Thank You, Mrs. Adeline Yen Mah

By Nhi

To me, biographical books often make compelling reading. Those books, recounted by people who may or may not be professional writers, provoke curiosity and give me many reasons to expect a rewarding read. I appreciate all the stories shared by people. I guess that’s why I am drawn to the WordPress Community, where I can find bloggers recording their lives with words and images. I believe that everyone has a story worth being known, and by seeking to listen to this story, I am walking the first step in forming a deep relationship and in the end, become more open and unselfish. Moreover, each person’s story can also teach readers valuable things and leave room for contemplation. I can never resist stories. They are powerful, acting as the source of wisdom and strength, joy and sorrow, inspiration and epiphany. A lot of people have interest in them; that’s why Humans of New York  becomes so popular, and at the same time, gossip is a rampant issue. By coincidence, I came by the book Falling Leaves while wandering in the library. The book was left lying on a shelf that has books unrelated to biography. Probably, someone forgot to put it back to its shelf. Looking at the cover, I was hooked by the black and white picture of a Chinese family and thus, with an old soul that always treasured old things, felt compelled to read this “memoir of an unwanted Chinese daughter”. The author, born in 1937, noted that the book was a true story she wrote for all “unwanted children in the hope that they will persist to do their best in the face of hopelessness.”

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Adeline Yen Mah was born as the fifth child of an opulent family in Tianjin, China during the time of political turmoil and historical transformation. After her birth several days, her mother passed away at the age of thirty due to puerperal fever. “After I am gone, please help look after our little friend here who will never know her mother,” she said to Yen Mah’s aunt. As her Dad burned all the pictures of her mother after the unexpected death, Yen Mah never knew how her Mom looked like. She grew up to become the least favorite sister and daughter, as some superstitious members in the family thought of her as an unlucky child who caused her mother’s decease. In the book, Yen Mah didn’t describe much how she might long for her mother; however, it was heart-wrenching enough to read Yen Mah’s reflection: “I confided to my Aunt Baba that I held a key in my head which enabled me to enter a magic land. Nothing in Shanghai was so mysterious and exciting as this secret kingdom which I could visit at any time. High up in the mountains amidst the clouds, this place was full of tall bamboos, twisted pines, odd-shaped rocks, wild flowers and colorful birds. Best of all, my mother also lived there and every little child was wanted and welcomed.”

Yen Mah’s Aunt, who took care of her with unconditional love throughout the tormented childhood

Her Dad remarried a Chinese-French beautiful woman soon afterwards, who treated the step children with neither affection nor sympathy. She tried to divide the kids, abused them verbally and especially disliked Yen Mah for her initial protest. “I do think Adeline is getting uglier and uglier as she grows older and taller’’ ”I shall never forget or forgive your insolence.” “Liar!” ”You know very well that you are not allowed to invite any of your friends home.”

These are just some of the words this step mother used to scold Yen Mah. The small girl was treated with cruelty and negligence for many years of her childhood. She was slapped, unfairly treated, abandoned in a boarding school when the Japanese invaded, etc. However, determining to never give in to this appalling emotional abuse, she strived to study well and work hard. Later, she became an independent woman, a physician, a writer and a teacher who founded Falling Leaves Organization, of which mission is to promote understanding between East and West and provide funds for the study of China’s culture, language and history. I adore Yen Mah’s elegant style of writing. She drew the readers in by offering not only a riveting story but also an honest description of Chinese history, culture and people. The events were told in a chronological order; yet sometimes, Yen Mah would narrate an event before another on purpose to create the suspense. For example, the book started with a scene in Hong Kong in May 1988, when everyone was baffled to find out that the father died without money in his estate. “Father had been a man of great wealth and substance. Why did we each hand back Father’s unread will as if we were mindless robots? In order to explain our collective docility that afternoon, I have to go back to the very beginning,” she wrote. I finished reading the book in two days. It was very disturbing to read such a painful story. And sometimes, I would debate whether the book was too biased, and whether everything was truthfully narrated. Nevertheless, I remembered myself constantly taking a break from reading and staring at nowhere while sitting on the train. Prior to leaving the house, I was really mad at my parents. But, the book changed my state of mind; I couldn’t appreciate them more, despite their sometimes hurtful words to me. Many people won’t like the book, since Adeline Yen Mah told a story in which she turned herself into a Chinese Cinderella. In fact, I read some negative reviews on Amazon and readers criticized the writer for writing a story in which she seemed to be the only good person of the family.

However, I appreciate this book from the bottom of my heart. It was written for unwanted children. And I believe that kids who feel unloved by their families or long for affection from parents they never meet, or struggle through their childhood and adolescence will find strength and inspiration by reading this heart-wrenching autobiography.

Thank you, Mrs. Adeline Yen Mah. You did an amazing job.

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