Dreaming of love & acceptance in ‘Chinese Cinderella’

- Audrey Lim-Tan () - October 31, 2004 - 12:00am
Being a mother, you cherish things you took for granted when you were still young. Like for me, gone are the days when I could settle in a comfortable chair and read a book without interruption. I read so many books when I was younger that the thing I truly miss the most in my happy married life is that I am not able to read and write as often as I used to.

With four children, a husband, a business to run and meetings to attend, reading is a luxury I cannot afford these days. I love books so much that I still go out and buy them regularly. But finding the time to read them is another question. However, knowing that they are on my shelf, ready to be read, gives me a sense of comfort. But, as luck would have it, a company-sponsored trip to Cebu and Bohol gave me the much-needed vacation I have always wanted, and a chance to settle down with a good book.

I bought the book Chinese Cinderella a year ago, and what attracted me into buying this book were the Chinese characters written on the cover, and the picture of a little girl that reminded me of a picture of my grandmother when she was still young. I have always appreciated my grandmother for teaching me Chinese. It was through her that I can read and write Chinese characters. Although I am not the best Chinese language interpreter around, you can say that I am fluent than most of my peers, and can read and write better than most. Growing up in a Chinese household and studying Chinese until High School did much to improve my knowledge of Chinese. Although I can speak the language, you can hardly say that I am a master of it. Reading Chinese is one thing. But, to be really good in Chinese, you must at least learn to recognize approximately 2,000 words. Like what the author Adeline Yen Mah said, "Chinese is a pictorial language. Every word is different and has to be memorized separately. There is no alphabet and no connection between the written and spoken language."

Having a Chinese background myself, I found the story all too familiar. While I am only half-Chinese (my mother is pure Filipino), I grew up in a predominantly Chinese household. I understood Chinese culture and traditions, went to a Chinese school and had Chinese friends.

Chinese Cinderella
is a true story based on the life of Adeline. She is the youngest of five siblings. Even though she is from an affluent family, she is never happy. She is held responsible for the death of her mother, who dies shortly after giving birth to her, and has since been considered bad luck by her siblings. Things get worse when her father remarries and her stepmother Niang gives birth to two more children – who later are completely spoiled.

Far be it for me to call myself a Chinese Cinderella, I was never an unwanted daughter like Adeline. However, like Adeline, I too did well in class but for different reasons. For Adeline, she did it so that she would get the love and understanding of her family. I did it out of gratitude to my parents who worked so hard to send me to school.

Adeline considers her Aunt Baba as her only friend. Aunt Baba shares a room with her and never ceases to praise her accomplishments in school. When I read the part where her aunt tucks away her certificates and medals in a safe, I fondly remember my mother doing the same with mine.

When Adeline talks about her grandmother’s bound feet, I could not help but remember my great-grandmother who passed away when I was 24. I lived with her when I was growing up. Unlike Adeline’s grandma, my great-grandma was lucky not to have her feet bound. She told me that her father did not allow it. She remembered having her feet bound only for a short time. When her father came home from business, he immediately had the bandage removed. She had crooked toes, but her feet were not crushed at the arch.

Reading this book brought back further memories of my childhood. I could see myself standing right next to Adeline and feeling all kinds of emotions. I started wishing deep down that she would fight back and claim what was rightfully hers – the love and respect of a family. I also felt anger when Adeline and her siblings are given limited food while her half-brother and half-sister eat all the bacon, eggs, toast and dessert they want. I sympathize with Adeline when she is not given tram fare and had to walk a mile and a half to school every day, rain or shine, even though they had a chauffeur. I felt disgusted when her brothers give her orange juice, and after taking a sip, she finds out that it is really their urine. I cried when her one and only pet duckling PLT is used as training bait for the family’s pet dog, Jackie. I was happy for her when she finds acceptance in school among her teachers and classmates. I was pleased when she writes compositions in school and found myself reliving the days when I used to write. I cheered for her when she becomes class president, despite her victory being short-lived because her classmates visit her at home to congratulate her but are thrown out of the house by Niang.

My heart broke when I found out that she does not even know her real birth date because her birthday is neither celebrated nor remembered. I felt encouraged when her Ye Ye (grandpa) tells her to create her own destiny, to rely more on herself and not end up married off like her big sister, to continue to work hard and to show the world what she is really made of.

What inspired me most about this book is that Adeline continues to follow the wishes of her father and Niang despite their harsh treatment. She does well in school with the hope that one day, they would come to love and accept her. Her spirit is never dampened, even though Niang predicts a bad future for her, while her father says that nothing good will come out of her life. Ye Ye and Aunt Baba are the only two people who really believe in her.

Interestingly, Adeline and I were both voted "Most Likely to Succeed" in high school. But for me, the true measure of success is not so much the position that one has reached in life, but it is measured through the obstacles one has overcome while trying to succeed.

As Adeline so eloquently puts it: "It is still important to be truthful and loyal, to do the best you can, to make the most of your talents, to be happy with the simple things in life, and to believe deep down that you will ultimately triumph if you try hard enough to prove your worth… persist in trying to do the best in the face of hopelessness; have faith, in the end your spirit will prevail; and transcend your abuse and transform it into a source of courage, creativity and compassion."

One does not have to be an unwanted child to read this book. I was never an unwanted child, but I enjoyed reading this book immensely. Adeline Yen Mah imparts such wisdom, like when she writes: "Believe that one single positive dream is more important than a thousand negative realities."

The Chinese are often a misunderstood race. Positive or negative, comments about them are always followed by the phrase "because he’s Chinese." Everything stems from being too Chinese, when all we want is the same thing – acceptance and the desire to be loved.

Being Chinese is part of my heritage and I am proud to be a Filipino. Like Adeline, I know one day I shall die and vanish into the void, but I hope to preserve my memories through my writing. A professor told me of this old Chinese proverb: "There are three things you can do in life to become immortal: 1) have children, 2) plant a tree, 3) write a book." I have done the first two, the last one I still need to do.

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