Chinese CinderellaFalling Leaves: The Memoir of an Unwanted Chinese Daughter by Adeline Yen Mah
At first glance, Adeline Yen Mah’s life would seem perfect; her father was wealthy, she grew up in bustling Hong Kong, and she was sent to live in London when she was admitted into medical school at the age of 14. Later, she married for love, had two children, a successful career in medicine, and she became chief of anesthesia at a California hospital.
That is not the full story, which is why the 60-year-old doctor decided to write about her troubles and triumphs, quitting her medical practice and writing Falling Leaves: The True Story of an Unwanted Chinese Daughter, (John Wiley & Sons). It’s the tale of an intelligent girl striving for parental love amid the chaos of Communist China. Her mother had died in childbirth, and, as a result, Adeline, the youngest of five children, was deemed bad luck. When her father married a beautiful Eurasian, the stepmother created a life of shame, punishment, and abuse.
Adeline escaped and, after graduation, she established a medical practice in southern California. Today, she lives with her husband, Bob, at homes in London, Hong Kong, and Orange County, California. But the sad past is etched in her psychology and she continues to yearn for her parents’ approval, which she discussed with me during an interview in Glendale, California.
Did you always want to be a writer?
Always. I’ve had letters from readers who write that Falling Leaves like a fable to them. My book is saying: Don’t believe it—you are not the Ugly Duckling. You are a value to yourself. I would like everyone to treat their daughters the same as their sons.
You give the reader a glimpse of Chinese history—
I try to bring that period alive. For example, it was horrible to experience the [Chinese] civil war. I explained how my brother Edgar stole two American dollars and buried it in the backyard to illustrate the concept of inflation against that historical background. In Shanghai, there were cars and trams, beautifully dressed people listening to jazz. It was very glamorous in the 1940s. There was a lot of poverty, too. But Noel Coward was staying in Shanghai and writing Private Lives in three days.
What is the theme of Falling Leaves?
My struggle for acceptance, because I was always excluded. I had this dream of a united family where no one was treated badly. I was very upset when they told me that Lydia, my older sister, was disinherited by my father. I wanted her [to be] included. I wanted to bring her back into the family fold because I knew how it felt to be excluded from the family. Even though I knew that my stepmother was neither kind nor good, I yearned for her approval my entire life. Perhaps it’s because I was never accepted and her love would be unattainable. I don’t understand the psychology. One reader wrote to me and said that she had wondered, when she read Cinderella, how she could yearn for the love of her stepmother. She wrote that, after she read Falling Leaves, she understood. So, it’s a psychological drama of children striving for the love of parents against the backdrop of 20th century China in turmoil. I wanted to present everything as objectively as I could. Readers tell me it is universal.
How could your stepmother be worthy of love?
That’s a good question. I don’t know. But when we love, do we only love the people who are worthy or is it an emotional response that we cannot understand? There are two types of love. There is the type that you develop toward your friends, and those whom you admire. But, toward your family—? She was horrible to me. She kept telling me that I was worthless, that I would never amount to anything, that I had bad blood from my dead mother and that the money spent on my education was a waste. I kept thinking that if I tried hard enough, and kept hoping, I would be the ugly duckling who would return as the beautiful swan. I didn’t really have a family; Aunt Baba was the only one who gave me love. I kept thinking that if I tried hard enough in their hour of need, [my parents] would come to love me. Perhaps it is unrealistic. My stepmother once almost turned around. It was when I spent $ 50,000 on my father’s medical bills—I was very proud to do it and I was honored that, of all the children, he came to me [for help]. When my father’s will was read, I was left nothing. A will is a very powerful document—it’s a message that will haunt you for the rest of your life. Because it means that, in their eyes, you are nothing and you never meant anything. It hurts and you don’t get over it. You never get over it. I later found [a draft of my father’s] will and he did include me—it showed that he did care.
You left Hong Kong when you were 14 and went to London. What was it like for you?
Wonderful. As soon as I got out, I knew that I had my chance to prove my worth. In England in the Fifties, there were very few Chinese. They considered me a freak. I was unusual. But that doesn’t matter. Once they got to know me, they realized that we’re not that different after all. The liberals wanted to show me off as their Chinese friend. Compared to my treatment at home, it was fair. I remember my first dance at medical school—where there were mostly men—and the girls had more dances than they could have wanted with the men. But no one wanted to dance with me. I was not really a girl, not to them, I was a specimen; awkward and rejected. I walked out and, while wandering the campus, I came across [a college professor named] Carl in his lab. He noticed my distress and asked what was wrong. I explained that no one would dance with me. And he said, “I would have stood in line to dance with you.” It was overwhelming for me to hear this from a professor. Afterwards, we had an affair. He reminded me of Franz Kafka—ominous, threatening and yearning for me. I could not take it. Looking back, if we had married, it would have been a terrible mistake.
You became a doctor. Yet, when you returned to Hong Kong, you were looked down upon.
Hong Kong was a British colony, which is why I don’t think Communism will work there, and they resented the West.
Are you a product of your environment?
We’re all bound, I suppose, by our upbringing. The worst part was the first 14 years of my childhood. As soon as I got to England, everything was fine. I knew then that no matter what I did, I would be successful—I had that feeling. I had the confidence. I don’t know what the source is or where my confidence comes from. I had to quit my medical practice to write this book and that was scary; I did not know that the book was ever going to be published let alone succeed but, I just knew that if I practiced for another 20 years, I would get a sum of money. I knew I would never win a Nobel Prize—I’m an anesthesiologist—or make earth-shattering discoveries. Whereas, if I finished the book, my story will live after I’m gone. So I chose to do it. People say that’s courageous, but I don’t think so. I just had the confidence that if I do a good job, it’s going to be OK.
Do you consider yourself an American—Chinese—Chinese-American?
I think I’m both. It’s difficult to choose. I’ve lived for so long in the States and yet my roots are in China. Psychology does not change, but our sense of humor, the way we eat, the way we say things, our culture, that does change.
So is culture an inherent part of one’s identity?
No—it gets molded as we go along.
You had this emotional connection Aunt Baba, who was, as you put it, “the only person to whom you felt you mattered,” yet she depended on your father and stepmother for her livelihood?
That’s how it was. Actually, I sent her money every month. She always thanked me. Before she died, she told me ‘I have a present for you’ and I opened the cupboard and there was a leather bag. And she said, ‘open that,” and in the bag was most of the money that I had sent her. She gave it back to me.
Did you matter to yourself?
At one time, I really loathed myself. When a child is told repeatedly that she’s worthless—that she’s a nuisance—I started to hate myself. Every time I was with [my parents], I just felt ugly. I remember when my grandfather died. I had been playing basketball at the time and my uniform was soiled and my stepmother looked at me up and down—I think I was annoying her because I was crying and my eyes were probably swollen—and I remember her look of contempt. She said to my father, ‘I’m sure that Adeline is growing uglier and uglier as she grows older and taller. Just look at her.” I literally wished I would disappear and be done with it. It was horrible. I would like to tell other [abused] children to hang in there—just because your parents or grown-ups tell you you’re worth nothing—they could be wrong. Prove them wrong. That is what’s important. So, I matter to myself now but maybe I’m still trying to prove myself worthy of my dead stepmother. Maybe. I don’t know. Aunt Baba tried to teach me to matter to myself. She treated my report cards as if they were little treasures and that meant so much to me. And, at school, my classmates always liked me. I was elected class president in a democratic election. They gave me gifts, so I knew that outside I was OK. I yearned to be accepted inside.
Are you concerned that, by focusing on your difficult childhood, you risk trivializing the suffering of millions of Chinese living under Communism?
I’m not saying that I suffered more than those millions of people in China—I’m sure there are people who suffered more than I have. I never had to live under Communism. I was lucky. I wanted to reveal the truth so Westerners know that not all Chinese families are so united. I suppose I kept wanting this utopia to come out of China. Life in Hong Kong has improved. People downgrade America, but, America has done a fantastic amount of good [for Hong Kong], too. For example, in the old days, nobody stood in line; they were swarming all over shoving and pushing. And, then, McDonald’s came in and said, ‘unless you get in line one by one and strictly observe it we’re not going to serve you.’ This is American culture. The same is true with toilets. People don’t say that but America brought a lot of positive culture; all you hear about is how America brings violence. It’s fashionable to downgrade America but, to me, America will always be a Garden of Eden. From the beginning, strangers were kinder than my own parents and I was given an equal chance. I encountered less discrimination here than anywhere else.
Do you like living in California?
I love California. I like the openness, the feeling of infinite possibilities and the acceptance. Everybody is from somewhere else and I like that—everyone has an equal chance to prove [one’s] worth. You are judged as an individual.
This article was originally published in 1998.