying to solve a Logic Problem…  “So… You do have children?”  Click!  “Er, so you are married?” Click! If only she had some facial expression, that would help! But no, this lady was totally poker-faced. Oh, God, help me here!

Then, I saw the light. “Sister, how many children do you have?” “Four.” Hallelujah! Four children meant yes, she had children, which meant yes, she was married. Hahaha! The click meant Yes! Puzzle solved! I patted myself on the back… How smart I was!

hand nodding with five fingers together

Mediterranean people, and by extension, Middle Easterners, are well-known for using gestures while speaking, so much so that it has been said that they cannot express themselves if their hands were tied. One common gesture is the ubiquitous hand nodding with all five fingers touching one another and facing upward. You do this one hand at a time, not both. It may mean “a little”, “take it easy”, “slowly”, or “wait a minute”.  It can even mean, “Just you wait, I will deal with you later…” when an angry parent nods the hand at a naughty child.  And I am probably missing a hundred other nuances right here.

They greet each other effusively, with the women doing the pecking-the-air-next-to-the-cheek thing like the French. I’m always confused whether it’s one, two or three pecks. And so, I’m always still sticking my head to the opposite side when the other person is already pulling back. Men, on the other hand, shake hands, then pull each other into a bear hug, slapping their backs as they do so. It is very normal for men to walk together, hand in hand, just because they are good friends. And nothing else. Once, the kids of one embassy staff member came to visit their parents over the winter holidays. We took them on a tour of the University of Jordan. After a while, one of them remarked that there were a lot of them here, right? I did not get it at all. A lot of what? He pointed with his chin at two boys walking hand in hand. What of them? I asked. “Are they not homosexuals?”  I just burst out laughing my head off. No. Not at all. Very common and very normal. Everyone does it.

Probably only penguins of the same sex can walk hand in hand today without anyone assuming anything other than "What good friends they are!"

Probably only penguins of the same sex can walk hand in hand today without anyone assuming anything other than “What good friends they are!”

To go back to actual spoken language, I learned it from everyone in the streets, and from the neighbor kids. One day, we were walking home from school, and a group of little girls in their greenish gingham dress uniforms started following us and trying to talk to us. One of them was very insistent. She kept shouting out loud, in a tone that seemed to be a question, “Addaysh assa’ah?” That apostrophe is actually a strange consonant that only exists in Arabic. It originates in the throat, and is produced by squeezing the back of the soft palate down, a bit like when you prepare to throw up. But instead of throwing up, you slide out a sound that should be smooth and oily, not raspy and retchy. Then you pair it with a vowel, while hopefully still holding on to the consonant. Very tricky affair. So then, this little girl kept asking me, “Addaysh assa’ah? Addaysh assa’ah?” non-stop. I tried to shake my head and say, “La! La!” meaning no, no. That was before I’d mastered the Tzz! trick. But that did not stop her. She then grabbed my left wrist and pointed at my watch, “Addaysh assa’ah?” Oh, I got it! “How much is the watch?” Well, the effrontery! Really! This watch is not for sale! How do I say that? So I kept on saying, “La! La!” and ran to my house, which we’d finally reached, and banged the gate behind us. what time is it The next day, the girls at school translated that sentence to me when I related the incident. “Fawzia, addaysh assa’ah means what time is it?”  And they all had a good laugh. Oh… I see. It was “how much is the time?” for the literal translation.  Time. Watch. They all translate into “sa’ah”. Ah, again, all those traps and obstacles in learning foreign languages…

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From King Arthur to Barbara Cartland

All in all, we took to the British school as ducks to water. I discovered Camelot and the Knights of the Round Table, after reading our assigned “Morte d’Arthur” by Tennyson. I also discovered that this was the same King Arthur who pulled the

From Morte d'Arthur, a poem by Alfred Lord Tennyson

From Morte d’Arthur, a poem by Alfred Lord Tennyson

“Sword in the Stone” in Disney’s rendition, the one I watched back on the roof of the Marines’ dorms in Jeddah. Our school library was a little dusty room in the back building near the kindergarten. It was often locked, but we managed to visit it often enough to unearth some really interesting books. I particularly remember reading about the Knights of the Round Table and wondering what the Holy Grail was, that so many valiant knights should search for it. I finally figured out, with the help of a dictionary, that it was a cup. A cup! Unless this was a magic cup, I could not envision myself giving my life for a cup. And these stalwart young men would just ride off with no clue whatsoever about what the cup looked like or where it could possibly be. But the stories were enthralling, and so I read on.

Another book that took me by surprise was the story of the von Trapp Family Singers. I had watched The Sound of Music in Taipei but never asked myself whether it was a real story. Now I found out it was not just real, but that the whole family did not stop in Switzerland after crossing the Alps but went on to emigrate to America and settled there. I laughed at their attempts at learning English, something I could identify with so well at the time. I grieved too, to find that one of the children had died.

von trapp family singers

However, the majority of our reading material came from the library of the British Council, which lay conveniently on the way home from school, if we took Rainbow Street down to the First Circle. We started from the Children Section, where the books were easier and introduced us to many English traditions. I found out, for example, about the Twelve Days of Christmas from a book describing what My Love brought as presents on every one of those days. Only to find out later that it was a song too.

rainbow street, amman

Eventually, we moved to the sections of “real” books, where I checked out every single book by Agatha Christie, and soon became a fan of Hercule Poirot.  Saadia, as usual, was ahead of me in discovering new authors as well as in her speed of reading. Soon, she plunged herself into thick tomes by Victoria Holt, not to be disturbed at any cost.

Victoria Holt, Mistress of Mellyn

It was also during that year that we discovered the genre of popular romance. The girls from school passed around copies of Barbara Cartland books. For today’s generation, this is probably an unknown writer. But in the 1970’s, she was the queen of romance. There was always a heroine, who was mostly blonde, always beautiful, and who attracted the attention of a dark, handsome man who was usually brooding and taciturn. There was also a third person, a competing rival who could be either male or female, and was always evil. The high point of the story was always THE kiss. Just one. And the ending was always happy. Great formula, which has been described as: Boy meets Girl, separation, reunion, separation, reunion, separation, reunion. It worked great. All the girls at school just died over her stories. We knew they were silly, but we loved them all the same.

Barbara Cartland book

Today, romances have become more trashy. A kiss is nothing any more.  It is probably assumed by modern romance writers that unless people jump into bed at the drop of a hat, the story cannot be a romance and no one will want to read it. How wrong they are. If we judge by the continuing success and popularity of the K-pop culture and Korean Wave, the rarity of the kisses makes them all the more valuable and worth waiting for. American romance movies are total flops compared to Korean ones.

But I digress again…

By the time Iffat turned seven, she was attending the Islamic College, and was not reading books, neither in English nor in Arabic, much less in Chinese. I noticed that fact one day, and realized to my great horror that when I was her age, I was devouring The Three Musketeers, original and unabridged. I quickly endeavored to remedy the situation by taking out The Three Musketeers from the British Council library and reading it out loud with Iffat. Somewhere in the middle of the book, she was able to continue and finish the reading on her own. Thereafter, I got her a membership card too, and she was launched, just as Therese had been, back in Paris.

I love to mention always that I taught my cousin Therese to love books by reading her The Three Musketeers and I taught Iffat to read the same way. The former ended up going to Harvard and the latter to MIT. Anyone with a background in science rushes to tell me that two cases do not make a reliable study, and I have to agree. Still, is that not a pretty story to tell?


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French Versus Chinese

le chateau de ma mereI mentioned in my last post that we also signed up for Advanced Level French and Chinese, which again, we planned to sit for without the help of any teacher. This time we got serious about it. We looked up the syllabi to make sure to prepare well for them. The French syllabus listed a good number of literature books. That was easy to solve. We visited the French Cultural Center on Jabal al-Weibdeh, took a membership with the library and checked out the books in question. They were absolutely great ones. All the Marcel Pagnol in particular, were new to me. Thus, I greatly enjoyed reading them, starting with “Le Chateau de Ma Mere”.  Later, these books were made into movies, including  “Jean de Florette” and “Manon des Sources”.

Now named Paris Circle, the roundabout near the Centre Culturel Francais, which has been renamed Institut Francais.

Now named Paris Circle, the roundabout near the Centre Culturel Francais, which has been renamed Institut Francais.

Chinese A level was a totally different affair. First, it included modern Chinese history. I knew some of it from television serial dramas in Taiwan, but the Chinese history from Secondary I covered only the early dynasties. Thus, we returned again to the library of the British Council to borrow everything we could find that covered the 18th and 19th century. The problem was that since these books were written by British authors, the bias was slanted towards Europeans.

Secondly, it did have  a section with assigned books, or rather, a single book, but the rest was totally unassigned. This meant, they could bring a text from just about anywhere. We wrote to the Mai cousin in Hong Kong. All students in Hong Kong used to take the GCE too, since this was before 1997, and Hong Kong was still British. She mailed us a copy of that book, a collection of short stories. We dutifully studied those stories, which were rather easy, and we happily assumed the rest of the paper would be on par with them.

One of the stories was the famous Sai Wong Shi Ma, or “The Old Man from the Borderland Who Lost His Horse”. Really. That’s the beauty (or the difficulty) of Chinese. Four short syllables to say all that. In brief, there was an old man who had a prized horse and a strong son.  The son fell off the horse and broke his leg. The horse in turn ran away and disappeared over the plains. When neighbors commiserated, the old man replied that they might be good things and not unhappy events. Just then, war started and the emperor drafted all able young men into the army. He also drafted all horses too.  Soon, most families either mourned their sons or saw them return without arms or legs. The next spring, the son’s leg was healed and he was up and about again. The old man’s horse suddenly returned, followed by a mare and a colt. The moral of the story (all Chinese stories have morals to them…) is that one should not feel angry or upset at downturns in one’s fortunes. An apparent disaster may actually be a blessing in disguise.

Border Elder Loses Horse, How Know Not Blessing

Border Elder Loses Horse, How Know Not Blessing

This story struck me quite deeply. To this day, I tell it to my students whenever they deplore whatever bad stroke of luck comes their way.

But to return to the A level exams: We sat in June for the French one, and both of us got A’s again. This was no surprise. If the reader has been following my previous history, you will know that I have always been excellent at French literature and writing, even in Paris, where the two of us regularly exceeded our schoolmates by at least three years.

The second Opium War, 1856-60, between China and Britain.

The second Opium War, 1856-60, between China and Britain.

On the other hand, the Chinese papers gave me a taste of what Napoleon felt at Waterloo. I believe we did fairly well on the history paper, what with the Opium Wars and such. But the language paper was totally about classical Chinese. The first section was from the book of short stories, and I did fine on that one. Unfortunately, it could only give me a maximum of  20 points or so. The next text was in recognizable classical Chinese, meaning it had the punctuation marks, you know, commas and periods. It carried 45 points. I tried my best to translate it and might have gotten a third of it right.


The cream of the crop was the final text, which boasted a possible 65 points: a huge full page monster in really ancient classical Chinese, with not a single period or comma in the entire thing. It started with: shi gong yue. I thought to myself, I can’t go wrong on these three words. I translated them as: “Lord Gong said:” The problem was since there were no quotation marks, I didn’t know when the said lord stopped saying things. Nor, for that matter, what he was saying. I bravely forged on, trying to translate maybe a few lines, and gave up after that.

Both of us got the same result: an “O”. This meant that we failed the A level, but got an “A” in the “O” level. Which actually we already had.

We showed the test paper to Papa and Uncle X, another embassy staff member. They laughed. “But this is material one would study in the Chinese literature department of a university!” they exclaimed. Even the two of them had trouble deciphering that humongous 65-point text. “Well,” I remarked, “at least I got three words right!” Papa laughed even harder. “No, you got those three words wrong! Shi Gong means “the historian”, not “Lord Gong”. So it should have translated into, “The historian said.”

I understand that exam questions are set according to the cultural background of the language being tested. But definitely, I thought and still think that there should be more equality and uniformity among the languages. If all the material in the French exam came from assigned reading, then so should the Chinese exam. If all the literature tested is 19th and early 20th century in the French exam, then so should the Chinese one. Why should French students get to discuss literary devices and characterization of easily understood texts, while Chinese students are asked to translate 5th century texts dug out of any and all obscure documents? Is this not discrimination?


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The General Certificate of Education

We learned very fast that the whole curriculum was driven by an exam called the GCE, or General Certificate of Education. Having just alighted from Taiwan, I understood that it was something akin to the National University Entrance Exam, but for Great Britain. However, there were some major differences.

taking exams

First, the exam was not written and produced by the Ministry of Education but by a university. Actually, by TWO universities. There was a GCE, University of London, and a GCE, University of Cambridge. Not only so, there were two levels to this exam, named “O” level (for Ordinary) and “A” level (for Advanced). The “O” level was taken after Secondary Two (equivalent to 11th Grade) and ended what could be equated to High School.  If one lived in England, one would then go to a “college” for two years and study for the A levels, which would bring one up to the equivalent of the end of an American freshman year. Then one could enter “university” which would award you a bachelor’s degree in three years.

GCE O levels pathways

The second main difference was that you did not take an entire exam divided into subjects. You registered to take only the subjects you wished to sit for. We thought that idea a real stroke of genius! Now, at last we could get some kind of recognition for subjects we knew but were not taught in school! Students were expected to sign up for at least four subjects, which could be taken in January or in June.

Saadia and I browsed the subjects like one would browse the menu at a restaurant. Let’s take some subjects in January, we decided. Let’s pick subjects for which the school is not preparing us. So we signed up for French, Chinese, Art and Geography. Which Geography? asked the form. Hmm… It turned out we could actually pick the region we wanted to be tested on. Here is where a counselor would have come in really handy. I should have chosen Europe and I might actually have had a great chance of scoring high. But I reasoned that I just came from Taiwan and should therefore choose South- East Asia. I discovered a bit late that Taiwan was considered a part of East Asia, not South-East Asia.

map of south east asia

We had no textbook and no teacher. So we went to the British Council and looked up and down the aisle on travel and found some books on that region. We browsed through them. When the time came to take the test, I was horrified. I barely knew what they were asking me. Somehow I got through the papers and to my great surprise, scored a D! I had passed!

As for French, Chinese and Art, I got A’s all around, as expected.

We then signed up for the June exams, which included English Language, English Literature, Math, Chemistry, Biology, History and threw in A level French and A level Chinese for good measure. I will discuss the other subjects in good time. But I need to let the world know that I was very good at History. The teacher was British and the topic that year was European history, with an entire month alone on the French Revolution. You can imagine my enthusiasm and interest! No more memorizing lists of unpronounceable and incomprehensible reforms by Qin Shi Hwang. But discussions on the factors leading to the March of the Women on Versailles and the Taking of the Bastille. The influence of the “philosophers” Voltaire and Rousseau, the ideas brought back by La Fayette… Everything was fascinating. The teacher pinned all his hopes on Saadia and me. Well, last minute, as we were all signing up for our exams, Mama looked at the total of all the fees, and sighed. “Can’t you drop an exam or two? This is getting ridiculously expensive…”  We insisted we had to take all of them. She looked at them too. “Aha! History! What are you taking history for? You will be studying sciences. You don’t need History! Drop it.”

the taking of the bastille

Chinese children do not argue. They bend their heads and submit. So we did. And this is why I hold an O level Geography with a D, which I never studied, while I have nothing to show for modern European History, which I studied hard for a year, adored and excelled at.


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Learning English

The first evening after our arrival, the embassy held a reception to welcome us. We got to meet all the diplomatic families, who were only a handful, as well as the local staff. One of them tried being sociable and asked me what grade I would be studying.

Ah, what grade? My mind raced through all the possible answers. In Taiwan, I would be entering the second year of Senior High School, which corresponded to the Premiere in France. I knew that this level was called 11th Grade in America, but what system did they use in Great Britain? And did this school, the CMS, use the British grade system or the Jordanian one? And what was the Jordanian one anyway?


While I pondered these questions, I remained quiet. The Jordanian guest turned around and asked the closest Chinese adult, “Does she not speak English at all?”

People who have never learned a foreign language and have never been thrown into the sea, sorry, into a native speaking environment, do not understand how many obstacles and unseen barriers there are in there!

Going to school was equally fraught with submerged coral reefs. My English teacher was Scottish. And that was when I learned that the Scots rrrroll their R’s! It took me a couple of weeks to start understanding what she was saying in class.  The students spoke more understandable English, except for the two who were also foreigners: an American girl of French origin named Marguerite and a Pakistani girl named Um Kulsum.

Marguerite spoke American English, which matched the language spoken in all those American movies and TV sitcoms we watched, but she did not understand many of the words I said.  I had learned phonetics in France, and had been taught about the short I and the long I. In French, this means you pronounce the “ee”  sound a bit longer or a bit shorter. I had not realized that the short I is pronounced differently and closer to an “ay” sound than an “ee” sound. So Marguerite was very puzzled when I talked about “peekels”:  “You know, what is called “cornichons” in French… —  Ah! you mean Pickles!”  Or when I had to describe what ships were: “Oh, you mean SHIPS! Not sheep! — That’s what I said, sheeps!”

sheep or ship

Um Kulsum was the first to approach me. She was absolutely overjoyed to find other foreign students this year in her class as she had been the lone one the previous year. Unfortunately, I could not understand her accent for the first few weeks. Today, I can see that her accent was very light compared to that of many Indians and Pakistanis I have met over the course of the years. But at the time, when I could only understand slowly spoken perfectly pronounced English, it was disastrous. Here she was, trying eagerly to convey all sorts of information to me, and all I could do was open my eyes as big as possible (perhaps because it made me feel that opened my ears too… ), and give myself the air of a deer caught in headlights.

Writing was an easier task. After all, English is quite close to French.  I can see many of you, readers, shaking your head and saying no. But remember that my other two languages were Arabic and Chinese. None of those were closer to English. And since most of my English learning was traditional, meaning that they were based on written grammar and vocabulary, and since I had always been excellent at writing, learning to write in English was a total pleasure.

I tried to duplicate my feats from the French schools, but the teacher never did read anyone’s essays in class. She did, however, often circle in red the French words that inserted themselves against my willpower into my compositions. The most common culprit was the word “et”, meaning “and”, which would pop up almost every other line. Other longer words were often in my own Anglicized spelling of a French word. If  a French “acteur” became an English  “actor”, then it follows that a French “professeur” should become an English “professor”.  Many of the words ending in “-tion” were spelled the same way in both languages, and the words ending in “-ment” changed their suffix to “-ly”.  However, the rule did not always work, and I would produce very ridiculous English words now and then. Aha, I thought, “intelligemment” becomes “intelligelly” (intelligently).

english vs french

Although the teacher was usually right, I remember one particular word where finally, I managed to be right. Well, almost. I wrote something occurring “after a laps of time…” and the teacher circled “laps” and commented in red: no such word. I did look it up some years later and found that it should have been spelled “lapse”, and that derivatives exist in English such as “so much time has elapsed.”

Just as they did in France, the teacher assigned us essays on a variety of topics. I tried hard to elicit some kind of response from her about my great writing skills. I overdid myself in descriptions of immense skies and rolling plains, I desperately invented vivid horror scenes — in one case involving the gigantic shadow of a witch on a centuries-old wall that would bleed when stabbed — but all to no avail. British phlegm prevailed.

Literature was a bit of a challenge at first. But once I got over the Shakespearean terms for Twelfth Night and the nineteenth century long-winded sentence structure of Northanger Abbey, I started enjoying reading them. Here, I must insert some comments on the teaching of literature in high school. In the US, many teachers simply assign books to students and then discuss them or receive written reports about the books. This allows them to “read” as many as 8 books a year. The truth is that most students are quite unable to read even a single chapter, and rely on their Cliffs’ Notes or Sparks Notes to understand the content. In the British (and French) system, the teacher actually reads these books. Out loud. We read in turn too, and on the spot, as they appeared, we discussed word nuances, implications,  foreshadowing,  ironic twists, and so on.

All in all, my English did improve fast, and I managed to win the British Council English Award at the end of the year for best writing, an English dictionary of modern phrases.


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Leaving my homeland

Jordan, mapSometime early in 1972, Papa told us he had been given the order to transfer abroad again, this time to Jordan. Jordan wasn’t totally unknown to us. We passed through it back in 1964 on our way from Ankara to Jeddah. So Mama started packing once again. And Papa made the decision to leave Saadia and me here in Taiwan.

Papa valued education above all. We had loved the two years of reunion with Papa, Mama and my little siblings, and my heart froze when he mentioned splitting the family up yet again. His reasoning: we were doing well by then in Bei Yi Nu, the top girls high school in Taiwan. Saadia had already made it to first place in her class and I was somewhere close, in the top ten (sixth by December, my diary did not state my rank in the subsequent months). We were on our way to the best university upon graduation. On the other hand, he assumed Jordan was like Saudi Arabia, with miserable prospects for girls’ education. So, the choice was made.

Mama talked to a cousin of hers, who accepted to have the two of us live in. My heart felt bitter-sweet. So my great progress in Chinese led me to be separated again from my family? We visited the cousin’s apartment. It felt dreary and grey and drab and cold to me. But Papa’s decisions were always law. So I never even tried protesting the decree.

In April, our ambassador to Jordan passed away suddenly, so the vice military attache came back to Taiwan, to accompany his remains home. Papa met with him and the two had a lively discussion about Jordan. Papa came home, and brightly announced that Saadia and I could come along after all! He had found out that the education scene in Jordan was not at all like that in Jeddah. Apart from the government schools, there were excellent English medium private Christian schools that prepared students for the British university entrance exams! Now, if the reader remembers, my father had himself graduated from some fine private Catholic high schools in China. Private Christian schools were the cream of schools in China in his days; their students usually came from the best families and their graduates would become the future leaders of the country.  Melody, ad

Thus, we notified our classmates and teachers of our imminent departure, and despite a twinge of regret at missing out on the marching drill team,  happily got ready to embark again on a new adventure! I tried to imagine what an English school would be like. My only references were movies like “Melody” (starring my favorite child actor Mark Lester, and with sound tracks by the Bee Gees). As a side note, I just found out from Wikipedia that the movie was a disappointing flop in the USA and Britain, while a great box office success in Japan and Latin America. Well, I can add that it definitely was a smash hit in Taiwan! I bought the sound track record and memorized every song. All the girls loved the movie and Mark Lester! Its title in Chinese was Liang Xiao Wu Cai, meaning Two Naive Innocent Children, meaning naive in the sense of love.

Well, to return to my topic, I was imagining then that my future English school would be something like those old wood paneled walls and somber corridors. That my future instructors  would be like the strict, poker faced teachers in Melody. My readers, you will have to be a little bit patient to find out whether I was right.

fiddler on the roof, ad

In the meantime, we had to face a different dilemma. Papa had already purchased airline tickets for the whole family minus the two of us, and it was too late to get us on the same flight. So it was that everyone left for Hong Kong one week before Saadia and I. We stayed with my godfather Wang Sir and his young wife Ah Giao in the meantime. We dragged her to the cinema to watch Fiddler on the Roof.  Knowing full well that Ah Giao did not understand English, nor did she read Mandarin Chinese very well, I kept a running commentary of on-the-spot translation mixed with explanation of the plot, totally out of guilt. When Tevye stood finally, miserable, alone in his field, his youngest daughter leaving him behind, I was stifling my sobs, and struggling not to let Ah Giao see me cry. Finally, I stole a glance at her, and found her happily snoring away in her seat, head fallen on one side. Ah! I thought, all my beautiful translations lost to posterity…



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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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