Life of a Rooster

Memoirs of a psychiatrist, journalist and educator

Nostalgia and Reunion

Despite a busy life at school and a home life filled with books, where a swashbuckling Lagardere protected noble baby girls; despite a warm aunt who taught me about life and an early training as a tourist guide, I still had time to wallow in nostalgia. I owned then a soft pencil box shaped like a flat rectangle that could be opened with a zipper around three sides. The outside was a map of the world, and as such, mostly blue.  It was the most attractive, sunshiny blue you can imagine, that brought wafts of reminiscence from Jeddah.  Often, instead of studying Roman history, I would study the lines of latitude and longitude on my pencil box and trace the path of an airplane flying from Jeddah to Paris, and back from Paris to Jeddah.

map of the world

In my memories, the blue skies were wonderful and there was none of the stifling heat that kept me sick and weak. Life was bright with blinding light, playtime, and the warmth of a loving family. It is strange how when one misses a time and place, one remembers only the best and most beautiful aspects, and none of the stressful factors.

Once, I had a dream: I was back in Jeddah, playing in the back yard of the embassy compound with my friends, and having a grand time. Then, as we all sat on the white-washed brick ramps of the back stairs, I suddenly remembered that I was supposed to be in Paris. I wondered whether I was dreaming. The only way to find out, as we are told in books, is to pinch yourself. I was going to do just that, but feared the pain. Well, I thought to myself, the idea is that if you are dreaming, you cannot feel anything. No need for the test to be painful, then. Just test for feeling.  So I knocked on my brick seat with my fist, and felt that reassuring pressure hit my knuckles. Ah! Thank God, it was NOT a dream! I was back home in Jeddah! What delight! Of course, the delight did not last long since next thing I knew, I woke up to find myself knocking on the wall against which the bed was located.

Perhaps I missed most of all my little sister, who was barely a toddler when we left. Saadia and I had been her unofficial caretakers, maybe Saadia more than I. We changed her diapers, we gave her her bottle, lulled her to sleep by crooning Papa’s favorite — Brahm’s lullaby, potty-trained her, ran after her with her bowl of food for hours, begging her to finish it so we wouldn’t get scolded, and often sneaking some of it into our own mouths to make the job faster.

Brahm's Lullaby, the lovely tune to which every child in our family slept to.

Brahm’s Lullaby, the lovely tune to which every child in our family slept to.

In my monthly letters home, I kept asking for news of her. Mama told us that she was growing up into a regular little imp. She was maybe the most curious, active, and imaginative of us yet. The pictures she sent us showed a plump and solid little thing with a bib on, eyes bright, shiny and naughty, hair cut short in a boyish style. Mama told us later the famous Rat Story. One day, Ambassadress Li came to visit Mama to specifically talk to her. “Mrs. Mai,” she said rather seriously and formally, “it is indeed important to discipline children, but one should have limits and not overdo it…” Mama was slightly bemused. “Ah, indeed, I agree…”  But Ambassadress Li continued, “I condone scolding, even some spanking, but really you shouldn’t have made Little Jade (that was Iffat’s nickname) eat a fried rat…” Mama screamed, “What! A fried rat!” for if there was one thing Mama was afraid of, it was mice and rats, especially baby ones. The one time I saw my strong and invincible mother melt into a jelly of shrieking hysterical fear was the day she cleaned the pile of boxes behind the hallway door of the second house and emitted a long and shrill cry followed by a heavy thump on the floor. She had uncovered a family of mice, the babies still naked, wiggly and blind. Papa had to clean them up and flush them down the toilet. Which caused me to become constipated for the next few days since I kept glancing down the toilet to check for mice crawling back up instead of sitting on it.

What transpired was that Iffat had told a long flowery story with much gory detail to Ambassadress Li, about having been naughty, and having been punished for it. Apparently Mama had caught a big black hairy rat, and then had deep fried it, and then made her eat it as a punishment. Mama did not know whether to laugh or cry. She finally was able to convince Ambassadress Li that the story and the rat had all been pure figments of Iffat’s imagination.  How could she possibly fry a rat when she did not even have the courage to touch one, dead or alive?

Believe it or not, I actually found this picture of a deep fried rat on Google images.

Believe it or not, I actually found this picture of a deep fried rat on Google images.

In the meantime, I would look up at the little triangle of grey Paris sky and make up beautiful stories where the doorbell would ring, and in would walk Papa and Mama, Abdul Kerim and Iffat, who would shout out, “Surprise!” It was either that or the other scenario where Mama and Papa would sit me down and with great seriousness, inform me that I had really been adopted.

And then, that year, Papa was transferred back to Taipei. He and Mama thought it over and over, and decided the two of us should remain in Paris with Aunt Lily, again because our education was more important. So the whole family minus Saadia and I packed their bags, and once again sold all furniture and flew off. On the way back to Taiwan however, Papa stopped in Thailand for a very important rendez-vous.

At the embassy in Jeddah, there had been records of all Chinese pilgrims coming for the Hajj, for a good number of years. Mr. Ma and Mr. Chi, upon their first meeting Papa, had remarked that our family name, Mai, was really very rare, even among Chinese Muslims, since it was only the second time they had met a person by that name. Papa was immediately interested. What was his full name? Where did he come from? Which year was it? And upon checking the records, Papa could not believe it. It was a long lost uncle of his!

Way back in Nanjing, at the height of our family’s fortunes, far relatives from the provinces would come to us to throw their destiny upon our doorstep. The shipping company and the family’s many businesses easily offered a variety of jobs, and so there were a number of such relatives living in the family compound. This particular uncle had been a good friend of my grandfather and his cousin, and as young men, had been hanging around together on a daily basis. My great grandfather then acquired a mistress, whom he kept in town in a separate house. It has never been clear to me whether she was a concubine — therefore a wife; or simply a “kept woman” without formal status. Whatever the case, my great grandmother became very distressed, and cried her heart out.  My grandfather, feeling very upset at his mother’s pain, told his buddies that it fell upon them to teach the woman a good lesson. So the three of them marched off to the lady’s place, and gave her a good fright by screaming, shouting, breaking the furniture and throwing dishes and vases around. They then went home, feeling very self-righteous for having taken revenge for my great grandmother. Of course, the lady complained to my great grandpa, who was not amused. He came home on his high horses, and I suppose, in good old traditional Chinese fashion, must have made the three kneel down for hours. He also berated and scolded them dreadfully, and beat them as well, though probably not with a stainless steel shoe horn. More likely a bamboo or rattan switch. Now, for Grandpa, it was merely a son’s duty to be martyred for his mother’s sake, so he took it stoically. For grand-uncle, it was bad luck but what to do, that was his aunt’s dignity he was standing up for, so he took it in stride too. But for the third culprit, that far-flung relative who had always felt like a second-class citizen in our homestead, it was the last straw. He would not take it. He ran away from home, leaving only a letter explaining why he could not stay any more. Many months later, the family received a letter from Burma. The uncle had gone to Shanghai, and from there, had boarded a ship for Burma. He now had established himself there and started his own business. That was the last Papa had heard of him.

Shanghai, 1940s

Shanghai, 1940s

Now, suddenly, in the desert of Arabia, he had found him again! Papa hurriedly wrote to the address in the records. Indeed, a letter came back soon. Yes, it was he, the long lost uncle from Burma! He updated Papa on his life during the many years in Burma. He had married a Burmese woman, who had given him a few children before passing away. He then had remarried, this time to a Chinese woman, who also gave him a few children. For Papa, who had by then been estranged from his home and family for almost twenty years, this was a ray of sunshine.

So, when planning his trip home to Taiwan, Papa fixed a stopover in Bangkok. As a government official from the Nationalist Chinese, there was no way for him to go to Burma, a socialist country. He therefore traveled north to Chiang Mai, and from there to the border with Burma. On the appointed day and time, the uncle and the nephew finally met again, in a firm embrace and with many tears, two lonely Mai men away from home.

Map of Thailand: Chiang Mai in the north

Map of Thailand: Chiang Mai in the north

A border post between Thailand and Burma, which is called today Myanmar.

A border post between Thailand and Burma, which is called today Myanmar.
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The Candy Story and Slipping under the Bamboo Curtain


jeddah 1930s

The overall atmosphere of a utopian society was so etched in all of us that small derailments absolutely horrified us. One afternoon, Abdul Kerim came home from his daily playtime at the embassy compound with a smug smile on his face. He was holding his arms around his belly, which protruded in a strange way under his shirt, which was as usual tucked inside his shorts. He beckoned to me in a conspiratorial manner, “Hey, Er Jieh (Second Elder Sister)! Come and see what I’ve got!” We went to our room and Abdul Kerim pulled his shirt up. Out rolled candies, gums and other goodies onto the floor. A whole stack of them. My eyes went huge. “Di Di (Little Brother), where did you get all this?” My parents did not believe in weekly allowances, so we never had any money on us, unless we were sent on an errand. “At the little shop downstairs! I told them that Mama would pay them back later.”  Buying on credit! Well, well, well! My brother was certainly ahead of his time!

The little shop downstairs was a small wooden shack maybe no more than two by two meters, with a front window whose shutter could open down and turn into a counter, and shelves on the inside walls. It was a pre-fabricated mobile store that could be found everywhere on street corners in those days, and were usually owned and operated by Yemenis. This one, right outside our apartment building, sold candies, soft drinks and other daily needs.

Although I had sworn myself to secrecy just a few minutes ago, this was no ordinary secret! Thievery led to having one’s hands cut. This was an enormity. A crime. I had to help him out of this. And indelible  traces of that day in Ankara, the Day of the now famous Chocolate Story had etched themselves forever into my soul. I looked sorrowfully at my little brother, “Abdul Kerim, I am so sorry! But I must tell Papa and Mama about this. I’m so sorry!” Abdul Kerim’s face changed. “But you promised! You promised!” he protested, with tears in his eyes. I could not bear his look. I know we were best friends and best playmates, but this was no ordinary game. I walked out of the room with the step of a traitor. I told my parents.


The reaction was immediate. And intense. Mama gave Abdul Kerim her purse and ordered him to go downstairs and pay off the bill first. Then he was ordered into Papa’s study. He had to kneel down and endure a lengthy lecture delivered with forceful stormy tones. Then he had to raise his two hands up straight, vertically in the air and stay thus until further notice. I felt terribly bad and tried to keep away from the scene during the punishment session. I truly do not remember whether he got any slaps on his hands with the fateful steel shoe horn. But by the time my father went to mind his business elsewhere, I stole into the study and tried to hold my brother’s hands in mine so he would not get too tired. “Abdul Kerim, don’t worry, I will hold them for you. Just rest a bit.” But he snapped back, “Just go away! I don’t need you!”

I moped in my room for hours.

As Saadia grew more and more withdrawn, Abdul Kerim and I had become closer. He was now older and able to join me in games. We were great pals and played and quarreled with great gusto.  I remember one day when we fought once again, and even the dreaded curse, “You Communist you!” did not cut it. So we decided to pinch each other. I said I would not cry and he said he would not either. So there we sat, each pinching the other on the arm as hard as we could and both holding back our cries and our tears.

Boys are definitely more daring and naughty than girls. I was a handful, but he topped me in everything. Once, when we started getting bored from the lack of excitement at the sheep market, Abdul Kerim said to me, “Er Jie (Second Elder Sister), shall I call out to them?” That scared me. “No, you wouldn’t! Anyway, you don’t know their names…” Abdul Kerim laughed.  “I will just say, Mohammed! There is always a Mohammed somewhere in the crowd anyway.”  I shook my head in disbelief. Abdul Kerim bent through the open window and  yelled at the top of his voice, “Ya Mohammed!!!” and quickly squatted down under the window so no one would see him. I was a fraction of a second slower, slow enough to see some of the people in the sheep market look up and around.

Another time, he came home at sunset from his afternoon play in the embassy compound in a whirlwind, quickly trying to disappear into his room. But Mama was quicker, “Come back here!  Why are you running so fast?” Abdul Kerim was forced to face Mama, which is when we all noticed his shirt was greyish and crumpled. This was before the era of T shirts, and boys wore crisply ironed white dress shirts, even for play. It turned out he had fallen into the turtle pond, which was filled with green algae. Abdul Hamid and Nuruddin had tried helping him out by taking his shirt off and wringing it as dry as possible, and Chi Mama had given him another clean shirt to wear. But he was too scared to face Mama, so the boys had sneaked out and tried shaking and waving the shirt in the wind to dry it out. He then put it back on and walked bravely home, trying to look as normal as possible.

Abdul Kerim was named Ren Jieh in Chinese. Papa later told us that he had communicated secretly with his family in China starting from the years in Paris, and that upon his request for a name for his newborn son, Papa’s uncle had bestowed the name “hero (among men)”.

Today’s children do not know anything about the Iron Curtain or the Bamboo Curtain. They cannot fathom a prison the size of a country and total ban of communication between two parts of one nation torn apart by war. People in Taiwan could not write or call or send telegrams to their relatives across the Taiwan Strait, and vice versa.  For Papa, who worked for the government, trying to reach anyone in Communist China would have been tantamount to betrayal and opened him for serious investigation. Inside Mainland China, people could not leave of their own accord, unless they attempted to escape across the fenced border — which many did, at the risk of their lives.

bamboo curtain

Papa had written home, pretending to be doing business in France. He had found out  that his elder sister’s husband had been imprisoned then sent to hard labor, then later committed suicide some time after his release.  Soon afterward, his father had passed away. His younger sister and her husband, both involved in the music industry, she as a music editor and he as a performing tenor, were hard hit when the Cultural Revolution erupted.  They too were sent away to hard labor and their two children were left in the city to fend for themselves.  Papa had assumed that his brother, the Communist cadre, had escaped tragedy. Alas, no one in Communist China did. Even my uncle, who had joined the Communist Party in its infancy, was reported as disloyal by a close friend and sent to twenty years’ hard labor. 

Unknowing of the details of life under the Communists, Papa wrote letters asking about his family’s well-being, and whether they remembered to fast as good Muslims should.   His elder sister replied that they were all very well, and yes, of course, they remembered to fast, and indeed did so every day of the year. Muslims only need to fast during the month of Ramadan, so this was a secret message that they were really starving.  Papa asked whether they were in need of anything. His brother replied that they were not in need of anything since the motherland could provide them with anything they needed. Papa did not know that Uncle was already in trouble then and that those letters to and from a Western capitalist country were scrutinized for hints of wrongdoing or simply incorrect thought. That reply from his brother broke his heart more so than his sister’s description of their situation. He locked himself in his room and wept.

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forests of central TaiwanLiving in isolation on top of beautiful forested mountains in central Taiwan was my father’s idea of an ideal life for a while. Then 1949: the Occupation (according to the Nationalists) or the Liberation (according to the Communists). My father was now totally cut off from his family and his homeland. He suddenly realized that he was all alone in the world.

The day he turned 30, the head of the mill invited him to dinner. The gracious hostess asked him over succulent dishes: “Mr. Mai, the ancient say that “at 30, one gets established.” When are you thinking of getting married?”

The question was a thunderbolt out of the blue sky. My father had always assumed that whenever he was ready for marriage, all he would have to do was to let those pesky matchmakers know, and they would present him with an array of cousins to choose from. But now, he was living on an island on top of a mountain, surrounded by the beautiful green forests and not much else, with no matchmaker in sight, nor cousins for that matter.

So he looked around at available females in the factory and decided that my mother, working then at the factory library, was a good catch since she was also the niece of the factory owner. The owner  was a very wealthy man, since he owned not just the sawmill but also the whole mountain, banana plantations and the forests.

Despite his Western education, and watching plenty of Western movies, Papa still wasn’t quite well versed in the art of dating. My aunt told me of his first attempt at dating my mother, “He went to the library and could not even look your mother in the eye. He said, would you like to go see the movies? but no one was sure who he was inviting.  So your mother brought all the girls along…”

Eventually, they did start going out to movies and dinners and talked of marriage. My mother was on top of the world. With her junior high school diploma and only some previous experience as a bank teller, she had just won the lottery grand prize!  The young resident engineer, representative of the government, the one with the big seal, without which stamp no log could leave the mill, this most eligible bachelor had just proposed to her! She was the envy of all the girls in the county!

But that wasn’t her father’s opinion. When her uncle, the wealthy landowner, called Grandpa Chang, Ping-Nan, on the phone and declared, “I’ve just given my consent to Wan-Li’s marriage with Mai, Teh-Lin!” my grandpa spluttered, “Who’s he?”

When he found out Papa was a Mainlander, Grandpa Chang was crushed. When the Nationalist forces withdrew to Taiwan, there had been a lot of riots and clashes, and “Mainlander” had become a pejorative term. But since Grand Uncle, his rich brother-in-law, said so, so be it. “I still have three more daughters…” he said to Grandma after hanging up.

Worse still, Mama later told him she had to convert to Islam. “What’s that?” asked Grandpa. “Well,” replied Mama, “I won’t be able to eat pork any more. I can only eat beef now.” Grandpa was suitably impressed. Pork was the staple meat in Taiwan. Beef was imported and expensive. Wow, Mainlanders are rich, huh?

With marriage, Papa then thought of his career. Did he really want to stay working in forests for the rest of his life? He longed to see the world. So he decided to go to Taipei and take the Higher Exams for admission to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Mama was in tears, but Papa promised her, “I’ll be back! And I’ll take you to see the world!”

Papa, always a great scholar, and fluent in French and English — having studied at a private French missionary high school and a private university, nailed the exam easily, and the family moved to Taipei.  My eldest sister had been born by then. She was a cutie pie, had a baby face (to this day) and loved posing for Papa’s camera, one of those tall rectangular boxes with two circles in front.

Then I came along, one year later. I looked more like an ugly duckling than a baby doll. But Mama was great at tailoring and sewing clothes, and fabric was cheaper in larger quantities, so she dressed us in identical clothing. Since I was also big and fat, we two looked like twins to outsiders.

By the time I was one and a half, Papa received his first posting: Paris! He was ecstatic.

Taipei, 1958 or '59. Early family photo, probably at a studio. Papa is holding Saadia and I'm sitting in the middle.

Taipei, 1958 or ’59. Early family photo, probably at a studio. Papa is holding Saadia and I’m sitting in the middle.


A rooster is born

Why life of a rooster? Because I was born in the year of the rooster, I often call myself a rooster. Rooster is a better translation than hen (think mother hen) or chicken (think coward) or phoenix, which is the Chinese interpretation. A rooster is the earthly or more realistic depiction of a phoenix. But my innate Chinese modesty forbids me to aggrandize myself as a phoenix, earthly or otherwise. So  I stick to rooster.

So this rooster decided that as of today I shall consider myself retired. This means I must finally embark on that project I dreamed of since I could read and write: penning my memoirs.

So here we go.

I was born on June 13, 1957, the second daughter of a young diplomat, Muti’allah Teh-Lin Mai and his Taiwanese wife Wan-Li Chang.  My father, a newly minted employee at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Taiwan, Republic of China, was a bit disappointed to find out I was a girl. Again. Being Chinese, having a boy is quite important since a son will carry on the family name. For him, it was even more important for several reasons.

My father was the first-born son of one of the wealthiest families in Nanjing. His family owned half of downtown Nanjing as well as a shipping company and their own cargo ship. My grandfather had several nicknames that I learned from various Chinese Muslims I met later on in life. Some called him Mai Mai Cheng (buy, sell, done). Others called him Mai Ban Cheng (buy half the town) or Mai Ban Bian (buy half the side, meaning one side of the main downtown artery).

Back row, left to right: Aunt DeJuan, Grandpa Mai, his brother; front row: left to right: Great Aunt #1, her daughter, Great Aunt #2, a neighbor

Back row, left to right: Aunt DeJuan, Grandpa Mai, his brother; front row: left to right: Great Aunt #1, her daughter, Great Aunt #2, a neighbor

Papa had an older sister, De-Juan; a younger brother, De-Shen,  and a younger sister, De-Yi. But when he was a teenager, my grandmother died of “diarrhea” –probably something more than just that, maybe cholera or dysentery. Whatever the case, her death devastated my father. Traditionally, Chinese parents are not physically demonstrative of their love. So my father’s interactions with his own father consisted of bowing and giving his respects morning and evening, and presenting his report cards. Even meal times were not interactive because adults sat at one large round table and children at another. A number of relatives lived in the family compound and worked at the company. He never detailed his interactions with his mother but it was obvious there was a lot of love there.

My grandmother Mai, nee Jin, Yu-Hua, was a refined lady.
My grandmother Mai, nee Jin, Yu-Hua, was a refined lady.

So, when his father remarried within months of her demise, he decided he could not stay home any more. He remained in Shanghai for his bachelor studies in Forestry and upon graduation, joined the Department of Forestry. He chose a remote province for his first post, somewhere to get away from his stepmom, the matchmakers and jet life in general: Taiwan.

(to be continued)