Saturday, January 30, 2016

The Peculiar Case of Chinese Cinderella

            Stories have always been a part of my life as a young girl discovering her place in the world. I went to a private school in San Francisco and every day in class my peers and I would gather around our second grade teacher, eyes gleaming with excitement to hear another Bible story. Stories such as how Moses, an ordinary man no different than the next, parted the Red Sea left me astounded. However, as I continued my education, I was no longer impressed by such stories due to hearing the recounted tales verbatim. My curious little mind craved something new and different to consume.

            After I moved in with my grandparents in the fourth grade, my life took a different turn. I did not have the opportunity to speak English at home since my grandparent’s primary language was Chinese. Therefore, my literacy skills were not up to par in comparison to my peers. As my teachers assigned pages upon pages for me to read, I gradually lost interest in stories altogether. Overwhelmed by the difficult vocabulary, I began viewing reading as a chore and would dread silent reading time during class. One afternoon during a parent-teacher conference, my fourth grade teacher was addressing her concern about my English grade (who knew grades were even important then) and told my father that I was struggling in that subject area. My teacher then asked me directly if I enjoyed reading the book, The Hatchet, for class. As my face flushed in embarrassment, I shyly replied that I did not understand the basic plotline. I tried to avert my eyes away from her, but to my surprise my teacher did not laugh or look down upon me. Instead, she told me that reading was a challenging skill to master and that the trick was not to just read the words on the paper as if they were just words. The words were not scattered on the pages randomly, but rather they were thoughtfully organized by the author and used to paint a picture in the reader’s mind. "When you read, it should be like a movie playing in your head," my teacher explained. If you should know one thing about me, it was that I loved movies. Going to the movie theater was a great father-daughter bonding experience that I cherished while growing up since I didn't live with my dad and rarely spent time with him. Understanding the connection between reading and visualizing the scenes of the book in my head made the task a bit more exciting.
            As a preadolescent, my teachers created a "Reading Bingo" chart to make reading more interesting. I absolutely hated the idea because I was forced to read an autobiography in order to get four squares in a row. The task of reading about a real person’s life story was not appealing to me in any way. I wanted to read about dragons and wizards who had daring adventures in far away lands, anything but read about a plain person’s life. After a failed attempt to convince my teacher to let me skip a square on the bingo chart, I dreadfully dragged my feet to the library. As I browsed the shelves of the autobiography section, my eyes halted as I caught sight of the word Cinderella. I snatched the biography off the shelf and realized it was actually entitled, Chinese Cinderella by Adeline Yen Mah"What a weird title. Cinderella's not suppose to be Chinese!” I thought to myself. I would soon discover that this was no fairytale. In her memoir, Adeline recounts the tragic story of her childhood and her desperate attempts to gain the love of her family. She is considered bad luck after her mother died giving birth to her. This was the first piece of non-fiction that I have read and although I expected to be bored to tears, my fingers clutched the pages of the memoir until the very last sentence. I was completely enthralled by the honesty in Adeline’s writing. Her writing was simple and she did not use advanced vocabulary, making the book a fairly easy read. Her story as an unwanted daughter who seeks the acceptance within her own family really resonated with me like no story I have read before. The mental and physical abuse Adeline endured by her wicked stepmother, and the neglect she experienced by her father was beyond cruel. I was so entrapped in her world that I would intentionally find a quiet area to be alone with this gripping book.
I had never been so fascinated by a character such as Adeline. What stood out to me about Chinese Cinderella was how relatable Adeline was – I understood how she yearned for love from her family and sought to excel in academics in order to gain attention from her father. As a daughter of divorced parents and having to live with grandparents to go to a better school district, I never had an opportunity to connect with my parents beyond the age of eight. I hardly saw my mother and the times that I did see my father, it was for homework help and school logistics such as parent-teacher conferences or signing forms. In her memoir, Adeline has a special relationship with her grandfather (Ye Ye) and Aunt BaBa. They are the only two family members to support Adeline throughout the mistreatment she experiences from her stepmother. I deeply sympathized with Adeline and I felt her pain tugging at my heartstrings as I pored through the pages. The advice that my teacher gave was extremely helpful as I read this memoir because I could visualize myself in Adeline's shoes. I felt the pain that she described on those pages and her story really came alive. Although a fifty-year-old woman wrote the words, the story still reflects the pain of a lost child searching for a sense of belonging in her world.
Chinese Cinderella opened my eyes to the wonders of reading and how authors can translate their emotions into words that could penetrate our hearts as fiercely as a sword can. Reading this autobiography gave me a greater appreciation for literature. It has shaped my view of reading and writing in which I realized that it was no longer was a trivial school obligation, but instead it was a powerful tool that can be used to communicate messages to the world. No matter how helpless we may feel at the moment, I have discovered that writing down our stories can act as a source of therapy to help ease the pain. There is something magical about transforming such intense emotions into words so that we do not bury our feelings deep within us. 

Since reading this memoir, I have been inspired to read countless other autobiographies such as The Diary of Anne Frank and The Autobiography of Malcom X, and I realize that these authors used the power of writing to reflect the harsh time period they were living in. Realizing that these autobiographies contained more sophisticated vocabulary, I became determined to search for their meaning in my Merriam-Webster dictionary. As my lexicon developed, I could understand more complex ideas than ever before and thus, my critical thinking skills began to take root. This skill would prove to be essential as I proceeded through high school and ultimately step foot on a college campus. As a college student, I do not have as many opportunities to read for pleasure, but I definitely try to find time for it as sweet escape from the routine of stressful classes and midterms. Chinese Cinderella was just the stepping-stone that instigated my literacy journey to discover wondrous other genres of writing and ignited my passion for reading.