Life of a Rooster

Memoirs of a psychiatrist, journalist and educator

Jet Life and the Diplomatic Corps

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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