Tag Archive | Culture

Falling Leaves Return to Roots 落葉歸根

Falling Leaves: The Chinese Cinderella

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.

Beautiful Autumn

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.

Azalea: Chinese symbol of womanhood, fragile passion; also 想樹 'thinking of home bush' or pensiveness

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ID please…

This entry is a continuation of yesterday’s blog.

One workshop I attended was very fascinating.  It was titled “Being Multiracial, Multiethnic, Multilingual:  Asian-descent in the Age of Obama.”  I loved the speaker, Dr. Teresa Williams-Leon, who happens to be Japanese-Caucasian.  She was engaging, energetic, and charismatic.  She was there to discuss her research in multiethnic groups, such as whether different classes of half-Asians associate with one particular half or not. However, multi-___ research reveals the dynamic intricacies of life.  Coming out is not a clean break; people are subject to social pressures and numerous influences.

A proper definition of stereotype is a distortion of reality, resulting in preconceived (often exaggerated) notions.  According to Dr. Teresa’s research, multiracial people are influenced by class, parents, phenotype, country, gender, etc…  Interestingly, she found that there is a tendency to be closer to positive stereotypes.  For instance, in Asian-Hispanics, there is a shift to lean towards the Latino side based on physical appearances and some more negative stereotypes linked to Asians.  However, with age, there is greater flexibility and longitudinal progression in identity development and acceptance; there’s less of a “stuck” feeling.  There is more opening up to previous identities.

Thus, we have parameters when we interact with people.  We have expectations and naturally fall victim to generating stereotypes.  And yet, when we get to know people, we learn about the individual.  Clearly, we cannot just simply assume and be right all the time.

Of course, we touched upon just a few major Asian stereotypical features:  technologically superior (think Mitsubishi, Nissan, Honda, Samsung, Nokia, Japanese toilets!, Chinese electric fly swatter, Taiwan’s MRT subway that beats NYC rat-infested lines, etc…), trustworthy, passive, modest, hard-working, money-making (DLB-Doctor-Lawyer-Business alliance), etc…

To finish up, we looked at multi-ethnic famous people.  For instance, Barack Obama himself is African-Caucasian.  AND, he is as close to an Asian president as America has seen, since his step-father originated from Indonesia.  Then there are also Tiger Woods, Kimora Lee, the awesome Apolo Ohno, and the playboy husband Jon of Jon&Kate duo.  Tiger Woods has viewed himself as unique as a “Caublasian,” with connections to variety of classes and cultures.  Kimora looks like a really tall and tan Asian lady, but on television, she comes off as assimilating well with the hip-hop community; and yet, she does incorporate oriental themes in her fashion and names for her children.  Clearly, racial identity is complicated and highly variable…

For me, I’m not multi-racial; I’m just another ABC who’s had multi-lingual skills.  A fill-in-the blank exercise we had to try was this:  Although I seem ___ people don’t know that I’m ___.  Okay, this can be a fun activity to play on this blog.

1. Although I seem Chinese, people don’t know that I’m illiterate.  That is, I can only speak and listen to Mandarin, but I never learned to read or write. As Dr. Yeung mentioned in her keynote speech, how can a person know so much about a language, and yet be illiterate.  People have complimented on my developed Mandarin, with a few funny pronunciation differences that’s more due to my parents’ backgrounds.  But, I cannot read or write, except for my name (eh, what’s the use of that when I have a legal, English name).  My mom has said, “What do you need reading and writing anyway? You’re in America, you need English!”  Well, I’d like to travel and perhaps try working some time in Asia; it’s still my homeland, history-wise.  I’ve had limited opportunities to visit and work in China or Taiwan or other Asian areas, but I’d like to incorporate some more time during my medical career.  Hence, for the past 2 years of revitalizing my heritage, I’ve picked up more Mandarin via KTV (yes, I watch Jay Chou MVs to sharpen my reading), dramas, and news.  Yes, funky alternative to Chinese school.


2. Although I seem Chinese, people don’t know that I’m also Taiwanese. It’s a touchy subject, it’s controversial, it’s sensitive.  It’s become a political debate and alliance nightmare, nearly to the point of military threat a few years back.  My mother’s Shanghainese, my father’s Taiwanese (with roots near Shanghai)… I joke with my friends, I might as well say I’m floating in the South China Sea somewhere.  I’ve had influences from both ends.  Just listen to me talk in Mandarin, and you will deem my speaking funny.  Sometimes I sound ABC, other times I say words TW way or Shanghainese way.  Each dialect is different around China/Taiwan/elsewhere, and native speakers pick up your ethnicity very easily.


My sister saw a commercial on Sino TV and it showed a bunch of Asian students preparing for those summer enrichment classes and acing the SATs.  One kid said, “Next time on your application, check off other and write Taiwanese…”  Yes, TW pride is sky high and it’s affecting me.  If you look at my music choices and drama selections, you’ll see where my loyalties land =D