Life of a Rooster

Memoirs of a psychiatrist, journalist and educator

Learning English

The first evening after our arrival, the embassy held a reception to welcome us. We got to meet all the diplomatic families, who were only a handful, as well as the local staff. One of them tried being sociable and asked me what grade I would be studying.

Ah, what grade? My mind raced through all the possible answers. In Taiwan, I would be entering the second year of Senior High School, which corresponded to the Premiere in France. I knew that this level was called 11th Grade in America, but what system did they use in Great Britain? And did this school, the CMS, use the British grade system or the Jordanian one? And what was the Jordanian one anyway?


While I pondered these questions, I remained quiet. The Jordanian guest turned around and asked the closest Chinese adult, “Does she not speak English at all?”

People who have never learned a foreign language and have never been thrown into the sea, sorry, into a native speaking environment, do not understand how many obstacles and unseen barriers there are in there!

Going to school was equally fraught with submerged coral reefs. My English teacher was Scottish. And that was when I learned that the Scots rrrroll their R’s! It took me a couple of weeks to start understanding what she was saying in class.  The students spoke more understandable English, except for the two who were also foreigners: an American girl of French origin named Marguerite and a Pakistani girl named Um Kulsum.

Marguerite spoke American English, which matched the language spoken in all those American movies and TV sitcoms we watched, but she did not understand many of the words I said.  I had learned phonetics in France, and had been taught about the short I and the long I. In French, this means you pronounce the “ee”  sound a bit longer or a bit shorter. I had not realized that the short I is pronounced differently and closer to an “ay” sound than an “ee” sound. So Marguerite was very puzzled when I talked about “peekels”:  “You know, what is called “cornichons” in French… —  Ah! you mean Pickles!”  Or when I had to describe what ships were: “Oh, you mean SHIPS! Not sheep! — That’s what I said, sheeps!”

sheep or ship

Um Kulsum was the first to approach me. She was absolutely overjoyed to find other foreign students this year in her class as she had been the lone one the previous year. Unfortunately, I could not understand her accent for the first few weeks. Today, I can see that her accent was very light compared to that of many Indians and Pakistanis I have met over the course of the years. But at the time, when I could only understand slowly spoken perfectly pronounced English, it was disastrous. Here she was, trying eagerly to convey all sorts of information to me, and all I could do was open my eyes as big as possible (perhaps because it made me feel that opened my ears too… ), and give myself the air of a deer caught in headlights.

Writing was an easier task. After all, English is quite close to French.  I can see many of you, readers, shaking your head and saying no. But remember that my other two languages were Arabic and Chinese. None of those were closer to English. And since most of my English learning was traditional, meaning that they were based on written grammar and vocabulary, and since I had always been excellent at writing, learning to write in English was a total pleasure.

I tried to duplicate my feats from the French schools, but the teacher never did read anyone’s essays in class. She did, however, often circle in red the French words that inserted themselves against my willpower into my compositions. The most common culprit was the word “et”, meaning “and”, which would pop up almost every other line. Other longer words were often in my own Anglicized spelling of a French word. If  a French “acteur” became an English  “actor”, then it follows that a French “professeur” should become an English “professor”.  Many of the words ending in “-tion” were spelled the same way in both languages, and the words ending in “-ment” changed their suffix to “-ly”.  However, the rule did not always work, and I would produce very ridiculous English words now and then. Aha, I thought, “intelligemment” becomes “intelligelly” (intelligently).

english vs french

Although the teacher was usually right, I remember one particular word where finally, I managed to be right. Well, almost. I wrote something occurring “after a laps of time…” and the teacher circled “laps” and commented in red: no such word. I did look it up some years later and found that it should have been spelled “lapse”, and that derivatives exist in English such as “so much time has elapsed.”

Just as they did in France, the teacher assigned us essays on a variety of topics. I tried hard to elicit some kind of response from her about my great writing skills. I overdid myself in descriptions of immense skies and rolling plains, I desperately invented vivid horror scenes — in one case involving the gigantic shadow of a witch on a centuries-old wall that would bleed when stabbed — but all to no avail. British phlegm prevailed.

Literature was a bit of a challenge at first. But once I got over the Shakespearean terms for Twelfth Night and the nineteenth century long-winded sentence structure of Northanger Abbey, I started enjoying reading them. Here, I must insert some comments on the teaching of literature in high school. In the US, many teachers simply assign books to students and then discuss them or receive written reports about the books. This allows them to “read” as many as 8 books a year. The truth is that most students are quite unable to read even a single chapter, and rely on their Cliffs’ Notes or Sparks Notes to understand the content. In the British (and French) system, the teacher actually reads these books. Out loud. We read in turn too, and on the spot, as they appeared, we discussed word nuances, implications,  foreshadowing,  ironic twists, and so on.

All in all, my English did improve fast, and I managed to win the British Council English Award at the end of the year for best writing, an English dictionary of modern phrases.


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Snowball fights and traveling coins

Further up the same street where the ambassador’s residence was located, we found an apartment perfect for us. It was really the upper floor of a two-storey house. The lower floor had the front yard and the gate, while the upper floor had a smaller gate opening onto a long and narrow side yard and into the side door and the staircase. The side yard was tiled and boasted a single pomegranate tree that struggled to stay alive. Upstairs, the apartment was a foyer surrounded by the rest of the rooms: formal dining-room, sitting room, master bedroom, bathroom, bedroom 2, bedroom 3, small water closet, and kitchen. From the landing, one door opened onto the formal dining room and the other onto the foyer, which became our regular dining room. We also had the use of the roof, which had a small storage room on it, and which we used primarily for hanging our laundry.

Just like all other houses, it was built of limestone blocks, hacked unevenly on the outside. This made it easy for little monkeys like Abdul Kerim and me to climb up the walls by grasping the jutting asperities of the rocks. I only climbed from the roof onto the storage room, but Abdul Kerim actually could climb from the little veranda off the dining room all the way up onto the roof! The other use of the roof was for neighborhood snowball battles.

I found this recent picture online. It looks like rooftop snowball fights have survived till today in Amman!

I found this recent picture online. It looks like rooftop snowball fights have survived till today in Amman!

In the winter, the Amman weather turned bitterly cold, and it would sometimes snow.  For snow to blanket the city, a rare occurrence, it would take quite some blizzard. But the great reward was that everyone would be off school and work the next day or more, until the streets were cleared. The year of the great snow, 1973, we were off for nearly 10 days! In the meantime, everyone went crazy, adults and children alike.  We all played on the roof, at first building a snowman, but eventually started throwing snowballs at one another. Suddenly, some snowballs hit us on the back, and we realized that our neighbors had attacked us! Soon, all the neighbors from all four sides were pelting one another with snowballs, and finally, we started targeting the rare cars that dared venture in the streets at a snail’s pace!

But I run ahead of my story! The first order of the day was to get all of us children registered in schools. For Saadia and me, Papa chose, upon the advice of the other embassy folks, the Ahliyah School for Girls, also known as the CMS — Christian Missionary School. For Abdul Kerim, he enrolled him at first in a public school for Grade 5, where my naughty brother wrought havoc. If my memory serves me correctly, he once turned in a test paper with a large scrawl across it in Chinese: I don’t know! So the next year, Papa moved him to the Islamic College, a private Arabic medium Islamic school. Papa insisted that this was his chance to learn Arabic, a unique skill that has today served him only too well in his career! I think Iffat was enrolled in the CMS kindergarten, but she was also transferred to the Islamic College by First Grade. Nadia was too young still and got to stay home.

Next, realizing that our English was probably not up to par, Papa hired a tutor, who was an English literature teacher from the de la Salle College, the boys’ Christian private school. This was our first introduction to Shakespeare, through Twelfth Night.  I had always been a top student in English, both in Paris and in Taipei. But this was another language altogether! We struggled hard with the thee, thou, thy and thine business and practiced writing essays. I remember clearly one particular essay that he corrected for Saadia, telling her that children are more important than luggage and therefore she should have written, “they got off the train with their children and their luggage,” not “with their luggage and their children.” We both kept politely quiet.  Even I, the lesser skilled writer of the two, could have told him that it was the use of irony. The parents were so frazzled that they treated children as luggage, and the lesser in importance of the two. As for me, I remember making him laugh with my statement that I admired the Germans and the Japanese because of their resilience and quick rebound after losing big time in World War II.

twelfth night

Arriving in Amman in  late May meant that all schools were winding up their school year and summer was on its way.  Saadia and I  spent the summer getting being tutored in English, while Abdul Kerim and Iffat spent it getting to know the neighborhood kids. Outside our bedroom windows, there was a large vacant lot where the children from the vicinity came to play soccer and any other game that children engage in. My brother and whoever was free, would lean their elbows on the window sill and watch their games. Soon, Abdul Kerim started shouting silly words at them, whatever Arabic he could come up with. They responded in kind, and eventually asked him to come down and join them. Looking back, I realize that a houseful of sisters was not exactly the most attractive play alternative.  No wonder, he became a regular part of the band of boys that roamed the vacant lot and the alleys around the house.

There were many of these alleys branching off the main streets. Usually, they were not paved and wound into intricate networks among the houses that covered the hillside. One of these opened right next to the gate to our house, and as such was usually shaded by the apartment building next door. This made it a favorite playground in the summer. One year, the little neighbor boy, Hussam, knocked on our door. “Er Jie,” he asked — for they all called me whatever my brother called me, Second Elder Sister — “Is this a Chinese coin?”

I looked at it. Wow! It was a Qing dynasty coin, copper, probably, with a square hole in the middle for people to string them together. On it, I recognized the words Qian Long, the name of the famous sixth Qing emperor who ruled from 1735 to 1796. “Where did you find it?” I queried. “Oh, we were playing marbles and digging a hole, and found it there,” the boy replied with a shrug.

I was totally dumbfounded. So, a merchant from the Middle East traveled all the way to China in the 18th century, along the famed Silk Road, and returned home to sell silk and porcelain, and maybe tea as well. Then out of his pocket fell this coin, which lay dormant for another two centuries, until some little boys played marbles and gave it light again.

ancient chinese coin

I quickly reviewed mentally what I had in my little treasure box. “I can pay you half a dinar for it,”  I offered nonchalantly. But Hussam was sharp. If I was willing to pay for it, it must be worth more! “No,” he grinned instantly. “Too little.” And off he went.

Of course, I am kicking myself today for not going to my father and borrowing more. I did ask Hussam recently, with whom I reconnected thanks to the Internet, what had happened to that coin. He had absolutely no recollection of it. At all.

When I mentioned this to a Chinese some years ago, she said carelessly, “Oh, we have plenty of coins dating back to Qianlong in China…” I could not believe my ears. Of course, there would be! But this one was not found in China. It was found thousands of miles away from China. It had traveled through mountains and seas to get to its resting place! And if it could talk, it would have had many tales to tell.

When I interviewed years later Liang Dan-Feng,  a famous Taiwan watercolorist commissioned to paint Jordanian landscapes, she said to me, “Jordan is such a wonderful land. You walk on history and priceless antiquities everywhere you go.” I could not agree more!


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Ghosts and gold-rose sunsets

Also living in the same three-story residence was the cook and one of the expatriate students, a certain Chen. The cook, Li, was tall and heavy, with a northerner’s big nose and large eyes, and a slight stoop to the shoulders. He had asked Chen to come stay with him because he was scared of the empty house after the ambassador’s death.

scared of ghost

Well, you might think that a big and tall man would be the last person to be scared of ghosts, yet I’ve seen it more than once. Fear of the unknown has nothing to do with one’s real-life size. Saadia and I got all the ghost stories first-hand, from Vincent Kao, the Assistant Military Attache’s son. He appeared in the yard with a friend, strolling around as if in a public park. We watched him from the second floor window, wondering who he was. Soon enough, we made acquaintance and started chatting.

He was between Saadia’s and my age (I think), and was a thin, gangly, not very tall but very talkative boy. I could understand his curiosity about us, since I also always tried to find out who else in the embassy had kids my age. But I certainly did not condone his lack of formality or respect for authority. So he told us to beware of the ghosts. Ghosts? We asked. Ah, yes. They were haunting this house for sure. The cook had heard doors open and slam closed all by themselves for no good reason. Well, we reasoned, the wind, of course. Ah, but how do you then account for lights turning themselves on and off, heh? We had discovered the night before that the light switches were dials that we had to turn(dimmers)  and that could flip back. Misfunction, then. The spring in the switches. Ah, but then, how do you explain that a line of candles would burn in such a way as to form an inverted V? What? You know, the end candles burned lowest, and the middle candle tallest, forming an inverted V… Well, maybe the air flow… Aha! You see, you see, it was ghosts! I was getting tired of the game. But he kept on. And that’s not all. If you pour hot water into a thermos, how long does it take for it to cool down? Hey? Tell me? A few hours? But the cook would find water totally COLD a few minutes after he just poured it in!


Well, methinks the cook was so flustered he must have poured cold water into the thermos to start with.  I told Vincent a few stories myself to top him off. I told him about the woman tortured and killed by the Gestapo in our Consulate second floor bathroom in Paris. But, I went on majestically, we are Muslims, and therefore ghosts don’t even bother us!

And that was another thing about which I felt peacefully happy. Being Muslim. All of a sudden, what had been a weird peculiarity in non-Muslim countries became an asset in a Muslim country. The call to prayer, the adhan, was beautiful and floated down from the nearest mosque five times a day. In fact, we could hear not just one mosque but several. Amman is a very ancient city, built on seven hills. We were on top of the hill named Jabal Amman, then the poshest district in town. All the diplomatic families lived there. And from the top floor windows, we could admire an amazing view of hillsides covered with rosy limestone houses.

amman, gold pink hour


I call those stone blocks rosy. But they were more tan than rose pink. The tan had a rose tinge to it, it is true and at sunset they reflected this gold pink hue which reverberated into the air, which then filled up with dozens of adhans gracefully lilting and interweaving their notes as the purple night descended.

I could not believe such a beautiful place existed: Amman.


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Part 2: Jordan

If anyone has been following this blog, I apologize for the long vacuum. It wasn’t for lack of material to write about, nor was it due to death of inspiration. My story had now reached a certain stage where I needed to refocus. So far, the story had been that of my childhood wanderings, and the resulting struggles with schooling. The anecdotes from that part of my life have been retold so often to my children and students that writing them down was an easy matter. However, from this point onwards, things started moving in a different direction. I finally came to the conclusion that if this story were a book, that was Part 1. And now, on to Part 2!

part 2

A little footnote: May I formally state that from here onward I shall start using fictitious names to protect the privacy of many people who are still alive (I hope) and might read this blog.

So then, Papa, Mama and our three younger siblings went ahead to Hong Kong, while Saadia and I stayed in Taipei for an extra week or so.  We rode with them to the airport to see them off, and in the hustle and bustle of the moment, I slammed the taxi door onto Mama’s hand. Doors in those days were not as softly insulated and cushioned on the edge as they are today. The metal cut into her finger, and she bled profusely. I screamed in anguish, while Mama calmly wrapped it in her handkerchief, told me to stop it, and continued unloading the luggage.

Mama was such a tower of calm and comfort… except for that one time when I saw her scream and run from those baby mice. Once, she was in such a rush to cook lunch that she chopped off the tip of her finger with the meat cleaver, that well sharpened essential tool of the Chinese cook. As I screamed in panic, she told me to shush, took one quick assessing look at the tip of finger and nail dangling by a shred of skin, and quickly raised her cleaver again. Chop! off went the bleeding flesh. Into the garbage can. She wrapped the remaining bloody finger in a handkerchief and ran to the doctor’s clinic at the corner of the block. Apparently, he told her she should have kept the tip and he would have tried re-attaching it. With my present medical knowledge, I wonder.

cleaver 2

A week later, it was our turn to leave. The day we went to the airport, a group of Saadia’s classmates ditched class to go see her off. As luck would have it, an air raid drill hit the city just as they were on their way. What with sirens blaring and all traffic coming to a stop, the poor girls were herded into the nearest air shelter until the drill was over. They figured it was too late to make it to the airport, and headed back to school. Meanwhile, we sat through the drill in the waiting room at the gate, while our flight was delayed and rescheduled.

Hong Kong looked much like Taipei, except it had even more crowded streets, highways that looped between high-rise buildings, and everyone spoke Cantonese. We were staying at the home of my great-uncle Mai. This was a certain Mai Jing-An, a decade or more older than Papa, who was a businessman, and stayed part of the year in Taipei. Papa had met him at the Taipei mosque and after chatting and researching their generation names, had figured out that a few generations ago, the two had shared a family line. Thus, they called each other uncle and nephew from then on.

Great-Uncle Mai was, however, a graduate of an Islamic school back in China. This meant that he was qualified to be an imam, could read and write classical Arabic, and was actually quite fluent in the art of Chinese-style Arabic calligraphy. Today, this has been recognized as a separate style of calligraphy and named the “Sini” Arabic script. Actually, Sini simply means “Chinese” in Arabic. We had a beautiful scroll on our sitting-room wall with “In the name of God the Beneficent the Merciful” penned by Great-Uncle Mai, with flowing black ribbons inked with bamboo strips.

chinese islamic calligraphy 2

His wife and children lived in Hong Kong, in — what else — a skyscraper, one of the many that dot the suburb hillsides. At that time, the family ongoing business was that of wigs. And as a friendly gesture, they gave us a few wigs as presents. They were great for playing dressing up, and a few years later, Abdul Kerim actually managed to fool his own friends with one of those wigs. When they came knocking on the door asking him to go out and play, he actually looked them straight in the eyes, and patting his wig, said he was Fawzia, the second elder sister (me), and that Abdul Kerim (himself) wasn’t home. They all believed him!

black wig

After the short interlude in Hong Kong, we flew on to Kuwait where we spent the night. As was her habit, Mama had divided all the belongings that she managed to get onboard into bags that she made us carry. We all grumbled and sweated under the weight of those bags. I feel humbled today by Mama’s resourcefulness and ashamed at my childish selfishness. Wherever we traveled, we were never short of change of underwear or clothing, toiletries or food. We never thought to ask how all those necessities came to be available. Having now lived through the same experience, I still feel overwhelmed at the thought of packing for a family of seven.

In Kuwait, I saw Mama smile and nod at the airport employees, pointing at us and saying, “Muslim, Musulman, oui, yes, Mu-si-lin…” and in response, the staff, from immigration clerk to customs officers all smiled and marveled, “Chinese? Muslims? Welcome! Welcome!”  I always felt embarrassed by her attempts at sweet talking, but I must say, I would unashamedly enjoy the consequent ease and comfort.

All night, I felt the hotel room was like a ship, still rolling on the waves. The next day, off we flew to Amman. We arrived at night, and the welcoming group of embassy staff herded us into several cars, whisking us to the ambassador’s residence. Since the ambassador had passed away, and his family had left, it made no sense to put us in a hotel. And so, we all slept in soft beds in a spacious and comfortable house that first night.

pink roses

In the morning, I walked out onto the backyard terrace and took in my first sight of Jordan. It was May 1972, and blooming roses filled the garden. Their sweet scent perfumed the cool air,  invisible birds tweeted from their perches in the trees, and butterflies flitted around the blossoms. I have never forgotten that moment. The sky was intensely blue overhead and life was wonderful (since I had left schools and exams behind).

Thus it was that I fell in love with Jordan.


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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.





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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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