GAH I LOVED THIS BOOK.
I finished it the same day I started in-between rest times for studying for an exam, and I may have studied a little less than I should have. I’ve definitely read and watched quite a few versions of Cinderella, from Ella Enchanted (both movie and book) to Ever After to The Stepsister’s Tale (a great retelling of the traditional story from a different point of view and a different outcome) to Disney’s Cinderella. But these stories and movies are basically fairy-tales, fictional stories that much of the world is familiar with. I’m sure many cultures and countries have told their own Cinderella tale with many similar details.
But Chinese Cinderella is a true story, an autobiography of Adeline Yen Mah of how she grew up unwanted by her family, including her stepmother. Adeline (given name, Junling) is the fifth child in her family, and her mother died giving birth to her. As a result, her four older siblings, and to some degree her father, saw her as bad luck and resented her very existence. Her father remarried and two other siblings were born to the family, a boy and a girl, and almost right away, there was a divide in how each set of siblings were treated. The children born to the stepmother were treated well; they were given privileges and treatments that the other five weren’t given, such as being able to eat essentially whenever they wanted, dress in the current styles, and gain immediate favor of their parents. Adeline was given the worst treatment, and throughout the book, you’ll cry and maybe even grow enraged at the neglect and apathy that her family shows her.
However, not all is dark and gloomy, and I love how there is always some in Adeline’s life to show her love and appreciation. They come in the form of friends at school who admire and respect her so much that she becomes the class president. Her aunt shows her love throughout her childhood and is constantly referred to as a best friend. She even finds love in her stepmother’s extended family in how they play with her and treat her as their own loved child. And of course, there’s the ending; I won’t spoil it, but I will say that it’s much better than being whisked away by handsome prince at a ball.
My favorite part of this book actually has nothing to do with the whole “Cinderella” part, but rather had to do with learning about her language. In the Author’s Note (yes I read it), Adeline states that one of her goals is to “interest [the reader] in her language, history, and culture”. She goes about doing this by calling each of her family members by their translated Chinese terms (for example, Wu Mei or Fifth Sister for Adeline) and giving a mini-Chiniese lesson. When Adeline is with her Ye Ye (grandfather) when she is about 14 or 15 after being in a school where she had to speak English, she learns a bit about her own language. Ye Ye describes how Chinese is a pictoral language and how the symbols look like what they’re representing. And when some symbols are combined, say the symbols for “buy” and “sell”, a new word is formed that embodies the separate symbols (the combination of “buy” and “sell” is “business”). I’ve always wanted to learn an Asian language, and I even learned enough Japanese at one point that I could decently comprehend so some simple words and sentences. But I loved this little mini-lesson in the middle of the biography. Not only was it a lesson for the teenaged Adeline, but it is a lesson for the reader as well. So laugh, cry, and get angry as you read about Adeline’s life and learn more about her culture. I’m trying to look for more of her books, and hopefully I’ll write about another one soon.