Life of a Rooster

Memoirs of a psychiatrist, journalist and educator

Chateaux and Picnics

The addition of Aunt Lily and Uncle Lung to our family brought even more fun and activities into our lives. We went on weekends and holidays to picnics all over the one-day-radius driving range from Paris. Mama and Aunt Lily often cooked together or sewed together.Saadia and me, chateau 001

Photos in Mama’s albums show the three families in various locations: the chateaux of the Loire Valley, forests, green grassy areas, dramatic 18th century architecture, and the one place that etched itself in my childhood memories, the Sea of Sand.

I say “three families”, for there was another family from the embassy that was just like they were part of ours, the Wu family. They had three children. The older two were boys, Franklin and George,  and rarely played with us. I believe Franklin was already in middle school at the time. The youngest child was a girl by the name of Amy.  Though I was never told, I believe the Wu’s must have been stationed in the US prior to France. You can always tell by the children’s names where they were born. I mean, the parents got Roosevelt and Washington covered, didn’t they? I’m not sure who Amy was named after, though.

Amy was only a year older than Saadia, but in our pictures, I look the oldest –understand fattest and biggest;  Saadia looked smaller, and Amy was the thinnest and shortest.

The inseparable trio, me, Saadia, Amy 001

Ah, the Sea of Sand. Truthfully, I do not really remember what it was like, except for beautiful white sand under my feet and a castle, which in my memory was like Cinderella’s castle in Disneyland. A Google search however, only shows this half-baked castle…

la mer de sableWikipedia tells me that it first opened in 1963, which must have made big news and which must have spurred our expedition there. There were, apart from our families, a number of bachelors, probably university students. I remember us walking out of the amusement park, extremely tired, and finding out that our good old second-hand Cadillac refused to turn itself on. Eventually, the other families left, and Uncle Lung drove Mama and Aunt Lily home with the babies. Papa and a couple of bachelors stayed with Saadia and me. The plan was for Uncle Lung to take the women home, then come back for the rest. The men thought it clever to start walking on the highway and thus reduce the distance.

Soon, the two of us started tugging at Papa’s sleeve and complaining of being tired. So we ended up riding on the shoulders of the men in turn, nodding away with sleepiness.  The sun went down and now we were walking in the darkness. Then, totally uncaring of the burden we were giving Papa, we started complaining of being hungry and thirsty as well.  At one point, we saw a light! Saved! A house!  We walked through what seemed to be a field to that house and knocked on the door. A friendly French woman opened the door and once she was apprised of the situation, and though Papa only begged for some water for us, she welcomed us into her home and helped call the police. I must have dozed off then because the next thing I knew, we were sitting in the police station.

Ah, how did we ever survive without cell phones? Uncle Lung by then had returned to the Sea of Sand and could not find us. He panicked and started driving up and down the highway but of course, we were busy drinking chocolate milk in the police station. Papa called home, but Mama and Aunt Lily could only tell him that Uncle Lung had left. No way to contact him…!

Somehow, despite the lack of cell phones, we eventually reunited. I do not know how. Maybe the police sent a car out looking for Uncle Lung. We managed to reach home before dawn. Absolutely exhausted.

 

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Aunt Lily

There was then in Paris a young man by the name of Chang, Lung. He had just completed his PhD through all kinds of trials and tribulations.

China had been increasingly sending more and more students out to various Western countries on scholarships since the early 1900’s. Lung was one of these. He had been awarded a scholarship to Switzerland and had been doing quite well when suddenly, in 1949, the Nationalist government lost the war and had to retreat to Taiwan. All government funds evaporated and all scholarship students were left stranded in foreign countries.

Lung decided to continue with his studies one way or another. He scrimped and saved and did odd jobs. He scavenged trash cans for newspapers and magazines and resold them at street markets. Eventually, over ten years later, he earned his Bachelor’s, Master’s and Doctorate degrees. He now spoke and wrote fluently in French, English and German, as well as in his native Mandarin Chinese. He came to the Chinese embassy in Paris, in search of a job.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs normally holds Higher Exams, through which it selects its employees. But this was a different case. Lung had already proven his prowess in foreign languages and had sparkling qualifications. He was directly hired, without having to take the exam. Everyone at the embassy welcomed him warmly. “Now,” said well-meaning colleagues, “we need a Shuang Xi Lin Men (double happiness alights at the door)!”  or, good news come in two. Meaning, why don’t you get married. Immediately, all the ladies turned into matchmakers and looked for suitable candidates.  Mrs. Kung asked my mother, “Don’t you have three sisters?” Indeed, Mama was the eldest of eight, three younger sisters followed by four brothers. Aunt Lily was only a year younger than her. However, whereas Mama left school after Junior High to help contribute to the family finances, Aunt Lily was more ambitious. She took the national exams for high school entrance and managed to enter the Taichung First Girls School, the best girls high school in that city. Upon graduation, she tried the national university entrance exams, but failed. Given her brains and hard work, I wonder that she did not get into any college at all. In those days, there wasn’t really any gender equity, and I wouldn’t be surprised if there wasn’t some quota for female applicants.

Aunt Lily was quite pretty, and dressed well. After Mama showed him some pictures and bragged about her sister, Lung started writing to her.  Aunt Lily asked Mama how old Lung was. Mama said, “oh, round about Teh Lin’s age…” Papa was ten years older than Mama, yet they got along fine. So Aunt Lily finally agreed to accept the one-way ticket and flew to Paris. Once here, she found he was actually 18 years older than herself, but hey, too late. Plane tickets cost a lot back then. Still, he was a great catch, and the wedding took place in the embassy.

Saadia and I were the flower girls and the twins Antonio and Roberto were the flower boys. We carried  bouquets and held her train, and walked with her while the embassy ladies showered us with confetti –actually colored paper that the adults punched out with hole punchers.

Aunt Lily had an interesting make-up that day. Well, the excuse is that those years were the golden age of Hollywood, and the screen idols of the day were Elizabeth Taylor and Sophia Loren, Brigitte Bardot and Claudia Cardinale. So Mrs. Kung painted tons of brown foundation topped with thick and long black eyebrows, with rather skin toned lips. Aunt Lily did not like the result but there wasn’t time nor resources for a new make up, so her forced smile made its way to posterity in a Sophia Loren look.

Thus it was that in 1961, my little brother Abdul Karim was born in July, and my little cousin Therese in September.

Back row from left: Aunt Lily, unnamed, unnamed, Mama, Mrs. Kung, unnamed, Mrs. Wu. Front row from left: Saadia, me, one of the twins, my baby brother, the other twin, Amy Wu, Franklin Wu, George Wu.

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Music and Dance

 

Conservatoire de Paris

Conservatoire de Paris

 

My parents knew that Paris was the capital of the arts. So they made sure we would learn piano and dance.

My mother took me to a ballet teacher. I only went once but still remember the sweet smell of the powder used for the pointe shoes.  My sister Saadia had taken ballet for a while then, and I saw her prettily crossing her two hands over her upper chest, fingers lightly touching the shoulders, in a pink tutu and tights. But when my mother tried to take me to the dance floor, I hung on for dear life! This was another tug-of-war, just like those that took place every morning at the maternelle. So, just like that, I avoided ballet lessons.

Later in life, my sister was found to have flat feet, and my mother blamed the ballet classes and pointe shoes. Well, I don’t want to defend anyone, but surely, there are plenty of dancers out there without flat feet, so …

They found soon enough through word of mouth a Chinese piano teacher by the name of M. Huang.

To this day, I remember my first piano book. All the notes had colors. Do was black, Re was yellow, Mi was red, Fa was orange (nifty way to show the half-tone), Sol was green, La was brown and Si (not Ti) was violet. We did not use C, D, E, F G, A, B, but the solfege instead. We had to sing the notes we played.

I don’t know whether this was Teacher Huang’s own method or some well-known French method. But I am a living proof of the success of that method. Very quickly, I was able to read notes and play the piano, and sing along as well. This method enabled me to also pick out on the piano immediately any tune I could sing. Indeed, we took this skill for granted. So much so that later, in other countries, I was very surprised to find that not everyone could do that.

Then, one day, Teacher Huang entered us in the first level piano exam of the Conservatoire de Musique. Or was it some kind of audition? We went to a concert hall filled with parents and students. The  judges occupied a few seats in the first row. The hall was dark and the only lighting was on the stage with its piano, just like a real concert. When my turn came, Teacher Huang accompanied me on stage, sat next to me, and turned my pages when needed.

I remember having to play three pieces. And I clearly remember making exactly three mistakes. I was shattered. I made mistakes! That was it. We then went home. I never was told the results of the tests, and never would have known if I hadn’t been a nosy little thing. Years later, in Taipei, at the age of 13, I was browsing through my dry father (godfather)’s shelves, when I suddenly found two French-looking notebooks.

My mother had been shipping back to my dry father all superfluous baggage every time we moved to a different country. So my dry father’s apartment was a treasure trove of old mementos. I opened the first notebook and found comments from the piano judges back in the Paris Music Conservatory. This one was my sister’s performance. They all said how well she played, and what a good performer she was. Ah, well, the story of my life, I thought, Saadia is always good at everything!

Then I opened the next notebook: It was my performance comments. I read, “What a genius this child is! What amazing expression!”  and similar comments for a few lines. I was stunned. I could not believe it. Here were experts in the field telling my parents that I was a piano prodigy at the age of five or six, and my parents smiled and shelved it! And never told me!

Asian parents. Scientific fields are the only jobs worthy of a career.

 

 

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The School Yard

Intersection of the Avenue de la Grande Armee and the Rue Pergolese. My father walked me through here daily on my way to school. There was a pharmacy on the corner, which I insisted on reading as “parmacie”. Papa laughed at me, but gave in when I broke down in tears.

 

The Girls School and the Boys School were totally separated. I never gave a second thought to the Boys School, somehow vaguely imagining that it was just the same as ours. The one time I got to see it from inside, I was terrified.

We were slated to watch a movie entitled Till Eulenspiegel. I still remember the name because I spent so much effort trying to spell it correctly! The movie was to be shown in the Boys School. We lined up, two by two, and were led through the communicating door into the neighboring Boys Yard. Oh, my, goodness. What a ruckus! Boys were dashing and running all over the place, and some were astride the backs of others, playing horsemen at war, with spears and shields! Now, the yard had a cement floor with tiny stones embedded in it, meaning, if you fell, you scraped your knees. Other boys played a jumping game whereby one had his hands on his knees and his back bent, while the others would run toward him, and jump over him by putting two hands on his back, opening the legs wide, and hopping over, much like we do with a vault horse.

Girls never played such games. What we did was singing and dancing, and hopscotch and jump rope. There were a number of children’s rhymes that I learned pretty quickly. Each one required a different number of players. For example, the one entitled The Little King of England required six players. So the two or three who wanted to start a game would put their arms over each other’s shoulders and walk side by side all over the yard, chanting, “who wants to play The Li’l King of England…” (sol, sol sol mi la sol) and whoever wanted to would put her arm over one of them and join the group marching and chanting until they got the six players.

The game itself was part singing, part dancing and part acting. For the first stanza, the girls lined up in two lines of three, facing each other, arms linked criss-cross style. We then stepped back and forth to the tune: “Behind the white lilacs, there was a fountain, digue dong, captain dong, etc..” Then the story went on about the little King of England — notice that in French children’s rhymes, the King of England is always little. At some point, the king now holds a sword. The queen then would stand with her two fists on her hips, with behind her, the remaining four students squatting down, two on each side, with their hands held by the wrist in an overlock pattern. The king would stand facing the queen. The song would go on, “With the first thrust of the sword, the sword went through…” so the girl acting as king would pretend to thrust her sword through the hole formed by the left arm.

“With the second thrust of the sword, the queen fell sitting…” Accordingly, the queen would carefully sit herself on the platform made of eight wrists and forearms. Then, “with the third thrust of the sword, the queen fell dead…” and the queen would carefully lie back onto the platform, her legs hanging down. The four porters would then stand up and carry away the queen, who now crossed her hands over her chest.

The song goes on, “It wasn’t a queen, it was a match (as in matchstick); it wasn’t a king, it was a camembert (French cheese)…”

I often wonder about French children’s rhymes and folk songs. They have usually a lovely tune, and an unending number of stanzas. The story starts well enough but often moves into the realm of the absurd or downright weird. This one, despite the cheese killing the matchstick,  is inoffensive enough. But what about the story of the little ship: “There was a little ship, that had ne-ne-never sailed, ahoy, ahoy!” Then this ship embarks on a long journey. “After five to six weeks, the supplies ra-ra-ran out. Ahoy, ahoy!  They drew straws to decide who-who-who should be eaten, ahoy, ahoy!” And just when you felt this was really gross, the song ends, “If this tale amuses you, we are going to tel-tel-tell it again!” Really.

The only relatives of French children’s danced/acted rhymes I have seen in other countries are “The Farmer in the Dell” — Le Fermier Dans Son Pre —  and kindergarten song-and-movement plays such as “The Wheels on the Bus”, all of which are really cute and lovely.

 

 

Ce n’était pas un roi
C’était un camembert…
Et nous l’enterrerons
Dans le jardin d’son père…
Et nous lui planterons
Trois sacs de pomme de terre…
Et nous l’arroserons
Avec de l’eau d’Javel…
Et nous lui planterons
Le drapeau de la France

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Cicadas, Ants and Chickens

 

Grade One  in France in 1960 was very different from today’s Grade One in the US. Arrival in the morning was to the yard, except on rainy days, when it was in the gym. We’d line up just before 8:00am class by class, two by two –just like Madeline– and then were led by our homeroom teacher to class. There would be one break in the morning, when we’d repeat the line up and two by two marching to the yard and back. Lunch break could be either spent in school or at home.

porte-plume et encre

We always had a daily hour of penmanship. Each desk had on the top right-hand corner a hole with a glass well hanging in it. The girl on duty would bring the huge ink bottle and refill all our ink wells. We then used our porte-plume (nib holder) and plume (nib) to write our daily penmanship exercise, using our buvard (blotting paper) under the left hand to dry the letters and words as they were traced.

It may sound extreme by today’s standards, to spend a whole period on handwriting. But the difference in children’s handwriting is absolutely striking. My father gave us each a leather bound cahier de souvenirs (autograph book), that I kept till today. On the first page is my maternelle directress (principal)’s one-page message. Then the next entries are my first and second grade classmates from the French Embassy school in Turkey. Below are copies of their messages. I have yet to see a single American first or second grader write with such beautiful calligraphy (except from among my students, of course).

handwriting of a classmate in the beginning of Grade 2, French Embassy School, Ankara, Turkey

handwriting of a classmate in the beginning of Grade 2, French Embassy School, Ankara, Turkey

 

Another class activity that sticks to my mind is the poetry recitation. We were assigned a poem to memorize and would have to recite it in front of the whole class. I was pretty good at it and always got a 10 out of 10. But one day, the teacher looked at me almost angrily after I proudly poured out my poem, “Next time, if you do it that fast, I will have to take points off!”  As a teacher today, I wonder whether she didn’t like me. If you do not tell the students what your expectations are, you have no right to penalize them. I do not remember her ever telling us about inflection of voice, pausing for effect, projecting our voice or anything else about delivery. Still, memorizing great literature was a method of education honored in more cultures than just the French one. Chinese parents and teachers used to make little children memorize much longer texts, such as the Three-Character-Classic.

I can still recite from memory a number of fables by Jean de la Fontaine. I sometimes, just for the fun of seeing people’s expression, would start declaiming, “La cigale, ayant chante tout l’ete, se trouva fort depourvue, quand la bise fut venue…” etc  They start oh-ing and ah-ing about wow, how do you still remember this… but as the poem drags on and on, they start looking bored, since they don’t understand a word of it, and finally start chatting among themselves, as I keep on till the end. All 109 words. With full expression.

Another favorite class was the “Morals” class on Saturday morning. School days were Monday through Wednesdays; then Thursday was off; then Friday full day and Saturday half-day.

The teacher would pull out of her drawer a big book and pick a story. Then she’d read out the story to us. I don’t remember doing any discussion afterwards, but the teacher did explain the moral a bit if it wasn’t clear. One story sticks in my mind forever because it horrified me.

A village woman went around spreading gossip (forgot the details of the gossip) about another woman until one day she found out she had been wrong all along and the story wasn’t true. Mortified, she went to the village priest and asked what she should do in order to redeem herself. The priest said, “go find a chicken and slaughter it . Then take it with you to the seaside, and pluck off all the feathers while walking along the shore. Once you have done this, come back to me.”  Overjoyed, the gossip-monger ran off to do just that. The next day, she came back, “Father, I have plucked the entire chicken. Not a feather left on it. What now?” The priest said, “Now, you go back to the seashore and pick up every single feather, put them in a bag and come back again.”  The poor woman was dumbfounded, “But, Father, how can I possibly bring back every single feather? There is a lot of wind by the shore! They have by now flown to all over the countryside and the sea! That’s just impossible!”  The wise priest answered, “Indeed, and so have your words. Every single word you uttered to various people have by now been spread to the whole village and beyond. There is no way you can take them all back. The damage has been done. There is no way to repair the damage.”

I went home thinking hard on what words I might have said that could have turned out to be untrue. What damage any word I said could have caused… I was maybe five years old, but the lesson stayed on till today.

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Francoise

Eventually, the novelty wore off, and other students did accept us into their world. My report cards had great comments from the teachers and very good grades, so my parents were happy.

I became good friends with a girl named Francoise. She even invited me one day for “gouter”. That is a meal similar to the English high tea, that is taken around 4 or 4:30pm and consists of bread or pastries accompanied by a hot drink. I was so elated I skipped all the way to her apartment on the Place St Ferdinand, a stone throw from the school.  Her mother served us hot chocolate and crepes. French hot chocolate is made from real chocolate, not powdered chocolate. It is smooth and rich and unctuous, a child’s ambrosia. The crepes were already stacked high on a plate which Francoise’s mother took out of the oven where they were kept warm. We sprinkled powdered sugar on them, and she showed me how to roll them and eat them. I loved Francoise and her mother!

hot chocolate

hot chocolate

a stack of crepes

a stack of crepes

 

Being Chinese, that was my first introduction to hot chocolate and crepes. I’d never seen, smelled or tasted them, let alone made them. So I was very happy when, in early February, which is crepe season in France, the maitresse wrote a crepe recipe on the blackboard and made us copy it. Then she explained it. I was flabbergasted. What do you mean, pour some into a pan? I raised my finger (in France you raise only the index finger, not the whole hand). “Yes, Fawzia?”

“Madame, Francoise’s mother does not make them in a pan. She makes them in an oven.”

The entire classroom shook and rocked with laughter, which rolled on and on. The teacher was not amused. “Fawzia, just sit down!”

I turned to look at Francoise for some support, but her face had a strange embarrassed expression on it. She bent her head to avoid my gaze. My heart sank. Oh, no. My best friend, who had invited me to gouter! And now I had ridiculed her mother in front of the whole class! I could have sobbed out loud! But I swallowed all and sat down.

Obviously, to the adult me now, Francoise was only embarrassed on my behalf. But I didn’t know then. We never discussed the episode. And now, I think that this crepes-made-in-an-oven episode might have been the very last time that I voluntarily raised my finger in class. I cannot recall a single time other than this one, in the next ten years, of me raising my finger or hand in class voluntarily.

When the teacher asked a question, I would try to disappear from her sight, lowering my head and my gaze to avoid being called upon. Eventually, if no one knew the answer, she would call me, saying, “OK, Fawzia, you know the answer, what is it?” I would then drag myself out of my seat, stand up, and find myself shaking, try to speak and stutter instead. I would sweat profusely, and my heart would beat so hard my entire chest would resonate and shake. My answer would always be correct, but that did not help the severe stress anxiety that had now settled itself in me.

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Starting First Grade

Only part of the Rue St Ferdinand on Google Earth that still looks like it did in 1960, minus the tall buildings in the back.

Only part of the Rue St Ferdinand on Google Earth that still looks like it did in 1960, minus the tall buildings in the back.

Since I had started Maternelle at two, by the time I turned five, I graduated to First Grade — Onzieme (=eleventh level; the French system starts the other way round). The teacher did not want me in her class, but I did not know this yet.

The “big” school was the Ecole St Ferdinand, and was segregated. That is, the girls and boys were in different schools and different yards. The bathrooms were located in the yard. The first time I tried using them and opened one door, the stench and mess scared me. I quickly closed the door again. Every morning, I made sure to use the toilet before going to school so I would not have to do so there.

Well, one day, I was late getting ready and my mother hurried me along. I did not have time to go to the bathroom. I had never told my mother about the bathroom problem. So, to avoid being late to school, I decided I would just hold my urine in that day.

I guess only a five-year-old thinks she can hold her bladder closed for an entire day of school if she is already bursting at the seams at 8 am. Sure enough, by the time the first break came, I rushed to the yard, determined to overcome my disgust. I opened the door of every stall, and retreated fast. No way. I just could not. I returned to class in a worse state.

While sitting at my desk, I discovered that if I pushed my feet onto their balls, and gently shook each leg, then the pressure in my bladder would be slightly relieved. Thus, I was able to get through another hour. Then we had to take our classwork, and go to the teacher’s desk to have it checked. In those days, the teacher’s desk was placed on a stage with a couple of steps leading up to it. I suppose it was because there were usually over 30 students in a class, and this elevated position allowed the teacher a better view of the children. So here I am on this perch of wooden boards, still trying to shake my legs. The teacher thundered, “Who is shaking my desk?” I stopped immediately. By the time I got back to my place, I was desperate.

I then thought of a great solution. If I let out just… a little tiny bit of pee, just a tiny bit, enough to be caught by my underwear but not too much, then I would surely feel better. Do not laugh. I was just five, and thinking I was really clever. So, here I went, and leaked a wee bit of urine out. You can guess the result. The dam gates were broken. The entire reservoir emptied itself out, pushing all in its way. Waves and waves gushing along…

The seat was made of wooden slats with space between them. The girl across the aisle saw this yellow rain and her mouth opened into a big round hole, and her eyes widened and her eyebrows raised way up high, and so did her hand. It slowly rose up in the air, on its way to inform the teacher. I was wishing the earth could swallow me up, I was so embarrassed. I pitifully put a finger on my lips, begging the classmate to not tell. Please, please, do not raise your hand…!!! No use. The dreaded finger reached as high as it could in the air and waved around, and the girl shouted as loud as could be, “Mistress, mistress!”

The “maitresse” walked over to me, and swept the disaster with a disgusted look. “That is precisely why I did not want such a young child in here…!!!” she said, supposedly to herself, but obviously for my benefit. She sent a student to get Madame Mireille,who took me to the maternelle closet where a variety of used underwear and other pieces of clothing were kept.

When I got home, I tried to hide the shameful episode from my mother. But all it took was for her to notice that I was wearing some unknown piece of undergarment. Mothers! They know everything and have eyes on the back of their heads. Mine especially. Later in life, I became very sure that we had some kind of telepathic line of communication. She always knew everything about me, and often said, “All you have to do is move your butt and I know what kind of fart you will expel.”

 

 

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My butterfly dream

At a dinner party once, a loud guest stated that no one could remember anything from their childhood up to about 10 years of age.  Anyone who claimed to, he added, was lying.

Well, since this was a social event, I bit my tongue and smiled. Just because he had an uneventful childhood without anything worth remembering doesn’t mean that applies to everyone else. Strong memories are associated with unusual events, or extremes of emotion.

I had many of those before the age of 10.

Now, as an adult psychiatrist, I still cannot tell whether a dream I had as a 4-year-old was related in any way to my psychological status then… Every time someone mentions Zhuang Zi and his dream of the butterfly, I remember this dream.

zhuang zi, butterfly

I dreamed of a beautiful life in a different body, in a different family, in a different world. I cannot remember what race I was, what size family I had or what age I was. I only remember that I was much older and very much happier. And suddenly in the middle of this happiness, I remembered, and turned and told the people around me, “Oh, guess what, I dreamed that I was a little Chinese girl living in France, and that everyone was making fun of my eyes and nose…” Eventually, I woke up, and for quite some time, wasn’t sure which of the two was a dream.  But as time went on, and I stayed as the little Chinese girl with no sign of waking up from this life, I sadly resigned myself to trudge on with this life.

 

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Dreaming of golden hair and blue eyes

Since I was rather “costaude”, and looked as big as my sister, and since we always dressed the same, and since all French in those days couldn’t tell one Chinese from another, my mother told the administrators at the kindergarten that we were twins. That is how, at the age of two, I enrolled in kindergarten, the Maternelle St Ferdinand.

In the US, three-year-olds attend “preschool”, and two years later go to kindergarten for one year. In France, the three-year-olds go to a three-year “maternelle”. There the children learn somehow  in the style of a Montessori, yet not quite so. We learned basketry and ceramics, as well as reading, writing and counting.

I quite enjoyed schooling but not its social aspect. Television wasn’t around (this was 1959) and France is certainly not cosmopolitan like the US. The majority of children had never seen a Chinese in their life. So, at break time, they surrounded us and made a circle and danced around us, their index fingers pulling the outer corner of their eyes, then pressing their nose down, all the while chanting all together, “Oh, la chinoise! Oh, la chinoise!” (sol, re, la, sol… mi) Oh, the Chinese girl, oh, the Chinese girl! The two of us would just freeze and hang our heads and wait for the circus to be over. The teachers never did anything about this. This was the school yard and as in the jungle, it was survival of the fittest.

Once home, we didn’t talk about it. Or did we? I wonder. Then the next morning, my mother would try to hand me over to Madame Mireille, and I would hang on to her for dear life, howling my heart out. She would push, and Madame Mireille would pull, until the adults pried my fingers open and won the battle.

And I still wonder how I turned out so very shy…

For Chinese parents, the rule is: you never interfere with school life. Kids have to tough it out. The only time I remember them running to school was some time in the beginning. We were at lunch, when my parents rushed in. They had forgotten to tell the teachers we couldn’t eat pork. Too late, we already had some!

Galette des rois: puff pastry cake, with golden crown and trinket

Galette des rois: puff pastry cake, with golden crown and trinket

My other memory of lunch in Maternelle was a great one! In February, the French have a feast (preceding Mardi Gras) where a “galette”, or sort of round cake made of puff pastry is served. The top is scored into diamonds and glazed sweet, and inside it, somewhere, a tiny little baby Jesus about one centimeter long is hidden. This is the Kings’ cake or Galette des Rois. Everyone is served a piece, and whoever gets the trinket, gets the golden crown that comes with the cake. There were two cakes that day, one boy got the first trinket, and I got the other. We were crowned king and queen and got to sit on some elevated stage for the rest of the lunch hour. I was on cloud nine! Everyone was jealous of me! I might have been two or three only, yet the memory is engraved forever in my little heart that was starved for recognition and friendship.

At night, I dreamed that I was fair-skinned, with beautiful golden hair and blue eyes. No one laughed at my skin, eyes or nose.

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Broken statue and empty pond

Modern photo of the Chinese Embassy on Avenue George V

Modern photo of the Chinese Embassy on Avenue George V. It looks so tame now. To my childish eyes, it was grand and wonderful.

Papa and Mama loved Paris.

The embassy was situated on Avenue George V, in what must have been the home of some 19th century aristocrat. I remember a huge front gate, a porte cochere, leading to a paved driveway — under the building and between two sidewalks with their own doors, windows and offices —  that opened onto a large inner courtyard. We, the diplomats’ children, had many games there, when the adults were busy with work and functions. I particularly remember playing police and bandits, when I always ended up being a bandit and was pursued by the police. I hated it. If I got tagged, I had to “die” for a while: stand still and count till ten before resuscitating into another bandit.  But I always got too involved in the game and ran for dear life. I could hear the policeman shout at me, “Hey, you are supposed to die!”  “Not on your life, I won’t,” I’d think and keep running. If I fell or if someone caught me, I was so scared that I’d burst into tears . So I acquired the reputation of being a loser and cry baby who didn’t stick to rules.

In the back of the courtyard, there were more doors and gates. One of them led to a garage, which must have been stables or carriage houses back in their heyday. Above it all were living quarters for the upper echelon of the embassy’s employees.

Somewhere in that compound were beautiful dining halls and ballrooms: very high ceilings with ornate plaster moldings, gilded walls, and floor length draperies. The embassy regularly held receptions and dinner parties that my parents had to attend, dressed to the nines. Children were not included except for internal gatherings.

My father was only a Third Secretary, so we were housed in a different location. On the Rue Pergolese, also in the XVIth Arrondissement, was this magnificent (at least in our childish eyes) mansion, crumbling with age. We lived on the third floor, which was really an attic. But what a sumptuous attic! There was a living room, a large bedroom and a small bathroom. I’m not sure whether the toilet was there, because I remember using the toilet in the large second floor bathroom, the one where a ghost was rumored to appear at times. They said a woman was tortured and killed by the Nazis during the Second World War in there.

The immense kitchen was on the ground floor, because this used to be a single family home a couple of hundred years ago.  It had a dumbwaiter in one of the corners that we never used. Well, almost never. Once, some of the other embassy kids, always boys, and always older than us, thought it great fun to climb into the dumbwaiter and try to move it.  It ended up moving down to the basement where he jumped out and frightened greatly Mr. and Mrs. Geng who lived there.

This arrangement was also a bit difficult for my mother who had always to run up and down to get things done. One night, I remember waking up and finding no grown up in the bedroom. I cried in fright but no one came. I got up and started wandering around, ending up on the staircase landing and bawling my heart out. Finally, Mama, who was making beef “song” (dried seasoned beef fibers) in the kitchen, came running up the three flights of stairs to hug me and calm me down.

On the second floor lived two more families. One of them had a daughter who was a piano student, and serenaded us daily with octaves and finger drills. The other was an old couple, the husband of whom had chronic bronchitis. I would wake up every morning to the sound of his cough. Caw, caw, caw. Caw, caw, cawwwwwwgh! Ptooh! out came the mucus. He’d stop for a while.

I think we eventually moved to one of the apartments on the second floor, when one of the families moved out. Or maybe it was the other way around. We first lived on the second floor, then moved to the third?

We played everywhere, in our apartment but also in the front yard. The yard was huge and overgrown with weeds. There was a round cement pond with a statue by its side. The statue had no arms, in the style of the Venus by Milo, but I think it also had no head and a few more pieces of its body were missing too.

Fawzia, on the edge of the fountain, front yard, old consulate on Rue Pergolese

Fawzia, on the edge of the fountain, front yard, old consulate on Rue Pergolese

There was also an ancient carriage house that served now as a garage, with the driver’s quarters above it. I don’t know how we managed to sneak into there once, and found out that there was nothing but tons of furniture and boxes and plenty of spider’s webs in there.

The formal dining room was also on the ground floor. We had a birthday party there once. It must have been the year I was in First Grade because my best friend Francoise was there, and so were the twins from my class, one of whom was named Francis. After sitting in the high back chairs for cake, and eating fruits with tiny toothpick-sized swords that Mama had bought in Spain, the boys started getting tired of behaving themselves.  Next thing I knew, they were crawling and chasing one another under the gigantic long dining table with the swords…!

We had two sets of friends, those from the embassy, and those from school. Among our Chinese friends, there were two older boys from one the families that lived behind the embassy offices. They were twins (now that I think about it, I seemed to be surrounded by twins!) and had been born in Spain or Italy because their parents had named them Antonio and Roberto. We met again years later, in 1968, and didn’t have much to talk about because by then we were in the pre-teen years when girls just don’t mix with boys and don’t talk to them.

There was another family by the last name of Tao, with three children. The eldest was Jacqueline, already 12 or 14, who talked down to us. Then the youngest two were Charlotte and PangPang (Fat-Fat). He was the first person who made me realize that people are generally unkind to others regardless of their own shortcomings. I mean, if you get mocked at for your chubbiness, should you not try not to laugh at others? knowing how bad the victim would feel? Although my Chinese formal name is Mai, Tai-Chi, my parents called me by my nickname, Hsiao Wan. Little Grace. As in graceful, lithe, comely, elegant, you know… Well, the ignorant little brat suddenly found out one day what my nickname was and burst out laughing,” Hahaha! Xiao Wan! Little Bowl (bowl is also pronounced wan but written differently)! Hahaha! Little Plate! Little Chopsticks! Hahaha!”

I ran in embarrassment and cried, again. That was probably why I got into the strange habit of not wanting to tell anyone my name. In Grade 9, in Taipei, one day, the girls got it into their heads to ask for my “English” name. I said I didn’t have an English name. “OK, so your French name.” I said I didn’t have a French name. Which was true since I had an Arabic name spelled out in English. They sneakily went to my sister Saadia and asked her for my name. Now, Saadia has always been very handicapped in that way socially. She never suspects anyone of being unkind. Next thing I knew, the girls ran over to me, laughing away. “No wonder you didn’t want to tell us your name! Hahaha! Huo-Ji-Ah! Huo-Ji-Ah!” Many Taiwanese have a problem saying the letter F, saying H instead. So now they got Huozia instead of Fawzia. But since they also couldn’t say the letter Z, they now said the J sound instead. Which turned an originally beautiful Fawzia (meaning Victoria) to Huo-Ji-Ah which meant Turkey-ah, or: Oh, the turkey!  Turkey also is a term meaning streetwalker.

The opposite is equally a problem. Once, in Grade 7, or Cinquieme in France, an annoying classmate named Catherine also insisted on knowing my Chinese name, which I adamantly refused to tell. She also went to my darling elder sister, who innocently told her. What do you think? Now Catherine runs the entire diagonal across the school yard, laughing and yelling at the top of her voice, “hahaha, I know your name in Chinese! It’s Taxi! Taxi! hohoho, Taxi!” No, dummy girl, it’s Tai-Chi! But of course, I was too nice to say that. I just cried internally and hung my head.

The fact that Fawzia was spelled in English didn’t help. No French girl could pronounce it properly, or remember its spelling.  When we went to Saudi Arabia, you’d think that problem would disappear since it was an Arabic name. Well, not really. Arabic names, like English names, have fashions. At that time, Fawzia and Saadia were outdated names, and we said them with a funny foreign accent. So the girls in school would come in groups, smiling in anticipation at a good comedy show, and ask us, “What’s your name?” and we’d pitifully and dutifully answer in unison, “Saadia wa Fawzia…” and they would explode in laughter and walk away chattering and giggling still.

Our names were only one problem. There was another problem I couldn’t do a thing about: my face, my skin and my hair. I looked Chinese, in a place and time where very few French children had ever seen anyone of color.

 

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