Life of a Rooster

Memoirs of a psychiatrist, journalist and educator

Learning English

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

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

thinking

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

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

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

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

sheep or ship

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

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

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

english vs french

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

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

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

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

 

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Snowball fights and traveling coins

Further up the same street where the ambassador’s residence was located, we found an apartment perfect for us. It was really the upper floor of a two-storey house. The lower floor had the front yard and the gate, while the upper floor had a smaller gate opening onto a long and narrow side yard and into the side door and the staircase. The side yard was tiled and boasted a single pomegranate tree that struggled to stay alive. Upstairs, the apartment was a foyer surrounded by the rest of the rooms: formal dining-room, sitting room, master bedroom, bathroom, bedroom 2, bedroom 3, small water closet, and kitchen. From the landing, one door opened onto the formal dining room and the other onto the foyer, which became our regular dining room. We also had the use of the roof, which had a small storage room on it, and which we used primarily for hanging our laundry.

Just like all other houses, it was built of limestone blocks, hacked unevenly on the outside. This made it easy for little monkeys like Abdul Kerim and me to climb up the walls by grasping the jutting asperities of the rocks. I only climbed from the roof onto the storage room, but Abdul Kerim actually could climb from the little veranda off the dining room all the way up onto the roof! The other use of the roof was for neighborhood snowball battles.

I found this recent picture online. It looks like rooftop snowball fights have survived till today in Amman!

I found this recent picture online. It looks like rooftop snowball fights have survived till today in Amman!

In the winter, the Amman weather turned bitterly cold, and it would sometimes snow.  For snow to blanket the city, a rare occurrence, it would take quite some blizzard. But the great reward was that everyone would be off school and work the next day or more, until the streets were cleared. The year of the great snow, 1973, we were off for nearly 10 days! In the meantime, everyone went crazy, adults and children alike.  We all played on the roof, at first building a snowman, but eventually started throwing snowballs at one another. Suddenly, some snowballs hit us on the back, and we realized that our neighbors had attacked us! Soon, all the neighbors from all four sides were pelting one another with snowballs, and finally, we started targeting the rare cars that dared venture in the streets at a snail’s pace!

But I run ahead of my story! The first order of the day was to get all of us children registered in schools. For Saadia and me, Papa chose, upon the advice of the other embassy folks, the Ahliyah School for Girls, also known as the CMS — Christian Missionary School. For Abdul Kerim, he enrolled him at first in a public school for Grade 5, where my naughty brother wrought havoc. If my memory serves me correctly, he once turned in a test paper with a large scrawl across it in Chinese: I don’t know! So the next year, Papa moved him to the Islamic College, a private Arabic medium Islamic school. Papa insisted that this was his chance to learn Arabic, a unique skill that has today served him only too well in his career! I think Iffat was enrolled in the CMS kindergarten, but she was also transferred to the Islamic College by First Grade. Nadia was too young still and got to stay home.

Next, realizing that our English was probably not up to par, Papa hired a tutor, who was an English literature teacher from the de la Salle College, the boys’ Christian private school. This was our first introduction to Shakespeare, through Twelfth Night.  I had always been a top student in English, both in Paris and in Taipei. But this was another language altogether! We struggled hard with the thee, thou, thy and thine business and practiced writing essays. I remember clearly one particular essay that he corrected for Saadia, telling her that children are more important than luggage and therefore she should have written, “they got off the train with their children and their luggage,” not “with their luggage and their children.” We both kept politely quiet.  Even I, the lesser skilled writer of the two, could have told him that it was the use of irony. The parents were so frazzled that they treated children as luggage, and the lesser in importance of the two. As for me, I remember making him laugh with my statement that I admired the Germans and the Japanese because of their resilience and quick rebound after losing big time in World War II.

twelfth night

Arriving in Amman in  late May meant that all schools were winding up their school year and summer was on its way.  Saadia and I  spent the summer getting being tutored in English, while Abdul Kerim and Iffat spent it getting to know the neighborhood kids. Outside our bedroom windows, there was a large vacant lot where the children from the vicinity came to play soccer and any other game that children engage in. My brother and whoever was free, would lean their elbows on the window sill and watch their games. Soon, Abdul Kerim started shouting silly words at them, whatever Arabic he could come up with. They responded in kind, and eventually asked him to come down and join them. Looking back, I realize that a houseful of sisters was not exactly the most attractive play alternative.  No wonder, he became a regular part of the band of boys that roamed the vacant lot and the alleys around the house.

There were many of these alleys branching off the main streets. Usually, they were not paved and wound into intricate networks among the houses that covered the hillside. One of these opened right next to the gate to our house, and as such was usually shaded by the apartment building next door. This made it a favorite playground in the summer. One year, the little neighbor boy, Hussam, knocked on our door. “Er Jie,” he asked — for they all called me whatever my brother called me, Second Elder Sister — “Is this a Chinese coin?”

I looked at it. Wow! It was a Qing dynasty coin, copper, probably, with a square hole in the middle for people to string them together. On it, I recognized the words Qian Long, the name of the famous sixth Qing emperor who ruled from 1735 to 1796. “Where did you find it?” I queried. “Oh, we were playing marbles and digging a hole, and found it there,” the boy replied with a shrug.

I was totally dumbfounded. So, a merchant from the Middle East traveled all the way to China in the 18th century, along the famed Silk Road, and returned home to sell silk and porcelain, and maybe tea as well. Then out of his pocket fell this coin, which lay dormant for another two centuries, until some little boys played marbles and gave it light again.

ancient chinese coin

I quickly reviewed mentally what I had in my little treasure box. “I can pay you half a dinar for it,”  I offered nonchalantly. But Hussam was sharp. If I was willing to pay for it, it must be worth more! “No,” he grinned instantly. “Too little.” And off he went.

Of course, I am kicking myself today for not going to my father and borrowing more. I did ask Hussam recently, with whom I reconnected thanks to the Internet, what had happened to that coin. He had absolutely no recollection of it. At all.

When I mentioned this to a Chinese some years ago, she said carelessly, “Oh, we have plenty of coins dating back to Qianlong in China…” I could not believe my ears. Of course, there would be! But this one was not found in China. It was found thousands of miles away from China. It had traveled through mountains and seas to get to its resting place! And if it could talk, it would have had many tales to tell.

When I interviewed years later Liang Dan-Feng,  a famous Taiwan watercolorist commissioned to paint Jordanian landscapes, she said to me, “Jordan is such a wonderful land. You walk on history and priceless antiquities everywhere you go.” I could not agree more!

 

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Ghosts and gold-rose sunsets

Also living in the same three-story residence was the cook and one of the expatriate students, a certain Chen. The cook, Li, was tall and heavy, with a northerner’s big nose and large eyes, and a slight stoop to the shoulders. He had asked Chen to come stay with him because he was scared of the empty house after the ambassador’s death.

scared of ghost

Well, you might think that a big and tall man would be the last person to be scared of ghosts, yet I’ve seen it more than once. Fear of the unknown has nothing to do with one’s real-life size. Saadia and I got all the ghost stories first-hand, from Vincent Kao, the Assistant Military Attache’s son. He appeared in the yard with a friend, strolling around as if in a public park. We watched him from the second floor window, wondering who he was. Soon enough, we made acquaintance and started chatting.

He was between Saadia’s and my age (I think), and was a thin, gangly, not very tall but very talkative boy. I could understand his curiosity about us, since I also always tried to find out who else in the embassy had kids my age. But I certainly did not condone his lack of formality or respect for authority. So he told us to beware of the ghosts. Ghosts? We asked. Ah, yes. They were haunting this house for sure. The cook had heard doors open and slam closed all by themselves for no good reason. Well, we reasoned, the wind, of course. Ah, but how do you then account for lights turning themselves on and off, heh? We had discovered the night before that the light switches were dials that we had to turn(dimmers)  and that could flip back. Misfunction, then. The spring in the switches. Ah, but then, how do you explain that a line of candles would burn in such a way as to form an inverted V? What? You know, the end candles burned lowest, and the middle candle tallest, forming an inverted V… Well, maybe the air flow… Aha! You see, you see, it was ghosts! I was getting tired of the game. But he kept on. And that’s not all. If you pour hot water into a thermos, how long does it take for it to cool down? Hey? Tell me? A few hours? But the cook would find water totally COLD a few minutes after he just poured it in!

ghost

Well, methinks the cook was so flustered he must have poured cold water into the thermos to start with.  I told Vincent a few stories myself to top him off. I told him about the woman tortured and killed by the Gestapo in our Consulate second floor bathroom in Paris. But, I went on majestically, we are Muslims, and therefore ghosts don’t even bother us!

And that was another thing about which I felt peacefully happy. Being Muslim. All of a sudden, what had been a weird peculiarity in non-Muslim countries became an asset in a Muslim country. The call to prayer, the adhan, was beautiful and floated down from the nearest mosque five times a day. In fact, we could hear not just one mosque but several. Amman is a very ancient city, built on seven hills. We were on top of the hill named Jabal Amman, then the poshest district in town. All the diplomatic families lived there. And from the top floor windows, we could admire an amazing view of hillsides covered with rosy limestone houses.

amman, gold pink hour

 

I call those stone blocks rosy. But they were more tan than rose pink. The tan had a rose tinge to it, it is true and at sunset they reflected this gold pink hue which reverberated into the air, which then filled up with dozens of adhans gracefully lilting and interweaving their notes as the purple night descended.

I could not believe such a beautiful place existed: Amman.

 

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Part 2: Jordan

If anyone has been following this blog, I apologize for the long vacuum. It wasn’t for lack of material to write about, nor was it due to death of inspiration. My story had now reached a certain stage where I needed to refocus. So far, the story had been that of my childhood wanderings, and the resulting struggles with schooling. The anecdotes from that part of my life have been retold so often to my children and students that writing them down was an easy matter. However, from this point onwards, things started moving in a different direction. I finally came to the conclusion that if this story were a book, that was Part 1. And now, on to Part 2!

part 2

A little footnote: May I formally state that from here onward I shall start using fictitious names to protect the privacy of many people who are still alive (I hope) and might read this blog.

So then, Papa, Mama and our three younger siblings went ahead to Hong Kong, while Saadia and I stayed in Taipei for an extra week or so.  We rode with them to the airport to see them off, and in the hustle and bustle of the moment, I slammed the taxi door onto Mama’s hand. Doors in those days were not as softly insulated and cushioned on the edge as they are today. The metal cut into her finger, and she bled profusely. I screamed in anguish, while Mama calmly wrapped it in her handkerchief, told me to stop it, and continued unloading the luggage.

Mama was such a tower of calm and comfort… except for that one time when I saw her scream and run from those baby mice. Once, she was in such a rush to cook lunch that she chopped off the tip of her finger with the meat cleaver, that well sharpened essential tool of the Chinese cook. As I screamed in panic, she told me to shush, took one quick assessing look at the tip of finger and nail dangling by a shred of skin, and quickly raised her cleaver again. Chop! off went the bleeding flesh. Into the garbage can. She wrapped the remaining bloody finger in a handkerchief and ran to the doctor’s clinic at the corner of the block. Apparently, he told her she should have kept the tip and he would have tried re-attaching it. With my present medical knowledge, I wonder.

cleaver 2

A week later, it was our turn to leave. The day we went to the airport, a group of Saadia’s classmates ditched class to go see her off. As luck would have it, an air raid drill hit the city just as they were on their way. What with sirens blaring and all traffic coming to a stop, the poor girls were herded into the nearest air shelter until the drill was over. They figured it was too late to make it to the airport, and headed back to school. Meanwhile, we sat through the drill in the waiting room at the gate, while our flight was delayed and rescheduled.

Hong Kong looked much like Taipei, except it had even more crowded streets, highways that looped between high-rise buildings, and everyone spoke Cantonese. We were staying at the home of my great-uncle Mai. This was a certain Mai Jing-An, a decade or more older than Papa, who was a businessman, and stayed part of the year in Taipei. Papa had met him at the Taipei mosque and after chatting and researching their generation names, had figured out that a few generations ago, the two had shared a family line. Thus, they called each other uncle and nephew from then on.

Great-Uncle Mai was, however, a graduate of an Islamic school back in China. This meant that he was qualified to be an imam, could read and write classical Arabic, and was actually quite fluent in the art of Chinese-style Arabic calligraphy. Today, this has been recognized as a separate style of calligraphy and named the “Sini” Arabic script. Actually, Sini simply means “Chinese” in Arabic. We had a beautiful scroll on our sitting-room wall with “In the name of God the Beneficent the Merciful” penned by Great-Uncle Mai, with flowing black ribbons inked with bamboo strips.

chinese islamic calligraphy 2

His wife and children lived in Hong Kong, in — what else — a skyscraper, one of the many that dot the suburb hillsides. At that time, the family ongoing business was that of wigs. And as a friendly gesture, they gave us a few wigs as presents. They were great for playing dressing up, and a few years later, Abdul Kerim actually managed to fool his own friends with one of those wigs. When they came knocking on the door asking him to go out and play, he actually looked them straight in the eyes, and patting his wig, said he was Fawzia, the second elder sister (me), and that Abdul Kerim (himself) wasn’t home. They all believed him!

black wig

After the short interlude in Hong Kong, we flew on to Kuwait where we spent the night. As was her habit, Mama had divided all the belongings that she managed to get onboard into bags that she made us carry. We all grumbled and sweated under the weight of those bags. I feel humbled today by Mama’s resourcefulness and ashamed at my childish selfishness. Wherever we traveled, we were never short of change of underwear or clothing, toiletries or food. We never thought to ask how all those necessities came to be available. Having now lived through the same experience, I still feel overwhelmed at the thought of packing for a family of seven.

In Kuwait, I saw Mama smile and nod at the airport employees, pointing at us and saying, “Muslim, Musulman, oui, yes, Mu-si-lin…” and in response, the staff, from immigration clerk to customs officers all smiled and marveled, “Chinese? Muslims? Welcome! Welcome!”  I always felt embarrassed by her attempts at sweet talking, but I must say, I would unashamedly enjoy the consequent ease and comfort.

All night, I felt the hotel room was like a ship, still rolling on the waves. The next day, off we flew to Amman. We arrived at night, and the welcoming group of embassy staff herded us into several cars, whisking us to the ambassador’s residence. Since the ambassador had passed away, and his family had left, it made no sense to put us in a hotel. And so, we all slept in soft beds in a spacious and comfortable house that first night.

pink roses

In the morning, I walked out onto the backyard terrace and took in my first sight of Jordan. It was May 1972, and blooming roses filled the garden. Their sweet scent perfumed the cool air,  invisible birds tweeted from their perches in the trees, and butterflies flitted around the blossoms. I have never forgotten that moment. The sky was intensely blue overhead and life was wonderful (since I had left schools and exams behind).

Thus it was that I fell in love with Jordan.

 

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Leaving my homeland

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

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

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

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

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

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

fiddler on the roof, ad

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

 

 

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