Life of a Rooster

Memoirs of a psychiatrist, journalist and educator

Jet Life and the Diplomatic Corps

Papa’s position at the embassy in Amman was that of the Cultural Counselor. He had climbed up from the starting point of a Third Secretary in Paris to this quite lofty rung on the diplomatic ladder. Accordingly, Mama’s job — yes, all diplomats’ wives have an unofficial job of socialite, like it or not — also had cranked up a few notches. Diplomats’ daughters get added into the list of the Diplomatic Corps (the group of all accredited diplomats stationed in a country, or CD) at age sixteen, while sons only get this honor at age 21. I did not make those rules. If anyone wants to scream discrimination, look elsewhere for the culprit.

Being part of the CD came with a host of privileges. These included not getting checked at the airport customs, holding a special diplomatic passport, immunity for legal issues such as crimes, displaying a special CD plate on your car, and so on. But it also came with a number of restrictions. Since one now represented one’s country, one could not act as an individual and exhibit personal freedom any more. For example, we could not travel to any other country, even for tourism, without approval from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

CD, corps diplomatiqueAnd so it was that Saadia became listed on the Corps Diplomatique soon after our arrival, while I did so the year after. It wasn’t just the diplomat’s wife but his grown daughters too who got pulled into all the social functions, willy nilly. Thus, Saadia and I, besides becoming habitual baby-sitters of all the embassy kids during major functions, also started participating actively in the social and cultural aspects of Papa’s job.

Papa often received invitations to cultural events, and took us along. Consequently, I got to see the Bolshoi Ballet and many other wonderful performances. Roxy’s father being also a diplomat — with the Pakistani embassy– we often ended up going together. I made it a habit of going backstage to get the performer’s autograph, dragging Roxy with me. It wasn’t fan girling, really. But it allowed me to see these performers up close, in their off-stage real characters. It was really a shockPearl Bailey, for example, to find all those pretty butterfly-like ballet dancers actually reeking with sweat and caked with makeup! Once, we saw Pearl Bailey perform at the Sports City theater. I absolutely loved her stage presence! She moved me with her story of coming back from a near death experience and delighted me with her majestic sudden interruption of a song to ask the photographer with the glaring flash light to take his pictures while she would pretend to be singing and be done with it. I asked Papa to wait for me and ran backstage with Roxy, program in hand. Pearl Bailey happened to be talking with an American local couple, probably from the American embassy, so I politely waited a few steps away. This star of the stage did not pay me any attention, although I was facing her, for maybe a full twenty minutes, until the woman she was talking to finally interrupted her hesitatingly, “Er… maybe you can talk to these young girls first?” She looked very annoyed, and turned to us almost angrily, “OK, what is this about?” I replied, “May I have your autograph, please?” She grabbed the program and the pen rather forcefully, and asked in an impatient and frustrated voice, “How many are there?” By now I was almost happy to reply, “Just me… just one.” And this is how I possess an autograph of Pearl Bailey. Whom I stopped admiring totally after getting that autograph.

However, our main job as diplomat’s daughters was to help out at our own embassy formal functions. Our two major events were the National Day on October 10th, and the Military Day earlier, in September. All the important members of the government as well as members of the Royal family would be invited, along with many from the Diplomatic Corps, and various Jordanians that each embassy staff member personally knew. In fact, my father had to report on a regular basis how many new people he had made acquaintance with, and how many dinner parties –complete with full name list– he had thrown.

We young girls would canapes with caviardress up in beautiful gowns, while all the ladies had to wear something that showed our Chinese culture. It usually meant wearing a Qi Pao. I must apologize here for derailing again from the topic, but I must mention that all through my childhood, every single lady from the embassy always wore a qi pao with slits coming up only to the knee. I am very sure of it, not just because of the suviving photographs, but also because I occasionally would be lent one to wear at certain functions, and hated having to walk in a lady-like manner because the dress would get torn if I’d walked with my big strides. Today, in many movies and TV dramas, ladies from the 1940’s onward are shown wearing qi paos with slits up the thigh stopping just before the underwear line. There is no way anyone from that era could have shown that much skin. It was then extremely shocking to do so. It wasn’t until the 1970’s, when the mini skirt had become old hat, that the qi pao slit moved up to the upper thigh.

At first, we were assigned greeting jobs: handing out pamphlets at the door, or pinning flags or badges on the guests. At times, I would be called to join the guests inside the hall, to make conversation with one VIP or another. We developed the art of animated conversations about nothing: the weather, living in Jordan, and other such apolitical topics. These were called “cocktail parties”, but usually there wasn’t any alcohol served.  Black-tied and white shirted waiters would circulate around with trays of drinks and pretty tiny appetizers. I believe it was then I developed a taste for caviar. Years later, my duties would grow to taking pictures or filming videos. And the conversations outgrew the light meaningless how-is-the-weather variety.



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The disease called Shyness

That year, as a new student in the first year of a high school, I finally experienced something tremendously meaningful for me. It was the first time in my life that I would start the school year not only on time, but with a group of students who all were new too. For once, I would not be the circus clown with all eyes on me. I would not be the odd one out, in a place where everyone already had fixed social circles. That in itself was a wonderful experience I was looking forward too expectantly!

entrance to Taipei First Girls High School

Entrance Gate to Taipei First Girls High School

The first thing I noticed, was how well planned the registration, orientation and other start-of-school affairs were. Thousands of students, and we all lined up in a long queue that took us from booth to booth — or rather, doorway of classroom to doorway of classroom with a desk across it —  and by the time we finished the obstacle course, we had everything processed, from Student ID card to fee payments, to picking up books, uniforms, etc.

On the first day of school, I happily surveyed the faces around me. All shy and uncomfortable. I suddenly felt like a veteran of first-day-in-schools-filled-with-unknown-faces. I felt on top of the world. Poor girls! I was going to mentor them all! Say hello and make friends with everyone, put them out of their misery! Yes, Fawzia to the rescue!

mighty mouse to the rescue

Then, we sat in class for our first meeting with our homeroom teacher. She had already lined us up by height and assigned class numbers, then seated us accordingly. Being tall — well, not in the West, but yes, I am supposed to be tall in Taiwan — I got seated somewhere in the back, I think it was the last row.  Then Teacher Yang asked us all to stand up in turn, starting with Number One, and introduce ourselves. They were all very shy, and murmured rather than speak out loud, and all followed the same format: “My name is so and so; I am ranked Number such and such among my siblings; I come from such and such Junior High School. Please direct and guide me!” How very boring. I thought my speech out. I’m going to say my name, mentioning that my last name is Mai as in Buying something, that it’s a rare name because I’m Muslim; I’m going to tell them I came back from Paris, that my Chinese is not as good as theirs, … then I would add some interesting details, then end up with the proper Chinese etiquette, “Please direct and guide me!”

In the Far East, a common ending to self-introduction speeches is to ask for everyone else to guide the newbie.  This shows humility and knowledge of one's place in the pecking order.

In the Far East, a common ending to self-introduction speeches is to ask for everyone else to guide the newbie. This shows humility and knowledge of one’s place in the pecking order.

Happily, I waited for my turn to come. I stood up, opened my mouth, then it happened. Again. Again. The same thing as always. I stuttered. I stammered. I sweated and trembled, and choked on my words. I don’t think anyone understood what I managed to get out of my constricted throat. I gave up and sat down again. I felt my heart beating as fast as galloping horses and my hands were still trembling uncontrollably. I hung my head. I realized at that moment, that my shyness had spiraled totally out of control and was now pathological. A disease. Mortified, I heard some neighboring voice whispering, “She speaks very strangely…!”

Shyness, or social anxiety, can be extremely crippling.

Shyness, or social anxiety, can be extremely crippling.

 Today, I can analyze clearly the situation. Rewarding previous anxious moments with the relaxation of avoidance had led to today’s automatic switch to the default spasms in my throat and an outpouring of sympathetic nervous system transmitters. The unwarranted fear-fight-flight reaction exaggerated to an extreme.

I made a vow there and then that I must cure myself of it. Somehow. Face the world without fear. Or I would live a crippled life forever.

Strangely, it was the decision that led to the gradual recovery and near-total cure. I had no knowledge of how to cure myself at the time. But I knew I did not want this to happen any more. The only thing I recall to have done knowingly thereafter was that whenever I came across situations that would have frightened me previously, I would now purposely refuse to seek Saadia’s reassuring presence and brave the situation alone. As of today, I look back and see that long road to recovery, still strewn with obstacles and relapses, but slowly taking me to a strange new land, that of individual freedom and happiness.

Actually, a couple of years later, it swung to the total opposite, and I became obnoxious, and loud, and always the life of the party. But eventually it swung back again, back and forth with smaller distances, over the years, until I now find myself in a comfortable zone.

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