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I have no words to utter right now, except “THANK YOU!”– to God, The Philippine Star, National Bookstore and Globe. I am very much grateful for this blessing.

My essay may be viewed at the Philippine Star website as well.


There is hope

By Frenissa Mae Caluscusin Riconalla (The Philippine Star) | Updated February 24, 2013 – 12:00am
Cover of "Chinese Cinderella: The True St...

Cover via Amazon

MANILA, Philippines – I admit that I adore fairy tales. Even if I now belong to the twenty-something (or young adult) club, I still have not let go of my membership in the Fairy Tale Lovers Club. This is the reason why my attention was caught by the book Chinese Cinderella: The True Story of an Unwanted Daughter. Little did I know that that day would be the start of my admiration for not only the writing skills of the author, Adeline Yen Mah, but more so for her strength and unwavering determination.

The book is a memoir of the struggles Adeline Yen Mah endured as a child up to the age of 14. She chronicles the many times her own family disregarded her and made her feel unloved. She finds out why they do so when she asked her elder sister when their mother died. Her sister, who does not hide how much she despises her, told the then four-year-old Adeline, that “If you had not been born, Mama would still be alive. She died because of you. You are bad luck.”

The pain that those words caused may be too indescribable and heartbreaking for an innocent child who only yearned to be loved. I did not experience being told such horrible things but I still felt the pain and possible guilt that Adeline Yen Mah felt. I dearly wanted to hug her. But that is only the beginning of her adversities. Adeline admitted in the book that writing about her past is both “difficult and painful” but that she “felt compelled to do so” because she wants those who were abused to still have faith in themselves and that they have within them “something precious and unique.”

For Adeline, it is her academic prowess. It is immediately seen in the first chapter where she recalls the day in autumn of 1941, when she told her Aunt Baba that she had received a silver medal as an award. This happened only a week after she started kindergarten. Despite her continuous success in school, particularly in writing and being top of her class, she is still unnoticed by her father, stepmother and siblings.

The family, originally from Tianjin, moved to Shanghai after Adeline’s grandmother died. She started first grade there and this is where more hardships came her way. After her first day in school, no one fetches her. All alone, she decides to walk the streets of Shanghai alone, hoping to find her way back home. Imagine the fear she must have felt, being a little girl in a strange new city without a hand to hold on to. Thankfully, a woman working in a dim sum shop notices her and asks her to stay inside. She recalls their telephone number at home and calls her father. Upon picking her up, one would expect him to express his care and concern for his daughter, but his way of doing so is by giving her a map of Shanghai.

Adeline had to take care of herself.

I remember being more teary-eyed as I flipped each page of the book. There were too many times when she was emotionally (and even physically) abused by her family. There was a time when her brothers tricked her into drinking their urine. Her stepmother also slapped her face for defending her stepsister in front of the family. She was not allowed to visit her friends’ houses and when they surprised her at home on her birthday, her parents were furious and punished Adeline.

But for me, the worst experience the author wrote about was when, despite the political unrest in Tianjin, she was sent back by her parents to study in a boarding school. She was the only one being sent there. As Communists took hold of Tianjin, more and more students left until Adeline Yen Mah was the only one there. She had nowhere to go, no money and no contact with her parents. That chapter made me worry for her so much and wondered how on earth she would escape. She must really have felt abandoned. However, hope comes in perfect timing, in the form of her stepmother’s sister, Aunt Reine, who is quite the opposite. She becomes her ticket out of Tianjin and to Hong Kong, where she learns that her family has moved.

Life did not immediately turn for the better for the young Adeline in Hong Kong. But at least she was safer and nearer to her family. She was still sent to boarding school though and it is during one of her rare visits at home, that she recounts her last talk with her grandfather, who told her: “You have your whole life ahead of you. Everything is possible! I’ve tried to tell you over and over that far from being garbage, you are precious and special. But you can vanquish the demons only when you yourself are convinced of your own worth.”

Her grandfather becomes her source of inspiration for joining an international playwriting competition. And as luck was on her side, she wins the contest and is finally recognized by her father. It is at this moment that Adeline Yen Mah foresees a future for herself. And it is also at this moment that I wiped away the tears I had from the previous chapters and smiled. I decided that Adeline Yen Mah is truly one tough woman.

Through Adeline Yen Mah’s descriptive and simple writing, I have realized that we are responsible for our own actions. Despite the hardships that we are given, we still have a choice on how to react to them. Do we take them as an opportunity to grow or surrender to the negative realities as our fate?

After reading Chinese Cinderella, I became so grateful that I did not experience what Adeline Yen Mah did. It has made me appreciate every single blessing that I have in my life, especially those that cannot be bought –– my loved ones. It is easy sometimes to take for granted what we have but we should remind ourselves each and every day that there are those who pray so hard to have what we do have. We should also be kinder to one another for we do not know what each one is going through. Lastly, I learned how important faith is –– in God and in our selves. If we have this, we can achieve so much in life.