‘Falling Leaves:’ an emotional reflection on overcoming childhood trauma

February 23, 2021 — by Harshini Velchamy

The first book that ever made me cry was “Chinese Cinderella.” It was an autobiography written by Adeline Yen Mah detailing the struggles she had to endure to succeed in a society where no one wanted to see a woman prosper. Mah’s memoir of her life as the youngest daughter of a wealthy Chinese family is heart-wrenching; with all odds against her, she shares her story of overcoming childhood abuse by her step-mother and her journey in becoming a physician and world-renowned writer. 

I read “Chinese Cinderella” when I was 10; it, being Mah’s second autobiography (published in 1999), was an abridged version of her first book, “Falling Leaves” which was published in 1997. “Chinese Cinderella” mainly focused on her childhood, starting from her family believing her to be “unlucky” due to Mah’s mother passing away shortly after her birth. 

Mah’s father remarries to a cruel stepmother (referred to as Niang), who despises her step-children and treats Mah and her siblings as burdens. Mah’s memoir focuses on her struggle in finding a place where she belongs as all the people she loves keep leaving or dying.

At the time, I never really read serious books; I read a lot of fiction and fantasy, but I’d never really realized the power of words until “Chinese Cinderella.” The autobiography was heart-wrenching, with tear stains down my cheek as I flipped through the memoir; I couldn’t put down the book, allowing me to finish it in one sitting (unheard of for 10-year-old me.)

For years, I had been looking for “Falling Leaves” to hear more about her story and life after the events in the “Chinese Cinderella.” Until a month or so ago, I found the memoir in one of our boxes that we hadn’t unpacked yet from our move earlier this summer.

Quite honestly, I had never been more excited to read something. It’s incredibly difficult to find the time to read during junior year, so, during Martin Luther King Jr. weekend, I consolidated a full Monday to binge-read the 274-page book.

Full of graphic details, “Falling Leaves” brilliantly filled in the gaps left by “The Chinese Cinderella.” Mah chronicles her experience in striving to attain her father’s love and admiration through academic achievement where she also discovers her passion for writing, winning numerous awards in her school in China. Mah’s emotional recounting of her childhood years from the death of her grandparents to her being sent to a Hong Kong orphanage due to her step-mother not wanting her in the house.

The autobiography also touches on the racial disparity existing in China at the time. Niang, who’s a Eurasian woman, clearly held more power in Mah’s household than the father or the elders of the house.

The vivid experiences Mah describes, including her stepmother yelling and beating her when her friends came over to wish her happy birthday as well as her brother feeding her pet baby chicken to the family dog in a fit of jealousy, contribute to this memoir’s emotional impact.

While I would recommend “Falling Leaves” to anyone interested in the subject, it isn’t a light read; this powerful memoir is heavy and emotionally taxing, but it’s beautifully written and without a doubt, the best read of the year so far for me.


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