Life of a Rooster

Memoirs of a psychiatrist, journalist and educator

Color Difficult

I am really very thankful to my father for having made us keep a diary. If not for my diary, I would have long forgotten that by the end of December 1971, I had caught up enough to rank 6th in my class. Considering there were 56 students in the class, and that this was the very best girls high school in Taipei, I should have been proud of myself. But I wasn’t. Saadia was first in her class, and Ibtissam had been first in hers since the very first month. The one silver lining was that I was now close to my goal, for thus I became eligible for the school marching drill team.

French history was previously my favorite subject.

French history was previously my favorite subject.

I do remember however, that by the second semester, I had over 75% in all subjects except History, where I scored barely above 65%. If my readers remember, back in Paris, I was considered a genius at history, and the thought of studying 5,000 years of Chinese history had delected me! But now, it actually became my Waterloo. When I tell other Chinese today that Chinese history was taught in classical Chinese, they look puzzled and mutter, “I don’t think so…”  But then I ask them, “Very well, just tell me what is Qin Shi Huang (of the Great Wall and terracotta soldiers fame) is known for.” They usually then recite, “shu tong wen” — writing same script; “che tong gui” — chariots same tracks; “tong yi du liang heng” — unification of measurement units; etc”  And I ask them, “Is this modern Chinese?”

Chariot widths and wheel sizes were standardized during the reign of Qin Shi Huang.

Chariot widths and wheel sizes were standardized during the reign of Qin Shi Huang.

Today, after watching hundreds of Chinese period movies and TV dramas, I have become very good at reading and understanding those contracted expressions that are based on classical or semi-classical Chinese. But I am sure that a beginner in Chinese, even with armed with a decent knowledge of spoken modern Mandarin would have an equally hard time with a downpour of such terms. Our history teacher stated during her first lesson that she was sure we all knew the material very well and therefore needed no explanation.  She would therefore just tell us which main points to underline and memorize for tests (for our textbooks were disposable things printed on cheap paper), and narrate stories related to the topic. I loved the idea of the stories, except that she spoke to herself, marching up and down the front of the classroom and chuckled to herself, and I understood absolutely nothing.

The one thing that stands out during that year is the bond I formed with my homeroom teacher, our Chinese literature teacher, Ms. Yang Jing-Zhi. There was something called the weekly journal, a notebook made of rice paper and printed with squares, in which we had to write with Chinese brush and ink on the weekends and bring back to school on Mondays. My classmates generally wrote what they did that week. I quickly got bored doing that and, since I’d kept a diary for years by then, I decided to write on more interesting topics. The teacher normally only penned/brushed a large “Yue” (“I have read this”) character in red ink on the page, meaning that she had read it. I wondered whether she ever really did. Well, I soon found out.

Keeping a journal is a deeply traditional Chinese habit. Writing it in calligraphy is considered personal discipline and training.

Calligraphied journal, by Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek. Keeping a journal is a deeply traditional Chinese habit. Writing it in calligraphy is considered personal discipline and training.

So, there was a class called “Lun Yu”, or “The Analects of Confucius”. We read it in class in its original form, which is classical Chinese, then worked through the “translation” into modern Chinese, and the list of vocabulary to memorize. That was it. But, having been trained in France to critique everything, I started critiquing Confucius. Remember I was a teen by then, and in the age of rebellion. So one day, we read that Zi Lu (one of Confucius’ disciples) reported that when he asked the Master about filial piety, Confucius replied, “Se nan.” Literally, “Color difficult.” Or, in the full translation, “The hardest part of being good to your parents is your attitude.”  Color here meaning the color of your face, or your facial expression.

That really infuriated me. That weekend, I ventilated in my weekly journal. What? My facial expression? Really? We Chinese children have such a hard time, always having to bend our shoulders and mutter assents to whatever our parents dictate.  We cannot say “no” to anything nor even put up an “attitude”. The only freedom we have left is our facial expression. Should that be taken away from us too then? What did Confucius really know about filial piety? His own parents died when he was young. What did he know about parental expectations? What did he ever do to be good to his parents? He should walk the talk!

Filial piety is one of the most highly valued virtues in Chinese culture.

Filial piety is one of the most highly valued virtues in Chinese culture.

That’s when I found out that Teacher Yang actually did read the journals! She answered in her beautiful brush calligraphy a whole paragraph of retorts and words of comfort. I cannot even remember what she said. All I remember is being shocked that she had read it and answered it! It was then that we started corresponding through this journal. Every week I would critique, comment or just blow up about one or another of those pet peeves that plague teenagers, and she would reply. I think that both my Chinese writing skills and my brush calligraphy skills improved because of her. I came to look forward to her replies.

Towards the end of the year, in May of 1972 — although I am jumping forward here — I told her that we were to leave again, since my father had been assigned a new post abroad. That week, her assigned essay topic was, “That day”, which in Chinese can be read as, “Which day?” meaning, “When?”  I deployed my full emotions here, asking “When shall I see my homeland again?” starting with a paragraph imagining my upcoming plane flight and describing the little houses shrinking and disappearing under the clouds. She gave me a great score for that and even read it out loud in class. This was the first time ever a writing teacher read my essay out loud in class ever since I left the CES Noyer-Durant and Mme Forhan’s class.  It really pleased me but unfortunately this was the last essay I ever wrote for Teacher Yang.

The next day, she came to class without her textbook. She honestly told us all the truth –that she had forgotten it at home–  and said that instead of teaching literature, she was going to give us a little speech. She started talking about Saadia and me, for she was also Saadia’s Chinese teacher, though not her homeroom teacher.  She scolded our classmates for not having tried to know us better or take advantage of our presence in school. She mentioned how Saadia had been elected Head of Hygiene and Cleanliness in her class and had fundraised to buy a can of paint and had a team of students repaint the teacher’s podium and desk. How foreign educated students had a different approach and how the two of us had so much to contribute yet our classmates had not tapped us fully.a tear

Hum, hum. To say I wasn’t touched would be to lie. I was very touched. As I raised my head, I saw tears rolling down from her eyes too.





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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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A glimpse of eternity

Most of what I remember from that year (1970-71) is trying to catch up with school work. Doing homework. Going to school. Testing. Testing. And Testing.

However, there is one brief shining moment in that year when I had a flash of intuition, or a moment of truth, or a glimpse of eternity, whatever one may call it.

It happened right in the middle of a physics test. I was sweating and trembling with anxiety, and overwrought with the fear of making a mistake in my answers. My heart drummed alarmingly. My chest started wrenching in pain. Then I stopped. I put my hand down for a second, and lifted my head.

tree, sunlight


Through the glass of the large window right next to me, the tree tops were waving softly in the breeze. It was spring, and birds were singing. The sun was bright but not overbearingly hot. A butterfly managed to flutter all the way up to our second floor window. Ah, this is a day when one should be outdoors enjoying nature and the joy of rebirth. And all of a sudden the life I was leading, the test I was taking, the classroom full of anxious students, the physics test, all this seemed suddenly so pallid, so fake, and so unimportant in the larger picture of the universe in motion.


In that one moment, my anxiety melted away, and I suddenly thought — or maybe angels put the thought in my head? — “This is not important. In ten or thirty years, no one will care to know how much I scored in that physics test back in 9th grade.” And this has come true, by the way. It has been 43 years now and no one ever has asked me how much I scored in that particular test. The truth is, I myself do not remember at all how much I scored, nor whether I passed or failed it.

Although it may seem like an unimportant short instant; although no one saw anything or noticed anything at the time; and although I myself did not realize the impact of that realization, that single moment marked the beginning of a new era in my life. Before then, I would get immersed in the anxiety of trying to swim against the current and catch up with language, and school work in all the schools and systems and countries I had been through. After that moment, I still did. But the difference was that I now knew it was NOT important to do so, and when needed, I was able to stop the anxiety and step back. And smell the flowers.

It must have been after that moment that one day, although there was a test the next day, I decided to go see a movie instead of studying for one last minute. I wasn’t able to convince Saadia, and had to go with my younger siblings. After all, the theater had put up banners proclaiming “Nailed in iron:  last day!” Meaning that this was for sure the last day they were going to air that particular movie. Well, for all that I believed them, the next day, they had another banner proclaiming, “Nailed in steel: last day!”



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Green Shirts and Yellow Shirts

The primary characteristic of Grade 9 was that it was a test year: the year leading to the High School National Entrance Exam. Everyone was stressed out, from teachers to students, to parents. All of the Far Eastern educational systems were pretty much organized on the same mold: spoon feeding style of education, much stress on memorization, strong belief in drills and homework, and testing to get through various stages.

The well-respected emerald green shirts of Taipei First Girls School

The well-respected emerald green shirts of Taipei First Girls School

All Junior High students would sit for the exam in June. On the registration form, they would fill in their top 10 choices for high school. High schools were then still segregated. So the best boys’ high school was Jian Zhong and the best girls’ high school was Bei Yi Nu — short for Tai Bei Di Yi Nu Zhong, or Taipei’s First Girls High School. Everyone filled this in as their top choice, unless you were very sure you had no chance of getting in at all. Bei Yi Nu was known for their emerald green shirts and black skirts, and the students could be spotted from a mile. Everyone in the streets would pretend not to notice the green shirt but automatically would give some respect to students wearing it, since they represented the cream, the elite of our youth.

Then the second best girls high school was Jin Mei, whose students were recognized by their lemon yellow shirts and black skirts. The rumor going round was that Jin Mei girls were more creative and flexible than Bei Yi Nu girls who were more nerdy. But wait! That is not the whole story.

A more recent image of the lemon yellow shirts of the second best girls high school in Taipei. In 1970, only pleated skirts, not pants, were allowed. Hair was uniformly cut at ear lobe length.

A more recent image of the lemon yellow shirts of the second best girls high school in Taipei. In 1970, only pleated skirts, not pants, were allowed. Hair was uniformly cut at ear lobe length.

Because of overpopulation as well as lack of space and resources for an adequate number of schools, all high schools ran two shifts: day school and night school. Night school started around 5 PM and ran into the night, I am not quite sure what time it ended, probably 10 PM. I understand that it taught just the core subjects and cut out things like PE, art and music. Therefore, night school was considered a few steps below the level of the day school.

Saadia and I had been almost a year back in Taiwan by the time the National Exam rolled in. Lucky us, we had returned in July. Therefore, we qualified as “less than one year” returnees, and as such, did not have to take the National Exam. For returnees of 2 and 3 years, they would be given a handicap (extra points) on their National Exams, whether High School or University entrance. If one were unlucky enough to have been back more than three years, then too bad, she or he would have to tough it out like everyone else regardless of whether s/he had caught up with the academics. This actually happened to my little sister Iffat ten years later, when it was her turn to enter high school. In her application form, she filled in only the top three schools, leaving the rest blank. Papa nearly fainted when she came home and reported her choices. Iffat answered that there was no need to fill more blanks since she did not expect to enter any school less than the top three. Papa went ahead and applied on her behalf for overseas scholarships for Chinese Muslims in Muslim countries for her, just in case. Iffat was right, she made it to Jin Mei. And Papa wiped the sweat on his brow, and threw away the scholarships to Libya and Jordan.

Needless to say, Papa opted for Bei Yi Nu for us. But, we still had to sit for a test to determine whether we should attend day or night school. I was quite confident I would make the day school, for, after all, did I not average a 65% by now in Chinese tests? But Papa decided not to leave things to such flimsy chances. He contacted a Muslim Congresswoman (or, LiFaWeiYuan, member of the Legislative Assembly– a Ms. Tung, and asked her to help in this matter. I have always wondered in what way she could possibly have helped. Make a call to the principal? Whatever the case, both Saadia and I made it to the day school. I believe to this day that it was on the strength of my scores, though Papa maintained we should thank Congresswoman Tung for it.

The one interesting point in this whole episode is that little did I know then that one day I would become related by marriage to Congresswoman Tung.

The tomb of Congresswoman Tung and her husband

The tomb of Congresswoman Tung and her husband



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Lab Sciences without Lab

Not the least of my struggles was with Sciences.

I did not know then that I would pursue a career in the sciences, or I probably would have paid more attention at the time. I never was bad at sciences before then, since it mainly consisted of biology.  I certainly had loved vertebrates and flowering plants much better than invertebrates and non-flowering plants. But I did not realize that in Taiwan, Physics and Chemistry were taught in 8th and 9th grades, or in other words, everyone had had a year of them before I got there.

So, here I was, in second year Physics and Chemistry, totally baffled by capital letters mixed with numbers in various combinations, with arrows thrown in, and absolutely no idea what it all meant. Eventually, my friend explained that all I had to do was take the first half of a formula and switch it with the first half of the formula it was added to, then write the resulting new combinations on the head end of the arrow. That helped, for now, instead of having every equation wrong, I only got half of them wrong. Balancing equations was an easier affair since the answers for chemical formulas on the right side of the equation were already filled in, and so no switching was involved; it was just a simple matter of addition and multiplication. 

Balancing chemical equations

Balancing chemical equations

I decided that the magical kingdom I had imagined Chemistry to be — alchemists working mysteriously among fumes and glass apparatus in a dark dungeon — was not for me.  The reality of the class was nothing mysterious or magical. That is, until the day the teacher took us to the lab. It happened only once throughout the entire year, and she only did just one demonstration, but that was enough to change my mind completely about Chemistry.

In my imagination, Chemistry was the grandchild of good old alchemy...

In my imagination, Chemistry was the grandchild of good old alchemy…

First, she showed us a white powder and told us that was copper sulfate in its solid form. OK, if you say so. Then she put water in a glass beaker and added the white powder to it. As the powder touched the water and dissolved in it, the entire water changed gradually to an astoundingly beautiful turquoise blue shimmeringly transparent liquid. Wow. Magic. This, she said, was copper sulfate in its liquid (aqueous) form. I believe you, Ma’am. This is certainly not the Mediterranean, though it could be a sample of it…

Electroplating a coin with copper

Electroplating a coin with copper

Then, she proceeded to explain the process of electrolysis. She pulled out a coin — I cannot remember its color but I think it was silver colored, so probably made of nickel… —  and she promised to coat it with copper. Really! I thought. Got to see this to believe it. She ran electricity between the two graphite sticks, and lo and behold! The coin really started getting covered with copper and finally looked totally like a copper coin.  I was flabbergasted. I fought through the mass of classmates to hold that copper coin and turn it in back and forth between my fingers. And just like that, my faith in the magic kingdom was restored. There was such a thing as alchemy after all…! It was not just a boring pile of worksheets. The real magic, however,  was that after this session, my grades in Chemistry improved overnight.

The lesson to be drawn from this is that teachers too often forget the true aim of learning and get addicted to, OK, not addicted;  bogged down in the mire of worksheets, tests, quizzes, homework, grading, and so on. These are really only the by-products of mass education. Real learning transcends these trivial matters. Show your students what the subject matter really is, show them your enthusiasm for it, and they will be hooked for life!

I had an easier time with Physics, because we took electrical circuits, levers, gears, lenses and such down to earth, easily understood topics.  Actually, I instantly fell in love with Physics. I think by now my readers are thinking, wow, she changes her favorite subject every single year.  Well, as a much more mature educator now, I realize that the topic/subject of course has to do with liking or not liking it, but the teacher needs to be passionate about her subject matter. Passion is a highly infectious emotion.

These are what I had to work with back in 1964. I had to remove the grey rubber tires then use elastic bands to connect them together.

These are what I had to work with back in 1964. I had to remove the grey rubber tires then use elastic bands to connect them together.

Today's lego blocks have evolved tremendously. These were designed specifically for such purposes as being levers and gears.

Today’s lego blocks have evolved tremendously. These are designed specifically for such purposes as being levers and gears.

All of a sudden, memory flashes of the gears and levers I had built out of Lego pieces back in Jeddah came back to me. Now, I understood why they worked, and figured out how I could improve them. Unfortunately, the teachers did not provide labs or hands-on manipulatives of any kind at all. Our Lego sets had long disappeared so I could not test my new theories.  But my imagination coupled with my memories managed to sustain me through the classes. Occasionally, I’d be playing with my eraser or pencil as a fulcrum and my ruler as a lever and try balancing various objects on it.  There was too much homework to allow time for more complicated play.

And here comes Lesson Number Two. What if playing with miniature gears and levers, or wires, bulbs and batteries took the majority of our time in class, instead of listening to lectures, taking notes, and filling worksheets?  What result would we get with students? The answer did come, but many many years later, in my own experimental school. Readers, you will have to bear with me for a good number of  more posts to find out what happened to students thus taught.


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Chinese Brush Painting

Not only were PE and Music well planned and taught according to a syllabus, Art was also a wonder.

The book wasn’t thick but I would pore over the pages over and over again. Truth be told, the teacher did not go over all of the material. For instance, there was a chapter on cartooning that I awaited eagerly but was skipped over. Whatever we did cover, I loved it.

charcoal busts

There were a few sessions on charcoal portraiture. The teacher brought a Roman or Greek bust and we all drew it. At the end, she held up three different drawings — and I’m proud to say, mine was one of them — and explained how although they were of different styles, they were all good. The other two were a “slabby” style, where every slope and corner was exaggerated into slabs; and a “soft” style where all shades of black and grey were carefully mixed and smoothed so no sudden changes along the meeting edges.

Another month, we studied Chinese brush painting. Now I discovered how to paint those dreamy landscapes I was trying to duplicate back in Paris. Chinese painting is a bit like Montessori education. Each little part is very specific and must be practiced at length in order for one to master it. Yet the artist is totally free to decide what to do with those parts. The real art and skill are in the design of the entire painting, and in the ability to infuse this painting with “chi/qi” or spirit. One might wonder whether such highly stylized paintings are not like stencilling. No, not at all. Stencil art is very dead looking, no life in it at all. On the other hand, a well-done Chinese painting should burst with vitality.

A stenciled image (left) is unable to convey ardent Qi because each element is pre-drawn. A brush painting (right) can show vital force because it is executed on the spot, with the hand and wrist moving in one direction. Perfection of stroke is secondary to movement.

A stenciled image (left) is unable to convey ardent Qi because each element is pre-drawn. A brush painting (right) can show vital force because it is executed on the spot, with the hand and wrist moving in one direction. Perfection of stroke is secondary to movement.

That year, we were slated to learn landscape elements such as rocks and trees. I was totally enthralled by it. Just by using black ink, and various dilutions of grey, old and gnarled pines would shape up three-dimensionally, and rocks would pop out of the paper. I practiced night and day the different types of pine needle formations, as well as straight trunks, tortured and bent trunks, roots pushing out of the earth, and squirrel holes. I delighted in slowly pulling out leaves of the grass orchid across the paper, in graceful curves thinning into a line where it bent.

The Ancient Palace Museum, in the suburbs of Taipei, exhibits relics from past dynasties saved and carried to Taiwan during the Nationalist Forces' retreat in 1949.

The Ancient Palace Museum, in the suburbs of Taipei, exhibits relics from past dynasties saved and carried to Taiwan during the Nationalist Forces’ retreat in 1949.

how to paint rocks

Maybe that year, or maybe the next, Papa saw a tiny announcement for a lecture at the Ancient Palace Museum in the suburbs of Taipei. “Hey, Fawzia,” he said, “There is a lecture on the comparison of Classical Chinese brush art versus Classical European art. Want to come and listen to it together?” So it was that one fine twilight, the two of us took the bus to the magnificent Ancient Palace Museum. The speaker was a French person whose job I cannot remember. But it had nothing to do with art, more with science or possibly engineering. Nor can I recall his name, so I apologize for not crediting his work properly. But his presentation made a profound impression on me. He had a collection of slides — and this was in the time of real photographic slides, not power point ones. You had to place them in order in a tray that was loaded into a slide projector.  He started with an introduction about how he had become interested in Chinese art and a disclaimer about not being a specialist. Then to the meat of the matter.

He showed a typical Western oil painting of flowers; and another; and another. They were all of cut flowers in vases; some were even cut flowers placed on a table, waiting to die. Then he showed slides of Chinese flowers: orchids, wisterias, chrysanthemums, all vibrant with life and in a natural habitat. Similarly, he went on contrasting Western classical paintings of animals: horses as cavalry, dogs in a hunt, hunted animals, butchered animals, fish on a plate, you get the idea. Then the Chinese animals, wild horses galloping, koi fish and shrimps in a pond, peacocks strutting among rocks, all alive and well, and enjoying their day.

Plants and flowers, Chinese classical style

Plants and flowers, Chinese classical style

flowers, Western style

Flowers, Western classical/impressionist style. They are usually cut flowers, displayed in a vase.

I cannot quote him exactly, and maybe my memory of his exact meaning is fuzzy. But I have often repeated to my students his presentation, or a version of it, now on a power point slide . Man reflects his attitude to life in his paintings. In the Europe of the Classical period, the European man sought to conquer and control his surroundings and other forms of life while the Chinese man tended to observe nature, admire it, preserve it, and learn from it. 

I cannot pinpoint when it started happening, but slowly, very slowly, and very surely, a growing pride in being Chinese germinated in my heart.

Animals, in the Chinese classical style, are alive and well, doing their own thing in a natural habitat.

Animals, in the Chinese classical style, are alive and well, doing their own thing in a natural habitat.


Animals, in the Western classical style, are usually, if alive, subjugated to human willpower.

Animals, in the Western classical style, are usually, if alive, subjugated to human willpower.

Chinese horses frolicking vs European horses glorifying humans.

Chinese horses frolicking vs European horses glorifying humans.


Typhoons & Earthquakes

Physical Education in Taiwan was another study in contrast. To start with, no more teacher of some subject or other doing the PE classes. We had specialized PE teachers.

No more discovering that volley ball was a game played by teams and that there were vague rules about it. Now each month, we had to take different areas of sports, and we also took all the rules about each game, on paper, in the classroom.  There were more rules than I cared to learn or be tested on. No room for guesswork.

The Chinese run a PE class like an army, regardless of whether they are in Taiwan or on the Mainland.

The Chinese run a PE class like a military drill, regardless of whether they are in Taiwan or on the Mainland.

Also, it was very discomfiting to discover that everyone was fit, very fit. Anyone could outrun me, or outdo me in any skill. Thankfully, they did not require us to climb ropes. When I asked my classmates about ropes, they were puzzled. Ropes? Never heard of. We do climb bamboo poles, though. But not this year. It’s not on the syllabus. (Oof!)

The only area I was any good at back in France, was gymnastics, as long as it was indoors. I was flexible enough. But here, everyone was an overachiever even in gymnastics. One day, the PE coach said,”Test today!  Here is how you will be graded: ten sit ups, that’s 60%, pass. After the first 10, one point per sit up. All right?”

In PE as in everything else, there was order. The PE Little Teacher always started class by commanding us to “Line… up!” and we would immediately line in six neat rows of ten students each (except for my row which had 7).  So she commanded us to sit down and we all waited for the students to go up front in pairs, one holding the feet and the other doing her sit-ups. The one holding the feet would count the sit-ups out loud, and the teacher simply recorded them.

I started sweating with dreadful anticipation. I knew I was not able to do a single sit-up. Try as I might, I could only come up halfway, with much panting and redness of face, and my abs in knots. Oh, great. What do I do now? Fail PE? That had happened only once in France, and despite my parents’ lack of reaction to it, I felt very ashamed at having a “red grade” again. My health had improved during my three years in France, with some flesh back on and some pink in my cheeks, and I had not fainted again since that episode in the souk.

Everyone could do ten sit-ups with no problem whatsoever. Some of them would look like a jack in the box, popping up and going down so fast I wondered they did not have a spring built-in somewhere. They would reach 100 points and still keep going.

The bell rang when there were still maybe 12 students left. The PE coach looked disappointed. “All right,” she said, “all the remaining students, I’ll meet you back here after lunch to finish the test. Dismissed!” I did not have a happy lunch. I did not practice because I knew it was pointless. I had tried enough times at home. The twelve of us gathered and returned to the PE yard. The teacher had forgotten, maybe, because we waited very long. She finally appeared. She too seemed fed up with the drudgery. “How many of you just want a 60% instead of trying for more?” I was the first to raise my hand. 

Once again, God had saved me from a failing grade.

So, we learned the “three-step-up-the-basket” in basket ball, then some softball. “What is softball?” I asked my classmates. “Oh, that’s baseball for girls.” Since I did not know much about baseball, that did not help. Our class — Third Year 27th class — included seven members of the school’s handball team. The team captain looked superbly healthy and tanned. Every now and then, the seven of them would be called out to practice, and sometimes, they would skip school to go to tournaments. They would meet other teams from various schools, including boys’ schools. As a result, they would receive love letters which they would share out loud in class, to an audience of giggles and laughter.

Handball is rather like soccer with the hands.

Handball is rather like soccer with the hands.

In 1970, the most famous athlete from Taiwan was Chi Cheng (Ji Zheng), a track-and-field Olympic bronze medalist who had broken three world records within the space of one week, and won the gold medal at the Bangkok Asian Games. She had been dubbed “Iron Girl” by the Taiwanese and “Flying Antelope” by the Japanese. Despite my little knowledge of the world of sports, even I knew of her. She had come to France to compete in an event, and Aunt Lily and Uncle Lung had gone to cheer her. Aunt Lily had returned home full of excitement and hoarse from screaming “Jia you! Jia you!” meaning, “Add oil! Add oil!” which is the Chinese equivalent of “Go!” or “Come on!”

The Flying Antelope, Chi Cheng

The Flying Antelope, Chi Cheng

Her latest achievements were followed enthusiastically by the girls at school. She was Women’s Track & Field’s 1971 World Athlete of the Year, and to this day Asian Athlete of the Century. Alas, it is a sad trait of humans to raise over-achievers to the status of savior then tramp on them as scapegoats should they fail. That year, Chi Cheng sustained an ankle injury in the middle of a race. She fell and was unable to finish the race. The injury was to cause her to stay out of the 1972 Munich Olympics. All 14 million of us Taiwanese were shocked and shattered. One of my classmates banged her fist on her desk. “What? How could she shame us by quitting the race? Even if she had to crawl on all fours, she had to finish the race!”

Chi Cheng,  Women's Track and Field  Athlete of the Year

Chi Cheng, Women’s Track and Field Athlete of the Year

One day, during lunch break, there was a sudden uproar in class. The girls ran to the windows or out the door, screaming hysterically, “Chi Cheng! Chi Cheng!”  Oh my, I thought, Chi Cheng has come to the school for a visit! And I got up too, and tried to get to the windows among the general riot. But before I managed to do so, everything died down, the students stopped running, and meekly returned to their seats. I grabbed my neighbor by the arm, “Where was Chi Cheng?” She looked surprised. “What do you mean?”

“I did not see her. Where was she?” I insisted. My friend pointed at the light bulbs hanging down from the ceiling. “Didn’t you see that?” What? The light bulbs? What would Chi Cheng be doing up on the light bulbs? She looked slightly exasperated, “The light bulbs were swinging during the “di cheng“, didn’t you notice?”

Oh… Now it dawned on me. Di cheng! not Chi Cheng! Di cheng means earthquake, spelled today di zheng according to the Pin Yin system. Lucky me, I just lived through an earthquake and felt nothing! Absolutely nothing! No fun at all!

Although earthquakes are frequent in Taiwan, few are as devastating as the 1999  7.6 earthquake that devastated Taiwan.

Although earthquakes are frequent in Taiwan, few are as devastating as the 1999 7.6 earthquake that devastated Taiwan.

Aunt Lily had told me about the earthquakes in Taiwan. After all, Taiwan was situated on the Pacific rim, the ring of fire. It also happened to be smack in the middle of the tropics. And so it also had a monsoon season during the late summer. In my geography classes back in Paris, we were told that the monsoon occurred mainly in India. Well, I suppose we were close enough to India to also have a monsoon.

I found out that rain can be hot. Parisian rains were always cold, so that was new. That raindrops can be huge; so huge that you could be totally drenched inside out in less than a minute in the hot summer rain. It seemed to rain every single afternoon, a loud flashy affair with much billowing clouds and giant drops that would end in no time at all, bringing back the sun.

Typhoons were a common occurrence in the late summer and early fall. They had foreign women’s names and if strong enough and headed towards us, then we would get a day off. Everyone would get a day off, even Papa. Rain would pour like Taipei was Noah’s ark, but thanks to the open sewer gulleys running on either side of every road, street, alley and lane, flooding never lasted long.

typhoons in taiwan

One day, Papa came off the bus from work (yup, no Cadillac in Taipei, it was back-to-public-transportation) amid the pouring rain. Fearing to damage his new patent leather shoes, he took them off, stuffed his socks in them, rolled up his pants, and ran across the road, holding his shoes in one hand and holding his document bag over his head with the other. A young couple snuggling under an umbrella called out to him, “Little brother! Xiao Di Di!  Come over here, we have an umbrella!”

Papa was delighted. He relayed the story to us, guffawing over the details. “Little brother! Hahaha!” Indeed, Mama had been religiously dyeing his silver strands black every month, so he still looked young.

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Moonlight on the Colorado

Music class was a new discovery.

de terre en  vigne

I had always been at the top of the class in music back in France and Turkey. I was told I had a good voice, and I did love and enjoy singing “la voila la jolie vigne au vin…”  or “Loch Lomond” and “Moscow Nights” usually with Part I. In Taiwan, I discovered that everyone could sight sing.

I am not even joking. Every single student, the first day of music class, picked up the textbook, opened to the assigned page, which showed the score of a song in a key that was not C major, and proceeded to sing it on the spot, what with the sharp signs and all. I was stupefied. In the French schools, the teacher would simply play it on her hand organ, and sing. We would then listen and repeat, and learn it by rote. Oh, we did learn music notation, at its simplest. I knew of sharps and flats only because of piano. I was the only person I knew who could learn a song by reading it and having never heard it. But I did that after poring over the score for hours, and figuring out the tones of each note painstakingly.

All of a sudden, even in Music, I was again at the bottom of the pecking order. I had to learn all 24 keys in a crash course from my classmates. The good part was that since the entire class sang together, I could just lip synch the first couple of times, till I learned the tune.

The second huge eye-opener was the discovery that young students could actually have trained voices! One girl in my class came from a private elementary school that specialized in art and music. She would open her mouth and the sound would fill the classroom. I loved it. I thought only opera singers had trained voices, and it had never until then dawned on me that a young student actually could learn to do that too. Thinking back, I didn’t even know there was such a thing as voice training until then.

The curriculum was well laid out. The textbook indicated which songs to learn, which parts of music theory to practice, and which pieces of music to listen to. Our singing repertoire were an interesting mix of world folk songs, classical lieder, and Chinese songs. Right at the front of the textbook were the National Anthem and the Flag Song — so bright and perky it was unanimously considered among my classmates as a better candidate for national anthem– for which I was very thankful. That helped me memorize them quickly for the morning assemblies. Then came a selection of patriotic songs, mostly dull but with the occasional gem, such as “Plum Blossom”.  The plum blossom symbolizes Chinese spirit because it blooms in late winter rather than early spring, thus seemingly braving the snow and low temperatures, striving hard when others have given up.

Flag Song, Republic of China (click here to listen to the Flag Song)

The Plum Blossom / Anthem of the Republic of China (click here to listen to these patriotic songs)

The world folk songs were my favorite. That year we had a number of American folk songs. These, by the way, have been made famous throughout the Far East by the early returning visitors from the West in the 1920s and 1930s. They were compiled into collections entitled “101 Best Songs” and such. I have not met a single American born and bred citizen who knows as many “American  folk” songs as a Taiwanese or Japanese does. Really. How many of you, dear Readers, can sing right off the bat “Moonlight on the Colorado”, and “I Dream of Jeannie with the Long Brown Hair”, and “Beautiful Dreamer” (all required songs for Grade 9), as well as “Home on the Range”, “Home Sweet Home”, “Yankee Doodle”, “My Old Kentucky Home”, and “Yellow Rose of Texas” ?  Well, once I discovered Stephen Foster, I went to the stores and bought all the collections of “Best Songs” I could find and learned them. Through sight reading.

moonlight on the colorado

I must insert here some comment on Chinese translation of English lyrics. However poetical one may think American English lyrics are, the Chinese have to trump them. Chinese poetry and song lyrics, at least classical ones, are extremely romantic. There is no way they could have translated as is, “We were to wed in harvest time you said / That’s why I’m longing for you / When it’s moonlight on the Colorado / I wonder if you’re waiting for me too.” Way too plain and sordid. And so, the Chinese version improved this to: “Come back, Friend, return to my side/ in the night sky, stars are twinkling / the bright moon in the heavens / is whispering to me / oh, Colorado, beautiful homeland…” and I’d sing the song to myself night after night, enjoying rolling the syllables “ke-luo-la-duo” (Colorado) around my tongue, with absolutely no idea of where that was. The overall tone of the song was romantic and almost classical. When I heard this version recently in its original Western country style, I was taken aback. So that’s what it was supposed to sound like?

Original American version: Moonlight on the Colorado

Chinese version of Moonlight on the Colorado

Then Saadia and I discovered the magic of pirated music. In those hefty days, copyright was still as irrelevant to industries in developing countries as traffic signs were to drivers in the Middle East. There was a record store right by the movie theater on the main road, and we spent many hours there browsing happily through the thousands of cheap pirated records and purchasing them for pennies. Now I could listen to those songs I had hummed to myself and relish the harmonies, accompaniments and instrumental renditions. 

It was through this record store that I discovered the Vienna Choir Boys. Entitled the Wiener Sangerknaben in German, they are pretty much the world’s most famous boys choir. In my fuzzy memory, I am not sure whether I found them first on record on through a German-language movie about the Vienna Choir Boys. I fell in love with the movie, its corny plot, and most of all, the lovely singing. I sniffed and blew my nose and wiped my profuse tears all the way home. Now I would grab any new LP that came out, and memorize every single word of the German lyrics on the back of the cover. Yes, even the entire text of the Blue Danube!

Moving Moment — Clip from the movie “Der Schönste Tag meines Lebens”

vienna choir boys

Of course, the lyrics were all in German. Which was just wonderful, because I had undertaken to learn German. All my ex-classmates from the Ecole Lamazou were taking now German in addition to English, and I felt terribly inferior to them for not taking it. So to remedy this deficiency, I found a German textbook and a set of records that went with it. On Sundays, I would be listening to the records and writing out German grammar exercises and drills instead of learning my classical Chinese. And so, those lyrics were a welcome exercise in verbal German.  It did not matter that no German would be walking the street saying, “Sah ein Knab’ ein Röslein stehn, Röslein auf der Heiden,…” (Saw a boy a little rose, little red rose on the heath, …); or for that matter, “Danube so blue, … your silver ribbon links country to country…”

But no matter, it was music to my ears. Literally. And I’d be standing by the phonograph (record player), imitating the little boys’ treble voices the best I could, holding the record cover, imagining myself in concert.

Mama must have been observing me secretly. One day, she showed me an ad in the paper. Voice lessons! Would I be interested? And here, I have to blame the debilitating shyness that paralyzed my life then. The fear of yet a new teacher, and even more so, the fear of being different and standing out were so predominant that I did not hesitate one second. “NO!” I replied to Mama, “absolutely not!”  She never mentioned it again.

After a lifetime of being the alien, the outcast, the outsider, I was trying very hard to blend in, disappear in the human sea of overpopulated Taipei. And so, I struggled very hard to appear “normal”, so no one could tell I was different in any way.  I managed to not stand out at all in Music class till one day, we had a monthly test, and had to take turns singing solo the assigned song. My turn came. I stood by the teacher, who banged on the piano the introductory bars. I started singing. The teacher’s head suddenly jerked upwards and stared at me. Oh, my! Did I come out too special? I immediately toned myself down, modulating my voice into the monotonous flat vocals that most people produce. She looked slightly puzzled, but bent her head again, seemingly thinking, “Must have misheard her. Plain as always…”  I breathed a sigh of relief and slipped back into my seat, incognito again.


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A Mini Society

Other than learning the Chinese language, the biggest shock was definitely the 180-degree difference between Chinese schools and French schools. We had moved from adult-controlled institutions to a student-centered mini-society.

Morning calisthenics at an elementary school

Morning calisthenics at an elementary school

In France, everything was pre-ordained and regulated to the smallest detail. We lined up at specific places in the morning. In class we could only sit in specific positions. When writing classwork, we skipped three boxes on the top line, wrote the date in cursive, “Monday, the 4th of September 1969”, for example; then skipped one line, counted 8 boxes from the margin, wrote in capitals the word “DICTATION”, underlined it in red ink with a ruler on the lighter line, the skipped another line, counted one box, then started writing the dictation. Lower case “b” had to reach the third line up while the lower case “t” reached only the second line up. Using a planner to note down assignments was only one aspect of the detailed methodology we had to follow.

In Taiwan, the structure was pre-planned but everything else was carried out by the students. Class started at 8:00 am, but we had to arrive by 7:00 am. We just walked into the classroom without having to line up or being led. No teacher checked whether we were there by 7:00am, but we all arrived on time or before to attend the morning Study Hall in our classroom. This was the time when we exchanged conversations and homework. Indeed, it was understood that everyone could help one another solve whatever problems we could not manage at home by ourselves. The class president would write on the top right-hand corner of the blackboard the names of the two students on duty. These would go to the school kitchen and bring to the front of the classroom a rectangular stainless steel box-like container that had holes in its bottom and two handle-holes on the sides. We would all take out our lunch boxes and place them in the container. Our lunch boxes, or bian dang boxes, were small rectangular boxes with lids, made of aluminum or stainless steel, where Mama would place our lunch of the day, usually plain rice or noodles with some other dish or two, with maybe a boiled egg in soya sauce and spices, very much in the way of today’s Panda Express or Tokyo Bowl fast meals. This take-out lunch was called bian dang. Before 7:30am, the students on duty would carry away the bian dang container to the school kitchen where they would slide it into its numbered slot in the huge kitchen steamer.

Typical stainless steel Bian Dang lunch box from the1970s

Typical stainless steel Bian Dang lunch box from the1970s

By 7:30 am, we would all go to the school yard/athletic field and line up in the space assigned to our class, Number 1 student in front and me, Number 57, always the last in line.  This is when attendance was taken by the “Jiao guan” or discipline officer, a staff member dressed in khaki uniform, who always inspired awe and fear in me for they looked more like police officers or army officers than school counselors. The flag song would be broadcast and we would all salute, scout style, with three fingers of the right hand on our right temple, ramrod straight, until the flag students on duty raised the Azure Sky, White Sun, and Red Over Earth (the flag of the Republic of China) up the flagpole on the top balcony of the school. Then we would keep our arms straight by our sides and the whole school would sing the national anthem, “The Three Principles of the People“. A tiny figure in sports sweats would then appear on the top balcony to demonstrate the movements, and the speakers would broadcast the morning calisthenics, “One, two, three, four; five, six, seven, eight. Two, two, three, four; five, six, seven, eight. Three, two, three, four, etc…” It took me some time, but I did catch on eventually on the stretches, hops, bends, and so on; and memorized them to this day.

The flag of the Republic of China on Taiwan: Azure Sky, White Sun, and Red Over the Earth

The flag of the Republic of China on Taiwan: Azure Sky, White Sun, and Red Over the Earth

We would all then find our own way back to class, and get ready for the first period. All teachers were subject teachers, and one of them — the English teacher in our case — would be homeroom teacher. Teachers moved from room to room and had their desks in one of the teachers’ offices. During lunch break, the students on duty would go to the kitchen and bring the bian dang container from the steamer and place it again, steaming hot, in front of the class. We would then each pick up our lunch box and eat lunch on our desk, then put the empty box and chopsticks back in our school bag. Then, every one would brace their arms  on the desk, snuggle their head on their arms and take a nap. Yes, take a nap. This was Grade 9, but taking a nap was very normal. The two students on duty would then return the bian dang container to the kitchen.

After lunch, it is customary for Taiwan students to take a nap on their desks.

After lunch, it is customary for Taiwan students to take a nap on their desks.

During PE, which usually took place on the athletic field, the students on duty would remain in the classroom to guard everyone’s belongings.

All of these routines astounded the two of us. Oh, we were not SERVED lunch? Oh, we had to CLEAN our own classroom? Indeed, there was a system of class and school student government in place. Each class elected its own president, vice president, and a few other ministers, oh sorry, chiefs, each with their own portfolio.  There was a chief of service, a chief of recreation, and a chief of hygiene. The latter, who was in charge of the classroom’s cleanliness assigned the cleaning duties, which were usually performed before school, after school or during lunch hours. Each class chief of hygiene would then have her meetings with all other chiefs of hygiene, and get their instructions at general meetings. She would notify us of which Saturday the whole class had to come and clean the toilets on our floor.

Some other classes were assigned traffic duty, flag duty, and so on. Students on traffic duties would have to arrive earlier and leave later than everyone else, so they could man the long bamboo poles strung with little yellow triangular flags at pedestrian crossings near the school.

Then there were the academic “little teachers”. These were usually the top student/s in each subject, picked by the subject teacher. Thus, we had a Math Little Teacher, Chinese Little Teacher, and so on. Although Saadia and I were the top English students, we had joined the class two weeks late, so all selections had been made already. These “little teachers” had to distribute and assign paperwork, collect homework, help the teacher correct assignments, and so on.

Every now and then, we would get inspection rounds. There were hygienic inspections, when a small group of chiefs of hygiene would walk around, sweeping their fingers over random desks and window sills for dust, checking floors and trash cans. Sometime after the beginning of the school year, one male officer “Jiao guan” came to inspect the class. He barked to us, “Hair length is one centimeter above the edge of the ear lobe. I do my rounds with a pencil, a ruler, and a pair of scissors. Do not try to fool me by tucking your hair behind your ear. I stick my pencil above your ear thus (demonstrates), and pop out any hair hiding there. I measure the correct length with my ruler. If it’s too long, well, I am not a hairdresser, so I don’t know how to give a haircut. I will grab your hair and snip off what I grab. (And he demonstrated by grabbing a handful of hair, and placing his scissors five inches above the tips.) You will then find your own hairdresser and fix the rest.” That was enough to instill so much fear in me that I religiously visited the hairdresser every weekend for a trim. One centimeter above the edge of the ear lobe.



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Test-based Education

Like it or not, we were now immersed in a totally different type of education.  No essay-type exam any more. Real essays themselves were formulaic. The entire education system was geared towards exams and tests. National exams determined whether a student could move from middle school to high school, and from high school to college or university. They determined which high schools or universities the student was eligible for, and which major the student could enter. Up to 1968, such exams also determined which middle school an elementary school graduate could enter.

Sequestered for 7 days and 7 nights, testers slept in the same cubicle that they tested in.

Sequestered for 7 days and 7 nights, testers slept in the same cubicle that they tested in.

I suppose the root of this exam-based education grew from the ancient Chinese system of civil service qualifying examinations. Starting from as early as the Han dynasty and officially sanctioned by the Tang dynasty, scholars, regardless of the duration of his education or who his teacher had been, could sit for regional, provincial and national exams. Top scorers would then win official government positions. Although the system was supposedly abolished as of 1905, its remnants still infiltrate many aspects of Chinese life and bureaucracy.  My father himself, when he applied for a job at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, had to sit for an entrance exam called the Higher Exams.

Imperial exam in session

Imperial exam in session

As a result of this exam-based system, textbooks were written more in a review or exam preparation format than in an explanatory format. They were lightweight and printed on cheap paper, so students could underline (the highlighter had yet to be invented), circle or make notes in margins. The tests were numerous and easy to grade. There were quizzes, “small tests”, chapter tests, monthly tests, “big tests”, mock tests, and semester tests. Not to mention the dreaded actual National High School Entrance Exam.

As Third Year Junior High students, we were not only learning our curriculum for the year, but also reviewing the material of the last two years, and preparing for the national exam with a series of mock exams. To say that the two of us were overwhelmed would be an understatement. After the initial shock of the  4% in my first Chinese test, I slowly became inured to failing grades. Anything else was better. Slowly, my actual grades (not review tests or mock tests) moved from the tens to the twenties, then the thirties and forties. English came on top since we already had had two years of British English in Paris, moving to American English was only a hop and a skip. Then came History since the syllabus that year was World History, namely Modern European History, which was comparatively familiar. Although I must say, hard-headed teachers played an important role in how slowly we improved our grades.

When asked which two rivers bordered Mesopotamia, Saadia decided to write the answers in English (which the teacher had allowed). In French, these rivers are named Le Tigre and L’Euphrate. Now, translating these into English would be the Tiger and the Euphrate. The teacher could not accept them because the spelling was off. And she added sneeringly in the margin, in big red characters, “This is a river, not a tiger!” We finally looked this up and found that for some reason, the English name was spelled in Latin, Tigris, which, of course, does mean tiger too. But too late, teachers there never went back on their grading, probably because it would open the door to 60 times three or four classes of students asking for grade alterations. And that teacher probably did not know Latin anyway.

map of mesopotamiaAs for me, I tried to answer in Chinese, but had a really hard time with that too. For example the word Italy is transliterated into “Ee-Da-Lee”. Now each syllable sound could be written in a number of different ways, each with a different meaning. I’m not sure who determined which character to use, probably the first journalist or government official who ever had to translate that particular word, way back when.  But basically, History is about learning and understanding facts. A kind merciful teacher should have allowed me to misspell a few words, since I got so few points on my tests already, right? So I wrote the “Ee” of Italy as 義 (honor, integrity), instead of 意 (meaning, intent). Big red cross, minus 4 point. I don’t suppose the Italians ever minded being full of integrity, instead of being full of meaning.WWI, Italy

Math was a real nightmare. My love of algebra sustained me through the onslaught of Chinese math for a while. Whereas in France, we had just landed on the shores of simple algebraic equations with one measly little x sitting in an obvious lonely position, here, we were met with a multitude of them, not to mention their brethren the y’s, z’s, a’s, b’s, c’s, m’s, and n’s. They came in regular sizes and in smaller sizes as part of indices, you know, sitting next to the square or cube sign… And they came as part of decimals and fractions as well. Oh, the fractions! I knew that fraction line as a single bar,  whose importance was to lie on the main line on the notebook, between the two horizontal bars of the equal sign. Here, the fraction line had been elevated to an architectural element. It defined the ground floor from the basement floors and the upper floors. Algebraic fractions were a lot like Sim Tower creations. Entire commercial blocks with multi-floor hotels on top, and several layers of parking floors under. Plus and minus signs, or times and divide signs, were placed strategically like traffic lights between these giant structures. And living in these hotels were those italicized letters and their companions, the digits.

I was unable to find an illustration anywhere close to our algebra homework. No one today relishes anymore constructing those elaborate and ridiculous stacks of fractions within fractions with indices and roots thrown in for good measure...

Sim Tower: This is what our algebra homework reminds me of. I was unable to find an illustration anywhere close to our algebra homework. No one today relishes anymore constructing those elaborate and ridiculous stacks of fractions within fractions with indices and roots thrown in for good measure…

Imagine having to reduce an entire city to an elegant little 2- or 3-piece equation. Not realizing we needed someone to teach us and coach us on the gaps in our Math knowledge, we felt very stupid that others could do what we could not. I started developing a fear of indices and letters lurking in denominators.

During the review tests, we also had to answer questions on geometry, which had been taught some time over the two previous years. Gone were the precision drawing sessions using a triangle square, a compass and a protractor. Now I had to prove that certain angles were equal to others using rules I had never learned. Chinese examiners do not believe in asking students simple straightforward questions. If it is not complicated, it is not worth asking. And so, our geometry proofs, despite the simplified notation, ran for tens of lines. I actually did enjoy them, despite diving through a crash course of Euclidean axioms.

geometry problemOur class also had to take an accounting class, which was my first introduction to such a science. It pretty much consisted of columns of debit and credit numbers that we had to add and balance at the bottom of the page. Having never taken abacus in my life, I could not see the depth and history of Accountancy in China, and wondered why adding and subtracting columns of numbers had to be taught separately from Math.

The best illustration on the difference between French and Chinese education occurred at the end of a school day, on my way out to the front yard, together with a few thousand other students, when I overheard a classmate calling out to another girl from a different class, “Hey, how many kilos of math homework have you got today?” Our homework was usually a stack of handouts that averaged about ten problems per sheet. I dreamily reminisced about the day my class of Cinquieme went on strike when the teacher dared assign THREE problems…


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