Life of a Rooster

Memoirs of a psychiatrist, journalist and educator

Hibiscus nectar and shamanism

Reuniting with my family was a warm and lovely experience, albeit heavily overshadowed by school work.

Abdul Kerim was now a third/fourth grader and Iffat went to preschool. As mentioned previously, a new little sister, Nadia, was born in December of 1970. And so, all of the siblings were now spaced five years apart, except for me who arrived only one year after Saadia. We often joked that Mama followed the example of the government of Taiwan, who followed a series of five-year-plans for its economic development.

Mama had a very hard time with the delivery and her life was in danger at one point. She and Papa decided to have her tubes ligated afterwards.  She had tried giving the Mai family at least one  more heir to carry on the name, but it was not to be. Papa asked Saadia and me for opinions on a name for the new baby. He chose two characters: Lei, meaning flower bud and Wei, meaning little rose or fern. Which did we like better? Saadia liked Lei and I liked Wei. So Papa elected to use Lei for her formal name, Mai, Tai-Lei, and give her the nickname WeiWei.

Taiwanese shaman

Taiwanese shaman

WeiWei was not an quiet baby. Was it three-month colic? She would wail and cry and writhe continuously. Mama was at her wits’ end. Then, behind Papa’s back, she secretly took her to a Taiwanese shaman who incanted  and chanted  and shook incense burners around her, and wrote illegible characters on a piece of paper folded and refolded into a tiny little packet. This he gave to Mama to pin on the baby’s clothes, together with more instructions on how to keep her soul in her body, which was the cause of her continuous crying. So upon alighting from the taxi that took her home, Mama called out in Taiwanese, “Wei Wei, deng ai la! deng ai la!” WeiWei, we are back! We are home! Supposedly telling the baby’s soul to not forget to come into the house with her. I think Saadia had accompanied her to the shaman, so Mama made her do the calling too. Mama claims that Nadia did calm down a lot afterwards, though I think it is possible all the smoke could have calmed her equally well.

Papa discovered under the baby’s clothing the thick red thread and the little packet some time later. He exploded at Mama, ranting against superstitions, and told her to get rid of those devilish things.

The red hibiscus has delicious nectar located deep inside the flower, at the base of the pistil.

The red hibiscus has delicious nectar located deep inside the flower, at the base of the pistil.

Iffat had grown into a lively, bright-eyed, cute and quick-minded imp, a little ball of energy. She had well-muscled, tanned little calves and ran everywhere at will, inside and outside the house. She showed me the wild red hibiscus bushes that grew across the road. “Come, Er Jie, come!” She picked one of those huge red blossoms, pulled off the petals, and picked carefully at the bottom of the pistil. “Here, Er Jie, have some!” Some what? I took the remains of the hibiscus, not sure what to do with it. “Like this!” Little Iffat picked another one, plucking it the same way, and stuck the bottom of the pistil into her mouth, sucking the nectar. “It’s sweet and delicious, Er Jie, don’t you like it?”

Abdul Kerim attended an elementary school which was attached to the Women’s Normal College (Teachers Training College). It was supposed to be, as a result, extremely good, since all trainees did their student teaching there. So, just like we did, he would have to walk ten minutes to the bus stop and take the city bus to school. Today, we dare not send a nine-year-old on his own to the corner store, let alone allow him to go on public transportation to and from school all by himself. But everyone did so in those days. The streets and public buses were filled with students in cleanly ironed uniforms, a canvas school bag slung across the chest, or hanging off one shoulder. Abdul Kerim reported to us over dinner one day that there were some Bei Yi Nu high school girls on his bus that day, and that his classmates had been whispering about them in an awed hush. My little brother just threw them a haughty glance and stated out loud that his own sisters also attended Bei Yi Nu!

1969 Sports Day at the Elementary School attached to the Taipei Women's Normal College

1969 Sports Day at the Elementary School attached to the Taipei Women’s Normal College

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