Last month, I finished reading Falling Leaves: The Memoir of an Unwanted Chinese Daughter by Adeline Yen Mah. It is an autobiography of her unhappy, difficult childhood, where she was often neglected, mistreated, and alone. But it is also an inspirational story of resilience and independence, of a young girl who knew how to love despite hate and abuse.
Born in 1937 China, Adeline was the youngest of 5 children. Sadly, her mother died shortly after complications from childbirth. Ever since, she was treated differently. Seeking to be seen as her father’s precious pearl and cared for by her older siblings, Adeline was instead treated as the family malediction, the accursed child who took away a beloved mother and wife. And, unluckily, she was not immune to the old Chinese sentiment, where boys were preferred over girls. Leftover traditional feelings still seeped into the incipient modern China, but times began to improve for women.
Adeline’s widowed father recovered from his grief and remarried a stunning, young Eurasian woman, the closest thing to a mother figure for all 5 children. She was respectfully known as “Niang” (娘), “mother” in Mandarin, but for the rest of her life she was more a ruling tyrant than the affectionate guardian. Emotionally abusive, money-hungry, powerful and manipulative, Niang proved to be hellfire. She was the epitome of an evil stepmother.
Amidst the hard life in the Yen household, Adeline found some solace from her Grandfather (Ye Ye), Aunt Baba (father’s sister), and James (older brother). Her Ye Ye was a loving, traditional man who ran a family business, until the Japanese occupation and eventual takeover by his only son (Adeline’s father). Aunt Baba never married, as she chose to run her own bank business and take care of the children. And James, around the same age as Adeline, was the carefree, understanding brother who watched over Adeline in sad times, notably waving a simple “Suan Le!!!” (“算了!”), as in “Let it go.”
She cherished her moments with Ye Ye and Aunt Baba, loving relationships Niang could not compete with and detested. With them, Adeline learned to love herself and take brave steps forward. Ye Ye withered away as he aged-physically, emotionally, and financially; he fell victim to Niang’s control. His own son fell under Niang’s magical spell, his love fading into the shadows as he became more consumed with business dealings and fortune. Before he died, Ye Ye taught Adeline about life:
You have your whole life ahead of you. Be smart. Study hard and be independent. I’m afraid the chances of your getting a dowry are slim… You must rely on yourself. No matter what else people may steal from you, they will never be able to take away your knowledge. The world is changing. You must make your own life outside this home.
In Ye Ye’s later letters to Aunt Baba:
All of us cling so tenaciously to life, but there are fates worse than death: loneliness, boredom, insomnia, physical pain. I have worked hard all my life and saved every cent. Now I wonder what it was all about. The agony and fear of dying, surely that is worse than death itself. The absence of respect around me. The dearth of hope. In this house where I count for nothing, ‘each day passes like a year.’ Could death really be worse?
Aunt Baba was the surrogate, affectionate mother figure Adeline looked up to. Touching moments throughout the book showed her undying devotion and acknowledgment of Adeline’s intelligence and attributes. For one, Aunt Baba saved all of Adeline’s elementary report cards displaying the highest achievements in class, locked away safely, the key to their bond religiously worn around her neck. Whenever upset or hurt, Adeline would embrace her Aunt, who would then open the safe and take out the report cards with golden marks. Aunt Baba’s soft hands and words were soothing to the bone. She stood up strongly to Adeline’s defense on many occasions, but sadly, even a headstrong woman like her could not last under Niang’s domination or the Cultural Revolution and protect Adeline forever.
Sprinkled with China’s dynamic history and hardships, Adeline’s remarkable story is weaved with culture, bittersweet emotions, suffering, and survival. She incorporates Chinese proverbs and teachings into her personal experiences, adding a melodious richness to her resounding themes and accounts. She yearns for deep affection from her siblings, her father, her Niang, and her peers, who are neither kind nor good. She encounters obstacles, heartbreak, and injustice. Consumption with money and materialism runs rampant throughout the family, most notably with father’s and Niang’s eventual wills. Sibling rivalry break loose when it came to money matters and familial attention. Niang’s cruelty, selfishness, and sadistic manipulations threaten to sabotage already fragile relations and twist Confucian ideals. In her search for personal closure and acceptance, Adeline carves out a heart-wrenching masterpiece that strikes the core of all human experience. Truly, falling leaves return to roots. Despite her sad upbringing, Adeline forgives and never forgets her loved ones; her brave front and compassionate heart help shape her unique story and future as a successful physician, as she shares with her audience her history and development.