For my Literature class, we had to read “Chinese Cinderella: The Secret Story of an Unwanted Daughter” by Adeline Yen Mah.
It’s a children’s story based off Mah’s book for adults “Falling Leaves” which is about Mah’s childhood in China during and after the WWII as the fifth child in her family. She was called “Wu Mei” which means fifth daughter.
Wu Mei’s mother died giving birth to her, so Wu-Mei is raised in a household where her full brothers and sister despise her for “killing” their mother and where the Step-Mom hates her step-children. The Step Mom particularly hates Wu-Mei because she does not try to suck up to the Step Mom like Wu Mei’s older sister does. Wu Mei’s father gives into all of his new wife demands, so the Wu-Mei is almost always treated as if she is worthless. The only people who really care about her in the story is her Nei Nei (Gma) who dies early on, her YeYe (Gpa) and her Aunt Baba.
Unfortunately, YeYe and Aunt Baba have practically no power in the household ruled by the Step Mom, so Wu Mei has to deal with her siblings and Step Mom constantly berating her. As a result, Wu Mei turns to school and achieving well there so that her father can be proud of her for once. Despite her numerous academic achievements, her family claims she shows off too much by winning awards; only the Aunt really seems to care about Wu Mei’s good grades.
Halfway through the book, some of Wu Mei’s friends show up at her house to celebrate Wu Mei’s election as class president. However, she is not allowed to have friends over and as a result, her parents flip out, declare she brings “shame” to the family and shuttle her off to boarding schools far away from her friends and family.
Throughout the next four years Wu Mei is trapped at different boarding schools, made fun of for having clothes that don’t fit because her parents won’t give her extra money, all her letters to her aunt and gpa are never delivered and she never receives mail from her family. Her father doesn’t even remember what her legal first names are (Adeline Jun-Ling) or her birthday. Wu Mei herself doesn’t even know her exact birthday because the family deemed only the Step Mother’s children will celebrate their birthday.
I won’t ruin the ending of this book which was kind of bittersweet and instead I will focus on why I am writing this blog post today.
The whole time I was reading this book, I kept feeling incredulous of how much of a “Witch” the Step-mom is and how awful Wu Mei’s family is to her.
For example, one of the things the Step Mom says to Wu Mei is,
“Not only are you are liar and a thief but you are manipulative as well. Nothing will ever come of you. The problem is that you have bad blood from your mother. You don’t deserve to be housed and fed here. Girls like you should be sent away. You don’t belong in this house!”
I can’t even imagine how it would feel as a 10 year old to have your “parent” tell you these things.
Other things happen in the book similar to this where this little girl is treated worse the family dog that not only ripped open her arm, but also killed her only pet, a duck she called “Precious Little Thing.” In fact, at one point the girl said she wished she was the family dog!
When I was reading this, at the end of almost every chapter, I kept thinking how lucky I am to have the awesome, loving parents I have and my sisters who, though we fought a ton when we were younger, were never cruel to me and loved me too.
My heart goes out to this little girl who struggled so much during her childhood to find acceptance from her parents and never really got it.
This books really makes me think a lot about emotionally/physically abusive families and how much children suffer. It makes me want to do something to stop this, because every child deserves to have a family that loves and cares about them. Nobody deserves to be treated like a “worthless”!
I know that what happened in this book was 60 years ago, but still there are children out there with really horrible families, and these children deserve a better life.
So I will end this post with part of Mah’s preface to the book, which is dedicated to those “who were neglected and unloved as children”:
“Mother Teresa once said that ‘loneliness and the feeling of being unwanted are the greatest poverty’. To this I will add: ‘Please believe that one single positive dream is more important than a thousand negative realities.’”
Ps. I also really want to read the adult version of the novel and see how it compares to the children novel because I’m sure there would be more detailed/complex issues brought into play.