Adeline Yen Mah

Adeline Yen Mah 1.jpeg

For most of us, heroism means confronting life’s tribulations, riding its waves, and emerging as our best selves, like Adeline Yen Mah.

Adeline was born in 1937 in the Chinese port city of Tianjin, the fifth child of a wealthy businessman. When her mother died giving birth to her, Adeline was marked as bad luck — an extra burden in a society that had deep respect for the spirit world but not a whole lot for independent women. When her father remarried, her stepmother made Adeline an outcast in her own family, a Chinese Cinderella.

Growing up in Shanghai, Adeline was reminded daily that she was unwanted, lower in the family hierarchy than even Jackie, the dog, who was better loved and better fed. On her way to and from school, she sometimes heard the cries of abandoned baby girls. She prayed she would not be the next one.

Fortunately, Adeline’s great aunt—a rare Chinese feminist who refused to bind her feet and who started the Women’s Bank of Shanghai—treated her kindly and set her on a path as a storyteller.

When Mao Zedong’s communists took over in 1949, China's elite scattered. Adeline’s family left for Hong Kong, sending her to boarding school. At 14, she won a writing competition, convincing her father to send her to England to study. In 1964, she moved to California to work as an anesthesiologist and start her own family far from the family of her birth.

But she never gave up hope that they would one day accept her. That never happened.

In 1990, her stepmother followed her father to the grave. That’s when Adeline learned she’d been completely cut out of their will. “You are nothing to us,” they seemed to whisper from beyond.

All her life, Adeline had pretended that she came from a loving family. Now the truth fueled overwhelming sorrow and outrage. Her sense of betrayal inspired her to write a memoir. In FALLING LEAVES (1997), she grieved the mother she never knew, whose photograph she never saw.

FALLING LEAVES is more than a Chinese Cinderella story, however. It’s also a history of modern China and a universal tale of the search for belonging and the multiple meanings of “home.” The title recalls the Chinese proverb that recounts how, over the course of a lifetime, we humans tend to return to our roots with age. Adeline Yen Mah continues to search for those roots in her books and by teaching Chinese online in celebration of her birth culture. She has left medicine to write full time.

Please believe that one single positive dream is more important than a thousand negative realities.
— Adeline Yen Mah

Many thanks to Michelle Smith of Alabama, USA, for nominating this History Hero. Here is what Michelle said about Adeline in her nomination:

"Adeline spoke up about a long history of oppression that was common for Chinese culture in her time, and gave a voice to many more women and girls who never would share their stories of overcoming such hopelessness.

Adeline beat the odds and proved that no matter what her own family thought or said about her, she could and would find happiness and reach others to help inspire a love for learning (in particular to learn her language)."

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