I was also there (well, almost): A personal reflection


Big fish in a small pond (April 2015)

Saturday May 31, 2014

I am now in Vientiane, Laos, and from my hotel room I can look across the Mekong River and see Thailand, where a military coup last week propelled the country, briefly, onto the world’s front pages. I am not actually in the headline-grabbing country, but I am pretty close. That has been the story of much of my my life and I should, I now realize, have been clear from the start.

Just ten days before I was born,  Sputnik became the first ever human-made object to enter earth orbit, and was still on the front pages when I arrived. On the same day as the satellite launch the American television show Leave it to Beaver had its debut. Four days before my birth the world’s first nuclear accident took place in the United Kingdom. Any remaining chance that the world might have noticed my arrival was extinguished by fact that, even as my mother was in labor, it was announced that the Everly Brothers’ song Wake Up, Little Suzie had reached the top of the charts. I was clearly destined to live a life in which the limelight shone tantalizingly close,  but not quite onto me.

The murderer, the politician, and me (highlighted), circa 1967.

The murderer, the politician, and me (highlighted) appearing together in a school photograph in Durban, circa 1967.

My first real brush with celebrity was as a small child, when my parents took me to meet Elsa, the lion that starred in the movie Born Free. Some years later, one of my primary school classmates became Leader of the Opposition in South Africa’s parliament, another was convicted of murder, an acquaintance of mine at university became a murder victim, and the father of a longtime friend sentenced a murderer to death.

As a sixteen-year-old, I won $1,000 (in today’s money) in a newspaper competition for correctly predicting the results in almost all electoral districts the 1974 South African general election. I instinctively told the reporter who interviewed me that I had made my prediction based on a close reading of the newspaper’s detailed election coverage, opting not to mention that I had sent in over a hundred different entries covering just about every plausible electoral scenario. My story appeared in the paper on page seven.

My first appearance in the mainstream media (The Star, Johannesburg, June 1974.)

My first appearance in the mainstream media (The Star, Johannesburg, June 1974.)

When I was seventeen, I watched my first-ever hard-core pornographic film (in black and white, no sound;) the picture was projected onto a bed sheet in the dorm room of a high school senior who would later become President of Botswana, using an 8mm projector owned by his father, himself president at the time. The following year I visited the ghastly Sun City complex in the short-lived pseudo-state of Bophuthatswana; there I saw a very drunk Shirley Bassey stumbling around the casino on the arm of the magnate who owned the place, she presumably losing the money his company had just paid her for a her very brief and mediocre performance. (I attended a show by Donnie and Marie Osmond at the same venue a year later; their show was awful, but I did not see them inebriated in public.) The hotel magnate later went on to develop even more garish establishments around the world; in retrospect, they make Sun City of 1980 look like a monument to understated elegance.

As a nineteen-year-old, I visited Rome, but I dismissed as a silly superstition the idea that throwing a coin into the Trevi Fountain would ensure my return to the city. Six months later, I won a free dinner for two at an Italian restaurant in Johannesburg; it was second prize in a ‘Win-a-free-trip-to-Rome’ contest sponsored by Alitalia Airlines.

The political science student I dated while I was a deeply closeted teenager went on to become an accomplished senior official in the government of an important province in South Africa, and is tipped to go further. I should have known at the time (about her ideology and ambitions, that is, not my proclivities;) I gave her a Siamese cat as a gift and she named it Paradigm.

I did not exactly lie to get myself accredited as an international observer of the internationally shunned 1979 elections in the country briefly known as Zimbabwe-Rhodesia. I spent election night listening to the results on the radio in the living room of a leader of one of the losing parties, and was an invited guest at the victory celebration of the winning party, where its leader, a bishop, memorably opted to sing the hymn ‘Rock of Ages’ from the podium in lieu of delivering a victory speech (Not too many months later, the bishop was replaced in an internationally recognized election by President Robert Mugabe. This probably proves something, but I am not sure what.)

The external combustion cycle named after my father, described in a 2007 text)

The external combustion cycle named after my father, described in Chih Wu’s 2007  Thermodynamics and Heat Powered Cycles. If you move fast, you can be the first to review the book on Amazon.

The man whose daughter would later become my very dear stepmother wrote the definitive history of the Johannesburg Public Library; in it, he even mentions, fleetingly, my late mother. My father has an external combustion cycle named after him (he gave away the patent, I seem to recall, never really attaching much importance to ownership of such things.) My sister and I are both mentioned in his ‘Who’s Who in South Africa’ entry, where were are referred to as ‘1 s and 1 d.’

A junior law professor nearly ended my academic career by refusing me permission to take the final exam in his Roman Law course (just because I didn’t attend class all year.) I appealed his decision, and it was overruled by the Dean of the Law School. I took the exam and passed the course, and the professor went on to become a Justice of South Africa’s Constitutional Court, where nobody could overrule his decisions again (He was and is also a remarkably courageous and outspoken activist on HIV and other issues in South Africa, and,  if I recall correctly, narrowly escaped injury or worse when the Johannesburg restaurant where he was dining with my friend the author/politician was held up by armed gunmen.)

I was a student in another law course taught by a professor and human rights lawyer who would later become a United Nations Special Rapporteur on Palestine, irritating the Israeli authorities no end by comparing their human rights policies in the Occupied Territories with those of South Africa’s apartheid regime. Many years later, on the occasion of the conferring of an honorary doctorate on my father, I attended a small dinner hosted by a university chancellor and eminent South African jurist who would also incur the wrath of the Israeli government by heading an enquiry criticizing the country’s conduct in Gaza.

A good friend I met in a second year university English class won global renown for his successful pro bono legal representation of an admirable female athlete initially denied permission to compete in international competitions because she was accused of not really being a womanNelson Mandela’s longtime attorney was my family’s next-door neighbor, and the President himself sat for a portrait by my cousin’s husband’s sister’s spouse. I myself had the opportunity to shake the President’s hand once (see below.)

The woman who was for fourteen years the only member of the liberal opposition to South Africa’s apartheid government (for much of the time also the only woman and the only Jew in the whites-only parliament) once wrote a (successful) scholarship recommendation on my behalf, and in a moment of candid confession once described to me the practical problems of using a Chinese squat toilet during a visit to the country in the era before the countries opened up to (and adapted some of its sanitation facilities to) foreign visitors.

In an old album, I have a photograph of myself at a South African university function with a a remarkable paleoanthropologist who was instrumental in establishing that the earliest humans were African; one report claims that was nominated three times for a Nobel Prize, but since he was unsuccessful I guess the photograph didn’t help his career any more than it did mine (nor did the fact that, according to Wikipedia, he and I share the same birthday.)  Perhaps it is also in part because he, like many other accomplished researchers and academics, succumbed to the utterly inexplicable temptation to become a university administrator.

Speaking of competent academics led astray, one of my graduate school geography professors became the university president who had to clean up the Joe Paterno mess at Penn State; one of that professor’s advisees was my roommate and dear friend, and is now a college president himself (untainted, as far as I know, by scandal.) As an associate professor, I served under a university president who was cited for drunken driving twice on the same day, thereby earning himself eighth position on a list of The Ten Most Embarrassing College President Scandals.  One of my academic advisors (who attended the same undergraduate university as I did) told me that that he had turned down the job of The Geographer of the United States; he did, however, give numerous guest lectures on luxury cruise ships (a career path he suggested to me several times) and made a whole lot of money writing textbooks and appearing on ABC television.

In my current job I report to a university Vice President who appeared on Jeopardy and has a species of insect named after her, and to another who once ate breakfast only an arm’s length away from Johnny Depp. I share an office with a sister of the actress who played Blanche on the television show Golden Girls.

Shaking hands with a Nobel Peace Prize winner, but lacking the political savvy to face the camera.

Shaking hands with a Nobel Peace Prize winner, but lacking the political savvy to face the camera.

I have shaken hands with two Nobel Peace (and one Literature) Prize winners, one of whom I even hosted for lunch in my parents’ home, and who confessed to me his great affection for rum-and-raisin ice cream (admittedly, he had not won the Peace Prize at that point, and Baskin Robbins was still unknown in South Africa.) I served on at least one university committee with a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, who is today a Facebook friend of several of my Facebook friends.

My only appearance, so far, in the New York Times. Had the Minister been able to deliver his speech, I would never had had this brush with international celebrity.

My only appearance, so far, in the New York Times. Had the Minister not been booed off the stage and been able to deliver his speech, I would never had had this brush with international celebrity.

In 1978 I traveled around the U.S by Greyhound bus with a one-time fifth grade classmate and lifelong friend who would go on to lead the official opposition in South Africa’s Parliament, write three books (four, if you include his collected speeches,) and shoot the breeze with, inter alia, Bill Clinton, the Dalai Lama, the future Pope Francis, and Prince Philip (my name even appears in the index of one of his books; my friend’s, that is; not the Prince’s; the latter, to the best of my knowledge, is mercifully not a published author.)

I was once interviewed on the same live television talk show as Pennsylvania’s leading African American jazz bagpipe player (his interview lasted eight minutes, which left only six for me to explain the origins of apartheid and the objectives of the divestment movement.)

I had letters to the editor published in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the Baltimore Sun, the Johannesburg Star, and even the Centre Daily Times in State College, Pennsylvania. My photograph once appeared in the New York Times, as I sat behind a South African government minister who was in the process of being booed off the stage by an extremely hostile audience. I myself heckled public speeches by apartheid-era Prime Ministers P W Botha and John Vorster, as well as the odious American right-winger Dinesh de Souza, infuriating all of them.

I drove a former British Foreign Secretary and his American wife around Johannesburg for five days in my parents’ car (the car was yellow, and so for a day or so they assumed that I was a taxi driver; after they realized that I was in fact one of their hosts, we had some very interesting conversations.) This was the same car I was driving on another occasion when I was rear-ended by a driver who went on to become CEO of one of the world’s largest mining corporations (but at the time was apparently impecunious.) I exchanged fleeting greetings in airports with two failed U.S. presidential candidates, and met another when he visited South Africa. I waved to Queen Elizabeth, her husband, and all of their children (before any were tainted by scandal) during their walk-about on a Gaborone street in the late 1970s (she waved back at me, I am sure.)

Me, just a few paces behind my passenger the former British Foreign Secretary.

Me, only partially obscured and just a few paces behind my passenger the former British Foreign Secretary.

An above-the-fold front-page article about me once appeared in a newspaper in a smallish town on the slowest news day of the year; I earned this privilege in part by leaving the town and moving permanently to Cambodia, far outside the newspaper’s circulation area. In my first year in Cambodia, one of my fellow students in a Khmer language class was the EU ambassador to the country.
Two of my tweets were retweeted by Nicholas Kristof. Just last week, Cambodia’s Minister of Education and I met, shook hands, and assured one another that we were both just fine, thank you.
I am optimistic that my flirtations with fame may not yet be over. I have just learned that, since the start of 2014, my YouTube channel has become the third most popular in Cambodia, and has also been viewed for a total of 154 minutes by 52 people in Madagascar, It is not impossible that at least one of them may know (or, dare I hope, even be) the world’s most unpronounceable President, Hery Rajaonarimampianina.


  1. Jeremy June 1, 2014
  2. Penny June 2, 2014
  3. Omio Chowdhury September 14, 2014

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