Life of a Rooster

Memoirs of a psychiatrist, journalist and educator

Of Mountain Villages and Talking Clocks

Mme Forhan did not just assign essays. In the third trimester, she divided the class into two groups, those who would continue with essays and exercises, and those who would collaborate on a novel. I was drafted into the novel group. I was absolutely in seventh heaven!  My best friend, Pascale Salles, who had started the year as a rather mediocre writing student but then suddenly seemed to have flipped on a switch and morphed into a poetry-spouting wordsmith, also joined me in the novel group.

We first worked on the setting and the characters. Every week we would work in class on a particular point, then go home and produce the segment assigned and bring it back to class. The teacher would then select one of the papers to be incorporated into the final draft. We worked very hard to find a mountainous spot for our setting (which is probably why I later selected a mountainous setting too for my flop of a novel on orange paper), and settled eventually on a little village in the Pyrenees that I had picked out of a map. It had a very pretty name, with a touch of olden aura, but darn it if I can remember it. So, after a prolonged search on Google map, I did find it! It was Vielle-Aure! and it looks really picturesque though at the time we had no idea what it did look like, and only described it based on our imagination and the assumption that all mountainous villages looked the same! Ah, the miracle of technology! I can only deduce that it is much easier today than 50 years ago, to write about a place one has never seen.

Vielle-Aure, as pictured on Google images

Vielle-Aure, as pictured on Google images

A house in Vielle-Aure

A house in Vielle-Aure

Then we started deciding on the characters. And since most of the class had read the “Club des Cinq” and the “Clan des Sept” books by Enid Blyton (that’s the French translation of The Famous Five and The Secret Seven series), we all naturally wanted to create our own version of a group of children solving mysteries. Writing a novel is painstakingly arduous, but writing one as a collaboration among a dozen pre-teens is painfully time-consuming. We never got further than the characters before the end of the  year.

Mme Forhan was not the only teacher to be impressed with me. In the beginning of the year, most teachers did not pay me much attention, or rather, tried not to look down on me. You see, this was France in the 1960s, not America in the 21st century. Here, today, Asians are stereotyped as over-achievers, but not there and then.  There was no open deriding of my foreign-ness as in kindergarten, but I felt it simmering under the surface.

One bright morning, soon after the start of the school year, Saadia and I left home and walked out into the street as usual to go to school and immediately were struck by the feeling that something very strange was happening. The sun was warmer than usual, and the streets emptier. In the metro, the usual crowd was replaced by a thin sprinkling of passengers. We felt as if we were in movie where we had been transported to some other parallel dimension, and walked faster.  When we arrived in school, the yard was empty, and as we looked up at the huge clock on the wall, we realized why: it was a quarter to nine, not a quarter to eight! We looked at each other, not comprehending. She walked to her classroom and I to mine. She knocked and went in. But I, frozen and paralyzed by my pathological shyness which had by then grown to full proportions, held my knuckles trembling over the door for maybe five full minutes before I was able to bring it demurely down. However soft it was, the teacher heard it, and called me in. I walked, trembling, sweating, and heart thumping, to her desk. This was our English class, and the professeur was a rather older lady named Mme Loche, with the strict, no-nonsense attitude of the elderly. She asked why I was late. I really had no idea, so I said, “the clock wasn’t working.” Which was my self-explanation for the extremely odd phenomenon that had just occurred. Mme Loche sniffed unbelievingly, “Nonsense! Can’t you call the Talking Clock? You had better come up with a better excuse!” and followed that with a strong remonstrance. I had then no idea of what the Talking Clock (horloge parlante) was. And in case you are wondering too, it is simply a number you can call by phone, and you get a recorded voice telling you the time by the minute.

Modern Internet version of the Talking Clock, l'horloge parlante

Modern Internet version of the Talking Clock, l’horloge parlante

So I shuffled, head down, to my seat, cheeks aflame and heart sobbing. I hated her very guts for making look like a liar and a lazy bum (paresseuse) when I had just lived through a harrowing experience.  Looking back, I assume it might have been the day the country set the clock an hour back for daylight saving, and Aunt Lily had probably missed it. Whatever the case, the lesson went on, and Mme Loche was in a very bad mood, because no one seemed to be getting the lesson at all. She kept trying to ask everyone questions and no one could come up with the correct answer. She was, I believe, trying to pioneer the idea that the French should start studying English using international phonetics, before switching to actual English spelling, so that their pronunciation would not be influenced by the similarities with French words. Phonetics was a blast for me. I don’t mean to brag or sound arrogant, but after all, I did come through the French, Arabic and English alphabets, as well as the Chinese ZhuYinFuHao phonetic system. So the international phonetic system was a piece of cake. But even if lightning was to strike me at the time, I would not have raised my hand to answer HER questions. Stumped and having no one left to vent her frustration on, she called on me, asking whether I knew what the answer was, and if I could do something other than being late. Very slowly and reluctantly, I stood up, and muttered the correct answer. Her eyes widened in surprise. She asked me more questions, again and again. I continued to mumble all the correct answers, in an equally resentful manner. She was saved by the proverbial bell, from expressing praise for the pupil she had just chastised stridently and unfairly.

International phonetic alphabet

International phonetic alphabet


Zhu yin fu hao, the phonetic alphabet invented after 1911 and in use in Taiwan for reading and pronouncing Mandarin Chinese

Zhu yin fu hao, the phonetic alphabet invented after 1911 and in use in Taiwan for reading and pronouncing Mandarin Chinese

As the year wore on, Mme Loche grew to prefer me over all other students and praise me openly in class. If I missed a third person singular “s” and lost 1/4 point in a test, she would joke with me and ask why I purposefully avoided a full mark. But the sting of that early rebuke never quite faded, and I was never able to relax and interact with her in a friendly manner.

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Eternal Sunshine and Muslim Food

Brindisi port

We reached Brindisi, a port on the eastern coast of the heel of Italy’s boot. We could not take the land route to Turkey because we would have had to drive through Eastern block countries. As a diplomat from the “free world”, we could not possibly go behind the iron curtain.

This was before the days of the Internet. So Papa figured that logically,  there should be passenger ships from Brindisi to Athens. Unfortunately, none were available at the time we got there. We stayed in a greyish hotel until Papa finally booked us on a cargo ship.

We drove the car onto the ship and sailed away. Mama stayed in the cabin most of the time because of sea sickness. We ate in a large dining room and were allowed to get our own food at the cafeteria line. Papa told us of Greece, the land of eternal sunshine, where gods and goddesses lived with heroes and beauties.  I could not wait to see this wonderful place. Finally, one morning, the ship pulled into Piraeus. I ran to the deck.

It was raining. Everything was grey.

Papa, where is the sun?

rainy Piraeus


Back in our good old faithful Cadillac, we hit the road again. Soon we were on the stretch of highway that led to Turkey. For hours we drove on in total isolation. Suddenly, we saw two American students with backpacks waving their thumbs at us on the side of the road. Papa never stopped for hitchhikers as a rule of thumb. But he and Mama talked it over. We had not seen a single car for the past two hours. These two poor students would have to walk all the way to Turkey! Papa made a U-turn.

They were indeed Americans. Not a difficult guess. In those day, only Americans walked around with backpacks, trying to hitchhike. A young man and a young woman, both very friendly. Papa and Mama really hit it off with them. It was chatter and laughter all the way to the border. We two fell quiet, since we could not understand a word of English.

At the border, I became very tired waiting in the car. Papa and the Americans were talking with the border guards forever. Finally, they all returned to the car. It turned out we had to pay for something. Was it a visa? a border fee? I would never know. Whatever it was, Papa did not have the money for it. He ended up borrowing from those two hitchhikers, and wrote down their address in the States, promising to send it to them as soon as we reached Ankara.

We parted ways at some point, probably as we entered Istanbul.  The next thing I remember is Papa driving slowly through the streets of Istanbul looking at the store signs, looking for food. Suddenly, he stepped on the brakes! “Chinese Islamic Restaurant!” Incredible but true! We were in the land of Muslims, and here was a Chinese Muslim Restaurant with the tell-tale characters: Pure and True (Qing Zhen).

Few people outside of China know that Islam is called the Religion of the Pure and True in Chinese. Mosques are called Pure and True temples, and our food is labeled Pure and True the way they are labeled Halal in the West.

In recent years, a friend named Randa Hamwi Duwaiji researched the Qur’an from an etymological point of view. When she first talked to me about it, I had a rather bland reaction. I am embarrassed to say that it is not something that really enthralls one. “Oh, wow, a linguistic interpretation! So very exciting! Can’t wait to read more!” No.

So, I replied with polite oh’s and ah’s to her explanations about what she had found. At one point, she asked me, “So tell me. What is the meaning of the word, Islam?” Good thing I had researched this one. “It means,”  I gave the stock reply quoted by most books on Islam, “Voluntary surrender to God in a peaceful manner”.

“No!” she cried happily. “No, it does not mean that at all. Not peace, not surrender, none of it.”

Huh? That started to get interesting. “So, what do you think it means, then?” Randa now had my ear. “It means Pure and True.”

It was a thunderbolt out of the blue. How many times had I asked my Je Sais Tout Papa why our religion was called Pure and True? and he had said, because it is pure and true.

“Where did you get this from? what makes you say so?” Randa sighed. “I told you. In this dictionary, or lexicon, dating back to 400 years after the time of the Prophet. It is the oldest Arabic dictionary today and therefore the meaning of the words are closest to their original meaning 1400 years ago.”

I was still shaking from the discovery. “Randa, where can I find this lexicon?” She looked at me. “Fawzia, I gave you a copy last time I came. Remember?” No, I did not remember, and the truth is, if she had given me a book in Arabic, it probably ended up on a shelf gathering dust. “It is found everywhere in every bookstore in the Arab world,” she continued. “You can buy it anywhere. But Arabs do not like to research. They do not read what is under their own nose. I am Arab and I know that for a fact.”

I had to explain to her why I was so struck. And till today I ponder upon the wonder of language in tracing history. Islam came very early to China. So the earliest translations were the most accurate. Later, as our religion flourished in various parts of the world, each isolated local version took on its own coloring and flavor, until today, when the miracle of universal communication occurred. And suddenly, we found that the Chinese version is quite pure and true to its roots, and ancient version of this universal religion that is now found everywhere in a more modern form all over the world.

Qing Zhen     chinese mosque

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Chins and Volcanoes

So at age 6, I learned the first important life lesson: Nothing in a child’s life is really immutable. Suddenly a test I was studying for wasn’t important any more. The teacher I feared was never to be seen again. But also, the friends I made now started their gradual fading into oblivion.

Yet, all paled in importance compared with our great adventure. We drove southward, and along the way, we read books. I remember reading The Last of the Mohicans, translated into French and simplified, with a number of garishly realistic illustrations. I would look up from the dangers befalling Alice and Cora Munro and glance at the French countryside, green shutters, red roofs, cows grazing.


South of France. Papa asked us, “What is the last city in southern France before entering Italy?” I racked my brains. Not Nice? So… Papa looked up and started scratching his chin. Saadia immediately shouted, “Menton! Menton!” meaning, “chin, chin!”  Papa smiled and patted her head. The clever one.

“Then,” asked Papa, “what is the first city we shall drive through after we enter Italy?”  I could not remember anything from what he had told us previously. I only had images of Hurons waving tomahawks in my head. I was desperate. Again, I was going to look stupid. Papa scratched his ear. “Oreille! Oreille!” I shouted. Meaning, “ear, ear!”  Papa broke out in laughter, “Fawzia, you are always falling in the pits!” Saadia joined in the laughter.

Once in Italy, Papa started telling us the story of Pompeii and how Mount Vesuvius erupted and buried the city and its inhabitants. He said some were caught by hot lava while running, others while eating and they all became statues petrified in their last position. We were eager to see this city of dead statues.


When we reached Pompeii, we only found locked gates. This was their day off. I was amazed. So dead cities also needed days off?

So we drove off to the volcano. We reached the foot of the mountain. Mama started nagging Papa about refueling. Papa insisted we had enough to go up and back down with no problem whatsoever.

Mount Vesuvius

Up the mountain, the view was beautiful. Unfortunately, all my fears of smoking craters and smoldering lava rocks came to naught. No heat, no lava, nothing. Just a nice quiet mountain. On the top, we parked in a spacious parking lot. Papa took lots of photos, perching his grey rectangular boxy camera with the two circles in front on a tripod. He climbed to the edge of the crater as far as we were allowed. Mama was getting impatient to leave, but Papa took more pictures. Finally, all tourists had left but one other car. We all climbed into the car, and Papa turned the ignition. Nothing but an insistent whine. Again and again.

“I told you so, I told you so…” nagged Mama. Papa insisted that there was enough petrol but because the car was parked on a slope, the liquid could not reach whatever piece of machinery was supposed to turn the car on.

The last tourist talked to Papa. He was going to give Papa a ride down the mountain to the nearest gas station. Then Papa would fill a gallon of gas and hike back. Off they went. We girls jumped and played in the back seat while Mama barked at us to keep all doors and windows locked.

The sun slowly descended down the slope and started disappearing behind the mountain. Suddenly, a knock on the rear windshield startled us. An old hunchback waved and shouted in Italian. Mama yelled, “Don’t pay him any attention! Don’t unlock the doors! Stay put! Be quiet!” We became frightened. We kept away from the windows. The hunchback went round the car and kept knocking at every window, and trying to say something in Italian. He gave up and left after a while. The sky turned dark. We sat quietly, now scared by Mama’s fear more than by the hunchback.

Finally, Papa arrived with a jerrycan. We shouted with joy. As Papa got busy pouring fuel into the tank, the hunchback reappeared. It turned out he was the caretaker and was simply trying to help.  Mama gave back to Papa his switchblade that she had been hiding in her tightly held fists.

We drove on.Mount Vesuvius


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Diplomatic Disaster

1964: France was the first country in the democratic world to break its diplomatic relations with the Republic of China, then seated in Taipei, Taiwan.

After the overthrow of the last of the imperial dynasties in 1911, Dr. Sun Yat-Sen, the architect of the Chinese Revolution, had established a new government named the Republic of China. As all new organizations do, the young nation then underwent a series of upheavals, thus turning into a ripe morsel for predatory countries such as Japan. The Sino-Japanese war started four years prior to its integration into World War II. However, an internal cancer had started growing during this time, a Chinese Communist Party, fed and sustained by its parent in Soviet Russia. No sooner had China won the war against Japan, than a civil war boiled over. The government had to retreat to its smallest province, Taiwan, an island and therefore more easily defended, leaving the mainland to the Communist Party, which adopted the name of People’s Republic of China.

The temporary retreat stretched into years. The Cold War was now in full swing. But France eyed the 350 million-strong market in China and declared that it had waited long enough for the re-conquest of the mainland. Thus, it offered Mainland China to recognize her as the rightful ruler of China and establish official diplomatic relations.

 Lucien Paye (left), the first French Ambassador to China, presents his credentials to Chinese President Liu Shaoqi (right) on May 31, 1964

Lucien Paye (left), the first French Ambassador to China, presents his credentials to Chinese President Liu Shaoqi (right) on May 31, 1964

The powers that be, up in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Taipei, learned about this diplomatic disaster early enough, but since this was an unprecedented event, did not quite know how to handle it.  All staff at the embassy were commanded to behave as if nothing was happening. The ostrich attitude is traditionally the default approach to oncoming catastrophe among the Chinese.

Until the day Paris made its official announcement and gave our diplomatic staff a one-month ultimatum to pack up and get out the door, everyone at the George V mansion and the old consulate carried on as usual.

The one-month period was a surprise. The sudden frenzy included not just packing official documents, and emptying the offices, but affected all families intimately as well. We had to pack our belongings, and sell what we could of the furniture as fast as possible. Mama lamented for the rest of her days the piano that she had to let go for pennies on the dollar, or rather centimes on the franc. Aunt Lily was then pregnant with her second child, with the due date approaching soon. Uncle Lung was able to obtain a permission to stay in Paris until Aunt Lily was done delivering and recovering from it.

All real estate owned by our government was to be handed over to the Communist government, gilded halls, chandeliers, carriage houses, broken statues, empty fountains, and paved courtyards…

The authorities back in Taipei scrambled to redistribute all staff among the various posts around the world. And that staff in Paris was very extensive. All of us were issued plane tickets to our various destinations. Furniture and belongings were shipped by container.

Papa told me later of one family that left by ship. The father strictly warned his children not to be careful and not speak to any Chinese, because they might be “Communist Bandits”. This was the name we used to call the Communists, “Gong Fei”. Now, you do not really expect little ten- and twelve-year-old boys to fearfully avoid talking to Asian faces.  No, getting to meet real live bandits was way too alluring. The first Chinese person they met on the ship, the boys ambushed as soon as they could, out of parental sight.  “Hi, are you a Communist Bandit?”

Papa received the order to move to Ankara, Turkey.  I was terrified. Turkey? Isn’t that where Lawrence of Arabia went? One of the scholarship university students had taken Saadia and me to the cinema to see Lawrence of Arabia, and the sandstorm that swallowed the little Arab boy had haunted my nightmares for days. The thought of going to that desert was horrendous. Of course, I didn’t know that I had been misinformed and that the movie had not been filmed in Turkey nor was the real desert crossing in Turkey. Papa seemed not too concerned about Turkish sandstorms. He was however furious about having to pack up  and go in just one month. So he sold our air tickets  and declared that we were to drive all the way to Turkey. At least that way, we would get to see the scenery.

lawrence of arabia

In preparation for weeks on the road, Mama cut off our long braids. I was really happy. No more ouchies every morning as Mama combed our hair. No more, “to be beautiful you must learn to suffer!”.  We went to a beauty salon and had our hair permed. Then, we stuffed our suitcases in the trunk of our good old grey Cadillac, passed by the hospital on the morning of March 2, 1964 to visit Aunt Lily and the newborn baby boy who was born in the night, and drove off onto our next adventure!


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Touring Europe

The best part of living in Paris, for my father, was the opportunity to travel all over Europe on his holidays. Every year, the three families, plus whoever wanted to tag along, packed up for the two weeks they had off from the embassy and drive off.

One year, it was Holland/the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg. The next, it was Germany, and the next, it was Italy and Switzerland. That year, I didn’t make it for I was ill, again. And Mama stayed behind to look after me.

Our last year in Paris, the annual trek was to Spain and Portugal.  It is interesting to compare my travel memories as a child to those of my children and to mine as an adult. We remember different things and in a different way.

map of portugal and spain

For children, the whole trip is rather a blur, with just a few episodes standing out for reasons that are important only to a child. I see a few weeks bathed in sunshine, and out of the mist appears a hotel. Not an upscale one, but very picturesque, Mediterranean architecture, old yellow-coral stones. The adults tell us they are going to a bullfight and we are too young to see it. We should all stay in the hotel.


Do we stay in the rooms? No. We were probably told to stay in the room, but that command is not there in my memories.  So all of us run up and down the hallways and staircases, and squat down and stick our faces on the railings and observe the goings and comings down in the rather small lobby. One uniformed doorman, obviously bored with his statue-duties, starts waving at us. We run away.  Then we sneak back, to the lilting melody of Melina Mercouri’s Never on Sunday.  We peek down again. The doorman waves at us again. He talks in Spanish. We only speak Chinese and French. The bravest of us, George, decides to go down and ask him what he wants.

We are terrified. George, come back! What are we going to tell your parents? But he approaches the doorman, who pulls out something that looks like a fountain pen out of his pocket. He gestures to us, “Watch!”  We are mesmerized. He pushes the pen into George’s left cheek, and pulls it out slowly from the right cheek.  Our eyes grow big and our jaws drop. Is he alright? George hops back to us. We ask him with concern, does he feel pain? why isn’t he bleeding? He laughs and shrugs. We are totally impressed.

Another hotel, a large bedroom. I am in pain, I cry. I cannot pass bowel movements and they hurt. Papa says it’s called constipation. Mama tries everything and finally uses the key of our hotel room to help dig my stuff out. Papa tells me, lo! the greatness of motherly love!

In Chinese, Portugal is called Grape Bud: Pu Tao Ya. I look everywhere for the grapes. Where are they?  Every morning, before setting out, Papa announces our final destination of the day. Whenever we arrive in a city, or to some famous landmark, he announces the name. We all have great fun! One day, he says, “Today evening, we shall reach Paris!”  I fall asleep on the way. Papa shakes me when we arrive. I wake up. What? This is home, not a new fun place! I fuss and cry. “No! No! I don’t want to go home! I want to go to Paris!”

My parents laugh instead of  scolding me. And the “I want to go to Paris” joke entered the encyclopedia of jokes about Fawzia.


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Movie stars and lantern dances

As a diplomat, Papa’s job did not confine him to his office at the embassy. A very important part of his work was to interact and network with French VIPs –and also not so VI persons–, as well as VIPs from our own country visiting the host country.

Children were not usually part of all this social activity, except for special cases. One day, Li LiHua came to France.  Li LiHua was a Chinese actress who was then at the height of her career and a great screen legend. Mama and Aunt Lily were ecstatic! In one of her photo albums, on a page of honor, Mama kept a large photo of the movie star sitting on a sofa in the embassy, holding Saadia and me, smiling her famous classy yet beguiling smile.

li li hua

I’m not sure whether she came for a film festival or we showed the movie because of her visit. Anyhow, we got to watch her movie Yang Gui Fei (The Magnificent Concubine) at a cinema. Yang Gui Fei was a Tang dynasty concubine famous for her sensual charms, and for leading a perfectly good emperor to neglect his job in his older age and finally lose the country to invading barbarians. As the emperor fled with the remnants of his army, the soldiers demanded Yang’s death or they would not move any further. Heartbroken, the emperor sent her yards of white silk. This meant, I bestow upon you a full corpse. Go and hang yourself. In the movie, she wandered with sad eyes in an immense darkened hall where long white silk panels hung, softly waving in the breeze. I tugged Mama’s sleeve, “What is she doing?” Mama shushed me. “Quiet, she is trying to hang herself.”  My first encounter with suicide. The scene haunted me for weeks.

li li hua as yang gui fei

Every year, the two highlights of the embassy’s festivities were the Double Ten National Day, and the Military Day. By the time we were old enough, Saadia and I were drafted into the performance teams. We would go regularly to the embassy for rehearsals. I would watch the older embassy children and the scholarship university students practice their moves. Ribbon dances, with interesting footwork for giving the impression of floating on air. Short plays to music, a fisherman settling the dispute between the oyster — or was it a clam?– and the stork.

We, the little children, got to do a lantern dance. All we had to do was hold a long rod upon which a lantern was attached, and just walk. We practiced walking in various formation and singing a song that Teacher Huang had written. It went as follows: “Qing zhu shuang shi jie, celebrate the Double Tenth Festival; da jia lai ti deng, everyone come carry the lanterns; deng guang hao ming liang, the lanterns light is so bright; zhong hua min guo wan wan shui.” Papa translated and explained it to us. Upon reaching the final verse, he asked us, “What does it mean, wan wan shui?”

Now, when you sing, you cannot tell which tone the word is pronounced with. I though it over, and answered, “I know! wan wan means play play. Shui means sleep. So, play a bit and go to sleep!” Papa nearly fell over laughing. Hahaha! No, it means Long Live the Republic of China!

Then we were given envelopes with invitations that we were to hand to our teachers. I was way too shy to do that, so I think my parents must have handed it to my teacher. But Saadia did give hers to her teacher, a Mme Dabo, who did come to the Salle Pleyel to watch our show.

li li hua as yang gui fei

An adult came to light our lanterns, and we all held on to those paper lanterns that suddenly came alive with flickering lights. The music struck and we were told to start walking. No sooner had I started marching than my candle blew out. I turned around and called, “My candle, my candle…!!!!” but our trainer shushed me with an index on her lips, “Just go, just go!” So I walked onto the stage with the only lantern that was dark. I was miserable.

Afterwards, we had to descend from the stage and walk through the audience. Mme Dabo came out of her seat to pat Saadia on the head. However, since we wore identical costumes and all had heavy make-up on, she patted another little girl instead. All Chinese look alike, after all.



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Books and Bandes Dessinees

Papa also loved books. He made sure to pass on this love to us. Apart from Uncle Lung’s fantastic books, we had a number of books from la Bibliotheque Rose (Pink Library), a series of books for young readers. The next series up was the Bibliotheque Verte (Green Library), and we already read a few of those by 1964.

The Pink Library included many books by an author named la Comtesse de Segur, a Russian noble lady married to a French count. Among her books, a large number depicted the life of two little girls named the Model Girls, Camille and Madeleine. They were aristocrats that lived in a chateau, and went on charity outings. I deplored ever being good enough to match those two. But I loved their cousin Sophie, who often got into trouble.

Years later, my French teacher said that the books by the Comtesse de Segur were not considered good writing because the conversations were written like a play, while the rest was written like a novel. That obviously did not matter at all to us.

Comics are called Bandes Dessinees (Drawn Strips) in French. The most expensive ones were the Tintin books. Very large and in hard cover, Papa would occasionally buy one for us, and we devoured it over and over again, taking care not to mess it up. He enjoyed those Tintin adventures as much as we did, or maybe more.  When I found them in English in Saudi Arabia many years later, when Papa was in his late sixties or early seventies, I bought him a few, soft cover by then, and he smuggled them back to Taiwan in his checked luggage. He refused to carry them by hand for fear he could not resist the urge of reading them in the plane and look childish. He definitely lived out the motto then printed on the Tintin book covers: for readers aged 7 to 77.tintin en amerique

Comics also came as magazines, and we loved Spirou, with its strange animal that hopped on its coiled tail, the marsupilami. Becassine was another one of my favorites. She was a maid who was daft and a klutz, so much like me! When told to whip the cream, she got a real whip and actually whipped the cream with it, which got it all over the kitchen!


We did not own a television though they were already invented because it was a luxury very few could afford then.  So reading was our favorite pastime.

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Je Sais Tout

Papa nicknamed himself Je Sais Tout (I Know All). I remember some kind of encyclopedia entitled Je Sais Tout lying about the house, and a simple Google search shows that it was actually an encyclopedic magazine.

je sais tout

Papa knew everything indeed. We could ask him anything and he would have an answer. Sometimes, he would not answer, and we would think he did not hear us. He would then get up and leave the room. A little later, he would come back and say, “What was that you were asking?” then give us the answer. We would marvel, “Oh, Papa? How come you know that?” And he would say, “Because I am Je Sais Tout. To be a father, you have to know it all.”  That really awed me. How I wished I could be a father!

At other times, he would play with us. In the huge kitchen on the ground floor, he would go on all fours and let us ride his back like a horse. My mother would smile indulgently while cooking dinner.

When Saadia turned five, my parents somehow decided it was time for her to skip the third year of maternelle and go to Onzieme (Eleventh = First Grade) ahead of me. Papa would help Saadia every evening with her school lessons. I would be terribly jealous, because she would be sitting on Papa’s lap, and they would read books together and joke and laugh together. I would try to join them, but Saadia would say, no, you don’t know how to read yet. And Papa would laugh, and they would go on. I would go to the corner and start crying. Papa would then say to Saadia, “Look! a water tap!” and she would join him, “a water tap!”  And Papa would say, “you can turn it on and off at will. Look, let’s turn it wider!” and wipe his arm at me magically. I would feel very hurt and sob harder.  Saadia would laugh, “oh, it works! More! More!”

Well, maybe this happened only once. But to a little child’s mind, it seems to repeat itself again and again until it takes on the proportions of a daily torture. Soon, I was convinced I must be an adopted child since Papa loved Saadia so much more than me.

Being a year younger in toddlerhood means a great deal. I was always less agile in my movements, less clever in school work, less cute and doll-like, less good at posing for photos, and pretty much second-rate in everything. It wasn’t just Papa who thought Saadia was better, even family friends and guests seemed to think so. They took great pleasure in calling me into the salon while ladies were having tea and cakes, and asked me inane questions such as, “Who is more beautiful?”

“Da Jieh (Eldest Sister),” I would answer pathetically.

“Who is more clever?”

“Da Jieh.” Mournfully.

“Who is better at school work?”

“Da Jieh.” And break down into sobs.

Papa would instruct us in the Chinese social traditions. I could not call Saadia by her name but must call her Eldest Sister. She, on the other hand, could call me by my name. Similarly, all ladies were Aunties and all men were Uncles. Our jobs, when guests came to the house, was to shake hands and greet them by their titles, then go to the kitchen and help serve tea and other refreshments. Then we were to retire to our rooms, not to be heard or seen again until the guests were to take their leave. We were then to shake their hands and say goodbye at the door.

Sometimes, Papa would bring some treat home, fruit or pastries. He would lay them out and call us. He would repeat his instructions, “The duty of the elder sister is to love and protect the younger one. The duty of the younger sister is to love and respect the older one. OK, who wants to pick a pear first?” Saadia would immediately say, “Let Faw pick first!” Upon which, Papa would praise her for being so selfless. Then he would turn to me. So, I would dutifully say, “Let Da Jieh pick first!” while dying inside.  Papa would smile with satisfaction at our great show of sisterly love, and tell Saadia to take her pick. She, of course, would pick precisely the one I wanted. Isn’t that the way things always turn out?

As we started to read more and more fluently, I started to love books more than any other gift. In school, we routinely got a book as prize every month for being the first in class. When that happened, Uncle Lung, the great family scholar, would get us from the bookstore a beautiful book each. It would always be a huge hard cover book of fairy tales, and on almost every other page, there would be amazingly beautiful illustrations. I particularly remember the Tales of Andersen, with whimsical, detailed, pastel and grey drawings. I would spend hours just staring at every single curl and flower around the  children lost in the forest, the wonderfully beautiful rags of the little matchstick girl, or the white tresses of the mother trying to shield her baby from Death.

The other book that etched itself deeply into my memory is the one about Chinese fairy tales. The drawings were much more colorful but just as wonderful. The stories were strange and very un-European. Turtle princes and boat dancers that fell into the water, all were depicted in much detail. Looking back, I see how inaccurate the drawings were, with every single male character sporting the Manchu queue (1644-1911) and every girl looking at me with very attractive long slanted eyes.

Papa said that those eyes were rare and called Feng Yan (Phoenix eyes). As I grew older and thinner, it became apparent that I also had phoenix eyes, but at the time, no one had noticed them yet.


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Jack Spratt Could Eat No Fat

Many years later, in medical school, I learned about haematuria. It means blood in urine. It could be so little blood that it is invisible to the naked eye and only detectable by microscope or chemical testing. Or it could be more, enough to tinge it, or it could be so copious that the whole urine changes color. As I sat in the lecture amphitheater, I suddenly remembered. I had haematuria as a child!

I was probably five by then. I woke up in the middle of the night to faire pipi (make pee). We used to keep a white ceramic chamber pot under the bed precisely for such needs. The product would be kept indoors until morning when you could go and empty it in the bathroom on the second floor.

chamber pot

Half asleep, I pulled it out from under the bed, did my business, stood up again, turned around, and as I was getting ready to push it back, I was shocked to see it completely red. Actually, pinkish red. I wailed, “Ma….ma!”

The details are blurred in my memory. Mama totally hysterical, Dr. Huang coming for a home visit, me getting time off school for two weeks, high fever, dozing in and out of sleep, Mama fussing over me.

Whenever I had high fever, I would get very strange experiences. I would be totally lucid, but my sensations would change, or maybe my brain’s interpretation of my sensations would change.  I would put my fingers on the wall, and the wall felt as if it was slippery, like I was falling down somewhere and grasping the wall as I fell. Or I would pick up a grain of rice, and feel like my fingers were gigantic and the rice tiny though at the same time the rice felt like a huge bale and my fingers felt like tiny things trying to grab it.  Retrospectively, I wonder whether I had encephalitis or meningitis (inflammation of the brain or membranes around the brain)? or just neuritis (inflammation of the nerves)?

Finally, I recovered. I had lost a lot of weight, and from Humpty Dumpty I had become Jack Spratt. Indeed, I could not eat fat anymore. According to my mother, before my illness, I used to love putting a slab of butter on each half of my bread, slap them together and eat the whole thing with delight. Now, the mere smell of butter gave me nausea. I could not drink milk anymore either. I would get diarrhea. Any fatty food, especially with a fatty stink, now caused me to vomit. For example, I used to love eating chicken tails with were called chicken butts at our home. Chickens were always sold whole then, not in trays of separate body parts. So, whenever chicken was served, I used to zoom in on the butt and pick it out before anyone else got to it. Now, I could not stand it.


Fortunately, we discovered an American invention: peanut butter!  Papa bought a can one day and Mama put some on our bread. We tried it. Oh, lovely, wonderful, we loved it! For me, it was heavenly, because it gave me no nausea, vomiting or diarrhea. “Papa, what is it? What do you call it?”  The brand was Dakatine. So, we thought it was called Dakatine and for the longest time we would say to Mama to put some Dakatine on our bread. But that morning, the first day we tasted it, Papa answered, “It’s called caca paste!” It indeed looked like some healthy smooth product of a bowel movement. And since the French word for peanut is unfortunately cacahuete, it sounded truthful. And so we believed him. And so we chimed in unison, “We love caca paste!”

boxy radio

And it was one morning as we sat at the breakfast table, as Mama was spreading caca paste on our breads, and as the big boxy radio was airing the news, that I saw for the first time our unflappable Papa jump and yell, “What! No! Kennedy was shot!”  And we stopped eating our peanut butter breads and hung our jaws, and asked, “Who is Kennedy?”



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Humpty Dumpty Had a Great Fall

I seemed to be in excellent health for the first few years of my life. I received all necessary vaccinations at the Institut Pasteur, though for some reason, the BCG on my thigh that left two round eternal scars was administered at the maternelle. I did hate shots and cried, again. Papa promised me that if I would submit myself quietly to the needles, he would take us to eat eclairs afterwards. Now this was Paris, the capital of French patisserie, and the little mom-and-pop pastry stores offered heavenly eclairs, brioches, madeleines, and napoleons, not to mention simple croissants, baguettes, viennoises, and so on. Today, we pick up trays of so-called croissants in our local branch of national American chain grocery stores and really, those cardboard imitations are not worthy of the title of croissant! Real French croissants are light, fluffly, moist inside and crunchy and crusty in a fragile way outside with a slightly sweet glaze.

But I diverge…

Saadia on the other hand, not only did not cry when getting her shots, she would actually STARE at the needle and study how the vaccins were injected! So it was as early as then, that Papa and Mama got it into their heads that she would grow up to be a doctor. And I, the big fat cry baby, would try to muffle my sobs and terror, and look away, and concentrate on those lovely eclairs, with the chocolate glaze and smooth unctuous vanilla cream inside. My love of sweets, pastries, candies and especially ice cream was legendary. When Papa asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I confidently replied, “I want to open my own ice cream store, so I can eat as much ice cream as I want every day!”


But I diverge again…

We apparently went through the regular childhood diseases such as chicken pox. I remember this clearly because we actually were allowed to stay home for over a week, even though we did not feel ill at all! My parents instilled in us early on the ethics of punctuality and perfect attendance. We never got to stay home unless we were so sick we could not walk. The two of us danced on my parents’ bed with the pink dots all over our bodies.

At night, my parents often had to attend diplomatic functions, so they left us home on our own. Baby-sitters? They were unheard of. One day, we played with an empty cardboard box. One would sit in it and the other would push it. Then the play got a bit out of hand and the box tipped, the rider fell on her nose ( I do not remember which of us this was), and had a copious nosebleed. We both cried and fell asleep on the floor. It was in this position that our parents found us upon their return, unconscious on the floor with a pool of blood near the head… It scared them out of their wits till they woke us up and figured out what had happened.

Another accident left its mark on my forehead. The ancient staircase in the consulate — for the mansion we stayed in used to be the old Chinese consulate, now turned into lodgings for embassy staff — boasted a banister that was made of some beautiful solid wood. This handrail, over the centuries, had been polished by thousands of hands and acquired a smooth polished patina that rivaled any varnish. We loved grabbing the rail with both hands and jump off the last three steps of any story on our way down.

So, one day, we decided to play staircase jumping. We started off at two steps, then three steps, then four steps, and wow, even five steps.  Then, I said to Saadia, “Watch me, I’m going to jump off the entire flight!” Yes, little ignorant brat that I was, I thought I could do this! This was the third floor, and this flight was the top half-story flight from our apartment door to the landing half-way to the second floor. I would say there were at least twenty steps. Right against the wall of the landing was a radiator. Radiators are also fading today into the realm of the dinosaurs, so for my clueless descendants, let me explain that a radiator is an interesting piece of furniture that provides heat to the room. It is made of metal and has long thin segments that stack like leaves vertically, allowing the hot water to circulate in them.radiator

I then climbed up to the top of the stairs, and excitedly grabbed the handrail in happy expectation. I jumped off. Indeed, the wind and speed were exhilarating! But, as I slid downward, my speed increased! This was unexpected and frightening. How do I slow down? How do I stop? How do I get off?  Too late! My hands flew off the end of the banister and I crashed head first onto the iron radiator.

I’m not sure what reaction Saadia had, and whether she howled for Mama. By the time I woke up, I was in my bed, with Mama’s worried face bending over me. That scar on my forehead is now barely distinguishable, but I learned a valuable lesson that day: Look before you jump!

This episode, however, was not the worst health scare I had!



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