This is one of those books that I have seen many times but never really focused on. When I asked around for book recommendations from China, it came up so I decided to give it a go. Falling Leaves is an autobiographical work about Yen Mah's life from birth to adulthood and her immediate family relationships. As the youngest girl, and because her mother died after giving birth to her, Yen Mah had the lowest status amongst her siblings and this was exacerbated when her father remarried a domineering and cruel woman. The subtitle, "The True Story of an Unwanted Chinese Daughter", sums up the general sentiment of this book quite succinctly. This book was very easy to read and I finished it in a couple of days (I have more time to dedicate to reading at the moment and I'm taking full advantage of it). The sequence of events and the way she tells the story in the context of the changing political and economic landscape is done well and makes it easy to follow and understand how it all fits together. I also thought the names of the chapters were a nice touch: Chinese proverbs which were written in Chinese characters, Pinyin (transcription of Mandarin in Latin characters) and English translation.
Starting with what I felt was missing, I found it very strange that her two children are hardly mentioned and she often takes sudden or long trips without them being involved in any way. Given her upbringing, I was naturally waiting to see how it would impact her own parenting, so was disappointed by this gap in the story. Perhaps this would have been resolved if we got more insight into her life after she left Hong Kong and settled down in California, but it often felt like she was just skimming over these bits so that she could get back to focusing on her family's schemes. I suppose her intention with this book was not to tell her whole story but to tell the story of her family relationship, so that's probably why she wrote it in this way.
Aside from this, I took two main benefits from this book. The first was the overview of Chinese history spanning the past few generations, which is made more compelling as it is contextualised through its effects on the lives of the family. With particular focus on Tianjin and Shanghai, the two cities where Yen Mah grew up, it takes us through the French and Japanese invasions, how the two pulled China into the Second World War, the rise and fall of Communism, including the Cultural Revolution, and what followed. It also documents the rise of Hong Kong, where Yen Mah's family fled to when she was still a child, and the concerns that its residents faced with the looming Hong Kong handover in 1997. We are even given insight into the experiences of Chinese students in the UK and the US (back when it wasn't such a normal occurrence) and Chinese/female doctors in the US. I really appreciated this aspect of the book and since starting my next book based in China I have already recognised the name of a major political event in Shanghai, which reminded me that I am learning more about new regions with every book! It's worth remembering that Yen Mah comes from a very wealthy family and has lived outside China for much longer than inside and both of these factors dictate the perspective of events that we receive.
The other very obvious benefit was the reflection on the influence and responsibility of family. This is, of course, the major theme of this book and one with many sub-ideas to consider. If we look at Yen Mah's behaviour in relation to her family from a superficial "rational" perspective, it seems like madness or obsession for her to keep turning back to them and hoping that "this time, they will love me". But the reality of family is that this is exactly the effect the relationship has on us, especially when it comes to our parents. It's probably the most powerful and influential relationship in our lives and no matter how far we go or how long the gaps in our communication with them, they affect us every single day. This really made me reflect on the huge responsibility that being a parent brings.
Overall, I'm glad I read this book. It reminded me to be grateful for my own family, particularly my parents and the way they raised me, and to be aware of my responsibilities towards them. It also allowed me to learn more, in an accessible way, about a part of the world that I am still very ignorant about. Have you read this book? If so, what did you think of it? Did it bring up any other questions for you?
Reader. Occasional writer. Muslim.
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