‘Falling Leaves’ & unwanted daughters

- Dawn Isobel Yu-Aquino () - March 16, 2003 - 12:00am
Choosing a favorite book to write about was to me a daunting task. I have a lot of favorites, and choosing just one didn’t seem fair to the rest. Should I write about the adventures of Harry Potter, which awakened the child-adventurer and wizard wannabe in me, making me wish I had written the series myself? Or maybe Kitchen Confidential, the wanton, irreverent behind-the-kitchen book by a chef that made me laugh and cringe in recognition? A classic, I thought, would be great to write about, something dark and mysterious, full of passion, revenge and adventure like The Count of Monte Cristo. Something modern and Asian perhaps, hip, sexy, liberated and chic like Shanghai Baby. Memoirs of a Geisha beckoned from my bookshelf, sensual and rich with an exotic locale and an unforgettable heroine.

So many books, yet one had to stand out and be the centerpiece of my essay. It had to be something close to my heart, my heritage and my life. So now I find myself writing about a book whose poignancy and raw emotion will forever be etched in my memory.

Normally wary of autobiographies, I surprised myself by finishing Falling Leaves: The Memoir of an Unwanted Chinese Daughter by Adeline Yen Mah in a few short hours. This is the true story of a cruel Eurasian stepmother who at every opportunity inflicted emotional pain on an innocent child from the time she lost her real mother through her adolescence and adulthood. This isn’t a fairy tale, where the stepmother learns her lesson, asks for forgiveness, and they all live happily ever after. This is a painful tale whose every sentence is a testament to suffering and the human need for parental love and acceptance. Yet it isn‘t only an emotional roller coaster of a book; it is also a story of arranged marriages, funeral effigies and bound feet; of Chinese sayings and superstitions; of filial piety and family ties; of Communist China and the Red Guards; of the Cultural Revolution; of the Hong Kong boom; of discrimination against women and Asians in the universities of Europe; of life in America; of strength of character in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles; and of the enduring power of love.

How could I possibly put it down?

Growing up in Shanghai in the 1940s, Mah paints a picture of a cosmopolitan city (the "Paris of the Orient") where the architecture, trade and people are foreign-influenced. She also relates her family’s stay in Tianjin, and makes her childhood story all the more interesting with detailed, lively historical tidbits of 1920s to 1950s China. She gives an insightful background on her family members like liberated, smart and strong-willed Grand Aunt who established a women’s bank. She speaks fondly of Ye-Ye, her grandfather, who started a successful business along with her father. She gives special attention to the life of Aunt Baba, her father’s sister, who as the caretaker of the family lost all chances of getting married when Mah’s mother died. Joseph Tsi-Rung Yen and Ren Yong-Ping, Mah’s parents, are described as happily married and inseparable, until the day Ren dies after giving birth to Adeline. Her brother Gregory is the one with the sunny personality who is full of mischief. Edgar is the brooding, insecure bully. James is her hero and friend. Lydia, the eldest, is authoritative, vengeful, mean-spirited and bitter.

As she slowly draws the reader into the web of her family life, the tone of her storytelling eerily changes from light and reminiscing to dark and brooding. This haunting mood starts to build when her mother dies and her father is devastated. He takes on a new wife, Jeanne Prosperi, a beautiful French- Chinese who enters their life like a howling gust of wind that leaves a trial of destruction in its wake. She gives birth to Franklin and Susan. With Mah’s grandmother still alive, Jeanne ("Niang" to the Yen children) is powerless. When the grandmother dies, the children’s lives are changed completely and irrevocably. The heartless stepmother is now in power. Niang, Joseph, Franklin and Susan are the ones holding the money, the ones who stay in the bigger rooms and eat the best dishes. Despite being well-off, the real Yen children live a life of austerity. They are made to walk miles to school in darkness and bitter cold. They have to "defect to the other side" and beg for favors. Adeline shows will power at such a young age by stubbornly refusing to beg and by speaking up against Niang. She endures the long, uncomfortable walks to school and is rewarded with a fertile imagination and the gift of writing. She never enjoys a normal childhood since pets, friends and all sorts of companionship are unavailable to her. Hungry for attention, she gets the best grades in school, but is never the recipient of a smile, a hug, a congratulatory note, or any sign of love and affection from her parents. She grows up in a "house of sinister maneuverings and hidden machinations." Niang seeks to control their lives, to the point that Ye-Ye welcomes death when it comes for him. Referring to his son and daughter-in-law’s lack of filial piety he says, "Loneliness, boredom, insomnia, physical pain, absence of respect, dearth of hope, a house where I count for nothing are all fates worse than death."

When Adeline is sent to boarding school, she gets no letters, friends, or visitors to cheer her up. Her family leaves for Hong Kong, leaving her behind like a sack of unwanted trash, forgotten and abandoned by her own flesh and blood. Luckily, she is able to go to Hong Kong, and then to Europe to study medicine. An ill-fated affair leads her back to Hong Kong where her Niang still controls her career path. In desperation, she goes to the States to break the emotional hold Niang has on her. She marries, has a child, but her marriage crumbles. She becomes a successful anesthesiologist, meets and eventually marries Robert Mah, who comes from a loving and close-knit Chinese family so unlike hers it takes her a while to get used to her newfound happiness and luck. Her siblings likewise live in the shadows of the fiery Niang, who eventually succeeds in driving them apart.

Her story sounds so much like Cinderella’s, full of bitter memories, a heartless stepmother, cowardly siblings and a prince charming who would later give her a much-needed and deserved happy ending. Her "fairy godmothers" during her childhood years are Ye-Ye and Aunt Baba, but later on her inner strength and will to succeed become her magic wand, the key to a better life. I loved the way she becomes fulfilled and happy later on in her life, though there were times when I felt she was too naive and full of hope. She realizes in the end that some people have hearts of stone and that blood can run thinner than water.

I felt she should have known better than to think her Niang had changed in her old age. She should have known better than to trust her siblings. In a way, the betrayal was her own doing because she thought too highly of others. I felt as angry with her as with her Niang. There are parts of the book where she craves so much for a normal, loving family that she forgets her willfulness when she was younger, and will do anything for her parents and siblings. I felt she should have been more cynical. But then, who could blame her for dreaming? My anger and exasperation at her naiveté later turned to admiration as I finished the book. Her triumph amid the turmoil of her life made me forget her somewhat foolish dreams. She might not have brought her family together, but she became a successful doctor, writer, mother and wife. She made a life for herself in America, survived a cruel life and lived to tell the tale. She could have been an embittered failure but she fought back without losing perspective.

This is the lesson the book has to offer: Realizing that the power of a woman is not in seeking revenge against abuses, but in overcoming obstacles, discrimination and pain, without sacrificing her capacity to love and forgive.

Why is this book so close to my heart? Aside from the lessons I learned from Mah’s remarkable story, I know how it feels to yearn for acceptance and attention. I am a Chinese daughter, too, and I know we are forever craving our parent’s recognition. Fortunately for me, my parents showered me with love and affection all my life. Unfortunately, my best friend used to be an unwanted Chinese daughter too, who, for so many years, had to contend with her stepmother. They are civil to each other now. I felt so much pain for my friend in those years, and I felt it again when I read this book. How could a human being, and a mother at that, be so manipulative and full of hatred and insecurity? How could one control the lives of others and lead them to a moral and emotional downfall?

Falling Leaves
brought out so many emotions in me. I wept, rejoiced and seethed with anger. Yet one particular emotion gripped me as I finished reading it, and that was gratitude. Gratitude for not being unwanted myself, for the new life my best friend has, for the strength God has given women and men to carry seemingly unbearable crosses and emerge stronger, better, wiser.

ADELINE ADELINE YEN MAH BOOK FALLING LEAVES FAMILY FRANKLIN AND SUSAN HONG KONG LIFE MAH NIANG
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