Life of a Rooster

Memoirs of a psychiatrist, journalist and educator

The Imaginary Invalid

While Papa was reuniting with his Burmese uncle, I, on the other hand, was honing my acting skills.

le malade imaginaire

Although I had read all Moliere’s works back in Jeddah, I had never seen one acted out until Mme Forhan arranged for the whole class to go see a performance of Le Malade Imaginaire — The Imaginary Invalid. I loved it. I was totally enthralled!  I realized that there was much that a director and actors could add to a play, which so far, had only been black words on white paper to me. So when Mme Forhan told us that after studying the play, the best readers would be selected to perform it, I was ecstatic. I must win a spot in the play!

Angelique and Cleante

Angelique and Cleante

During class, Mme Forhan would pick students to read the parts, girls for the female parts and boys for the male parts. She asked which parts we preferred playing, and would pick the best readers for that part.  Which part should I sign up for? I looked at the characters. Well, there were really only three main female parts: the daughter, Angelique; the maid, Toinette; and the stepmother, Beline.  The daughter, I remembered, had many flirting scenes with her beau, Cleante. So she was out. I would rather have died than flirted. No way I would flirt, even in acting, with anyone, especially not a classmate! The maid was a good character. I really liked it best. She was strong-willed and almost controlled the entire household. But I remembered in time that she too, had at least one scene where she flirted with some delivery man. So she was out too. Well, I guessed I had only the stepmother left. I did not like her character since she was a greedy hypocrite, but beggars can’t be choosers. So I signed up for Beline.

Beline, pretending to be a loving fussing wife to Argan, the hypochondriac

Beline, pretending to be a loving fussing wife to Argan, the hypochondriac

Unfortunately, I realized too late that Beline too had flirting lines to say. I imagine the French in those days had to flirt in even the most mundane of situations. It must have been part and parcel of normal conversation. I was called upon to read precisely the lines where Beline hypocritically fusses on her husband, calling him “my poor, dear little husband”, “my little darling child”, “my love”, “my own dear pet”, etc every time she opened her mouth. I was aghast. Why, oh why did I pick Beline? Couldn’t get out of it now… So I bravely faced my calvary, and half consciously, robotized my voice into the expressionless halting tone of the kindergarten reader. Mme Forhan was stunned. “What happened, Fawzia? You usually read so well! Can you read those lines again?”  What a nightmare! I prayed she would let me out of the play altogether! Finally, my robot voice won the day. She dropped me from the cast. Sigh. Relief.

Didier Vincent got picked to act the main role, that of Argan, the hypochondriac. And the day of the performance, he was good. He even incorporated stuff from the live performance we had witnessed. At one point, which I suppose is the highlight of the plot, Argan pretends to be dead. His second wife, believing him finally gone, speaks out, or rather spits out her relief at his finally leaving this world and giving her what she considered her due. At her insults, Argan sits up in great indignation, but hurriedly resumes his dead position whenever she turns his way. Pretty smart acting.

We also were assigned to give each a three-minute speech to hone our speaking skills. After looking for an interesting topic, I finally opted for an account of my travels. That would grab the limelight. Better than movie, book and article reports! I practiced it well at home, timing myself with my watch, adding little anecdotes to liven the story line. D-day came and I went up on the stage in front of the classroom. Then it happened. My dreaded debilitating pathological shyness. It had never really left me. And now, it reared its ugly head yet again. My voice almost shook with anxiety, and my mind went blank. I suddenly panicked. Oh, was the speech too long? It must be too long! Let me cut it short then. Let me cut out all anecdotes! And, without knowing how, the story disappeared, and I was left churning out a list of dates and places. Ouf! Finally, it was over. In less than one minute.  Mme Forhan asked for critique. Everyone was silent. Finally, one boy raised his finger. “What is : un carat?” — “Huh? When did I say that?” — “You said that in March 1964 you went to Un Carat…”  — “Ah, no, we went to Ankara, the capital of Turkey!”  Another boy raised his finger,  “She said ‘nous arrivames’ (simple past) instead of ‘nous sommes arrives’ (present perfect)…” he opined. The prof sighed. “No, she was correct. You are wrong. It should indeed have been the simple past tense. Any other critique?” No one dared. Peer evaluation gave me a great score. Mme Forhan looked at the score, “Well, I’m sorry, but I don’t agree with it. I think she could have made it more interesting by adding anecdotes and comments to it.” Which goes to show that reputation is really important. My reputation as a great writer had brainwashed my classmates into thinking me a great speaker as well, giving me an excellent score when I did not really deserve it.

fear of public speaking

Not counting the poetry and fable recitations of my early years, that was  my earliest speech. Big time failure. Heart bumping and sweat pouring, I swore never to give a speech ever again. But today I realize that in my life I have learnt much more from my failures than from my successes. And that early failed speech was instrumental in shaping the great speeches I have given since. How was I to know then that I would speak again and again, to a large variety of audiences in the future?

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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 Tourist Guide

If you happen to be stationed in a popular tourist destination, such as Paris, then what happens is that all your friends, relatives, relatives of friends and friends of relatives consider you fair game to host their next Paris holiday. That is, if you are Chinese. In case you did not know, the Chinese are the Jews of the East. We do not spend a single penny that we do not have to spend.

And so, Aunt Lily and Uncle Lung hosted a variety of visitors and that sofa bed in the sitting room got heavily used. The one I remember most is Chang JieJie (Elder Sister Chang, spelled today Zhang), because she stayed the longest, a few months. She was Aunt Lily’s neighbor’s daughter back in Taiwan. She also happened to major in French, so this was her dream come true. She had to rely less on our tourist guide services than most other visitors because she was younger, and therefore more self-reliant, and also because she tried her best to practice her French.

When I teach foreign languages today, I always include culture in the syllabus. How can you learn about a language when you know nothing of the culture that produced it? So Chang JieJie learned this principle the hard way. One day she came back from her sightseeing very early and quite puzzled. She asked me point blank, “Is it true that they have demolished the Bastille fortress?”  I was taken aback. “Of course, they have!” Which caused her even more dismay. “When? How come?” I almost laughed out loud. “Way back on July 14, 1789. That is why it is now celebrated as the French National Day! That is what started the Revolution!” She could not believe it.  She thought the revolutionaries only took it, and did not realize they had actually destroyed it as well. She told me how she had taken the metro the Place de la Bastille, and looked for the fortress. Finally, she asked a passer-by who told her it was right there. Where? She could not find it. She again grabbed another passer-by and asked for the fortress itself. To which he replied that it has been destroyed! She had to give up and come home. We all had a good laugh over this episode.

Monet's Les Nympheas, at the Musee de l'Orangerie

Monet’s Les Nympheas, at the Musee de l’Orangerie

Another time, she decided to go see Monet’s paintings. She took me along just in case. We got off at the Concorde station and again she got lost. She asked a passer-by in her heavily accented French where “Monet” was. To which he replied, “Monnaie? (cash?) Are you looking for a bank?” She had the address written on a piece of paper, so he was finally able to point us in the direction of the musee de l’Orangerie. I am very thankful to have acted as her guide and translator for I am now able to tell my art students about the Nympheas (the Water Lilies), Monet’s most famous set of paintings.  These are exhibited on the walls of a round room, so one can admire the entirety of each painting without having to walk up and down it. I was astounded to find that the brown tree trunks were, upon close inspection, made up of a multitude of other colors, including pink, purple, yellow, blue and so on. The same was true of every part of the painting. Yet, when you stepped back, it looked like water lilies on blue water, with trees on the edge.

Chang JieJie would take us, Saadia, Therese and me, sometimes with her, for example to visit Notre-Dame de Paris, the famous cathedral, site of the novel and the modern musical of the same name. Once, she offered to take us with her to see the Tour Eiffel. We all jumped happily up and down with excitement the night before. Well, big mouth me woke up the next morning and babbled at breakfast about my dream. I still had often various dreams that remained vividly in my memory the next morning. “Guess what,” I said, my mouth full, “I dreamt that Therese climbed a very tall and big tree, fell down and broke her leg!” Aunt Lily and Uncle Lung exchanged worried glances. Therese stayed home that day.

Therese (left), me (center) and Saadia (right) on top of a tower at Notre-Dame de Paris cathedral.

Therese (left), me (center) and Saadia (right) on top of a tower at Notre-Dame de Paris cathedral.

I also remember a middle aged couple whom I guided to Versailles, Notre-Dame, the Tour Eiffel, and so on. That is because they offered me an ice-cream, and also lunch. They also took pictures and gave me some to keep. At the Trocadero esplanade, photographers prowled, “Sayonara! Sayonara!” And I would mutter to myself, “Do I look Japanese or something? Really!” In those days, the only Far Eastern tourists to be found in Europe were Japanese ones. China was still a huge prison, and South Korea and Taiwan were still in the throes of building their economic miracle. No one had the money to go gallivanting abroad.

Behind Notre Dame de Paris, 1969

Behind Notre Dame de Paris, 1969

And then, there were tourists that were like ships passing in the night. They would say hello and maybe have lunch or dinner, but do their own touring. Such a one was a Chinese lady in her early forties, who hailed from Singapore and was doing her European tour with her elderly mother.  They were Muslims, had just completed their pilgrimage to Makkah  and had stayed with Mama and Papa while in Jeddah. Interestingly, I actually do not remember their passage in Paris at all, but learned about it from her own mouth many years later, when she became my mother-in-law.


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How to Train a Chinese Cook

Aunt Lily taught me more than family history. I spent countless hours with her in the kitchen, thus becoming quite skilled at cleaning chickens (in those days, chickens still came with their innards intact). Aunt Lily would explain how you needed to dig your fingers between the ribs to get the lungs out of their place before pulling the entire respiratory system out. She would pull out the trachea and the oesophagus and line them side by side, showing the difference between the two: “See these rings here how they keep the tube open, that’s how it can breathe easily.” I would rinse it out then play with it, blowing into it to see the lungs inflate. I would then squeeze the lungs again to get the air out, which was really fun because they would feel interestingly squishy and bubbly at the same time. The gizzard was quite an interesting organ. It does not have an equivalent in the human body. Aunt Lily showed me how to slice it open around the fleshy part, and throw out the yellow-green straw-like, stinky contents. Then, one had to look for the edge of the thick inner wrinkly membrane and poke it up with the nail, and peel it off. Now it was ready for cleaning and slicing. The longitudinal slices would look like flattened candies in their twisted wrappers. They tasted delicious stir-fried or stewed in “lu” sauce.

chicken gizzard

Aunt Lily also taught me to clean fish and squids. When supermarkets started selling cleaned seafood and poultry, often presented in trays of one type of body part, children lost valuable opportunities to learn anatomy and physiology. Ah, the joys of pulling out the ink bag without squirting it on the white flesh! The excitement of pulling out gills and scraping off scales carefully, without getting them on one’s own skin (for, Aunt Lily warned, they would grow onto your skin and become part of it).

She took me with her to the market. Ah, yes, they still had markets in Paris then. I don’t know whether they still do. We would pull a shopping bag on wheels and carry a few more just in case. The open air markets had stalls lined in rows, offering fruits, vegetables, meats, seafood and even recycled newspapers, books and magazines. That’s when Aunt Lily would whisper to me, “That’s what Uncle Lung used to do to survive during his student days…” Aunt Lily taught me how to recognize fresher fruit, how to compare prices, how to dig under the top rows for fresher food, and how to bargain for better prices or get some bonus pieces.

And then, finally, when she judged that I had completed my apprenticeship in cleaning and purchasing, she finally agreed to teach me the Chinese art of cutting food. The Chinese always cut food using a well-sharpened cleaver, not a tiny little knife like housewives in other cultures. First of all, you must always have a good, strong and clean cutting board. This you can anchor on the kitchen counter with a moist rag, so it won’t slide around while you are working. Then, you need to hold the food correctly. Here I am giving away a very valuable secret, the secret to fast, accurate cutting. Whoever is reading this, you are getting golden nuggets here, believe me! So here goes: your left hand (or holding hand) must have the first (tip) phalanges curled under, the middle phalanges vertical, and the thumb tucked behind the fingers. This is it. Very simple. The result is, you can now  push the cleaver — which is in your right hand, or cutting hand — tightly against those middle phalanges and pull the cleaver up and down against it without fear of cutting your fingers off. Notice that  the blade of the cleaver is sliding along your middle phalanges, not flying up in the air, therefore never in danger of coming down on something it shouldn’t. Thus, you can cut as fast as you wish and still be accurate and safe. The left hand slowly slides backwards over the food, while the left thumb keeps re-adjusting its position accordingly.


You can easily slice a big long cucumber in thin rounds in a matter of seconds, tak tak tak tak tak… to the desired thinness. I used to watch friends struggle making salads, “Ah, I hate making salads the most, because there is so much cutting to do…” they would  sigh while holding a tiny blunt knife and cutting food on their thumb, at the speed of a turtle. To me, salads are the easiest to cut. Meats are a little trickier, because you have to watch out for the grain. “Always cut across the grain, Fawzia, across the grain!” Aunt Lily would nag me. Beef slices or shred cut along the grain were tough and hard to chew while shred cut across the grain tasted tender. And — here is another golden nugget — always cut meat when it is half defrosted. Soft enough to cut, but hard enough to hold its shape while you do so.

Aunt Lily showed me the cube, the slice, the shred and the “rolling blade chunk”.  The shred, of course, is the ultimate test. The first time I did so, Aunt Lily gave me carrots to shred. By the time I was done, she gave up trying to save the batch of carrot shreds, they were so intimately coated with wood shaving (more like wood powder!). Tapping, rinsing, straining, nothing saved it. “No need to saw your knife up and down, Fawzia… Just lift and cut, lift and cut. A slight forward motion only, not sawing up and down on the wood…” Well, by the end of a year or two, I could now quickly and efficiently cut a half pound block of beef into perfect 2mm x 2mm matchsticks in under three minutes!

Then I was ready to move on to stir-frying. All foreigners know that stir-frying is the main method of cooking in Chinese cuisine, although, depending on the culinary school, some claim at least 24 methods of cooking.  Now, what stir-frying is NOT: It does not mean moving some food around in a flat frying pan in a bit of lukewarm oil. I call that simmering in oil. Stir-frying or “chao” is a very specific cooking method based on two main factors: a) high temperature and b) speed of mixing. This is why you need a “wok”, a semi-spherical cast iron frying pan with a single handle, so that heat is evenly distributed all around, and so that you can toss the food with one hand while stirring with the other. The ones with two handles are meant to be used for deep frying or steaming. I really don’t see how one can toss food with two handles…!

chinese wok

The main philosophy behind stir-frying is that you can only stir-fry one type of food at a time. If you need to mix different types of food, you can fry together only ingredients with similar cuts and consistency so they get cooked in the same amount of time. Each food is thus stir-fried separately, then eventually mixed together in the wok — what is called “hui” (pronounced hway) before pouring into the serving dish piping hot. For example, if you have spinach and shredded beef, you stir-fry the beef first, pour it back into its bowl, then stir-fry the spinach, then pour the beef back into the wok, mix quickly then serve immediately.

Most stoves in the West are just not hot enough for real stir-frying. If you are serious about Chinese cuisine, then buy yourself a Chinese stove. The fire comes out with a hiss and has two concentric rings of blue flames. It is usually a counter top item and can be found in many Oriental grocery stores. If you are stuck with your stove, then make sure to heat your wok very long before putting in the oil (test it by sprinkling a few drops of water. They should sizzle, jump around and evaporate in a few seconds). Then heat your oil very long (until you see smoke coming up, and streaks on the wok when you swirl the oil around). Finally make sure to only stir-fry a small amount at a time otherwise the first bit will be stir-fried and the rest will be braised. Whenever I read recipes that tell you to put chopped green peppers, and chunks of onions, and beef slabs (I’m sorry, those thick cuts are not shreds, whatever they may think) and whatever else together in a lukewarm frying pan, I just cringe. How dare they call this Chinese food!



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Taiwan 1940s and 1950s

Taiwan had been ceded to Japan back in 1895, so Grandpa Chang had been educated in Japanese and had attended university in Japanese. Mama studied in Japanese up to sixth grade before Taiwan was returned to Chinese rule at the end of World War II and the entire education system reverted to Chinese Mandarin.

1945: people welcoming Nationalist troops in Taiwan

1945: people welcoming Nationalist troops in Taiwan

While helping Aunt Lily clean the squid or the chicken for dinner, I would listen to her stories about the war years. There was an electrical plant in the town where they lived. One day, the siren sounded and war planes (I assume they must have been bombers) flew overhead, dropping bomb after bomb, apparently aiming at the electrical plant.  But bombs do not always fall only on their target, and so the entire family dove into the basement which was also the air shelter. Grandpa was away at work, and Grandma hugged the little ones while Mama, the eldest, hugged the others. When finally the rumbling, booming, whistling and crashing stopped, the family crawled back out, only to find the house above ground in total ruins. Grandma told the children that they were going to flee to GuZhang’s banana plantation on the mountain. She carried the baby, Mama strapped First Uncle on her back, and Aunt Lily held Third and Fourth Aunts by the hand. They traveled as fast as they could, half running and half scuttling, finally reaching the hills. When Grandma called a halt in the thick of the banana groves, Mama half collapsed onto the ground, unstrapped First Uncle from her back and put him down. She then sat against the trunk of a banana tree, which is when she started feeling some pain in her foot. She pulled up her foot and found a huge nail stuck in her heel. In the panic of the moment, she had not felt a thing throughout their trek! Grandpa rushed home from work, only to find the entire neighborhood in rubble. He screamed and clawed frantically through the ruins of the house looking for his family, believing them all buried under the debris.

Banana grove, Nantou county, Taiwan

Banana grove, Nantou county, Taiwan

After the end of WWII, China struggled in the throes of civil war. When the Nationalists withdrew to Taiwan in 1949, they brought in their wake over 2 million refugees from mainland China. Mama was fifteen, and Aunt Lily fourteen when one day, a band of soldiers knocked on their front gate. Grandma told the elder girls to jump out through the window (this was on the ground floor) and squat and hide under it among the jars and boxes in the back courtyard. She would face the soldiers herself. “Why?” I asked Aunt Lily. “Because during wartime, you never know what these soldiers might do.”

“War must have been an exciting time, I wish I was there,” I remarked to Aunt Lily, dreaming of the Three Musketeers and d’Artagnan holding a conference in a bastion with bullets flying around them. She scolded me harshly. “Exciting? Exciting? You do not even know the first thing about it.  It is a very frightening time. You children are so fortunate to live in peace time, you do not even know what you are talking about.”  I changed the subject, “So what did those soldiers want?” Aunt Lily replied, “Ah, nothing, just food and stuff. They left after a while.”

It was also Aunt Lily who told me that Papa’s nickname among the girls was “My Darling”, a pun on his name Mai Deh-Lin.  I look at photos of Papa in his twenties and early thirties and can understand how he could have been the crush of the girls around him at the university or in the lumber mill. He was really very handsome: skin quite fair, the look of a classical scholar — a xiu cai. His “phoenix eyes” were very pronounced in his youth and offset by a very serious look accentuated by dark-rimmed glasses. My second son today looks so much like Papa then. History lives on.

Papa and Mama married on October 11, 1955, the day after the Double Tenth celebrations (National Day). However, soon after Saadia’s birth, Mama found she was pregnant with me. They decided to take Saadia back to Taichung and leave her in the care of Grandma Chang until my birth.  Fourth Uncle was then still in elementary school, and all the aunts and uncles had a great time doting on Saadia for a year.  Mama had a hard time with my pregnancy and had at first considered aborting me since I was so close in age with Saadia. Then at one point, she ate too much watermelon and had so much diarrhea afterward she nearly did lose me! Wow, I feel that I escaped twice not being born at all!  When my birth became imminent, Mama returned to her parents’ home. This is how I came to be born in Taichung. Then, when Mama was done with her month’s confinement, she took the two of us back to Taipei. At the train station, as they said their goodbyes, Saadia screamed her lungs out, “Ah Mah! (Grandma) Ah Maaaaaahh!” and grabbed Grandma tightly, not letting go. Poor Grandma was in tears, and Mama felt her heart broken to have abandoned her baby daughter so long that she wouldn’t recognize her as her mother. I wonder whether this guilty feeling lingered on throughout her life, for she forever doted on Saadia, and let her get away with stuff I couldn’t get out of, such as snapping retorts.






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My constant state of chronic anxiety was best relieved by books. Books by the dozens. Between the municipal library (two per week), both our class libraries (3 per week) and our friends, Saadia and I averaged ten books a week. The municipal library was quite a treasure trove: I found there all the Tintin books that we didn’t have at home, and since they could not be checked out, spent hours giggling as silently as I could over the antics of Captain Haddock and the Thompson twins — who are actually called Dupont and Dupond in French. Only once was I unable to control myself, and broke into a sudden fit of laughter to the condemning stares of other library patrons.

tintin books

We still read a large amount of classics, but now also absorbed a healthy dose of children’s classics, either French or translated from the English, such as Frances Hodgson Burnett’s A Little Princess, Little Lord Fauntleroy, The Secret Garden, as well as the Pollyanna series. My favorite authors were, Alexandre Dumas, of course, and now Jules Verne as well. It was a good thing that both were prolific authors, for I dug and searched for their works and managed a good couple of dozens from each.  When I tried to introduce these to my own children, I had a very hard time finding any Jules Verne books in English for my children, other than Around the World in 80 Days and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.  He penned not only his well-known “technologically prophetic” novels, but also a number of historical adventure novels such as Mathias Sandorf and Michel Strogoff.  Other adventure novels explore whimsical geographical phenomena such as The Green Ray.  Thank God for the internet and the rise of e-books, for now I am able to finally find again these old treasures and re-read them.  It is very probable that the “father of historical novels” (Dumas) and the “father of geographical novels” (Verne) were very much behind my great interest in Social Studies.

poster for 2004 movie of Arsene Lupin (a prequel)

poster for 2004 movie of Arsene Lupin (a prequel)

I also became engrossed in the adventures of Arsene Lupin, the “gentleman thief”, who is France’s retort to Sherlock Holmes. Actually, in one particular book, he does compete with “Herlock Sholmes” in solving two mysteries. No prize for guessing who wins! Here on the other side of the Atlantic, not many are aware of the rivalry between France and Great Britain, which dates back probably to the Normans and may have been fueled by the Hundred Years War and the English burning Joan of Arc.  The French’s worst beef is probably Wellington’s role in Napoleon’s demise. No wonder author Maurice Leblanc was very popular. With his gentleman thief, he managed to redeem French honor from the English!

A new classic author for me was Honore de Balzac, I think the Balzac books actually belonged to Uncle Lung. We just picked them out of his shelves and read them. The one that made the strongest impression on me was La Cousine Bette. The ending image of the old hag on her deathbed still plotting hate and destruction just haunted me for days.

But the best stories, the ones I enjoyed most during those three years in Paris, were not from our tons of books, but the oral history passed on by Aunt Lily. Aunt Lily is a talker. She enjoys talking like no one else I know, and is great at weaving background scenes, analyzing events and characters, and injecting her own opinion into everything she related. She is very light-hearted, and can laugh happily at almost anything. Looking back, I realize she must have influenced me a lot as a story-teller.

As a witness to my parents’ courtship and early days of married life, she was an unending source of tales about them. When I told her that Papa had proposed to Mama by going down on one knee, putting his right hand over his heart and asking Grandpa Chang for his precious daughter’s hand, Aunt Lily burst out in peals of laughter. “Your father? Hahahaha, your father did not even dare talk directly to your Grandpa! Hahaha! Is that what he told you? No… It was Gu Zhang (Father’s Sister’s Husband) whom your father talked to, the owner of the lumber mill. He then called your grandpa saying he had approved the marriage. Ah, your grandpa wasn’t happy at first, but when your father came to Paris and mailed him French cigarettes, he was so proud! He would put a pack of cigarettes in his shirt pocket, just so, with the top showing, and go to work. Everyone would ask him what strange cigarettes they were, and your grandpa would proudly say, pretending it was nothing important, “Oh, this? It’s French cigarettes, foreign-made in France, you know. My first son-in-law sent them to me…”


Cigarettes were then very fashionable and smoking them was sophisticated and Westernized. Aunt Lily said Papa was not a smoker, but Mama convinced him to learn how to smoke so he could look sophisticated since he was now a diplomat. This is true, since years later, every time Mama would try nagging Papa to quit smoking for his health’s sake, Papa would reply, “First you want me to smoke, now you don’t want me to smoke. Just make up your mind!”

banana tree

Aunt Lily also told me stories of her and Mama’s childhood and youth. They grew up in the countryside in central Taiwan, in Nantou county. They moved several times, so I remember the names of various places, Shui Li Keng (sounds like Gulch in Water), Ji Ji (sounds like In a Hurry, In a Hurry), Pu Li (sounds like In the Garden) and Shui Li (In Water, without the Gulch). To go to Taichung from Taipei, you take the train, which chugs along amid fields and banana groves. All you have to do is stick your hand outside the train window to pick bananas to eat. A lot of sugar canes also grew there and Aunt Lily and Mama would run after the rumbling truck that was carrying the canes away. They would grab a stick of sugar cane and pull it down, then run away, hide somewhere, cut it up then suck the juice out.

sugar canes

Mama was the eldest, and Aunt Lily the second born, only a year after Mama. Just like Saadia and me, I thought. Grandma Chang ended up having eight children, four girls at first, then four boys. Aunt Lily said that there had been a fifth girl. At the time, Grandpa Chang had a friend whose wife had been unable to conceive for years. He begged Grandpa Chang to give him his fifth daughter, promising to dote on her and raise her well. She apparently was a pretty and smart girl, who loved her adopted parents as much as they loved her. She would run over whenever her father came home, bring him his slippers and put them on for him. Unfortunately, she was still just a toddler when she contracted some childhood disease and passed away. Her adopted parents were terribly heart-broken. The father came to Grandpa Chang, knelt in front of him, prostrated himself and kowtowed to him,  sobbing uncontrollably. The girl’s soul had probably missed home too much and had been unable to stay with her new family, he said. Had he not adopted her, she probably wouldn’t have died. This was all his fault. Ah, the self-accusing habit of Chinese romantics. When one is sad, it feeds one’s sadness so much to accuse oneself of everything, and take responsibility for God’s plans for humanity. It satisfies the hunger for tears, sobs and wails and creates a delectable despair.

But these are not the only maternal uncles and aunts I had. Many years later, probably in 1990, I was visiting Mama in Taipei, and she called me into her bedroom one day. “Here,” she said, putting a gold necklace and medal in my hand, “this is for you, from your Fifth Aunt.” My fifth aunt? What fifth aunt? I thought I only had four, since the fifth died in childhood! Mama looked at me exasperatedly. “Just your Fifth Aunt. From your grandpa. We have known about her for many years, but would not recognize her as legitimate. Now your grandparents are long gone and everything is water under the bridge. We all decided to formally recognize her. She happens to be very wealthy, so she gave a “First Meeting Gift” to all your aunts and uncles and all of our children as well. So this one is yours. Just take it. It means you accept to recognize her as your aunt.”

Well, that was totally unexpected. Though it shouldn’t have. Grandpa Chang was a handsome man, even in his old age. And Aunt Lily had told me stories of him coming home late from dinner parties and, fearing Grandma’s wrath, would pretend to be dead drunk so he wouldn’t have to answer her questions. Grandma would take one look at him and loudly call Mama and Aunt Lily, “Girls, quick, go get a bucket of sewage from the toilet, and pour it down your father’s throat to wake him up from his drunkenness!”

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Survival of the Fittest

Now that I think about it, I also met with other mishaps at the CES Noyer-Durant. Strange how little anecdotes stay buried away for years and suddenly bubble up to the surface, unbidden.

The yard was really a wild jungle where older boys kicked ball while girls talked in small groups and some mixed groups whiled away their time in various manners. There was an older girl, probably in 8th or 9th grade, who was taller than most, and had already quite a figure. The rumor was that she modeled bras in her spare time. She was quite the target of the older boys’ attention, and she basked in and thoroughly enjoyed that attention.  During the break right after lunch, she was often walking backward around the yard, laughing and throwing her long loose orange hair around, and chatting with the boys who walked forward. I always wondered about this walking backwards thing.  I mean, why couldn’t she walk side by side with them?

Malfoy and Goyle

The most popular boy was also an older one in maybe 9th grade, who was tall and blond. I have been racking my brain, and it is possible his name was Patrick. He was also supposed to be very handsome, with a golden mop of a fringe on his forehead. It’s eerie how this looks like a typical movie (think Malfoy and Crabbe or Goyle), but he really had a big fat sidekick who always followed him around wherever he went. Now I absolutely cannot remember the sidekick’s name. All the girls had a crush on Patrick, which I couldn’t understand, because he looked nothing like someone I would have a crush on. No poise, no sophistication, no classical profile, you know, the type you see described in classical novels, a Greek god or demi-god. Actually, I believe he was quite silly and had not much intellect, because one day he and his sidekick walked over to me, as I happened to be on my own, and asked me, “Do you like watching Popeye (the sailor man)?” while Goyle giggled dumbly. I replied, “No.”  And then the two of them just strode away. Pascale and Brigitte scrambled over from wherever they were, and asked me breathlessly what Patrick had said to me.  I nearly rolled my eyes. A couple of other times, the two of them would stroll over and tell a stupid joke out of the blue, and I would say, “Oh.” And they would walk away. Now, I wonder whether they were trying to make my acquaintance, but that was certainly the furthest thing from my mind at the time. Kids stuck with their own kind, I mean their own grade and class. It was not done to consort with students in other grades, especially older ones.


Especially when they lacked manners and did horrendously naughty things. Once, the older boys locked a girl in the bathroom and she didn’t manage to get out until the teacher noticed she was late to class. Another time, Goyle and Patrick got hold of a needle somehow. I would like to say it was a hypodermic one, but I truly think it was an intra-muscular one. I mean: a large and long one. And the idiotic prank they came up with was to walk around the yard, pretending nothing was happening, and Goyle would jab that needle into the rear end of anyone who had their back turned. They roared with laughter when one after another, unsuspecting students would jump up with a scream and hold their butt, though too late, for the culprit had pulled out the needle as fast as he had plunged it. Unfortunately, I also fell victim to this inane game. This was ages before the era of AIDS, or I’m sure someone would have reported them, and some parent or other would have sued them.


I suppose students were forbidden to bring balls to school. Because the boys used to make their own ball out of layers and layers of scotch tape until it became a sphere the size of a tennis ball. This they would kick around at break time in what I assume were soccer matches. How do I know so much about what those balls were like? Because one day one of them flew right onto my right eye. I saw stars. Real ones. Now I knew that those multi-colored stars in comics were for real. I wavered then tottered around a bit, pain seeping into my eye socket and brain. Pascale rushed over, took one look at me, and said, “oh, you have an eye with black butter!”  In French, if you have never heard the term before, it sounds like “an-nuh-yo-ber-nwar”! A what? I asked… “Un oeil au beurre noir!” she repeated, “a black eye!”; and tried to drag me to the infirmary.

It was that year that my debilitating phobia of boys was at its worst. One day, it must have been a Saturday morning, for the train was quite empty, a group of raucous boys shouted and laughed the way teen boys do when they get together. Saadia and I were scared enough to seek refuge in a different car, nearer the front so we could reach the conductor quickly, just in case. Another day, when strangely I was alone without Saadia, I thought someone was following me up the stairs out of the metro station. As I turned into the Avenue Jean Jaures, I heard the footsteps following me. My heart beat so loudly I thought it would burst out of my chest. But I pretended nothing was happening and kept my normal pace. The same footsteps still followed me at the same distance. I turned into our apartment building and stepped as fast as I could into the elevator, which, thankfully, happened to be waiting on the ground floor. Then I pressed the button of the floor above us, just in case the follower tried to find out which floor I lived on. When I got there, I tried to tiptoe out of the elevator so as not to alert anyone to my presence, and softly sneaked back onto our own floor.

drain pipe

I seemed to live forever in the dread of something terrible about to happen. At home, I had worked out an escape route, in case we were ever besieged by robbers or bandits. Outside the kitchen window, there was a rather thick square pipe, probably for rainwater, that ran down all the way to the ground. I calculated that I could step out of the window and reach it with one foot while holding onto the window edge with one hand, and then grab it with both hands and climb my way down, the way we did in gymnastique on the knotted rope (finally, a use for that skill!)  The only thing I couldn’t be sure of was whether the pipe could sustain my weight. Although I never got to test that escape route, I believe it could have worked. Just like the way I had worked out how to get a slab of chocolate back in Ankara (see The Famous Chocolate Story), and when the time came, I was able to climb up and grab a slab in a few seconds!

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Barrette and compass

Dance class was only half of PE class. The other half was real PE, the type I did not relish, although it was manageable most of the time since it was “gymnastics”.  And indeed, we did learn to walk on a balance beam, and to execute  somersaults correctly. As in previous years, we continued practicing high jumps and climbing ropes. The one time our PE teacher noticed something was wrong with me was the day we had to run. She measured the length she wanted, probably 100 m, diagonally across the school yard, drew the start and finish lines, then paired us in teams of two. We were to start at one end and finish at the other, while she would time us. I was lucky, I was paired with Marie-Rose Gonier, the girl from the Martinique. For she was as clueless as I was regarding running. We chatted amicably until our turn came, then took off. We glanced at each other smilingly, giggled and jogged happily onward, at a leisurely pace. When we arrived, the teacher looked at us inquiringly: “So, this was running? Is that the best you could do?” Which is when I realized we were supposed to race each other.

Walking on a balance beam was part of the gymnastique curriculum.

That, I suppose, was the short run. Then we also had to practice the long run, maybe a mile? Which was I think twice around the yard. By the time everyone had arrived, I was still somewhere in the middle, my limbs coming apart, my breath ragged, my head dizzy, my eyes seeing black. I must have made quite a figure, for the teacher came to me and asked if I was all right. I cannot remember whether I finished that run or not.

But this was not really the worst part of school life at the College d’Enseignement Secondaire. Truth be told, it was the fact that this was a school where boys and girls were mixed, something that was still not too traditional. Wikipedia states that in France, “Mixed-sex education became mandatory for primary schools in 1957 and for all universities in 1975.” I do not wish to contradict Wikipedia, but the public elementary schools I went to were certainly still segregated.  Apart from the French embassy school in Ankara and the Chinese embassy school in Jeddah, I had never been in a mixed classroom before.

And when I had, the fact that there were boys in the classroom had never bothered me. I barely noticed them. But suddenly, as a result of the severe psychological effect of that episode in Jeddah, (see Typhoon in a Teacup), I had turned into a handicapped student, who could not behave normally when boys were around. I would be afraid to even blink in class, for fear that boys would mistake it for winking. You can imagine how hard it was to sit in the classroom, with my eyes fixedly glaring at the teacher and turning dry until I made a show of slowly closing them and re-opening them.

It was worst when I first joined the school. We were temporarily assigned seats in the lunch hall, ten to a table. I happened to be one of only two girls at mine. Fortunately, my seat was at the very edge of the bench, so I involuntarily turned sideways, so I could turn my back to the boys. Eventually, we were re-assigned to our permanent spots, and there were only two boys this time at my table. This was much less stressful, and would have been great if we did not have a full table of boys behind my back. Right in front of me sat Didier Vincent, a classmate who often managed to make it to second in rank, right after me, in our monthly report cards. I can only remember a big nose, a large mouth and blond hair that looked more yellow than blond. He eventually became a friend, and was admitted to our little circle, but never quite stopped trying to find any opportunity to tease me.

I had never really taken any course in table manners, and did not realize how important these were in France. Although, come to think of it, I did receive the first prize for behavior at lunch at the St Sebastien school.  So Didier would purposefully make fun of me, which I should really be thankful for, since I now am very well-versed in the art of table etiquette. For instance, if the gravy on the steak was delicious, I would finish every bit of it, and start licking the knife as well. Didier would immediately shout out to the whole table, “Everyone, look! Fawzia is putting a knife in her mouth!” Or if I put too much food in my mouth, he would start asking me a question. I would innocently –or rather, stupidly —  try to answer, causing me to sputter and spit food all over the place. To which Didier would delightedly sing out, “Hahaha, Fawzia is talking with her mouth full!”

His teases did not stop in the lunchroom. After lunch, we had a half hour break in the yard. Once, he sneaked up behind me and quick as lightning, pinched open the “barrette” (hair clip) that held my pony tail.  Horrified,  I grabbed my hair so as not to let it fall all over the place, and tried to order him to return it. Just like the girl back in Jeddah who took my handkerchief, he would run a bit, and wave the barrette with a laugh, and dare me to get it, then run again. It may sound like nothing, today, when having your long hair loose has become common place, and girls vie in the dyeing, shaping, curling and styling of long loose hair. But back in 1968, letting your hair loose was a new hippie trend. Very trendy girls would do that, but good conservative girls still kept their hair neatly combed and away from their face in braids, pony tails or “couettes“, those dog ear type of pony tails on either side of the head.

The most common type of barrette hair clip then in vogue: the classic tortoise shell style.

The most common type of barrette hair clip then in vogue: the classic tortoise shell style.

So thankfully, my girl friends joined me in my incompetent chase of the boy, me still holding my hair with one fist. Useless. Boys run faster than girls, that’s a fact. So we opted for the best alternative, we told the teacher. M. Pierre happened to be on duty that day. He glared at Didier who was standing somewhere nearby, still with a smirk on his face and holding my barrette. He simply held him with his gaze, lifted one index finger, and beckoned him over. Didier obediently walked to him. M. Pierre opened his hand quietly, and Didier placed the stolen good in it without a struggle. I got my barrette back, and was able to fix my hair back again, swallowing my tears back.

My worst experience was yet to come. One day after lunch, our little group was standing and chatting together: Pascale, Brigitte, Didier and me. Marie-Rose usually went home for lunch. I do not recall what the topic was, but at one point, the girls said to Didier, “You need to be punished!” And Pascale then said, “You must kiss Brigitte as your penalty.” Didier acted scared and horrified, “No, no, anything but that!” I was busy having a good laugh at his antics, when he added, “but I am willing to kiss Fawzia instead.”


I am reminded of those movies where a person is hypnotized to do certain things, and the hypnotist can suddenly trigger those actions with a cue word. This is exactly what happened to me. The dreaded word “kiss” suddenly triggered my severe phobia. I took two steps backwards and hastily unzipped my pencil holder. I pulled out my compass and held it convulsively in my fist, pointed end forward. I then growled, “Not one step more! Stay away!” My friends froze in place, eyes widening, mouths gaping. They said later I had turned deathly pale and was shaking uncontrollably. Brigitte tried to soothe me, “Fawzia, it’s okay, it’s just a kiss…” I acted even more wild, “No! I will stab you! Stay away!” Pascale then said, “Don’t worry, it’s okay, you don’t have to. Didier, you don’t have to.” It took maybe a few minutes, but I finally relaxed, stopped my hand from shaking, and placed the compass back in the pencil holder. All of us remained quiet for a while.

We never mentioned this episode again.

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Thermopylae and Casatchok

M. Pierre was our only male teacher. He was a strict disciplinarian, but I suspect his wife disciplined him too. I’m sure it is a well-known fact to all of you that men who are happily married, and therefore in fear of their wives, enjoy good stories of shrews. I can never forget the battle of Thermopylae, not because of the Hollywood movies, either the 1962 version or the 2007 one, but because of M. Pierre.

“If you have a very narrow path,” he explained, “such as this door”, and he opened the classroom door, “that is the only entry to a place, then whoever wishes to enter has no choice but to walk through it.”  He picked up the blackboard stick, and hid behind the classroom door.  “Now if you are a drunk husband coming home late at night, although technically your wife is weaker, but if she hides behind this door with her rolling pin, chances are she will be able to strike down the husband.” I wondered whether he had experienced that first hand… “So, when the Persians attempted to enter Greece,” he continued, “and this narrow pass of Thermopylae was the only entrance, it did not matter that they were 10,000 strong. Only a few could get through at a time. So all that the Spartans needed to do was hide behind the door and wait, and strike them down a few at a time with their rolling pins, sorry, their spears and swords.”

hitting with rolling pin

He was also assigned to teach us Civic Instruction. I don’t think he liked the topic nor tried to even find some fun way to teach it. Once a week, we all had to endure the torture of a very boring lesson which consisted of taking turns reading the textbook out loud. I retained nothing from it, except the word “commune”, which interested me, because it sounded like a root word for “communist”. We all would nod off in turn, even me, who by then had been recognized as the best student in class.  One day, M. Pierre read on, his voice droning nicely along with my after-lunch stupor, and I again started drifting into dreamland.  Suddenly, he shouted at the top of his voice, “Mai!” and I jumped automatically up, standing straight though dizzily, snapping promptly in answer, “Yes, sir!” For he called us all by our last name. But he seemed to have not seen or heard me, and continued reading, in a softer tone, “Mais!” and then in the voice of a moaning sheep, “Maaaaaaais….” I promptly sat down again, hoping no one in the drowsy classroom had noticed.  The word “mais” in French means “but”. I bet he did it on purpose.

I am too old to remember the name of my geography teacher. But she must have been gifted for I became fascinated by the topic. The syllabus that year covered stuff like latitude and longitude, equinoxes and solstices, monsoons, eclipses, glaciers, and more exciting topics. I suppose that traveling helped in the attraction, for I could relate almost every topic to something I had seen, heard, met, or experienced. My classmates did not seem to share my enthusiasm, and it was then I thought of the wonderful idea of establishing a school on a ship. What better way to teach geography? Experience it first hand! Ah well, I suppose this will not come true in this lifetime. I have found online a ship that is an educational institution indeed, but it is a university, not a middle or high school.

In those days, the French thought like the Saudis, namely, that little girls should learn some sewing skills. And so, once a week, the girls went to Sewing class while the boys would attend Carpentry class. I had at first feared more embroidery, with the vivid memory of my handkerchief flowers sewn onto my skirt. But the prof assumed we all did not even know how to thread a needle. Good! I needed to start from there. I gratefully and eagerly soaked in the instructions on how to make a knot (oh, so that’s why mine always slipped…), how to push the needle with a thimble, how to cut the thread, and other such basic skills. It is possible that back in Jeddah, everyone learned these from their mothers at home, but Mama was a typical Asian mother of the 20th century. We were intended for careers; feminine arts and domestic skills we did not need, and consequently were not taught. The first project she gave us was to make a bedsheet. She said that bedsheets needed to be cut down the middle, because they always become worn out there, and so need strengthening when you first buy them. So we all brought a shoe box that was meant to be a doll’s bed, and made a mattress, then a bedsheet, and a pillowcase. I sweated day after day, poking my finger again and again, trying to master the front stitch, the back stitch and so on. Today I can hem my clothes and sew my buttons back on, and it is her I must thank for it. She also introduced us to the sewing machine. There was only one in the sewing classroom, and we would take turns using it. It was very modern and was electric! All we had to do was press the pedal down with our foot and it would run like a dream. I am proud to state that I actually passed that class honorably.

point avant, point arriere

Every new school I went to, I would dread most the PE class. Thank God they skipped that in Jeddah. At the CES, PE for girls was divided into gymnastics and dance. Now, I say, this is a very good idea. What is wrong with moving to music being considered a sport? I really wish more schools around the world would do that too. PE is not all about grown men fighting over a single ball. My take on this matter: give them each a ball and let’s be done with it. In the first trimester, we learned folk dances again. What can I say, I love folk dances. My favorite from the elementary school was the Maypole dance which ended with a beautiful multicolored braid around the pole. In 6eme, my favorite was the Tarantella. It started easily enough but then moved on to finish with a lively step-point hop in a diamond shape front, left, right and back: right foot step front, left foot toe-point next to it; then left foot steps left left, with right toe pointing next to it; and so on stepping right and finally back. Then as the music livens up, you start jumping and skipping rather than step. You keep your two arms up in the air on either side and snap to the rhythm.

It is strange that folk dancing is a missing item in American public education. When I took my daughter to her Model United Nations international conference in Athens, Greece recently, the entertainment crew on the ship called on the tourists to compete in learning and dancing a Greek line dance to the tune of Zorba the Greek. Just about every nationality did better than the American students.

ballet fifth position

In the second trimester we took classical ballet. I was thankful for that because I did regret kicking a fuss and screaming my head off as a four-year-old when Mama attempted to sign me up for a ballet class. I loved learning the five basic foot positions, especially the fifth one, and doing the barre exercises. Unfortunately, I was never singled out for the beauty of my posture or position as some other classmate was. Many may think that it is ridiculous for an entire nation of girls to learn ballet, since they cannot possibly all end up as ballerinas. Well, this situation is actually a step down from the 14th or 17th century when boys too had to learn ballet. And I certainly support the idea, when I see our modern teenagers slouching on their chairs, slouching as they traipse and shuffle around, and slouching even when they are just standing.  Girls tend to clonk around in their high heeled shoes. Contrast this with the young men of 18th or 19th century Europe, as exemplified in that scene from Pride and Prejudice when Elizabeth enters the drawing room and sees Darcy, Colonel Fitzgerald and even Mr. Collins gracefully standing each in a striking pose (though Mr. Collins’ pose was rather ridiculous), one fist on the hip or one hand lightly resting on the mantelpiece. Girls who take classical ballet walk gracefully, hold their head and shoulders with royal poise, and keep their back straight even when sitting.

By the third trimester, we moved on to modern dances such as the Casatchok, which was danced to the tune of the Russian folk song Katyusha.  All Paris was in frenzy about the Casatchok, and it was then a party dance. My friend Catherine, who considered herself a ballerina, would cry and refuse to dance it. I, on the other hand, enjoyed greatly the Russian folk aspect of it, except for the ending acrobatics done with jumping squats and kicks. I invariably ended up on my butt on the floor.

Casatchok, Rika Zarai

The Casatchok, as danced in France in 1968-69

Modern technology is such a miracle! The link above is almost the exact replica of the version we danced at school, except for their final acrobatics which are harder than ours. As all fads do, the Casatchok craze came and went, and none of my children know how to dance it.


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Skeletons, and How to Attract Ghosts

I was vaguely aware then of major earthquakes within the French Educational system that year. I knew that we only had to pick one modern foreign language and unlike the years before us, did not have to take any classical language until two years later in 4eme when we would also add a second modern language. Our middle school was called then a CES, or College d’Enseignement Secondaire. I was not aware that this classification disappeared in 1977 to be replaced by just the term “college”.  Which is why I couldn’t find on Google my alma mater as the CES Noyer-Durant, but as the College Georges Rouault in its place, occupying its address on the north eastern edge of Paris.


The “peripherique”, the loop of highway encircling Paris, ran right outside the school, a fact imprinted upon my brain by the one and only visit we ever received from our headmaster. For some mysterious reason, he passed by our classroom one day and embarked upon a lecture on the undesirability of chewing gum in class. He pointed out that we had a spread of grass outside the windows, under the highway. There, he asserted, was where cows could graze. If we chose to chew gum and become cows, then we belonged on that bit of grass, not inside the classroom.

As luck would have it, our science class in the first trimester dealt at that time precisely with cows, or the bovine family. I am still amazed today at the details we used to go into in biology, since not one student in Grade 6 today is able to draw, freehand, the entire skeleton of a cow, a horse, a rabbit, a dog, a cat, a chicken, a bat, and a fish; as well as their skulls, in profile, and their teeth, as viewed from above. All to scale, and properly labeled. We would be tested on these drawings. I do mean that as a chapter test, we would be given a piece of blank paper and asked to draw for example the skeleton of the cow with its scientific name and labels, with a correct scale. Or the drawing of the cow’s stomachs, including the direction the food went.  Today, students are unable to even label a pre-printed drawing properly, with correct spelling, let alone draw one. Our biology teacher, who I think was called Mme Loiseau (though I could be wrong), was an elderly lady who was passionate about living things, and would show us a real specimen of a dead bat, and how it would hang upside down on her sweater. We spent the first week relearning to write the alphabet correctly in print, so we could write our labels legibly and beautifully, in ink. The drawings would be sketched lightly in pencil, and then traced over in ink.

Identify what animal this skull belongs to. Then write its scientific name and common name as title, and label all parts and teeth.

Identify what animal this skull belongs to. Then write its scientific name and common name as title, and label all parts and teeth.

We then studied the human body, skeleton and organ systems in the second trimester, also complete with drawings and labels, then moved to flowering plants in the third trimester. Our professor would drive out to the countryside over the weekend to bring us fresh flowers for our herbarium the following week. Yes, each one of us had to create our own herbarium, by dissecting and fixing the flowers of such or such a family to a piece of paper to be kept in our folder, then drawing and coloring on the opposite page the exact replica of the live specimen, and add, again accurate title (scientific and common names), labels and scale. At the bottom right-hand corner, we stated the number of stamens, pistils, petals and sepals, and what number they were multiples of. I compare the result of such training to that of the students of today in the States, and find the latter appallingly lacking. Students mix up stamens with just about anything else, and fertilization with seed dispersal. If one dissects a dozen different families of pistils, there is no way one forgets what they are and the fact that they are not called anthers.

Needless to say, I fell in love with biology that year. I have no memory whatsoever of what we did in art at all, but remember vividly my drawings of skeletons, buttercups and lilies-of-the-valley.


Music also took a new turn for me that year. In elementary school, music class consisted mainly of learning French or international folk songs, in several parts. I would be generally placed in the first group (soprano I) but would memorize all three parts and sing them at home. Occasionally, the teacher would bring a record, say of Beethoven’s Pastorale, explain it, and make us listen to it. In 6eme, we still sang folk songs in parts, but by springtime, the teacher also asked us all to buy recorders so she could groom a recorder orchestra. I loved it. Piano lessons had never been resumed after we left to Turkey, but that same  year, in our new furnished apartment, there was an upright piano. I played songs by ear and had a lot of fun singing along my own playing, and showing my cousin how to play. But we never got a teacher or any kind of formal lessons. So you can imagine how excited I was to finally resume learning how to play an instrument! We started by practicing the scale over and over, making sure to close the holes properly with the fat pad of our fingers, and eventually started playing simple tunes. Of course, we regularly forgot to practice and would do so the night before music class. Saadia would practice earnestly, but Aunt Lily would run over to our room and stop her, “Don’t play the flute (!) at night!!! It attracts ghosts!” So Saadia would hide inside the closet among the coats and practice there. I am not sure whether the ghosts came and hid in the closet too. Saadia never told us. Despite my bad habit of procrastinating on practice, the music teacher thought I was excellent at the recorder and would make me perform in front of the whole class.

Wooden recorder
Wooden recorder



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