By Samantha Pak
Northwest Asian Weekly
“Chinese Cinderella: The True Story of an Unwanted Daughter”
By Adeline Yen Mah
Dell Laurel-Leaf, 1999
In every child’s life, there is a time when they feel unwanted. Whether they’re in deep trouble or a new baby has joined the family, these feelings of not being wanted usually pass quickly.
This is not the case for Adeline Yen Mah.
In “Chinese Cinderella,” which chronicles the first 14 years of her life, Mah has no doubts that she is seen as nothing more than a burden and a nuisance in her family’s life. Her mother died giving birth to her. Mah is blamed and considered bad luck as a result.
The youngest of five at the time, Mah was only a year old when her father remarried. Her stepmother was a Eurasian (half French, half Chinese) beauty and 17 years old at the time of the marriage. Because she was so young when she married – only 11 years older than Mah’s eldest sister — Mah’s stepmother rarely admitted that she had five stepchildren. Many people were under the impression that Mah’s half brother and half sister were the only children in the family.
Keenly aware that Mah lives with this lack of acknowledgment, in addition to a father who didn’t even know her name and siblings who blamed her for their mother’s death and resented her whenever she received awards in school, your heart can’t help but break while reading her story.
Despite the obvious correlation to the fairy tale (a horrible stepmother who spoils her real children but couldn’t care less about her stepchildren), “Cinderella” also reminds me of Roald Dahl’s story “Matilda,” a story about a young genius whose parents despised her very existence.
As with Matilda, readers will root for the protagonist and will marvel at how Mah is not discouraged by her family’s neglect. If anything, it gives her strength and pushes her to succeed — and succeed she does.
By the end of “Cinderella,” you’ll cheer for the young girl who was told she would never amount to anything.
She grows up to be a physician and published author, neither of which is an easy task.
“Rock & Roll Jihad, A Muslim Rock Star’s Revolution”
By Salman Ahmad
Free Press, 2010
George Washington. Susan B. Anthony. Martin Luther King, Jr.
The names of revolutionists usually bring to mind significant historical movements such as the birth of this nation, women’s suffrage, or the Civil Rights Movement. Such names are also usually of those who are no longer with us.
So it is predictably surprising when we learn about a revolutionist of our own time.
Salman Ahmad is one such person.
Born in Pakistan, he was raised in both his home country and the United States. Ahmad spent much of his formative years trying to figure out who he was.
During the 1970s, he spent his teenage years just outside of New York City listening to such bands as Led Zeppelin, The Beatles, and Van Halen. Ahmad loved rock and roll.
But when he and his family returned to Pakistan in 1981, they found a country where music and the arts were pretty much banned. Freethinking was discouraged. The chances of seeing rock and roll flourish in such an environment were slim to none.
Ahmad refused to accept that. He spends his life bringing Western-style rock and pop to Pakistan and much of South Asia. He becomes a member of two of Pakistan’s most successful bands — Vital Signs, which he joined, and Junoon, which he founded.
The journey is anything but easy, as Ahmad faces religious fanatics accusing him of not being a true Muslim.
Government officials ban his band’s music from Pakistani television and radio. Hardships also include death threats ranging from letters to individuals showing up at his concerts with AK-47s.
With so much against him, you can’t help but question Ahmad’s sanity. But he perseveres and never stops believing that music and the arts can help heal his country’s violent and short history.
What I love about “Rock & Roll Jihad” is not only the story of Ahmad’s success against all odds, but how his journey is intertwined with Pakistan’s and the effect they have on each other.
“The Spy Who Loved Us, The Vietnam War and Pham Xuan An’s Dangerous Game”
By Thomas A. Bass
James Bond may be known for being suave, sophisticated, and able to get the job done, but Pham Xuan An, known for his good humor and wit, could have easily given 007 a run for his money.
“The Spy Who Loved Us” is told in the first person from Bass’ point of view as he recounts his conversations with An, who died on Sept. 20, 2006. It tells the story of An, a man who fought for Vietnam’s independence from its invaders — ranging from the French and American, to the Chinese, Japanese, and Cambodian. He did this by wearing many different masks.
He worked as Time magazine’s political correspondent and the last bureau chief in Saigon. He became a consultant to South Vietnamese generals and politicians, advising them on how to handle the half-million Americans stationed in the country. He also worked for the North Vietnamese government for 20 years as the Communists’ most effective spy and strategist.
The story of An’s life is fascinating as he goes from a young boy who excelled at playing hooky from school to a man who appeared to observe his country’s war from the sidelines, although he received 16 military medals — more than the four that Bass reported in The New Yorker in 2005.
Readers will be impressed not only by An’s achievements but by the strength of his love for his country.
Many thought that being born in a psychiatric hospital made him crazy, which was why he supposedly followed the Communist party. But simply put, An was a man who wanted freedom and independence for his country.
And you can’t really fault him for that. ♦
Samantha Pak can be reached at email@example.com.