Life of a Rooster

Memoirs of a psychiatrist, journalist and educator

Leaving my homeland

Jordan, mapSometime early in 1972, Papa told us he had been given the order to transfer abroad again, this time to Jordan. Jordan wasn’t totally unknown to us. We passed through it back in 1964 on our way from Ankara to Jeddah. So Mama started packing once again. And Papa made the decision to leave Saadia and me here in Taiwan.

Papa valued education above all. We had loved the two years of reunion with Papa, Mama and my little siblings, and my heart froze when he mentioned splitting the family up yet again. His reasoning: we were doing well by then in Bei Yi Nu, the top girls high school in Taiwan. Saadia had already made it to first place in her class and I was somewhere close, in the top ten (sixth by December, my diary did not state my rank in the subsequent months). We were on our way to the best university upon graduation. On the other hand, he assumed Jordan was like Saudi Arabia, with miserable prospects for girls’ education. So, the choice was made.

Mama talked to a cousin of hers, who accepted to have the two of us live in. My heart felt bitter-sweet. So my great progress in Chinese led me to be separated again from my family? We visited the cousin’s apartment. It felt dreary and grey and drab and cold to me. But Papa’s decisions were always law. So I never even tried protesting the decree.

In April, our ambassador to Jordan passed away suddenly, so the vice military attache came back to Taiwan, to accompany his remains home. Papa met with him and the two had a lively discussion about Jordan. Papa came home, and brightly announced that Saadia and I could come along after all! He had found out that the education scene in Jordan was not at all like that in Jeddah. Apart from the government schools, there were excellent English medium private Christian schools that prepared students for the British university entrance exams! Now, if the reader remembers, my father had himself graduated from some fine private Catholic high schools in China. Private Christian schools were the cream of schools in China in his days; their students usually came from the best families and their graduates would become the future leaders of the country.  Melody, ad

Thus, we notified our classmates and teachers of our imminent departure, and despite a twinge of regret at missing out on the marching drill team,  happily got ready to embark again on a new adventure! I tried to imagine what an English school would be like. My only references were movies like “Melody” (starring my favorite child actor Mark Lester, and with sound tracks by the Bee Gees). As a side note, I just found out from Wikipedia that the movie was a disappointing flop in the USA and Britain, while a great box office success in Japan and Latin America. Well, I can add that it definitely was a smash hit in Taiwan! I bought the sound track record and memorized every song. All the girls loved the movie and Mark Lester! Its title in Chinese was Liang Xiao Wu Cai, meaning Two Naive Innocent Children, meaning naive in the sense of love.

Well, to return to my topic, I was imagining then that my future English school would be something like those old wood paneled walls and somber corridors. That my future instructors  would be like the strict, poker faced teachers in Melody. My readers, you will have to be a little bit patient to find out whether I was right.

fiddler on the roof, ad

In the meantime, we had to face a different dilemma. Papa had already purchased airline tickets for the whole family minus the two of us, and it was too late to get us on the same flight. So it was that everyone left for Hong Kong one week before Saadia and I. We stayed with my godfather Wang Sir and his young wife Ah Giao in the meantime. We dragged her to the cinema to watch Fiddler on the Roof.  Knowing full well that Ah Giao did not understand English, nor did she read Mandarin Chinese very well, I kept a running commentary of on-the-spot translation mixed with explanation of the plot, totally out of guilt. When Tevye stood finally, miserable, alone in his field, his youngest daughter leaving him behind, I was stifling my sobs, and struggling not to let Ah Giao see me cry. Finally, I stole a glance at her, and found her happily snoring away in her seat, head fallen on one side. Ah! I thought, all my beautiful translations lost to posterity…

 

 

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We do not exist

One of the hot topics in the news right now is President Obama’s bold move to normalize relations with Cuba. As much as there are supporters of this new direction, there are some vociferous voices outraged by the recognition given to an oppressive Communist regime. This is exactly how it felt right then, in 1971.

Chiang Kai-shek and Richard Nixon

Chiang Kai-shek and Richard Nixon

What felt like a tornado turning my world topsy turvy and blowing it away, was probably barely noticed by the rest of my peers across the ocean. In July 1971, then US President Nixon announced his intention to visit Communist China. In the depths of the Cold War, the acknowledged leader of the Free World was holding out his hand to the enemy. Soon after, on October 25, 1971, the United Nations General Assembly passed Resolution 2758 which pretty much kicked us, the Republic of China, out of the United Nations and welcomed the People’s Republic of China as the legitimate representative of China.

PRC delegation formally seated in the General Assembly, New York, 15 November 1971

PRC delegation formally seated in the General Assembly, New York, 15 November 1971

No, I’m not being melodramatic. The terms were actually “expel the representatives of Chiang Kai-shek from the place which they unlawfully occupy at the United Nations.”  Well, if that was unlawful, did we sit there all by ourselves for  twenty some years? Did the other countries not sit around us watching us all this time? Did they never notice the “unlawfulness” of the situation before? This was adding insult to injury.

I am not sure what the feelings of my classmates were exactly. Did they realize the extent of the meaning of this resolution? Having grown up in the household of a diplomat made me highly aware of the situation. Having lived through our ignominous “expulsion” from France, I was extremely sensitive to the international status of my country. I felt all of a sudden that we had been abandoned by the world. They did not recognize our existence on earth any more. Our country had been kicked into outer space to float forever, as ignored and marginalized and I had been in every single school I had attended in France, Turkey and Saudi Arabia.

The reaction was swift from the authorities. My class, along with a few others, was called to participate in the “spontaneous” student demonstrations in front of the Presidential palace, which, truth be told, was right around the block from our school. We filed out of the building, picked up banners and signs that were placed along the wall, and were led to our spot in the square. We marched and shouted slogans for an hour or more, then returned to school and placed our signs back in their place. We were then told that for our efforts, we had earned the rest of the day off. That was great news indeed! So I happily took the bus home.

It was hard to say whether I was still heartbroken at my country’s demise or happy for the day off. For us, East Asian students who studied round the clock and lived from test to test, such unexpected respite was a drop of heaven. It was a strange mood I was in.

In January, when we returned for the second semester, our Chinese textbooks started as usual with a text by Dr. Sun Yat-sen. But Chapter 2, surprise surprise, was the speech by President Chiang Kai-shek following our expulsion from the UN, urging the masses to remain calm. I nearly cried with despair. I wrote in my weekly journal that the wound was still fresh and yet, here it was already consigned to history! A mere chapter in our reading textbook! Teacher Yang replied equally passionately. No, she cried in her elegant brush strokes, it is not history! It is not buried! We must remember the shame we suffered!

we don't want you

That was almost 44 years ago. In the intervening years, Nixon did go to China the following summer. And China slowly unfolded, opening its doors to the rest of the world.  The madness of an isolated world slowly dissipated on the mainland, and sanity moved in, slowly but surely. Eventually, even the relationship between us, what is termed in Chinese “the relations of the two coasts”, normalized itself in stages.  Today, China is thriving and poised to become a world power leading the way in the 21st century. Would this have happened had the “Free World” insisted on shunning it?

As an older and, I hope, wiser person now, I realize that the move to recognize China was not only an economically motivated one, but also a political one, aimed at offsetting the balance that the USSR commanded. Was it wise? Was it better for everyone in the end?

And so I say, to those who cry out for their oppressed Cuban family and friends, maybe it is a wiser move after all. If you can’t beat them, join them!

 

 

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Jack of All Trades

To blame my classmates for not tapping into all of my abilities was actually a bit unfair. I was still struggling in the shadow of the dreaded disability of shyness and would shrink from any bit of limelight.

Classroom poster competitions are very common in the Far East.

Classroom poster competitions are very common in the Far East.

The school ran a competition for best class poster and class decoration. A committe was formed and during our weekly class meeting, I suggested making a huge wall poster that would be a quilt-like combination of flower squares. The flowers could be cut from colored pages of magazines. The committee adopted my idea but I shrank from asking to be included in the team, and the final result was far from my original vision. It was a garden scene with a low fence in front. We did not win.

There were a lot of school competitions. Considering that we were twenty some classes of fifty some students in Year One alone, there was plenty to compete about. One day we were told to form a basketball team in each class, and we would compete for the best basketball team. Only the tallest could join the team. Alas, I was among the few tallest. I had to join.  I laugh even today, remembering how the few of us poor tall gangly girls, bespectacled and nerdy, gathered on the court at lunch times, and milled around, listelessly trying to get the ball into the basket. We’d try to do something that looked like dribbling and then look at our watches and say, oh, oh, time up! Needless to say, we didn’t win.

These are the real school basketball team in jade green uniforms. We looked nothing like this.

These are the real school basketball team in jade green uniforms. We looked nothing like this.

Then we were told of the solo singing competition. Each class had to have a representative. My closest friends immediately nudged me in unison, “Mai Tai-Chi, you! You! Let’s nominate her!” What? How did they know I had a good voice? I was scared of the limelight and of being again shunned as the outsider. I glared at them, and with a steely and dangerous voice, warned them not to even try or else. They opened their eyes in wide surprise but all brought down the hands they had raised. So I didn’t sing. The poor girl who was eventually chosen tried hard. She took private lessons that she paid for out of pocket, and still lost. Thinking back, I feel really bad for her.

And then there was the swimming competition. I kept remembering that Saadia alone had the courage to take part in it. But I cannot believe, upon reviewing that year in my diary, that I too took part in it. Really? When the girls heard that we’d had swimming lessons in France, they pushed me. Well, if only they knew… right? For the readers who have not read about my school days in France,  let’s just say I was lucky I didn’t drown. One classmate, who was a swimmer, cornered me one day and asked me about my flip turns. How did I do them? Er… what are flip turns? The pool was a murky-looking affair that was more like an overgrown pond probably more suited to biological experiments in protists and algae, and I never walked by it without thinking of some cheap thriller. I still can’t believe I actually swam in there.

dictionary stand

But I made up some really exciting competitions of my own. One month, my neighboring (neighbors in seating)  friends and I were assigned during lunch hour to dust the 4th floor of the library. So we’d swallow our lunch as fast as possible and head to the brick building that was the library. Dusting was a quick chore then we’d make a bee line to the beautiful wooden stands that held huge English dictionaries. I’d open a random page of the largest tome, and pick a word. On the count of three, we each started flipping like crazy through the dictionary in front of each of us, and the fastest one to find it would win. I always won. Silly game, and obviously rigged, for, looking up words with Latin letters was what I’d done for years in my childhood. My friends never thought it so, because this was English, not French, and they greatly enjoyed the game.

Speaking of French, two of my classmates, Chen Chian-Mei and Shao Lei-Yin, took French classes outside of school with a French nun. Chen was the top ranked girl in my class and I was rather in awe of her. She also dared have a layered hair cut instead of the uniform bob! The two of them would often ask me for help with their French homework and with other problems such as pronunciation or vocabulary. Interestingly, I met Chen’s father some years later abroad and reconnected with Shao in recent years through the internet.

One day, as Chen and Shao returned to their seats after a session of French with me, another girl in my vicinity, Luo Wei-Jing, remarked out loud, in an emotionless tone, “It is true you may know more languages than we do, Mai Tai-Chi, but you are not good at any of them.”

Jack of all trades and master of none

Jack of all trades and master of none

To the extremely competitive me of the time, this was a slap in the face. In other words, she was telling me I was a jack of all trades but a master of none. I thought about it at night, tossing and turning in my bed. I used to be years ahead of my peers in French, but now that I was in Taiwan, all of my French classmates probably had caught up and surpassed me. I knew some English, but obviously, although I was the best in English in Taiwan, I was still a second language learner and couldn’t compete with a native speaker. I knew Arabic, but that was water under the bridge and still at a second grade level. Chinese, it was painfully obvious that I was still trying to compete for the top spots in class. Conclusion, Luo was right. I was master of none.

I then made a decision. I had to excel at one language at least. I had to. I pondered long and hard and wondered which it should be. French was still my best language then. I do not remember whether I chose French then, because the only way to improve it then was by reading more books and writing more diary. But definitely, a few years later, I clearly remember deciding it had to be English. Again, I am jumping ahead of my story, and I shall tell about this in a further post.

excellence

 

 

 

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Color Difficult

I am really very thankful to my father for having made us keep a diary. If not for my diary, I would have long forgotten that by the end of December 1971, I had caught up enough to rank 6th in my class. Considering there were 56 students in the class, and that this was the very best girls high school in Taipei, I should have been proud of myself. But I wasn’t. Saadia was first in her class, and Ibtissam had been first in hers since the very first month. The one silver lining was that I was now close to my goal, for thus I became eligible for the school marching drill team.

French history was previously my favorite subject.

French history was previously my favorite subject.

I do remember however, that by the second semester, I had over 75% in all subjects except History, where I scored barely above 65%. If my readers remember, back in Paris, I was considered a genius at history, and the thought of studying 5,000 years of Chinese history had delected me! But now, it actually became my Waterloo. When I tell other Chinese today that Chinese history was taught in classical Chinese, they look puzzled and mutter, “I don’t think so…”  But then I ask them, “Very well, just tell me what is Qin Shi Huang (of the Great Wall and terracotta soldiers fame) is known for.” They usually then recite, “shu tong wen” — writing same script; “che tong gui” — chariots same tracks; “tong yi du liang heng” — unification of measurement units; etc”  And I ask them, “Is this modern Chinese?”

Chariot widths and wheel sizes were standardized during the reign of Qin Shi Huang.

Chariot widths and wheel sizes were standardized during the reign of Qin Shi Huang.

Today, after watching hundreds of Chinese period movies and TV dramas, I have become very good at reading and understanding those contracted expressions that are based on classical or semi-classical Chinese. But I am sure that a beginner in Chinese, even with armed with a decent knowledge of spoken modern Mandarin would have an equally hard time with a downpour of such terms. Our history teacher stated during her first lesson that she was sure we all knew the material very well and therefore needed no explanation.  She would therefore just tell us which main points to underline and memorize for tests (for our textbooks were disposable things printed on cheap paper), and narrate stories related to the topic. I loved the idea of the stories, except that she spoke to herself, marching up and down the front of the classroom and chuckled to herself, and I understood absolutely nothing.

The one thing that stands out during that year is the bond I formed with my homeroom teacher, our Chinese literature teacher, Ms. Yang Jing-Zhi. There was something called the weekly journal, a notebook made of rice paper and printed with squares, in which we had to write with Chinese brush and ink on the weekends and bring back to school on Mondays. My classmates generally wrote what they did that week. I quickly got bored doing that and, since I’d kept a diary for years by then, I decided to write on more interesting topics. The teacher normally only penned/brushed a large “Yue” (“I have read this”) character in red ink on the page, meaning that she had read it. I wondered whether she ever really did. Well, I soon found out.

Keeping a journal is a deeply traditional Chinese habit. Writing it in calligraphy is considered personal discipline and training.

Calligraphied journal, by Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek. Keeping a journal is a deeply traditional Chinese habit. Writing it in calligraphy is considered personal discipline and training.

So, there was a class called “Lun Yu”, or “The Analects of Confucius”. We read it in class in its original form, which is classical Chinese, then worked through the “translation” into modern Chinese, and the list of vocabulary to memorize. That was it. But, having been trained in France to critique everything, I started critiquing Confucius. Remember I was a teen by then, and in the age of rebellion. So one day, we read that Zi Lu (one of Confucius’ disciples) reported that when he asked the Master about filial piety, Confucius replied, “Se nan.” Literally, “Color difficult.” Or, in the full translation, “The hardest part of being good to your parents is your attitude.”  Color here meaning the color of your face, or your facial expression.

That really infuriated me. That weekend, I ventilated in my weekly journal. What? My facial expression? Really? We Chinese children have such a hard time, always having to bend our shoulders and mutter assents to whatever our parents dictate.  We cannot say “no” to anything nor even put up an “attitude”. The only freedom we have left is our facial expression. Should that be taken away from us too then? What did Confucius really know about filial piety? His own parents died when he was young. What did he know about parental expectations? What did he ever do to be good to his parents? He should walk the talk!

Filial piety is one of the most highly valued virtues in Chinese culture.

Filial piety is one of the most highly valued virtues in Chinese culture.

That’s when I found out that Teacher Yang actually did read the journals! She answered in her beautiful brush calligraphy a whole paragraph of retorts and words of comfort. I cannot even remember what she said. All I remember is being shocked that she had read it and answered it! It was then that we started corresponding through this journal. Every week I would critique, comment or just blow up about one or another of those pet peeves that plague teenagers, and she would reply. I think that both my Chinese writing skills and my brush calligraphy skills improved because of her. I came to look forward to her replies.

Towards the end of the year, in May of 1972 — although I am jumping forward here — I told her that we were to leave again, since my father had been assigned a new post abroad. That week, her assigned essay topic was, “That day”, which in Chinese can be read as, “Which day?” meaning, “When?”  I deployed my full emotions here, asking “When shall I see my homeland again?” starting with a paragraph imagining my upcoming plane flight and describing the little houses shrinking and disappearing under the clouds. She gave me a great score for that and even read it out loud in class. This was the first time ever a writing teacher read my essay out loud in class ever since I left the CES Noyer-Durant and Mme Forhan’s class.  It really pleased me but unfortunately this was the last essay I ever wrote for Teacher Yang.

The next day, she came to class without her textbook. She honestly told us all the truth –that she had forgotten it at home–  and said that instead of teaching literature, she was going to give us a little speech. She started talking about Saadia and me, for she was also Saadia’s Chinese teacher, though not her homeroom teacher.  She scolded our classmates for not having tried to know us better or take advantage of our presence in school. She mentioned how Saadia had been elected Head of Hygiene and Cleanliness in her class and had fundraised to buy a can of paint and had a team of students repaint the teacher’s podium and desk. How foreign educated students had a different approach and how the two of us had so much to contribute yet our classmates had not tapped us fully.a tear

Hum, hum. To say I wasn’t touched would be to lie. I was very touched. As I raised my head, I saw tears rolling down from her eyes too.

 

 

 

 

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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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Jade Vases

Thus in the fall of 1971, Saadia and I started school at the best girls’ high school in Taipei. Nothing else marked that summer except for the Chens leaving to return to France, and the arrival back to Taipei of our friend Ibtissam Ting.

Saying goodbye to the Chen family at the Sungshan Airport in Taipei.  I am the tall gangly and grouchy teen in the too-short-dress.

Saying goodbye to the Chen family at the Sungshan Airport in Taipei. I am the tall gangly and grouchy teen in the too-short-dress.

The Chens had spent the year trying to assimilate to life in Taiwan. The children had all attended the nearby elementary school while continuing their French studies through correspondence school. That was my first introduction to long-distance education. I was surprised to see how fast they would finish a month’s work, wondering whether they were geniuses or they were skipping work. I tended toward the former, for Marie-France, who was my age, read regularly L’Express, which is the French equivalent of Newsweek. I might have been a prodigy when it came to classical literature, but contemporary news and politics bored me prodigiously. I’m not quite sure what the reason was for their decision to go back to Paris. Maybe the job didn’t work out satisfactorily, or maybe the family could not adapt to a Chinese lifestyle. We saw them off at the airport. I have never met them again, though news of them still trickle to me now and then.

L'Express is a French news periodical similar to Newsweek.

L’Express is a French news periodical similar to Newsweek.

I was thrilled to see Ibtissam again. She had lived a life similar to ours, Chinese Muslim family, diplomat father, and fluent in French. She had spent a lot of time in Belgium and Lybia. She now joined us at Taipei First Girls High School. She was assigned to First Year Zhong (A) class; I was in First Year Hsin (E) class, and Saadia in First Year Yi (F) class.

Just a little explanation about these tags. In Chinese, there is no alphabet, so it is hard to name classes: Grade 10A, 10B and so on. Instead of the alphabet, they use any list of words that are usually presented in a specific order. Let’s say, in English, one example could be the months of the year. So you could say Grade 10 January, Grade 10 February, and so on. A common list is Jia, Yi, Bing, Ding, etc, which had been used to name the years, before the Chinese Revolution. But since that list had already been applied to the high school sections ( Jia denotes physical sciences, Yi denotes liberal arts, Bing denotes life sciences, and Ding denotes accounting) a different list needed to be applied to class numbers. They chose the list of  eight virtues described by Dr. Sun Yat-Sun: zhong, xiao, ren, ai, xin, yi, he, ping — loyalty, filial piety, mercy and kindness, universal love, honesty, righteousness, harmony and peace. Which is why I was in Class One Honesty, Saadia in Class One Righteousness, and  Ibtissam  in Class One Loyalty.

zhong xiao ren ai

It had taken me an entire year of 9th grade to move from the bottom of the class to 12th out of 57. Now, having joined the elite of the country, I found myself back again at the bottom of the class. Not quite though. There were two girls from Burma who scored less than I did. On the first monthly report card, I ranked 38th out of 59, only because so many girls tied for their average score. Competition was so fierce that the first in the class and the tenth had a fraction of a point difference in their average score. I thought I had done pretty well until I found out that Ibtissam had ranked 6th in her class. Hadn’t she just returned from Belgium? How come her Chinese was better than mine? I was so depressed that I cried all night and was unable to sleep properly for two weeks. I thought I must be really stupid and slow. Mama scolded me for behaving like a loser. “She used to fly back to Libya every summer and her father used to tutor her in Chinese,” insisted Mama. It would appease me for a minute or two, until I remembered that I had had a whole year’s advantage of Chinese schooling over her and yet ranked 38th in my class. And I would start crying all over  again.

Competition was good for me. Back in France, Saadia and I had no competition to speak of. We only competed with each other. Here, I learned about hard work. As my classmates told me, success is 30% genius and 70% sweat. At least in Taiwan it was. Because in France, I only put in the 30% and easily ranked first. In Taiwan, I learned what the 70% was all about. That year, 10th grade, I moved from 38th to somewhere near the 10th in my class. To be totally truthful, part of the reason why I tried so hard was because I wanted to join the marching band. Only students who ranked in the first 10 in their class, and were above 160cm were selected in Year Two to join the marching band. I had the height, just not the rank. Yet.

The Taipei First Girls’ High School marching band was very famous in Taiwan. The girls wore a white and green uniform with long white boots and performed often for visiting VIPs. I had never seen a marching band before and was totally mesmerized by them. I just had to be one of them. Later, I read somewhere an article by a visiting journalist who had watched our marching band’s performance, and she remarked how Taiwan had well absorbed all aspects of American culture, including marching bands, complete with Souza music. I felt extremely insulted. I had never realized before that marching bands were a staple of American high schools.

The drum and brass band in red and white, the marching team in green and white. These are the famous Bei Yi Nu Marching Team girls.

The drum and brass band in red and white, the marching team in green and white. These are the famous Bei Yi Nu Marching Team girls.

But in the meantime, I sat in my new classroom, in my new emerald shirt and black pleated skirt, among 58 other emerald shirts and black pleated skirts. On his first day, one of our teachers, a male, remarked how  honored he was to be teaching a classroom of jade vases. Jade vases indeed!

 

 

 

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The River Ran Through China

yellow river

Dr. Umar Faruq Abd-Allah liked Islam to a river: Its waters are pure, sweet, and life-giving but — having no color of their own — reflect the bedrock over which they flow. Well, the river turned yellow and became quite unique when it flowed through China.

Papa belonged to what I term the “old Chinese Muslims”, that generation that is now vanishing, the generation that religiously avoided any form or shape of pork or lard, and refused to eat in a home or restaurant that had ever cooked pork. However, many of these same Muslims who retched and felt nauseated at the sight of bacon and sausages –even turkey or beef ones, for they looked and smelled like the pork ones — would happily drink alcohol and totally omit the five daily prayers. They would fast during Ramadan and attend Friday and Eid prayers, though. Most of the women from this sub-cultural group did not wear scarves except when they would go pray in the mosque. And even then, it often was a tiny bandana square that left the front and back hair exposed. I even saw women in knee length dresses, wearing transparent nylon stockings, and praying.

I really am not pointing fingers, only describing the result of pre-Reformation Islam in China. Sorry for borrowing the term. Today, with the explosion of the internet and the availability of religious information literally at the tips of ones fingers, it is very difficult to remain secluded in a corner of semi-ignorance. I have personally witnessed the change in many elders and contemporaries, towards a more mainstream practice of Islam.

Today the Islamic restaurants have multiplied in Taipei.

Today the Islamic restaurants have multiplied in Taipei.

But back in the 1970s, in Taiwan, we could not eat out except in Muslim restaurants or vegetarian Buddhist restaurants. That greatly limited Mama’s shopping time and radius. She would have to head out very early to be back in time for lunch, or then leave right after lunch to be back by dinner time. Alternatively, she would plan her shopping itinerary just right so that around lunch time she would be in the vicinity of the only two Muslim restaurants located in the shopping heart of Taipei, the XiMenDing area.

Our favorites were of course, the dumplings (jiao zi), steamed or steam-fried buns (bao zi), and meat-stuffed pancakes (xier bing).  We would stuff ourselves and buy extra to take home.

Xian-er bing, or pancakes stuffed with meat

Xian-er bing, or pancakes stuffed with meat

I do remember once, a new Islamic restaurant opened at the top of a commercial building, and we were treated there by the owner. It was there I first ate Peking-Duck-Three-Eats, meaning, the roasted skin served first, with little pancakes, shredded scallions and plum sauce; then the meat shredded and stir-fried with shiitake mushrooms and other vegetables; and finally the bones boiled into a light broth and served with cilantro and ginger. Since then I have found that different restaurants serve their own variations, some do the Two-Eats, meaning that the skin and meat are served together. The little pancakes, I have seen in a multitude of varieties, from flat and transparent all the way to raised and steamed and folded in two. And to top it all, we — actually my husband, not I — have even cooked and served it at our restaurant, — during the two years we had one — not telling anyone we had never roasted one ever before and reading out of a cookbook while making it. Amazingly, we were congratulated for the best Peking duck our discerning customers had ever eaten! But I am years ahead of my story, and this will have to wait a while.

The remaining bones are boiled into a soup.

The remaining bones are boiled into a soup.

Crispy slices of roasted duck skin with shredded scallion and hai-xian sauce in a flat steamed bun.

Crispy slices of roasted duck skin with shredded scallion and hai-xian sauce in a flat steamed bun.

 

The traditional pancake however is not raised, flat and thin, and used to roll the contents in.

The traditional pancake however is not raised, flat and thin, and used to roll the contents in.

The duck meat is shredded and stir fried with various vegetables. Here, with bean sprouts.

The duck meat is shredded and stir fried with various vegetables. Here, with bean sprouts.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Taipei is known to be a real heaven of street hawker foods. Yet, there were very few we, Chinese Muslims, could eat.  One was Stinking Tofu, that Papa relished. He kept telling to try some, and I, holding my nose, would just step back and shake my head. Papa always said, “Try some! If you don’t like it, just spit it out!” This was a philosophy passed on to him by his uncle. We all knew his famous Watermelon Story. The first time fresh watermelon was brought to their house, Papa as a child shrank from the new fruit. When urged to try some, he ran and hid himself in a bed cover closet. Finally, his uncle found him and brought him back to the dining room. He told him to just try, and that spitting out was OK. Papa was happily surprised to find that he did love the taste of watermelon! Somehow, that kind of bravery did not trickle down genetically, for I have never yet had the guts to try Stinky Tofu, or durian for that matter. A durian is a South East Asian fruit, large and spiky, that will kill you if it falls on your head, or if it sits in your dining room, since you will mistake its fragrance for that of unprocessed sewage, and die from its fumes. 

Mama, on the other hand, introduced us to the cool delights of shaved ice. Today, it has mutated into the ubiquitous smoothies and boba teas and invaded the West. Back then, shaved ice was precisely that: a block of ice shaven into fine snow and served on a plate. You could then have your choice of toppings, condensed milk (not for me), chopped seasonal fruits, syrup, green or red beans, or my new crave: tiny little balls of tapioca.  The large balls were not yet in fashion then.

A plate of shaved ice in Taipei. Here, shown with condensed milk, mango cubes and topped with a scoop of ice cream.

A plate of shaved ice in Taipei. Here, shown with condensed milk, mango cubes and topped with a scoop of ice cream.

Since most Islamic restaurants were small affairs, Muslim weddings were generally held in vegetarian Buddhist restaurants or strictly seafood restaurants, some of which were really grand. There I discovered a brave new world: vegetarian chicken, vegetarian sausages, and vegetarian just-about-any-type-of-meat-dish-you-can-dream-of. They looked and tasted just like the real thing! But they were made generally of tofu derivatives.

vegetarian chicken

It was also in Taipei that I was introduced to Japanese food, namely sushi. Grandpa Chang one day took Saadia and me to a real Japanese restaurant, one where the tables were low and you had to sit on flat cushions on the floor. For customers unused to cross-leg sitting, there were pits under the tables, so you could actually let your legs down in those pits. When I saw fish being served raw, I was totally put off. But one did not say no to Grandpa Chang, and when he insisted in his Taiwanese accented Mandarin that it tasted really good and proceeded to pick juicy chunks of fish in our plate, we had no choice but to comply. All it took was “try it!” like Papa said. I loved it! And ever since, I have turned into a sushi junkie.

However, we still ate home-made meals most of the time. Cooked by Mama. She still felt that cooking was her sole responsibility and only asked for our help if she was overwhelmed. I tried showing off the few dishes I’d learned with Aunt Lily, but that did not seem to impress Mama.

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Memory versus reality

So, I just got the great idea of checking my diary versus what I have written so far. Interesting how those golden years shone in my memory with certain pretty stars, and my diary speaks of other things.

The diary my third aunt gave me in 1970, and that I have kept till today.

The diary my third aunt gave me in 1970, and that I have kept till today.

Yes, we did keep up the habit of writing our journals, though they were more weekly or monthly entries rather than daily ones. When we arrived back in Taiwan, all the relatives gave us gifts. My third or fourth aunt gave me a beautiful little diary book, good for a year, with a hard cover and lined with embossed red velvet and the golden characters Beautiful Life up front. It even had monthly divisions with picturesque photos on one side and little essays on positive character traits on the other.  On top of every page, there was a little quote and a cute drawing. To top the whole, it even had a blue ribbon I could use to keep the page!

My first entry, upon arriving in Taiwan, was about the cockroaches! Yes, my dear little nemeses from Jeddah were here too, with a vengeance! I can tell I still wrote very much in French romantic style then (and in French still):

“August 1, 1970. I arrived in Formosa on July 27. I am really happy to see my family again and my only terror, it is the cockroaches (babarottes) also known as “blattes”, I think. The other night, I was so frightened that I rolled myself well in my bed cover. Result: heart tight with anguish, body dripping with sweat, I managed to fall asleep only in the early hours of the morning. So, last night, I went to sleep in Mama’s room…”

Speaking of cockroaches… They were of the big, huge, black variety. My old flying friend that triggered my cockroach-phobia. I guess they should not have been a surprise, considering the humid and warm climate as well as the open sewers that ran along the sides of all streets and lanes. They loved the kitchen and the bathrooms best, though no room was immune. I thought Papa was quite the hero, for one day, Mama managed to make him mount a campaign to eradicate the ones in the small bathroom  under the stairs. Papa armed himself with a few cans of insecticide, a large tall broom, a brush and pan set, and a pair of slippers. He marched triumphantly off to war with us clapping and cheering him on. He shut himself in the small bathroom and we heard thumping and stomping, spraying and slapping, and finally after what seemed an eternity, he reappeared, victoriously brandishing a trash can filled with hundreds of the filthy little pest. I promptly ran away from the disgusting sight.

lots of cockroaches

One day, I was showering in the bathroom in the evening. Just as we did in Jeddah, I would sit on a little stool in the bathtub, scoop hot water from a plastic bucket with a dipper, and pour it over myself. I picked up the loofah to soap and scrub myself, and to my intense horror, two huge ferocious dark cockroaches crawled out of it. Faster than it is taking me to type this, I threw the loofah on the floor, jumped out of the bathtub, and out of the bathroom, totally regardless of who was in the house at the time… and oh yes, I was screaming too, all the while… Papa and Abdul Kerim chivalrously killed them for me.

And finally, to top it all, I drank cockroach tea one day.  Mama always had a large cup of tea half filled with green tea leaves at the ready. She would brew a new cup every morning and refill it again and again with hot water throughout the day and night. One morning, I was quite thirsty and grabbed the first container of liquid I saw, which was Mama’s tall cup, still partially filled with leaves and cold tea. I gulped it enthusiastically, until, as the liquid drained out and the leaves gradually dried up, I saw a large dark mass dead among them… Well, I’ll spare you the screams, and retching, and spitting that followed… Needless to say, I never ever again picked up an unknown cup of liquid or placed one anywhere near my lips.

Another interesting discovery transpired when I flipped through the 1970 entries in my diary. Now that we are all adults, and not only that, we are all parents, and I am even a grandparent, I suppose it is all right to admit certain things I am not proud of from my childhood. Here is an excerpt from the entry of August 13, 1970. Which, by the way, surprised me a lot, because I always thought I was a very good elder sister, loving and protective toward my younger siblings. Here we go:

My brother, Abdul Kerim, back in 1970

My brother, Abdul Kerim, back in 1970

“… By the way, in his (Abdul Kerim’s) journal, he said that ‘in the past, his second elder sister used to love slapping him, but nowadays, she only did so occasionally, and that it didn’t hurt either.”

Really? I thought it was my brother who one day slapped me and got away with it even though I ran to tell Papa about it. In my memory I never ever slapped him. Well the next comment makes things worse…

“Evidently, since I dare not overdo it. Then in conclusion, he said that he loved me still anyway. That really touched me.”

Dear Brother, if you read this, I want to officially apologize to you for ever raising my hand to you. I’m sorry!

I'm sorry

 

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Hibiscus nectar and shamanism

Reuniting with my family was a warm and lovely experience, albeit heavily overshadowed by school work.

Abdul Kerim was now a third/fourth grader and Iffat went to preschool. As mentioned previously, a new little sister, Nadia, was born in December of 1970. And so, all of the siblings were now spaced five years apart, except for me who arrived only one year after Saadia. We often joked that Mama followed the example of the government of Taiwan, who followed a series of five-year-plans for its economic development.

Mama had a very hard time with the delivery and her life was in danger at one point. She and Papa decided to have her tubes ligated afterwards.  She had tried giving the Mai family at least one  more heir to carry on the name, but it was not to be. Papa asked Saadia and me for opinions on a name for the new baby. He chose two characters: Lei, meaning flower bud and Wei, meaning little rose or fern. Which did we like better? Saadia liked Lei and I liked Wei. So Papa elected to use Lei for her formal name, Mai, Tai-Lei, and give her the nickname WeiWei.

Taiwanese shaman

Taiwanese shaman

WeiWei was not an quiet baby. Was it three-month colic? She would wail and cry and writhe continuously. Mama was at her wits’ end. Then, behind Papa’s back, she secretly took her to a Taiwanese shaman who incanted  and chanted  and shook incense burners around her, and wrote illegible characters on a piece of paper folded and refolded into a tiny little packet. This he gave to Mama to pin on the baby’s clothes, together with more instructions on how to keep her soul in her body, which was the cause of her continuous crying. So upon alighting from the taxi that took her home, Mama called out in Taiwanese, “Wei Wei, deng ai la! deng ai la!” WeiWei, we are back! We are home! Supposedly telling the baby’s soul to not forget to come into the house with her. I think Saadia had accompanied her to the shaman, so Mama made her do the calling too. Mama claims that Nadia did calm down a lot afterwards, though I think it is possible all the smoke could have calmed her equally well.

Papa discovered under the baby’s clothing the thick red thread and the little packet some time later. He exploded at Mama, ranting against superstitions, and told her to get rid of those devilish things.

The red hibiscus has delicious nectar located deep inside the flower, at the base of the pistil.

The red hibiscus has delicious nectar located deep inside the flower, at the base of the pistil.

Iffat had grown into a lively, bright-eyed, cute and quick-minded imp, a little ball of energy. She had well-muscled, tanned little calves and ran everywhere at will, inside and outside the house. She showed me the wild red hibiscus bushes that grew across the road. “Come, Er Jie, come!” She picked one of those huge red blossoms, pulled off the petals, and picked carefully at the bottom of the pistil. “Here, Er Jie, have some!” Some what? I took the remains of the hibiscus, not sure what to do with it. “Like this!” Little Iffat picked another one, plucking it the same way, and stuck the bottom of the pistil into her mouth, sucking the nectar. “It’s sweet and delicious, Er Jie, don’t you like it?”

Abdul Kerim attended an elementary school which was attached to the Women’s Normal College (Teachers Training College). It was supposed to be, as a result, extremely good, since all trainees did their student teaching there. So, just like we did, he would have to walk ten minutes to the bus stop and take the city bus to school. Today, we dare not send a nine-year-old on his own to the corner store, let alone allow him to go on public transportation to and from school all by himself. But everyone did so in those days. The streets and public buses were filled with students in cleanly ironed uniforms, a canvas school bag slung across the chest, or hanging off one shoulder. Abdul Kerim reported to us over dinner one day that there were some Bei Yi Nu high school girls on his bus that day, and that his classmates had been whispering about them in an awed hush. My little brother just threw them a haughty glance and stated out loud that his own sisters also attended Bei Yi Nu!

1969 Sports Day at the Elementary School attached to the Taipei Women's Normal College

1969 Sports Day at the Elementary School attached to the Taipei Women’s Normal College

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The Famous Suspension Bridge Story

Memories are often a jumble of images, sounds and feelings thrown together in the mists of time. I am not sure whether the trips to Sun Moon Lake and LiShan, another mountain in Central Taiwan, belong in this trip or some other trip. It is possible they are part of family outings, because I seem to remember Mama and my younger siblings being there…

But since I’m on a roll about doing the tourist thing in Taiwan, let me continue.

I believe it must have been a trip with Third Uncle or Fourth Uncle, who lived in the vicinity of Central Taiwan. We went to visit LiShan, or Pear Mountain, yet another famed sightseeing spot. I remember astounding gorges and tunnels dug out of sheer rock, and then that famous suspension bridge. I don’t mean the bridge is famous, I mean my story is famous. Well, for me, at any rate. I don’t really tell it often, because I’m ashamed of how young, reckless, thoughtless and idiotic I used to be.

Suspension bridges in Central Taiwan, just as flimsy and dangerous as I remember it.

Suspension bridges in Central Taiwan, just as flimsy and dangerous as I remember it.

So we started crossing this suspension bridge, which is pretty much a series of parallel wooden boards maybe 3 or 4 feet wide, and thick ropes on either side to hold on. Papa went first, after a challenging order to follow him or to be cowards. I went next, stepping carefully and slowly at first. Saadia followed me. Soon, I realized it was quite easy and safe so long as I did not glance down into the distant and steep valley. So I sped up my pace a little bit. Wow, how fun it was! the bridge was now swinging softly up and down to my step and I nearly started singing. So I increased the force on each step, making the bridge wave up and down even more markedly. Just as I was happily enjoying the wonder of it all, swing, breeze and sunshine, a sudden and blood-curdling scream paralyzed me in my stride. I paused and turned around. Saadia was crouched on all fours some distance behind me, pale and distraught, and screaming for all her life, “Stop it, Faw! Stop it!!!!!”  What was the whole fuss about? I wondered. And just then, I found out why.

As I stood there, the bridge continued swinging up and down, but the hand-rail ropes did not swing in the same wave. So whenever my feet bobbed up a dozen inches, my hands on the railing would go down a dozen inches as well, making me feel that my hands had reached the height of my ankles. Pretty much, one was standing on a few flimsy wooden planks that flew up above the handrails, hundreds of yards above the tiny silver ribbon of a  river at the bottom. Or so it felt. It was my turn to be so paralyzed with fear, I could not even scream.

LiShan hot springs

LiShan hot springs

Well, as the laws of physics are eternal and immovable, waves without new incoming force tend to die out eventually. So the bridge stopped swinging finally and came back to rest in its proper place, below my feet. I managed to walk more or less steadily to the other side. Then I got an earful. Which I rightly deserved.

There were also some famed hot springs in LiShan, but I barely remember any of it. Definitely, the suspension bridge took the prize.

Sun Moon Lake I think was part of a trip organized by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. I think. Not sure. I remember a coach filled with people, a night spent in a sort of hotel, and getting up, yet again, before the sun did, to admire the famed sunrise over Sun Moon Lake, which once again, did not materialize.

The breathtaking view of sunrise over Sun Moon Lake, a photographer's paradise

The breathtaking view of sunrise over Sun Moon Lake, a photographer’s paradise

 

But as usual, sunrise eluded us and we just saw mist everywhere that day.

But as usual, sunrise eluded us and we just saw mist everywhere that day.

It was rather cold, so now I am sure it was not that graduation summer trip. So I grumbled when dragged out of bed to admire the sunrise. And I grumbled more when the sun did not deign to rise for me.

I really want to apologize to Papa now, albeit too late. He tried to show the beauty of Taiwan to his dear daughters, knowing full well that it was highly probable we would not have that chance again for years to come. Yet, all I could think of was to grumble and be grouchy and complain about everything.

 

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