Life of a Rooster

Memoirs of a psychiatrist, journalist and educator

Les Trois Mousquetaires

les trois mousquetaires

My own personal favorite was, thumbs down, The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas: plenty of action there to  enthrall me! In my dreams, I galloped alongside d’Artagnan, Athos, Porthos and Aramis to save the Queen of France, Anne d’Autriche. Since I had also read Vingt Ans Apres (Twenty Years Later), a much darker sequel little known to the English-speaking readership, I also had Mordaunt, Milady’s son, show up in my dreams. Mordaunt was a much more sinister evil character than his mother and definitely frightened me. Once, we were rowing a boat on a river that was miraculously located along the side wall of the embassy, behind a line of poplars, and Mordaunt burst out of the water, trying to topple us and stab us to death. Another time, we were trying to get away in a pick-up truck (talk about messed up time and place in dreams!) in that dusty back street behind the embassy, and Mordaunt appeared on the roof of a house across. He pulled his rifle up and started aiming at us. The musketeers all jumped on the pick-up truck and drove off. I kept running after them, waving my arms and yelling, “Wait for me!”  ineffectively. The pick-up truck revved away, not noticing my failure to grab and jump onto it.  Mordaunt came down into the street, a tall silent assassin. I stumbled and fell. He loomed over me, pulled up my hand, and shot me  … in the palm of the hand! I looked at it: a big black hole fumed in the middle of my hand…

Looking back, I remember sensing in my dream the apprehensive fear of oncoming pain; thus I probably unconsciously changed the shooting target from a much more likely head or chest to the less painful hand. Also, possibly, having experienced being beaten on the palms of my hands allowed me to accept pain on my palms in my dreams. Whatever the subconscious reason, I woke up and saw a red mosquito bite on my palm. Ha!

In the afternoons, after the embassy school classes, which had now shifted to 4:00-6:00pm, we played endlessly in the embassy compound. I usually led the gang in our games. I tried making them follow me in tracking down Milady, but they wouldn’t understand the game. So, we would fall back on pirates and princesses; or robbers and cops; or a fairy tale, which was easier to retell my way than a full novel.

 

Still, it was a lot of work making other children comprehend my imagined world. “I am a robber,” I would tell Abdul Hamid, “here, I’m coming in the night, trying to find the diamonds in this house. Now you are the police detective. Next day, you try to find clues on the scene of the crime. Go ahead!” He would walk a bit, then grab my arm, “Hey, I caught you!” Exasperated, I would explain, “No, no, how could you catch me when you didn’t find any clue yet?”

 

pirates

One day, we finished playing a pirate story as the sun set. Time to go home, wash up and get ready for dinner. Well, how should we end this? We, the three eldest leaders — Saadia, Shadia and me– decided the princesses should get married to the princes, who conveniently appeared at the end for that purpose. We were 9 and 8 years old. So we told the boys, Hamid, 6; Nuruddin and Abdul Kerim, 4; that they had to marry us. The little ones agreed readily, because disobedience would get them kicked out of the game. But Hamid, being slightly older and therefore more rebellious, refused. “No, I don’t want to get married to Saadia!”

“You have to, no choice here! Come here and stand with her in front of the priest.”  But he retreated and seeing no way to avoid it, ran away as fast as he could. We chased after him, shouting as loudly as we could, “Come back  here! You HAVE to get married! We can’t end the story otherwise! Get back here immediately!” It was already dark and we ran around the entire embassy compound fruitlessly. He had disappeared into thin air. We had to hold the wedding with just two couples.

The next day, Shadia told us that her brother had jumped into the pond in the front yard, which happened to be empty, and had squatted among the turtles until we had tired of searching and had returned home.

I turned increasingly more daring. One day, we noticed a man sitting on the back steps of the embassy, observing our play.  Shadia told me his name was Ma HaBi, and was here from Taif on business. “It doesn’t matter. He should not be bothering us, watching us play.”  I was as bossy as usual. So I devised a way to get rid of him.  I had then made up a song called — what else? — The Three Musketeers. The lyrics were really simple: A-athos, Po-orthos, Aramis sont mousquetaires; E C E-, G E G-, A GA G, E D E-.  And so on. So I changed the lyrics to: Ma HaBi, Ma HaBi, Ma HaBi Ya Ma Ha Bi!  I made all the kids sing along with me as loudly as we could.

It worked. The guy sat on for a while more, then got up and left.

The Ma kids rarely joined us in our daily play. They usually returned home straight after class.  Fawzia was a lady par excellence, already demure, well-mannered and gentle. Kobria was my idol at the time. She, like Ambassadress Li, had slightly protruding eyes that gave her a sparkly look. She always had strong opinions about just about anything, and was always very smart. Number three sister was Rabia, two years my junior, but already very well-versed in the domestic skills of a well-bred young lady: she could embroider beautiful flowers on pillows!  Mama showed them to me one day when we were visiting them. “Look at her work! Such delicate needle craft! Why can’t you do something like this?”

 

Well, that hurt. Because I was indeed not very good at needle work. In Grade Two, we had a few additional subjects including sewing.  I tried very hard. But truth be told, Mama never asked us to sew at home. She did all the mending and sewing herself. So the one hour a week of sewing never got me very far. I remember one day in class having to embroider some simple design on a handkerchief. I bent over painstakingly trying to get the stitches to look neat. After sweating for a good half hour over that handkerchief, I tried to pull it up to display it proudly to Saadia and Shadia. But try as I might, the handkerchief would not leave its place on my lap. I lifted it from the edge and found that I had stitched it onto my skirt!

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Sheep Market and Three Kingdoms

Since school work was a breeze, and television consisted of two hours of news in English — which we could not understand– or heavily censored American movies between 8:00 and 10:00 pm, we had plenty of leisure time to fill everyday.

One of those little vignettes imprinted in my mind is of us sitting on folding chairs on the veranda of our third house, the pink apartment building, eating oranges and bananas and throwing happily the peels over the railing into the street below. I must explain here that most streets were still unpaved and that herds of camels would occasionally be driven through them, eating garbage on sight. So we were doing the camels a favor, really.

Another favorite pastime in our second house, the grey boat-shaped apartment building, was to watch from our second floor window the activities in the sheep market across the street. This was a vast vacant lot filled daily with sheep: ewes, rams, and lambs.  We were told by the people at the embassy that this market was rather new, only about 2-3 years old. It was previously a slave market. Somehow, during King Faisal’s reign, slavery was eradicated quietly and disappeared without much ado. Which is why, the storyline regarding the Arab slave trader in The Adventures of Tintin: The Red Sea Sharks, is actually accurate and not total fiction.

Although this is a picture of an Algerian sheep market in 1906, it is very similar to the one across our house in 1965 Jeddah.

Although this is a picture of an Algerian sheep market in 1906, it is very similar to the one across our house in 1965 Jeddah.

Customers would stop and check animals: teeth, hoofs, eyes, etc, then bargain. Once the price was agreed upon, the customers could walk their ware home on a leash, but more often asked the seller to slaughter the sheep on site.  Abdul Kerim and I had the entire procedure memorized down pat and would play sheep market and imitate them.  Though I never had the opportunity to do so, I bet I can still slaughter and skin a sheep if I had to. First. you tie the feet together with a rope. Then you cover its eyes and hold it tightly, and with a swift stroke, cut the throat with a sharp knife. Then, after the blood finishes dripping in the basin or the trench, you pull the rope up and tie it onto a vertical pole so the sheep now hangs head down. You proceed to slit open the belly, and pull out the innards, which you bag separately for the customer. Then you skin the sheep by slashing under the pelt and outside the flesh. This is the most painstaking step. Finally, you take the sheep down onto the butcher’s block and chop it down to size, bag everything and give it to the customer.

But our favorite pastime was no doubt,  reading French classics.

We had long read and re-read our Bibliotheque Rose and the few Bibliotheque Verte little hardcovers until they came apart. There were no libraries then in Jeddah, and the only bookstore in town that offered foreign books had just English ones, and nothing for children at all. Papa, on the other hand, while in Paris, had accumulated a really impressive collection of French classics that he displayed on his shelves or kept in the two large metal trunks in his study. We disregarded them for a while at first, because they had no pictures and the print was too fine. It looked like a lot of work.

But, just as people turn to eating rats, tree barks and roots during famines, we did finally turn to them. I found Saadia reading The Count of Monte Cristo, volume I, one day. She was totally absorbed in it and would not even answer my calls. I checked the book out and couldn’t believe she was so interested in something without pictures. I asked her, and she answered, “Yes, it is very very interesting!” So I waited till she finished Volume I and moved to Volume II. I grabbed the book and tried. This was very difficult to read, since Papa bought only original, unabridged classics. But I trudged on. Finally I finished Chapter I. “Da Jie (Eldest Sister), this is not fun at all! So far, all that happened was a ship entering a port!” She did not even raise her head, “Keep reading! It gets more interesting later.”  It had to, otherwise why did she prefer those picture-less books to playing with Abdul Kerim and me?

le comte de monte cristo

 

Eventually I did find the plot interesting, but only as far as Edmond Dantes finding the treasure. After that, it was only mildly so. For a child, the intricacies of stocks, banks and politics had not yet captivated my imagination. And this is how, at eight years of age, I embarked upon the greatest discovery of my life, the love of reading. Soon enough, we both became speed readers. I assume it was because of the lack of book reports, summaries, vocabulary checks and so on. When reading is for the sole purpose of enjoyment, one has the freedom to skip the boring parts, and guess at meanings of unknown words.  Somehow, we swallowed whole dozens of books, from the entire works of Moliere to Les Miserables, and from Les Trois Mousquetaires to Madame Bovary. There were of course, translated works too. So we also read Charles Dickens, and I cried every time I re-read the part when Davy is told of his mother’s death.

The Empty City episode in the Romance of the Three Kingdoms

The Empty City episode in the Romance of the Three Kingdoms

Papa did his part as well. Every day after dinner, he took his place on his favorite chair in his study. We would arrange ourselves on the floor or on his knees, and he would read a chapter from various books in Chinese. There was Little House on the Prairie, translated into Chinese by Mrs. Chao, the Charge d’Affaires’ wife. His favorites however were no doubt the Chinese classics. I had long forgotten these until I came across The Romance of the Three Kingdoms and Water Margin many years later and suddenly remembered those evening session in Jeddah. I was totally awed by the intelligence and tactical genius of Zhu Ge-Liang, who has come to the awareness of the Western youth through computer gaming, of all things! Though, at my age, a few things still eluded me. I remember asking Papa again and again why the army decided not to attack the “Empty City”, after Zhu Ge-Liang, aka Kong Ming, told a few old men to open the city gates and go sweep the ground in front of it, while he himself played a string instrument on the city walls.

 

 

 

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Grade Two Again

Fall rolled in. My parents, armed with the report card from the summer cramming school, requested the public school to let us skip a grade and go to Grade Three. But the headmistress was adamant. No, cramming school does not count as a real school. They are there only to rehabilitate failing students so they can re-test into the next grade.

So we re-entered Grade Two at the Girls School #13. We got a new set of grey dresses with white collars. This time, Shadia Chi joined us at the school. The students were tired of gawking at us all the time, so things were much easier this year. We finished at noon every day and the three of us would walk home together, holding our flat satchels over our heads to shade us from the desert sun. We were the only girls allowed to walk home by ourselves. Everyone else had to wait in the yard, which was securely enclosed by walls and gate. A swarm of cars would be parked outside the gate, with male relative or driver waiting. A male doorman stayed in a little brick room by the gate, and would call out from a speaker the name of the student being picked up.

girl in black abaya and scarf

girl in black abaya and scarf

 

I was then registered under the name of Fawzia Muti’allah Abdul Sherif. The registration form required our first name, father’s name and grandfather’s name. First name was fine, since we had an Arabic name, thankfully picked by the imam upon our birth in Taiwan. Father’s name was all right too, since my father knew his Islamic or Arabic name too. But Grandfather’s name was a problem since my father did not know his own father’s Islamic name. What with the cold war and absolutely no communication with his family in China, he could not ask anyone either. Mr. Chi told him to make one up, “Hey, who will know what it is really? Just say Abdul something. Everyone is called Abdul Something. How about Abdul Sherif?” And so it was that I became Fawzia Muti’allah Abdul Sherif.

Around that time, Charge d’Affaires Chao was transferred back to Taiwan and we got a real ambassador, Mr. Li. Finally, Saudi Arabia grew important enough to get its own ambassador, the first since the Ma BuFang debacle. The new head of the embassy were a striking elderly couple with panache. Ambassador Li had a full head of beautiful silvery white mane that he threw back in one swipe when he laughed out loud, and Mrs. Li was strikingly good-looking with large round and slightly protruding eyes, which we called “fish eyes”.

One morning, soon after the Lis’ arrival, we three girls were to accompany Ambassadress Li somewhere in the large embassy Cadillac. So we sat with her and tried to make some conversation politely. “What lovely little girls you are!” exclaimed Mrs. Li. “What is your name?” We all stated our Chinese names. Looking at Saadia, Mrs. Li asked, “Mai, Tai Wen? Which Mai, which Tai and which Wen?” By then, we had taken enough Chinese to know that in Chinese, when asked to spell a word, you do not say, “M-A-I” as we would in French, but you say, the Mai of “mai dong xi” (to buy something).

Coincidentally, we had already done our homework, and just recently had asked Papa what to answer if asked precisely that question. Papa had told her, your name is, the “mai” of “mai dong xi”; the “tai” of  “Lin Tai” (a famous Chinese movie actress of the 1950’s and 1960’s); and the “wen” of “wen zi” (literature and words). Now Papa had forgotten that we had no idea who Lin Tai was, and that the term “wen zi” was too literary for our poor little homestyle Chinese.

Lin Tai, Chinese actress

Lin Tai, Chinese actress

So, here was Saadia, proudly touting her knowledge of Chinese characters to the new ambassadress: “Oh, it is the Mai of “mai dong xi”, the “tai” of “ling tai” (necktie) and the “wen” of “wen zi” (mosquito, homonym of “literature and words”). Mai Tai Wen! (to buy necktie mosquito)!”  The ambassadress was quite taken aback. “What a strange name your parents gave you!”

The gateman never had to call my three-piece Arabic name. We just gave our names to him and would waltz out of the school, squeeze ourselves between the cars parked haphazardly and turn right into the street that led to the back gate of the embassy.

That day, we trudged in the dusty alley, dragging our black shoes in the yellow dirt, balancing our satchels on our heads, and chatting loudly as usual. Behind us, a motorcycle appeared, carrying two males.

We had been trained to recognize all non-Chinese as either males or females, indirectly and unintentionally of course, but nonetheless so. In school, the females were safe inside the walls, but outside, they had to don the black veils and abayas to keep them from male eyes. Once, when we were left to riot on our own without adult supervision, one of the girls climbed on a desk to get a view of the street outside that high window. Suddenly, she nearly fell over backwards with a great cry. When we asked her why, she gasped, “A male!”

We were a bit different, having seen and interacted with males all our lives. We were not as frightened of them. Still, we had by then absorbed ever so slightly that aura of fear of males.

A motorcycle with two men on it is not too alarming, so we merged right to let them pass, continuing to chat and walk. But then, upon reaching the end of the street, the motorcycle made a U-turn and came back towards us. The two young men laughed, chatted in Arabic, and stared at us all the way till they passed us. We lowered now our voices and walked with smaller steps, slightly faster. Then we realized that the motorcycle had yet again made another U-turn and was roaring back again towards us from behind. Totally scared by now, we stopped talking, glanced at one another quickly, and started running. One of my shoes fell, and I had to pick it up again with my toes, yelling, “Wait for me! Wait for me!” In total panic, the three of us stumbled on ourselves all the way to the back gate of the embassy, pummeling it with our fists and screaming ourselves hoarse. “Open the door! Open the door!”

Mrs. Chi eventually did so, not alarmed in the least. “What is the matter, yelling this way?” We were pale, sweaty and shaking. “Motocycle! Males!” was all we could stutter. Mrs. Chi stepped out and looked up and down the street. Only a little bit of a dust cloud showed where the motorcycle had turned away at the end of the street.

saudi men

 

 

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Cramming School

By the end of the year, Saadia and I were top of the class, but my parents were not satisfied. To be at the top of First Grade was a given, since I should have finished 4th grade and my sister 5th grade that year.

They decided we should study Second Grade during the summer and skip to Third Grade come fall. The way to do this was to go to a cramming school that catered to failing students. The Second Grade was a smaller version of our classroom at the public Girls School #13, on the second floor of an apartment building. Three girls per bench, an obese Egyptian lady as teacher, a blackboard and chalks, and a ceiling fan. This school was recommended because they even taught English!

blackboard and chalk

So here we went again, filling columns of a, b, and c, as well as Arabic letters and three-letter words. Since the French and English languages share the same letters, it wasn’t difficult for us, and we would finish homework in a heartbeat. But the next day, the big fat teacher took one look at my columns of perfect a’s, b’s and c’s, well honed by years of French nib and ink training,  and snapped at me, “Your father wrote this!” In those days, one did not reply to a teacher’s comments, however far-fetched they might be, because a menacing stack of wooden rulers sat by her hand.

She had dark hair and always wore dresses with low-cut necks that revealed a deep cleavage. I always wondered how she managed to breathe in her tight dresses that caused various parts of her body to pop out into fat bulges. She taught us English alphabet the same way our First Grade teacher taught us the Alif-ba, rote memorization in a sing-song tune. “A-a-ay! (sol-fa-sol) Bee-ee-ee! (sol-fa-sol), cee-ee-ee!” and so on. The numbers in English were handed down in exactly the same manner: “wah-ah-ahn! (solf-fa-sol), two-oo-oo! (solf-fa-sol), three-ee-ee!”  One day, we reached the double digit numbers, “fourtee-ee-een! Fivetee-ee-een! Sixtee-ee-een!”  Now, having taken English lessons with Papa at the Embassy school, I knew very well that it should have been “fifteen” and not “fiveteen”, but I dared not peep a word at all. When quizzed, “what is this? (15)?” I would dutifully answer, “five-teen”, while inside me asking forgiveness of my father.

My deepest memories of this cramming school were of another kind. One day, the girl behind me tapped me on the shoulder during class. I knew I wasn’t supposed to talk, but at the same time, I didn’t know how to refuse to answer. So I turned my shoulder slightly to acknowledge her tap. She sneaked a folded note to me and whispered, “Give this to Farida in front of you!” Well, sorry to say so, but I obediently took the note and proceeded to tap the shoulder of the girl in front of me. Of course, who but the teacher should see me doing this at just this moment, and next thing I knew she was looming over me, huge chest and cleavage and sweaty smell and all.

wooden rulers

“Fawzia, stand up and open your hands!”  Great, I finally came to make acquaintance with the famed stack of wooden rulers. Whack! Whack! Whack! With my father’s stainless steel shoe horn, at least I had the satisfaction of knowing I did eat chocolates. But this was totally unfair. I neither wrote nor read that dratted note. I did not give her the pleasure of one single moan, cry, ouch, sigh, tear or sob. I just kept silent, then sat down and nursed my red swollen palms.

In the yard of pebbled cement and old tiles, we would eat our lunch/snacks that we brought from home. All girls would simply squat or sit on the ground. We learned a new game with pebbles. Five pebbles of roughly the same size did the trick. Round one: Throw all five on the ground, pick one, throw it in the air with the right hand, pick up a second pebble, and catch the first one with the same hand. You keep the picked pebble aside, and repeat the acrobatic act with every subsequent pebble till you get all remaining four. Round two: same thing but you now have to pick up two pebbles blindly with that hand while keeping your eye on the flying one. Round three: you pick up three in one sweep, then one. Round four: pick up all four while juggling that flying one. Round five I loved best: you hook your left middle finger over the left index finger, then bend them and place tip down on the ground, forming an upside down u-shape with the thumb. You then hook the right hand under the left forearm, and throw the five pebbles over the wrist back to the right side to land in front of the cave opening (the left hand). Now, you pick any one of the five pebbles, do the acrobatic throwing up in the air again, and before it comes down again, you have to quickly sweep one of the remaining pebbles into the cave with the right hand, without hitting any of the other pebbles. Repeat for the other three.  Then finally you get to the challenge round: hold all five pebbles in your right hand, throw them up together, flip your hand palm down and catch all five on the back of your hand. If you win, then throw the flying pebble one more time, clap your hands before catching it again, and announce that you won.

If you fail at any point, you have to let the next player continue her game where she left off. The first player to finish all rounds wins.

chinese jacks

When Mama found out about this game, she told us she had played a similar one as a child, but not using pebbles. In Taiwan, we are more civilized. They used rice bags. So she proceeded to sew us rice bags. These were little cloth cylinders about an inch in diameter and in height, filled with rice or green beans. You could do the same with them and they were nice and soft and changed shaped without hitting you hard. They also had less tendency to roll off. We made quite a sensation in school by bringing in our Chinese style rice and cloth “pebbles” for the game.

jacks

Many years later, while buying toys for my son, I found out that in the Western world, this game is called Knucklebones and is played with funny looking little objects called jacks. Which gives one much to ponder about, regarding the universality of children’s playground games, and the extensive travels of our forefathers, who probably taught their own childhood games to their children in foreign lands.

 

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Qur’an Memorization

After school started, curiosity about our features and speech abated somewhat in our own class, but not quite so ever in the rest of the school. At recess, groups of older girls would walk arm in arm towards wherever we were, and they would smile to us and ask kindly, “What’s your name?”  — “aish ismik?”  And so we would obediently answer, “Saadia wa Fawzia.” And they would burst out laughing and repeating our answer. We did not realize then that it was our accent that was so entertaining and the sing-song manner of our tone.

Because girls education was still new, our first grade class was not full of only seven-year-olds. Beside the two of us, there were a 12-year-old and a 14-year-old as well.  Later in the term, an older Bangladeshi girl named Fatima joined us as well. She was the only girl in the entire school to be allowed to wear flip-flops instead of white socks and black shoes. The reason was simple: her feet could not fit in any shoe. She had six toes on each foot, as well as six fingers on each hand. The extra fingers had no bones in them and would stick out when she closed her fist. This phenomenon served her well as I soon found out. One day, yet again more students from other grades came to bother us during recess. Fatima closed her fists and raised in front of her her two weapons: the lumpy sixth fingers. She would growl and charge toward the enemy, fists forward! And the girls would scream and flee for their lives! What relief! I just loved Fatima!

 

Our own classmates also eventually became our defenders. One day, I was sitting in the school yard on a bench in a shady area, as usual, because of my tendency to feel faint in the sun. An older student prowled towards us and tried teasing us again with the question, “Aish ismik?” By then, I was perfectly aware that every single soul in the school knew our names by heart and therefore I refused to answer. This brat then pulled my white handkerchief out of my pocket and ran a few yards, waved it at me and taunted me with it. I could barely hold my tears back. This handkerchief was vital to my sanity. The headmistress would inspect it whenever she felt like it at assembly time, where we had to display our clean and clipped fingernails on the folded clean handkerchief. Which used to make me wonder why we needed it if we could not use it at all. Any girl who failed to do so was pulled out of the ranks and taken to the office. I never figured out what happened there and did not want to know, really.

My first reaction was to chase that girl and get my handkerchief back. But just standing up suddenly caused me to get dizzy, and I knew immediately there was no way I could catch her. The disease that caused me to urinate blood and lose most of my chubbiness a few years before had by then reduced me to skin and bones. The stress of attending school did not help at all, and though I did not know it then, I had started to develop a peptic ulcer. Mama had tried to fatten me unsuccessfully. She once even sneaked butter under a thick layer of peanut butter in my sandwich. But the minute I smelled the bread, I detected that dreaded nauseating odor of butter. I refused to eat it. Mama pulled out her Chinese parental authority. She sharply ordered me to eat it. I was in tears but tried to obey. No sooner did I start chewing the first mouthful than I gagged and vomited everything onto the table. Mama never tried again. My health was so poor and I was so weak that I could not run well, especially not in the sun.

And so I stood trembling, and tried to run a few wobbly steps, and was on the brink of bursting into tears, glaring angrily at this sillly girl who thought it great fun to enjoy watching my funny gawky gait. Saadia saw the scene and called to our classmates, “Let’s get that handkerchief back!”  Six or seven girls all ran after that older girl and chased her around the school till they cornered her and grabbed that treasured piece of white linen back. They soon brought it back to a sniffling me. Ah, Dearest Saadia! Was I glad to have such a great healthy sister and such great helpful classmates!

arabic alphabet

As time marched on, our homeroom teacher also started loving the two of us more than the rest of the class. All teachers love good students, and she was no exception. We had to learn the alphabet, Alif, Ba, Ta, Tha. And we already knew it, thanks to Teacher Lin, and despite his Chaplin impressions. Our homework consisted of filling a whole page of columns of “Alif”, which is a vertical line, a “Ba”, which is a horizontal dish with a dot underneath, and so on. Or, for math, pages of 1, 2, 3, and so on. For someone who was struggling with long divisions, writing a whole page of 2 or 3 was a piece of cake. I would finish my homework in the wink of an eye, and go to the embassy school, which now operated only in the afternoon.

Qur’an memorization was indeed part of the syllabus, though not the entirety of it. It was inculcated the good old way, meaning, rote memorization. I barely remember any teaching of the meaning of what we were reciting. The teacher did talk to us about some of it, because I recall mentioning a description of Heaven and Hell embellished my way, and my mother laughed, remarking that the teacher was good at ad libbing. But we never were given homework or tested on those meanings.

The teacher would chant a phrase, and the whole class would chant it back. Oh, it wasn’t any lovely chant as one can hear from famous reciters nowadays on the Internet. It was just a boring sing-song type of chant, the same tune for every single sentence. The best reciters were Saadia, me, and two other girls, Hind and her sister.  Aisha, the 14-year-old was good too but too sedate to join in our games. Hind was a loud and bossy leader.  She would purposely speed up or slow down the chant so the whole class would have to adjust their speed accordingly.  Sometimes she would wink and nod to us, and notch up the chant by a full tone, and we would follow suit, forcing again the entire class to do likewise.

Our classroom was in one of the small back buildings in the yard. There was no air condition, just a ceiling fan and a small high window.  The room was long and narrow, not very conducive to good ventilation. The students were seated on benches made for two that were attached to double desks. But we were stuffed three, four or five to a bench. Day after day, we swayed rhythmically to the cadence of the chant, in a semi torpor of heat blown by the mild breeze of the ceiling fan, shoulder to shoulder, in our grey frocks. We were tested occasionally, one at a time. And if one did not know her verses perfectly by heart, she would be sent to stand in front of the blackboard. Once all students had their turn, and all failures lined up, our dear smiling teacher would collect wooden rulers from the students. She would try out their resilience on her palm, swatting two or three together for added strength. Then all poor learners were to stick out their hands palm up, and the darling lady, plump and giggly, would swing her weapon upon those fleshy palms so hard that she often broke the rulers. The memory of the sting of that shoe horn was still fresh enough on my mind, and I made sure never to be lax on my memorization of the divine verses. But I would hide my ruler and pretend I had left it home so as  not be part of the punishment. Actually I was also so Mama wouldn’t have to keep on buying me new ones.

Rote memorization may be boring, but it works. In the two years we spent in the Saudi school, Papa boasted that we learned over 20 chapters of the Qur’an by heart. Most of them have survived the erosion of time and are still on the tip of my tongue today.

quran

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The Grey Mice

After the two of us spent a semester in the embassy school and a summer playing around, my father decided it was time to send us to a Saudi public school.  Again, the other embassy staff members tried to dissuade him, saying that they taught nothing but Qur’an memorization. But now my father would reply, “Even Qur’an memorization is better than doing nothing.” And so it was that Saadia and I got registered at the nearest public school, School #13 for Girls.

There are no known photographs of Queen Iffat.
There are no known photographs of Queen Iffat.

Saudi Arabia started opening schools for girls in 1962, due to the great work of Queen Iffat, King Faisal’s fourth wife. Our School #13 was built on the grounds of an old cemetery, or so I was told. It looked very much like all other houses in Jeddah then, a main two-story villa surrounded by ample grounds and rooms in the back. The headmistress decided that we did not know enough Arabic and so should go to First Grade. By then, the fall of 1965, I should have attended 4th grade since I had started a year ahead. But my parents accepted her verdict as well as most of the other requirements: grey uniform, white handkerchief, white socks, black shoes. But when they also required that all girls seven years of age and above were to wear a black veil and abaya (a sort of ankle length black cape) to school, my mother rebelled.

“You are neither nuns nor widows, and you will not wear black veils!” She showed her disagreement about the uniform’s fashion statement in other subtle ways too. “Ankle length is too long. A bit shorter will work just fine.” And so, she sewed the dresses mid-calf length. These were light grey cotton fabric frocks with longs sleeves and a sash at the waist that tied at the back, and a white collar. There were two pockets on the skirt, and we had to keep a clean white handkerchief folded in there. For the young people of today, let it be known that disposable tissues, or “kleenex” as we called them back then, had only just been invented and way too expensive to waste on cleaning your nose with. Plus, we had seen them in Paris, but certainly not in Jeddah. Mama looked at the two of us in our new uniforms and remarked that now we looked like a pair of grey mice.

grey mice

The first day of school, we arrived to an empty campus. It turned out that we had gotten the wrong date and school was not to start till the next day. But, the headmistress noticed immediately that our dresses were too short and ordered us to have them lengthened. Mama grumbled but undid the hems. Still the dress was too short but even the headmistress realized that short of sticking extra fabric on, there was no way to make them any longer, and so accepted them. But I wasn’t happy because now the hem was exactly at the height of the top of my socks. And as I walked, and since my socks were not new, the hem would hit and push my socks down, and every twenty steps or so, I would have to stop and pull them up again.

This was barely the tip of the iceberg of my problems. The next day, we again went to the school, a bit too early, so the yard was again empty. We spotted a bench near the front of the school yard, near the wall, and so sat there to wait. Soon the girls started arriving. They would come in groups to examine these two new specimens of an alien species and start pointing at us and discussing our every feature. This was getting worse than the maternelle in Paris. The French children might not have met a real Chinese, but they did know what that was from books, movies or television.  Here, the students actually had no idea why we looked so different.

The crowd grew thicker by the minute until they pushed and squeezed and shoved one another to get a better look at us. One could barely squeeze a finger between the spectators. At one point a group of older girls came and tried to break up the younger students by shooing them away. Just as I was going to breathe a sigh of relief, the older girls themselves took over the audience and pointed and shoved and giggled and chatted. We kept sitting in silence until I could bear it no more. I bent my mouth to my sister’s ear, and whispered to her in French, “I feel I am a monkey in a zoo!”

I had not noticed that the size and density of the crowd had forced a number of girls to admire our alien-ness from between our bench and the wall behind us. One of them had stuck her ear behind our two heads as I spoke. She now repeated my conversation as loudly as she could for the benefit of the others, “ah shi ah sha mo ne zoo!”  and the audience burst into a thunderous and raucous laughter that rolled and rumbled and exploded over the throng.

By now, I felt that we had graduated from the monkeys in the zoo to those performing in a circus. But now I knew better than to share my thoughts with Saadia. And so we bent our heads and kept quiet. I don’t even remember whether I cried when I reached home or whether I fought against returning to school. Probably not. Because we knew very well that it would be of no use, and that we would be expected to fight for survival — survival of the fittest.

monkey in zoo

 

 

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Fighting the Reds in the Arabian Sands

turkish coffee

The coffee cup reading neighbor back in Ankara had been right. Papa was happy in Jeddah. He said later of this period in his life that it was one of the most enjoyable episodes in his career.

Because of the small size of the staff, he became very close with his superior, and had the opportunity to make executive decisions on many matters. In a larger embassy, the ambassador reigned over not just the political branch or employees from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, but also at least over a few more branches:  the military branch —  the employees from the Ministry of Defence; the information branch — which included staff from the media as well as from the secret service; the economic or trade branch, which included staff from the Ministry of Commerce; and possibly more, depending on the needs of the particularly country. In such a large institution, if you were in charge of, say, stamping visas, then that’s about all you got to do during the few years of your appointment.

In the Jeddah post, Papa did not just take care of issuing visas. He got to make decisions about a Chinese sailor that had passed away at sea. He oversaw the students from Taiwan that came to study in Saudi Arabia.  He took charge of the arrangements for the annual pilgrimage group from Taiwan, since the Charge d’Affaires was not a Muslim and consequently could not enter Makkah. But the one affair that he boasted about for years after was banning all “Made in China” goods from Saudi Arabia.

The 1960’s were a time of development and growth for Taiwan, who had by then grown its economy enough to start becoming an important international exporter.  Everywhere in the world, one could find toys, stationary, plastic utensils and so on “Made in Taiwan”. However, in Saudi Arabia, Ma BuFang had commanded his followers, many of whom had become businessmen, to import from mainland China, primarily to get back at Taiwan for dismissing him as ambassador. Thus, all the souks and shops were flooded with “Made in China” goods.

Papa studied the problem from different angles and combed the souks for samples. Finally, having come up with a strategy, he went to meet the head of the Chamber of Commerce.  After greetings and tea, he pulled out a ruler, a pencil and a bookmark, and showed them to the gentleman. “Here,” he said, “these are made in China. Have a look!” His host turned the objects this way and that, and asked what the matter was with them. They looked perfectly innocent. “Saudi Arabia is a free country, and all its citizens are free to trade with whomever they please,” he told Papa.

little red book

“Aha!” said Papa, “they are wolves in disguise! Do you know what this writing is? This is a quote from the Little Red Book, by Mao Tse-Tung. This too, and this too. Who uses these objects? Students. Youth that will become the leaders of this country. Who will read them and try to understand them? Children who are more intelligent than others, and will become the great thinkers of your country. Day after day, they will read these quotes, and little by little they will become brainwashed. Soon, your country will be full of youth and future leaders that will be Communists. That’s what China is trying to do to your country.”  The head of the Chamber of Commerce was smart. He thanked Papa for his visit and his advice. Next thing he knew, Papa found out that the Chamber of Commerce had issued an advisory to all its members not to import from China any more. In the blink of an eye, all “Made in China” rulers, pencils, erasers, bookmarks and so on disappeared from all stalls and shelves in the whole of Saudi Arabia. Soon after, they were replaced by rulers, pencils, erasers and bookmarks that were “Made in Taiwan”.

Trade and commerce were not the only battlefield against Communist China. Every year, the largest event in Saudi Arabia was always the Hajj. This is the pilgrimage to Makkah, a duty incumbent on every Muslim, wherever they might live on earth. This was also the one time of the year when a large number of Communist Chinese were able to enter the Kingdom, for the Saudis could not refuse to issue a hajj visa to any foreign Muslim.

Communism by definition forbade the worship of any god or the practice of any religion. Go figure a Communist country sending a formal group of pilgrims to a Muslim country to perform religious duties, during an era when Communist fervor and extremism reached its apogee, when Chinese Muslims were oppressed and their leaders forced to tend to pigs or be killed. Could those pilgrims be true pilgrims? Or were they borrowing the name of pilgrim so they could enter the country, and perform other duties? The question was not ours to answer, but their actions against us during their stay in Mina and Arafat was definitely our business.

hajj 1966

The kids at the embassy regaled Saadia and me with stories of who did what to whom during such and such a year’s pilgrimage. My memories are couched in the mists of time by now, so I cannot swear who did what. People from one Chinese camp would sneak over during the night to the other Chinese camp and do one thing or another. The most thrilling one was stealing away the flag of the enemy. I think it was our group who did it. Or maybe I wish it was so.

This was the height of the Cold War. And even in the heat of the Arabian Desert, the war was on. Papa scolded us when we left food over in our bowl. “People in China are dying of famine and you are wasting perfectly good food!”  He told us that the Communists were breaking down families and forcing children to report their parents; that people were forced to live in communes; that food was not sold but given against ration coupons; that each family received only a ration of fabric a year, the same dark blue fabric for the uniform that the entire population had to wear. When someone got married, the family members would pool their pieces of fabric together to sew a new uniform for the newlyweds. “Three years new, three years old, and three years mending and repairing.” That was what was said of clothing.

The government was Big Brother. It oversaw every aspect of the people’s lives, Papa told us. It decided who you should marry, how many children you could have, where you could live. At work, the government decided when workers could take a bathroom break, and for how long. In the toilets, the foreman would call out, “One, two, three, everyone, push and pass one bowel motion! One, two, three, everyone, push and pass a second bowel motion!” Well, we never were quite sure where Papa’s news analysis stopped and fiction started. But we were mesmerized by his stories, and fully convinced of the Communists’ evil ways that earned them the name of  “bandits”, gong fei.

When my brother and I fought, we would throw insults at each other, starting with “stupid”, and moving gradually to more forbidden epithets. Then one of us, more daring than the other –usually Abdul Kerim, would then hurl the ultimate bad word, “You…! You … Gong Fei!”

communist bandit

 

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The King of the Northwest’s Exodus

There were in the 1960’s, a few hundred Chinese families living mostly in Ta’if, a mountain town an hour’s drive from Makkah. They were originally from Northwest China and all followed the banner of the former “King of the Northwest”, General Ma,  BuFang.

ma bufang

Ever since the 1911 Revolution which toppled the last Qing Emperor and installed the new Republic, China had been incessantly embroiled in civil and international turmoil. Thus, as happens in very large realms, central authority breaks down and smaller local spheres of authority form themselves. In the Chinese arena, this occurred through the so-called “warlords”, military leaders who gradually morphed into governors or even kings.

Although formally titled the governor of QingHai province, Ma BuFang in reality reigned over the neighboring provinces of Gansu and NingXia as well, wielding the power of life and death over his men and the population. His authority stemmed not only from his military might but also from the extended Ma tribal system and the support of the Muslims of the Northwest of China.

However, with the Communist takeover of Mainland China in 1949-50, and the Nationalist forces’ retreat to Taiwan, Ma Bufang decided to flee his homeland. He packed 200 of his tribesmen, family and close officers onto a plane and took them across the Himalayas to India. Many of the descendants of those refugees still tell stories of the plane being too heavy and unable to clear the world’s tallest peaks. Ma gave the order: throw all unnecessary objects overboard! Thus many gold bullions were cast away into the eternal snows.

Once lightened, the plane gained altitude again and crossed into India. Once there, the decision was made to emigrate to a Muslim country, and what better country to choose than the source of Islam, Saudi Arabia. However, when they arrived in 1950 Saudi Arabia, they were shocked to find this desert even more backward and underdeveloped than their own desert in Northwest China. They moved again, to Egypt, which was then a thriving modern and westernized civilization under King Farouk, at least in the cities.

king farouk

The entire tribe settled in Cairo, buying real estate and opening bank accounts. No sooner had they started putting roots down than King Farouk was overthrown by Gamal Abdel Nasser and Egypt turned socialist. All the Ma assets were frozen. Ma BuFang told his men, “Have we fled the Communists only in order to settle in a Socialist country?” Consequently he decided to move the entire tribe back to Saudi Arabia, which however underdeveloped, at least was not socialist nor communist.

gamal abdel nasser

And so it was that the 200 or so families chose Ta’if, which most resembled home in climate, and finally settled down. Despite much loss of wealth to the new Egyptian government, they were still immensely rich and were able to purchase again real estate and businesses.

One of the Ma’s was Yaqoub Ma, Ma Yao-Zong, who took up a post at the Embassy in Jeddah. His four children all attended the Chinese Embassy school. The second daughter was born in Cairo, on a bridge, where the taxi her laboring mother rode was stuck in traffic. Whereby she was given the name Kobria, meaning “bridge” (kobri) in Arabic.

Another embassy clerk, Abdullah Chi, also a Northwesterner, married a woman from the Ma tribe, thus making him one of the clan. Their three children also attended the embassy school. I learned many years later that Mr. Chi had been schoolmate with both my parents-in-law at Fu Dan University in Shanghai. But now he resided in a two-room low building at the back of the embassy compound. It is a testimony to the resiliency of the Chinese people that they are able to re-create for themselves their surroundings and necessities wherever they might end up living. Mr. Chi built a wooden platform covered with fabric on their front patio, reminiscent of the “kang” of North China. A kang is a sort of platform or huge bed made of bricks, with an opening outside the building where you feed coal or wood, the smoke of which heats the kang surface. This being Jeddah, there was no need for heating, but the raised platform allowed air to flow under it, and kept people away from crawling cockroaches.

There were more rooms in the other back corner of the embassy compounds which housed the Sui family and old Ma Laoshi, who later took a wife from the Ma tribe as well. Yaqoub Ma was the only embassy employee well-to-do enough to live in his own villa and gardens, complete with an outer little building rented to a grocer.

As a matter of fact, Papa had visited Jeddah once before, in 1957, the year of my birth. He had joined the official Hajj (pilgrimage) group from Taiwan, and had been given a secret mission by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He was to check out Ma BuFang, who had applied for the post of Chinese Ambassador to Saudi Arabia. Ma acted as an extremely hospitable and gracious host to the entire pilgrimage group, feasting and boarding them. Papa was duly impressed. Upon his return, he reported, “I have only four words to say, A Kind Generous Elder (Ci Xiang Lao Ren)!”

hajj, 1953

But soon, the Ministry found it was a mistake. Once anointed ambassador, Ma BuFang regarded himself once again as a ruler with power of life and death over his subjects. Scandal after scandal emerged, resulting in his finally losing his post. Infuriated, he set himself up as an enemy of the embassy. Soon, yet another scandal took place. A woman accused him of having kidnapped her against her will to make her his second wife. She fled to the embassy for protection. Although she herself was from the Ma tribe, yet the entire clan closed ranks behind their leader. Ma led his men to lay siege to the embassy, demanding the return of his wife. I don’t have the details of how it finally occurred, but the Charge d’Affaires was finally able to smuggle the lady onto a plane bound for Taiwan.

It was into this situation that Papa landed. The only Muslim diplomat, with just a Charge d’Affaires to supervise him, and three Muslim clerks who were more or less affiliated to the Ma clan.

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English and Music

Papa was our English teacher. Just like all our other teachers, he was quite imaginative and creative when it came to make facts stick in our heads. He would tell us, “The word for sun in English is “sun”. Now, every morning, when you look to the east, what is the sun doing? It rises …  (rise is Shen in Chinese). The sun “shen” in the morning.” (With a southern accent, you would pronounce “shen” as “sen”.)

sunrise

I believe that there and then, Papa indirectly taught us to make up our own mnemonics. Later, in Paris, a classmate would ask me to teach her how to be smart like me. I couldn’t think of anything except to teach her mnemonics. French Revolution? The end of the royal dynasties, so the last three numbers 7, 8, 9: 1789.

Papa had yet even better tricks. “In English,” he told us, “this is how you conjugate in the simple present tense.” And he would recite in a sing-song and rhythmic manner,  “I tiao (jump, in Chinese), you tiao, he tiao – si. I shuo (speak, in Chinese), you shuo, he shuo – si. I chi (eat, in Chinese), you chi, he chi – si!”  and he would laugh and guffaw so hard he would bend over and hold on to the wall for support. You see, “shi” in Chinese means shit, and if you pronounce it with a southern accent, it sounds like “si”. So, he was actually saying, I jump, you jump, he jumps shit, I speak, you speak, he speaks shit, I eat, you eat, he eats shit. Good thing this was not a public school in the US, so he never got sued. And we learned to conjugate in the English simple present tense.

 

Mama taught us music. This meant really singing Chinese songs. I loved it. We learned mostly folk songs, such as “Nong Jia Hao” —  Good Farmstead, and  “Ah-Li Shan” — Mount Ali. Which struck me, and made me wonder why a mountain in Taiwan would bear an Arabic name. Mama would select the songs from a thick paperback song book she had and would spend time rehearsing them at home before teaching them. So I would pick up the book when she wasn’t reading it, and looked for more songs.

This was my first introduction to Chinese style music notation. I am not really sure where it comes from nor who invented it. According to my uncle, it was invented by a Japanese. It is a simplified way of writing music. You simply write 1 for a do, 2 for a re, 3 for a mi, and so on, regardless of the key it is in. As for the timing, you write a little horizontal line under the numbers for each beat. It is very easy to figure out by yourself. So song books would be mainly the lyrics, with over them, the simplified notation.

numerical music notation

I spent many hours looking through this book, zooming in on songs with beautiful or enigmatic titles, or with interesting lyrics. I especially liked folk songs from QingHai (Western China) and taught myself to sing them. One of my favorites was “In that Faraway Place”. The lyrics go something like this: “In that faraway place, there is a good girl. People who pass by her tent, all turn their heads back and gaze at it regretfully. Her pink little face, is like the red sun. Her something else, forgot what, maybe the brow, is like the bright moon at night. I wish I were a little lamb, following by her side. I wish she would use her whip to softly beat my body.”

faraway place

Well, no comments here on the silly love-struck guy who wrote this. The Chinese are very romantic, something that is obvious in their poetry and their songs. In that sense, they are very close to the French. In the late ’60s and early ’70s, there was a very popular song entitled “If You Go Away” in English. Well, in its original French version, by Jacques Brel, it was called “Ne Me Quitte Pas” , meaning Don’t Leave Me!!! Much more drastically desperate a cry! The English lyrics are softly romantic, a lover’s laid back monologue about what would happen if she or he (the loved one) were to leave. “Then you might as well, take the sun away, all the birds that flew, in the summer sky, when our love was new, and our hopes were high…” But the French, oh, the French.

ne me quitte pas

“Me, I shall offer you, pearls of rain, coming from countries, where it never rains… I will dig the earth, until after my death, to cover your body, with gold and light…”
I assume that the singer and would-be lover will do his digging in the form of a Jiang Shi (Chinese zombie) then.

“… I will relate to you, the story of this king, dead of not having been able to meet you… And when evening comes, for the sky to go up in flames, the red and the black, do they not marry each other…”

And, to top all this insane talk, the best for last: “Don’t leave me… I am not going to cry any more, I am not going to speak any more (then don’t), I shall hide myself there, watching you, dance and smile (you peeping Tom), and listening to you, sing and then laugh, do let me become, the shadow of your shadow, the shadow of your hand, the shadow of your dog…”

Well, I guess, the French shadow of a dog can join the Chinese lamb and go lament their unrequited love together.

 

 

 

 

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Little School in the Desert

 

across the world

 

Papa had one philosophy regarding family: Never split the family. For the sake of a better education, the other diplomatic families often had the mother staying in one country with the kids, while the father continued to roam the world, but not we.

When Papa asked the other Chinese families about schooling, they all said, forget about Saudi public schools. All they teach is Qur’an memorization. We had then established a Chinese Embassy school behind the offices, and that was where all the children were educated.

 

wooden table and bench

It was just one room, furnished with a blackboard, four long wooden tables made by the local carpenter, and four wooden benches. We could sit three or four at each bench. The headmaster was Papa, and Mama was the music teacher. Mr. Sui spoke perfect Mandarin with Beijing accent, so he was the Chinese teacher. An old Mr. Ma with a wispy little white beard was the math teacher.  Then there was Mr. Lin, a Yunnan Muslim, who acted as Arabic teacher.

We were usually around twelve students. The eldest two were Fawzia (not me) and Kobria, the eldest two girls from the Ma family. We called them Ma Da Jie (Eldest Sister Ma) and Ma Er Jie (Second Elder Sister Ma) I believe they were 12 and 14 around the time we arrived. I thought Kobria to be the smartest person on earth. One day, we arrived at school half awake, having missed the alarm somehow. She took one look at our unwashed faces and said, “You woke up late and did not have time to wash your face, right?” I was totally amazed. Wow, how did you know?

Then, in our younger group, there was Saadia, me and Shadia Chi, the same little girl I had met on my first day in Jeddah. Next, there was Rabia Ma and Abdul Hamid Chi, two years our juniors, whom we called “Ah-Bee” and “Ha-Mee”. The youngest group consisted of my little brother whom we now called by his Arabic name, Abdul Kerim, then Kobria’s little brother, also named Abdul Kerim, and Shadia’s little brother, Nuruddin, which transliterated easily into Chinese “niu-rou-ding”  or little cubes of beef.

The first challenge was to catch up with Chinese language. Mama had done her best to teach us while in Paris. I remember weekends of sitting at the dining table labouring over columns of “pa-pa” and “ma-ma” and “jie-jie” and “mei-mei”. I would promptly forget them over the week and relearn them again the next weekend.

But before even tackling reading and writing, we had to fix our accent. I never knew I had an accent until then. It turned out we were speaking Chinese like little foreigners, French foreigners with tinges of Nanjinese and Taiwanese accents. Classical Mandarin is spoken with four tones, plus a fifth “light” tone which is something like a slight staccato. I often see First Tone like a G in music, a “sol”. Then Second Tone is somehow sunnier, rising like a D or “re”. Third tone is a diphthong of sorts, starting as a lower G, strong and short, then moving into a C higher, softer and longer. Fourth tone is a sort of a snort, like a sneering “humph!”

Sui Laoshi (Teacher Sui) would patiently spend hours trying to fix our accent. “When you want to scratch yourself, what you feel is “yang… yang… Third tone! When you say ‘yang, second tone, you are talking about those “Maaaa…. maaa… ”  sheep in front of your house.” With the help of little pictures on the blackboard, he would explain the difference between “tang -1”, soup; “tang -2”, sugar; “tang -3” , to lie down; and “tang – 4” , burning hot!

It wasn’t just our tones. Even our usage was wrong. In French as in English, there is just one way of describing falling down, regardless of who is falling. But in Chinese, you use “die dao” to talk about a living person tumbling to the ground, while you use “diao -4” to describe an object hurtling downward. My parents would laugh their heads off when we would exclaim “Oh, my glass just fell down (die dao)!”

Shadia was given the job of being my mentor. She was four months younger than I, so she greatly enjoyed bossing me around. She obviously delected in imitating the teacher, commanding me to read and repeat after her. So I did, albeit reluctantly, with the thought that if I learned fast and passed her, I would finally get rid of her mentorship.

Ma Laoshi was also very dedicated to our advancement. I discovered that I was very behind in Math. Our Chinese Math books were already in long division when in the French school I had only reached the table of 5 in multiplication. I just could not figure out why long divisions had been invented unless it was to torture children. All the others would be out playing in the back of the embassy, while I would stay in, struggling over those long divisions. Ma Laoshi patiently sat across my table, waiting for me to figure out my quotients. He would sigh now and then, his gaze lost in the distance. “Ma Laoshi, what are you thinking about?” I asked him once.

“I’m thinking about my family,” he replied. That’s when I found out that Ma Laoshi, who was still young enough to ride a horse when the Communists took over, had left his wife and children behind in North West China. The leaders had jumped on their horses and galloped through the villages, telling everyone to run away for the Communists were coming! He could ride, but his parents could not, and his wife had to tend to them and to the children. So he left alone, promising to be back once the war was over.  The men all rode their horses across the Himalayas to India. Fifteen years later, here he was, stuck in a little room with a ceiling fan in the middle of the Arabian desert, tutoring a recalcitrant student, and he had no news whatsoever of his family. A common story for the great Chinese diaspora post World War II.

But our favorite teacher was no doubt Lin Laoshi. He taught us the Arabic alphabet, which we learned willy nilly. Then, we would wink at one another, and one of us would ask Lin Laoshi about Charlie Chaplin. That was his favorite movie star. He would tell us about Chaplin’s movies, and in the heat of the moment, would stand up and give us a lively rendition of the famous Chaplin penguin walk, complete with cane (teacher’s board stick) and melon hat (Muslim little white skull cap). We would laugh and clap, which caused him to act even more happily. Then he would catch sight of the clock, and guiltily say, “Oh, dear, time is up! Everyone, dismissed!”

chaplin

 

 

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