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Falling Leaves: The Memoir of an Unwanted…
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Falling Leaves: The Memoir of an Unwanted Chinese Daughter (1997)

by Adeline Yen Mah

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Fabulous book but it will make you cry. ( )
  ElaineWatkins | Mar 23, 2014 |
The Chinese-American author Adeline Yen Mah is best known for her two books of memoirs, Watching the tree. A Chinese daughter reflects on happiness, traditions, and spiritual wisdom and Falling leaves. The memoir of an unwanted Chinese daughter, the latter of which has also appeared in a Young Adult version as Chinese Cinderella. The true story of an unwanted daughter. These two (or three) books all deal with the same issues.

From a historical point of view, any person's memoirs can be very interesting, and given the fact that Adeline Yen Mah comes from a wealthy family makes her autobiographical work of more significance. Her work may be of interest to historians who study Chinese history, the history of immigrants into Hong Kong or Chinese-Americans, particularly in the first half on the 20th century. However, the dual editions of Falling leaves indicate that the author does not specifically have that audience in mind.

The picture that emerges from her memoirs, shows that the author comes from an incredibly privileged background. However, throughout the book the reader is struck by her portrayal of her family members, who are all exposed as extremely selfish. Her father, and especially her step-mother, most of her brothers, and Lydia, the family member left behind in Communist China. This selfishness reaches its pivot in the final chapters when the inheritance is to be divided.

Throughout the book the author describes herself as the great pacifier, the angelic daughter who studies medicine to become a doctor and thus a helper of mankind. While the emancipatory novelty is a fact, the author tends to make more of her own effort, and downplay the role of her wealthy family background of privilege.

The subtitle of the book indicates very clearly what the author's real preoccupations are: The memoir of an unwanted Chinese daughter. Throughout the book she keeps raising her wining voice, calling for pity with her, for being an unwanted daughter, unwanted, unloved and denied what? Oh, yes... her share of the inheritance. In essence, the book is not much more than a vain attempt by a narcissistic and spoilt woman to have the last say.
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The book is a perfect illustration of the decadent, privileged life of the upper-class Chinese that the Communist Revolution in China so successfully got rid of. The book is very well-written, and the historical transitions from Tianjin to Shanghai, on to Hong Kong and her life in other parts around the world are of historical interest. Above all, the book is of interest because it exposes the degrees of greed and hatred of wealthy Chinese families, in as far as we can separate those facts from the self-pity of the author. ( )
  edwinbcn | Dec 18, 2013 |
Adeline Mah writes about her tragic childhood and troubled young adult life with restrained emotion and polished writing, conveying both the historical context of her life and the personal episodes that deeply influenced her. This autobiography is not a joyful one; but then, most memoirs are born out of a cathartic need to revisit the problems in our life, so this is hardly surprising. What is more remarkable is the healthy woman the author became, rising out of a bitter family always at conflict with each other, with the conviction to find peace and hope, and retain her dream of a unified family.

The author's mother died while delivering her. Adeline was the youngest of five, an older sister and three older brothers. A short time after her mother passed away, her father decided to remarry. They called their new mother Niang, a more formal designation for mother. Sadly, Niang was not thrilled to accept five new children along with her new husband. She was cold and distant, and as soon as her son was born, created a hierarchy in the household. Her son was favored. She and her husband kept the wealth for themselves and the chosen child, while the other children were required to practice austerity, supposedly to learn to appreciate the money that their father worked so hard to obtain. Since their father was an extremely wealthy man, this deprivation was cruel and absurd. The first half of the book covered Adeline's childhood, crushed under an oppressive regime. Not only did her parents mistreat her, but her siblings also picked on her, the youngest, the one who killed their mother, the child who earned Niang's special displeasure.

The second part of the autobiography was less infuriating, as the author escaped to England to pursue her medical education, and was not directly under her Niang's influence. Eventually, she moved to America and established a successful medical practice. After a disastrous first marriage, she met someone who truly cared for her, and started her own family. She had two children, and wrote that she was happy for the chance to lavish love on them in a way that she never received. Sadly, her parents and her siblings continued to create waves of discontent in her life, and even in death her Niang managed one final attack on Adeline's spirit, cutting her out entirely of the will but leaving bequeaths to her brothers and sister, Lydia. The autobiography ends shortly after the author recounts Niang's death and the revelation of her final will and testimony. The last chapter tells of Adeline's final meeting with her Aunt Baba, a woman who supported and loved her when it seemed as if no one else did. Her aunt tells her a story that reinforces her own importance and worth, and encourages her to remember that she can create a beautiful life even if she has been wounded by those nearest to her. The memoir ends on this hopeful note of strength and healing.

I admire the author, Adeline Mah, for her amazing resilience and maturity. Despite undergoing mental and emotional abuse that set my teeth on edge, she persevered. She finally found and married a person who loved her, she had her own children, and she broke the negative cycle with this new family. Stopping family patterns of abuse is a very difficult task. Reading her story was heart-breaking, but also engrossing. I knew that she had become a published writer, her authorial voice indicated maturity and strength, and I wanted to see how she moved past all of her early trauma to this better place. The writing is clean, descriptive, and switches from historical backgrounds on the major events in China that framed Adeline's life to her own personal anecdotes. The style is not new or original, but rather like a perfect English composition; the book is easy to read and inviting. This is a worthwhile autobiography, with fine writing that focuses on a population not often covered in the biography section. General readers as well as nonfiction enthusiasts will appreciate the life story shared in these pages. ( )
  nmhale | Nov 25, 2013 |
This book form my wish list was sent to me by Kirjakko as a gesture for "Pay-it-forward-day". Thank you!!

The story of this Chinese girl / woman is really gripping. The thing's she has been put through in her child- and adulthood are terrrible, moreover because they were done to her by her own family.
Despite all, she gets out of it, over it, although not completely.

I loved the headings of the chapters, where Chinese sayings vere used. Written in Chinese, pinyin and translated into English, they indeed captured the contents of each chapter. The same goes for the characters / pinyin and English in the chapters, for proverbs, names of siblings etc.

The book left me wondering how people, family, can do these things to one another. How there's no compassion let alone love between them, how parents can treat their children the way Adeline's parents did. Maybe it has to do with differences in time and culture, but somehow I doubt that.

The parts of the book that were about the political situation in China were hard to follow. I know a bit of China's history and the things that Yen Mah is talking about are not completely strange to me, but nevertheless it felt like these parts came from nowhere. In my humble opinion a bit of an explanation / elaboration would have been great if the writer felt that the historical parts were of importance to the story of her life.
What also made the book more difficult to read were the jumps back and forth in time. Going from the civil war in China to far into communist times, forward to the 80's, back to China in the 40's... Memories do work that way: the jump back and forth one coming forth from remembering another thing. For me, not growing up in the circumstances, not sharing Yen Mah's memories, this made the book difficult to follow. ( )
  BoekenTrol71 | Mar 31, 2013 |
I read this book in 3 days. I really admire the author's candor and honesty. Her life story is heartbreaking at times and the history of Shanghai, Tianjin and Hong Kong were brought to life to me through her story. Despite the cruelty she experienced, Adeline was always looking for acceptance and the best in other people. For that alone, she is to be admired and yet others would admire her ability to have survived and succeeded in life academically and ultimately financially with so many obstacles to prevent her from doing so in her life. I will remember her story for a long time. ( )
  tkhughes8 | Jan 21, 2013 |
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Dedication
Dedicated to my Aunt Baba, whose unwavering belief in my worth sustained me throughout my tormented childhood. And to my husband, Bob, without whose love this book could not have been written.
First words
It would not be quite truthful say that we were all together for the first time in nearly forty years.
Quotations
On the eve of her wedding, Grandmother (@15) was summoned into her father's presence. 'Tomorrow you will belong to the Yen family,' she was told. 'From now on, this is no longer your home and you are not to contact us without permission from your husband. Your duty will be to please him and your in-laws. Bear them many sons. Sublimate your own desires. Become the willing piss-pot and spittoon of the Yens and we will be proud of you.
My mother died two weeks after my birth, with five doctors at her bedside. She was only thirty years old and I have no idea what she looked like. I have never seen her photograph.
Ye Ye's letters to Aunt Baba became more and more despondent. 'All of us clings tenaciously to life,' Ye Ye wrote, 'but there are fates worse than death: loneliness, boredom, insomnia, physical pain. I have worked hard all my lief and saved every cent. Now I wonder what it was all about. The agony and fear of dying, surely that is worse than death. In this house where I count for nothing, du ri ru nian (each day passes like a year). Could death really be worse. Tell me, daughter, what is there left for me to look forward to?
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0767903579, Paperback)

Snow White's stepmother looks like a pussycat compared to the monster under which Adeline Yen Mah suffered. The author's memoir of life in mainland China and--after the 1949 revolution--Hong Kong is a gruesome chronicle of nonstop emotional abuse from her wealthy father and his beautiful, cruel second wife. Chinese proverbs scattered throughout the text pithily covey the traditional world view that prompted Adeline's subservience. Had she not escaped to America, where she experienced a fulfilling medical career and a happy marriage, her story would be unbearable; instead, it's grimly fascinating: Falling Leaves is an Asian Mommie Dearest.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:36:18 -0400)

(see all 6 descriptions)

The true story of a young Chinese girl who grew up feeling unloved by her father who remarried shortly after her mother's death and treated his new family and subsequent children as upper class compared to his first children.

» see all 7 descriptions

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Penguin Australia

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