Life of a Rooster

Memoirs of a psychiatrist, journalist and educator

Green Shirts and Yellow Shirts

The primary characteristic of Grade 9 was that it was a test year: the year leading to the High School National Entrance Exam. Everyone was stressed out, from teachers to students, to parents. All of the Far Eastern educational systems were pretty much organized on the same mold: spoon feeding style of education, much stress on memorization, strong belief in drills and homework, and testing to get through various stages.

The well-respected emerald green shirts of Taipei First Girls School

The well-respected emerald green shirts of Taipei First Girls School

All Junior High students would sit for the exam in June. On the registration form, they would fill in their top 10 choices for high school. High schools were then still segregated. So the best boys’ high school was Jian Zhong and the best girls’ high school was Bei Yi Nu — short for Tai Bei Di Yi Nu Zhong, or Taipei’s First Girls High School. Everyone filled this in as their top choice, unless you were very sure you had no chance of getting in at all. Bei Yi Nu was known for their emerald green shirts and black skirts, and the students could be spotted from a mile. Everyone in the streets would pretend not to notice the green shirt but automatically would give some respect to students wearing it, since they represented the cream, the elite of our youth.

Then the second best girls high school was Jin Mei, whose students were recognized by their lemon yellow shirts and black skirts. The rumor going round was that Jin Mei girls were more creative and flexible than Bei Yi Nu girls who were more nerdy. But wait! That is not the whole story.

A more recent image of the lemon yellow shirts of the second best girls high school in Taipei. In 1970, only pleated skirts, not pants, were allowed. Hair was uniformly cut at ear lobe length.

A more recent image of the lemon yellow shirts of the second best girls high school in Taipei. In 1970, only pleated skirts, not pants, were allowed. Hair was uniformly cut at ear lobe length.

Because of overpopulation as well as lack of space and resources for an adequate number of schools, all high schools ran two shifts: day school and night school. Night school started around 5 PM and ran into the night, I am not quite sure what time it ended, probably 10 PM. I understand that it taught just the core subjects and cut out things like PE, art and music. Therefore, night school was considered a few steps below the level of the day school.

Saadia and I had been almost a year back in Taiwan by the time the National Exam rolled in. Lucky us, we had returned in July. Therefore, we qualified as “less than one year” returnees, and as such, did not have to take the National Exam. For returnees of 2 and 3 years, they would be given a handicap (extra points) on their National Exams, whether High School or University entrance. If one were unlucky enough to have been back more than three years, then too bad, she or he would have to tough it out like everyone else regardless of whether s/he had caught up with the academics. This actually happened to my little sister Iffat ten years later, when it was her turn to enter high school. In her application form, she filled in only the top three schools, leaving the rest blank. Papa nearly fainted when she came home and reported her choices. Iffat answered that there was no need to fill more blanks since she did not expect to enter any school less than the top three. Papa went ahead and applied on her behalf for overseas scholarships for Chinese Muslims in Muslim countries for her, just in case. Iffat was right, she made it to Jin Mei. And Papa wiped the sweat on his brow, and threw away the scholarships to Libya and Jordan.

Needless to say, Papa opted for Bei Yi Nu for us. But, we still had to sit for a test to determine whether we should attend day or night school. I was quite confident I would make the day school, for, after all, did I not average a 65% by now in Chinese tests? But Papa decided not to leave things to such flimsy chances. He contacted a Muslim Congresswoman (or, LiFaWeiYuan, member of the Legislative Assembly– a Ms. Tung, and asked her to help in this matter. I have always wondered in what way she could possibly have helped. Make a call to the principal? Whatever the case, both Saadia and I made it to the day school. I believe to this day that it was on the strength of my scores, though Papa maintained we should thank Congresswoman Tung for it.

The one interesting point in this whole episode is that little did I know then that one day I would become related by marriage to Congresswoman Tung.

The tomb of Congresswoman Tung and her husband

The tomb of Congresswoman Tung and her husband

 

 

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Chinese Brush Painting

Not only were PE and Music well planned and taught according to a syllabus, Art was also a wonder.

The book wasn’t thick but I would pore over the pages over and over again. Truth be told, the teacher did not go over all of the material. For instance, there was a chapter on cartooning that I awaited eagerly but was skipped over. Whatever we did cover, I loved it.

charcoal busts

There were a few sessions on charcoal portraiture. The teacher brought a Roman or Greek bust and we all drew it. At the end, she held up three different drawings — and I’m proud to say, mine was one of them — and explained how although they were of different styles, they were all good. The other two were a “slabby” style, where every slope and corner was exaggerated into slabs; and a “soft” style where all shades of black and grey were carefully mixed and smoothed so no sudden changes along the meeting edges.

Another month, we studied Chinese brush painting. Now I discovered how to paint those dreamy landscapes I was trying to duplicate back in Paris. Chinese painting is a bit like Montessori education. Each little part is very specific and must be practiced at length in order for one to master it. Yet the artist is totally free to decide what to do with those parts. The real art and skill are in the design of the entire painting, and in the ability to infuse this painting with “chi/qi” or spirit. One might wonder whether such highly stylized paintings are not like stencilling. No, not at all. Stencil art is very dead looking, no life in it at all. On the other hand, a well-done Chinese painting should burst with vitality.

A stenciled image (left) is unable to convey ardent Qi because each element is pre-drawn. A brush painting (right) can show vital force because it is executed on the spot, with the hand and wrist moving in one direction. Perfection of stroke is secondary to movement.

A stenciled image (left) is unable to convey ardent Qi because each element is pre-drawn. A brush painting (right) can show vital force because it is executed on the spot, with the hand and wrist moving in one direction. Perfection of stroke is secondary to movement.

That year, we were slated to learn landscape elements such as rocks and trees. I was totally enthralled by it. Just by using black ink, and various dilutions of grey, old and gnarled pines would shape up three-dimensionally, and rocks would pop out of the paper. I practiced night and day the different types of pine needle formations, as well as straight trunks, tortured and bent trunks, roots pushing out of the earth, and squirrel holes. I delighted in slowly pulling out leaves of the grass orchid across the paper, in graceful curves thinning into a line where it bent.

The Ancient Palace Museum, in the suburbs of Taipei, exhibits relics from past dynasties saved and carried to Taiwan during the Nationalist Forces' retreat in 1949.

The Ancient Palace Museum, in the suburbs of Taipei, exhibits relics from past dynasties saved and carried to Taiwan during the Nationalist Forces’ retreat in 1949.

how to paint rocks

Maybe that year, or maybe the next, Papa saw a tiny announcement for a lecture at the Ancient Palace Museum in the suburbs of Taipei. “Hey, Fawzia,” he said, “There is a lecture on the comparison of Classical Chinese brush art versus Classical European art. Want to come and listen to it together?” So it was that one fine twilight, the two of us took the bus to the magnificent Ancient Palace Museum. The speaker was a French person whose job I cannot remember. But it had nothing to do with art, more with science or possibly engineering. Nor can I recall his name, so I apologize for not crediting his work properly. But his presentation made a profound impression on me. He had a collection of slides — and this was in the time of real photographic slides, not power point ones. You had to place them in order in a tray that was loaded into a slide projector.  He started with an introduction about how he had become interested in Chinese art and a disclaimer about not being a specialist. Then to the meat of the matter.

He showed a typical Western oil painting of flowers; and another; and another. They were all of cut flowers in vases; some were even cut flowers placed on a table, waiting to die. Then he showed slides of Chinese flowers: orchids, wisterias, chrysanthemums, all vibrant with life and in a natural habitat. Similarly, he went on contrasting Western classical paintings of animals: horses as cavalry, dogs in a hunt, hunted animals, butchered animals, fish on a plate, you get the idea. Then the Chinese animals, wild horses galloping, koi fish and shrimps in a pond, peacocks strutting among rocks, all alive and well, and enjoying their day.

Plants and flowers, Chinese classical style

Plants and flowers, Chinese classical style

flowers, Western style

Flowers, Western classical/impressionist style. They are usually cut flowers, displayed in a vase.

I cannot quote him exactly, and maybe my memory of his exact meaning is fuzzy. But I have often repeated to my students his presentation, or a version of it, now on a power point slide . Man reflects his attitude to life in his paintings. In the Europe of the Classical period, the European man sought to conquer and control his surroundings and other forms of life while the Chinese man tended to observe nature, admire it, preserve it, and learn from it. 

I cannot pinpoint when it started happening, but slowly, very slowly, and very surely, a growing pride in being Chinese germinated in my heart.

Animals, in the Chinese classical style, are alive and well, doing their own thing in a natural habitat.

Animals, in the Chinese classical style, are alive and well, doing their own thing in a natural habitat.

 

Animals, in the Western classical style, are usually, if alive, subjugated to human willpower.

Animals, in the Western classical style, are usually, if alive, subjugated to human willpower.

Chinese horses frolicking vs European horses glorifying humans.

Chinese horses frolicking vs European horses glorifying humans.

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Typhoons & Earthquakes

Physical Education in Taiwan was another study in contrast. To start with, no more teacher of some subject or other doing the PE classes. We had specialized PE teachers.

No more discovering that volley ball was a game played by teams and that there were vague rules about it. Now each month, we had to take different areas of sports, and we also took all the rules about each game, on paper, in the classroom.  There were more rules than I cared to learn or be tested on. No room for guesswork.

The Chinese run a PE class like an army, regardless of whether they are in Taiwan or on the Mainland.

The Chinese run a PE class like a military drill, regardless of whether they are in Taiwan or on the Mainland.

Also, it was very discomfiting to discover that everyone was fit, very fit. Anyone could outrun me, or outdo me in any skill. Thankfully, they did not require us to climb ropes. When I asked my classmates about ropes, they were puzzled. Ropes? Never heard of. We do climb bamboo poles, though. But not this year. It’s not on the syllabus. (Oof!)

The only area I was any good at back in France, was gymnastics, as long as it was indoors. I was flexible enough. But here, everyone was an overachiever even in gymnastics. One day, the PE coach said,”Test today!  Here is how you will be graded: ten sit ups, that’s 60%, pass. After the first 10, one point per sit up. All right?”

In PE as in everything else, there was order. The PE Little Teacher always started class by commanding us to “Line… up!” and we would immediately line in six neat rows of ten students each (except for my row which had 7).  So she commanded us to sit down and we all waited for the students to go up front in pairs, one holding the feet and the other doing her sit-ups. The one holding the feet would count the sit-ups out loud, and the teacher simply recorded them.

I started sweating with dreadful anticipation. I knew I was not able to do a single sit-up. Try as I might, I could only come up halfway, with much panting and redness of face, and my abs in knots. Oh, great. What do I do now? Fail PE? That had happened only once in France, and despite my parents’ lack of reaction to it, I felt very ashamed at having a “red grade” again. My health had improved during my three years in France, with some flesh back on and some pink in my cheeks, and I had not fainted again since that episode in the souk.

Everyone could do ten sit-ups with no problem whatsoever. Some of them would look like a jack in the box, popping up and going down so fast I wondered they did not have a spring built-in somewhere. They would reach 100 points and still keep going.

The bell rang when there were still maybe 12 students left. The PE coach looked disappointed. “All right,” she said, “all the remaining students, I’ll meet you back here after lunch to finish the test. Dismissed!” I did not have a happy lunch. I did not practice because I knew it was pointless. I had tried enough times at home. The twelve of us gathered and returned to the PE yard. The teacher had forgotten, maybe, because we waited very long. She finally appeared. She too seemed fed up with the drudgery. “How many of you just want a 60% instead of trying for more?” I was the first to raise my hand. 

Once again, God had saved me from a failing grade.

So, we learned the “three-step-up-the-basket” in basket ball, then some softball. “What is softball?” I asked my classmates. “Oh, that’s baseball for girls.” Since I did not know much about baseball, that did not help. Our class — Third Year 27th class — included seven members of the school’s handball team. The team captain looked superbly healthy and tanned. Every now and then, the seven of them would be called out to practice, and sometimes, they would skip school to go to tournaments. They would meet other teams from various schools, including boys’ schools. As a result, they would receive love letters which they would share out loud in class, to an audience of giggles and laughter.

Handball is rather like soccer with the hands.

Handball is rather like soccer with the hands.

In 1970, the most famous athlete from Taiwan was Chi Cheng (Ji Zheng), a track-and-field Olympic bronze medalist who had broken three world records within the space of one week, and won the gold medal at the Bangkok Asian Games. She had been dubbed “Iron Girl” by the Taiwanese and “Flying Antelope” by the Japanese. Despite my little knowledge of the world of sports, even I knew of her. She had come to France to compete in an event, and Aunt Lily and Uncle Lung had gone to cheer her. Aunt Lily had returned home full of excitement and hoarse from screaming “Jia you! Jia you!” meaning, “Add oil! Add oil!” which is the Chinese equivalent of “Go!” or “Come on!”

The Flying Antelope, Chi Cheng

The Flying Antelope, Chi Cheng

Her latest achievements were followed enthusiastically by the girls at school. She was Women’s Track & Field’s 1971 World Athlete of the Year, and to this day Asian Athlete of the Century. Alas, it is a sad trait of humans to raise over-achievers to the status of savior then tramp on them as scapegoats should they fail. That year, Chi Cheng sustained an ankle injury in the middle of a race. She fell and was unable to finish the race. The injury was to cause her to stay out of the 1972 Munich Olympics. All 14 million of us Taiwanese were shocked and shattered. One of my classmates banged her fist on her desk. “What? How could she shame us by quitting the race? Even if she had to crawl on all fours, she had to finish the race!”

Chi Cheng,  Women's Track and Field  Athlete of the Year

Chi Cheng, Women’s Track and Field Athlete of the Year

One day, during lunch break, there was a sudden uproar in class. The girls ran to the windows or out the door, screaming hysterically, “Chi Cheng! Chi Cheng!”  Oh my, I thought, Chi Cheng has come to the school for a visit! And I got up too, and tried to get to the windows among the general riot. But before I managed to do so, everything died down, the students stopped running, and meekly returned to their seats. I grabbed my neighbor by the arm, “Where was Chi Cheng?” She looked surprised. “What do you mean?”

“I did not see her. Where was she?” I insisted. My friend pointed at the light bulbs hanging down from the ceiling. “Didn’t you see that?” What? The light bulbs? What would Chi Cheng be doing up on the light bulbs? She looked slightly exasperated, “The light bulbs were swinging during the “di cheng“, didn’t you notice?”

Oh… Now it dawned on me. Di cheng! not Chi Cheng! Di cheng means earthquake, spelled today di zheng according to the Pin Yin system. Lucky me, I just lived through an earthquake and felt nothing! Absolutely nothing! No fun at all!

Although earthquakes are frequent in Taiwan, few are as devastating as the 1999  7.6 earthquake that devastated Taiwan.

Although earthquakes are frequent in Taiwan, few are as devastating as the 1999 7.6 earthquake that devastated Taiwan.

Aunt Lily had told me about the earthquakes in Taiwan. After all, Taiwan was situated on the Pacific rim, the ring of fire. It also happened to be smack in the middle of the tropics. And so it also had a monsoon season during the late summer. In my geography classes back in Paris, we were told that the monsoon occurred mainly in India. Well, I suppose we were close enough to India to also have a monsoon.

I found out that rain can be hot. Parisian rains were always cold, so that was new. That raindrops can be huge; so huge that you could be totally drenched inside out in less than a minute in the hot summer rain. It seemed to rain every single afternoon, a loud flashy affair with much billowing clouds and giant drops that would end in no time at all, bringing back the sun.

Typhoons were a common occurrence in the late summer and early fall. They had foreign women’s names and if strong enough and headed towards us, then we would get a day off. Everyone would get a day off, even Papa. Rain would pour like Taipei was Noah’s ark, but thanks to the open sewer gulleys running on either side of every road, street, alley and lane, flooding never lasted long.

typhoons in taiwan

One day, Papa came off the bus from work (yup, no Cadillac in Taipei, it was back-to-public-transportation) amid the pouring rain. Fearing to damage his new patent leather shoes, he took them off, stuffed his socks in them, rolled up his pants, and ran across the road, holding his shoes in one hand and holding his document bag over his head with the other. A young couple snuggling under an umbrella called out to him, “Little brother! Xiao Di Di!  Come over here, we have an umbrella!”

Papa was delighted. He relayed the story to us, guffawing over the details. “Little brother! Hahaha!” Indeed, Mama had been religiously dyeing his silver strands black every month, so he still looked young.

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