Life of a Rooster

Memoirs of a psychiatrist, journalist and educator

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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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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