Mae Chandran overcame a difficult childhood in China, and fled from a dysfunctional family life in the US. She went to college in California where she met and married her husband. After having two children, she left a successful career to raise them, vowing to give her family the happy home life that she never had. These days she enjoys watching her children flourish, gardening and cooking, and has won the international silver award in a UK marmalade contest.

Find out more about Mae Chandran

Read more about The Passionistas Project.


Passionistas: Hi and welcome to the Passionistas Project Podcast. We’re Amy and Nancy Harrington. About a year ago we interviewed Sashee Chandran, the innovator behind the premium beverage line Tea Drops, and during our chat she spoke about her mother Mae, who is her biggest cheerleader and a constant source of support. We were beyond excited when Sashee nominated Mae to be a guest on our podcast.

Mae overcame a difficult childhood in China, and fled from a dysfunctional family life in the US when she went to college in California. After marrying her husband she left a successful career to raise a family, vowing to give them the happy home life that she never had.

So please welcome to the show Mae Chandran.

Mae: Oh, thank you. Thank you very much.

Passionistas: What are you most passionate about?

Mae: I think I'm most passionate about food and cooking. I'm passionate about gardens and my little babies. I call them. So many things I'm passionate about. I have a lot of interests. That's what keeps me going. So cooking and gardening and of course my family.

Passionistas: Take us back to the beginning and tell us where you were born and where you grew up.

Mae: I was born in Canton, China, Southern China in 1948 just after the war and since I was a baby of that era in China. It was a very difficult time and my parents had me late in life because my father came to make his fortune. He went the way of Cuba and then he came to Massachusetts and my mom was still in China. Usually the husband goes abroad, then leaves the family behind. And so my mom was there. This is like after world war two people fled to Hong Kong. So I was three years old when we went to Hong Kong. I mom was there and we live together. She was called to come to America and in 1952 she came, I was four years old. She left me behind with her friend. She took care of me and it was very difficult because you're four years old, but it had to be because when you're a baby, when you're a woman, you're not worth much. My father saw my birth papers because it was worth some money because of that, I didn't have identity and so I couldn't come with my mom, so my mom had to leave me and I knew she was leaving, but I didn't want to give her a lot of trouble.

I was very sad, but I took her to the airport with a lot of other people and then she went in the, I had no idea when she was going to see me next, but the lady she left me with was very nice to me. She was okay. I remember she used to always say I was like three or four stripped down to your waist because I want to show your mom pictures. And I never know why she wanted to do it that way. But I realized later she wanted to show my mom that I was eating okay. And I was okay when my mom left, you know, in those we don't talk on the phone or anything. She just left. I didn't know when I was going to see her. I was so sad that nobody could talk about my mom because I would cry anyway.

I live with this lady. She was a young widow, like all people in Hong Kong, they want to do better. So when an older gentleman came to Hong Kong, he was searching for wife. So she took the opportunity to go with him. So I somehow found out and later on I went to see her mother-in-law and I remember going to this dark room and she was in a bed by herself, and then she shouted at me and said, I use leaving. Me too. Everybody's leaving me. So I started crying. I didn't know what she meant. Anyway, after my friend left, my parents had to scramble and find someone else to take care of me, so they found this family of six kids. I was the oldest. I think at that point I was about maybe seven and I was probably the same age as the other girl, and this family was very different.

I was like the little maid. I had to do a lot of the laundry and whatever, and they didn't really care for me because he has six children and they probably just wanted to take me because they knew my parents would send money. So they took the money. And even though the husband was very nice, I remember when I first met him, he took my necklace away, my little Jane necklace. My mom came me, he says, I don't want you to lose it, so I'm going to keep that safe for you. And then when you go to America, when you join your mother, I will give it back to you. So I said, okay. And then I live with them. And the mother, she was a terrible woman and if you thought she was terrible, her mom who used to visit was horrible. There are some of these people in the Chinese people, they say your face turns ashen when you get mashed.

She was one of those people. She was a terrible person and we just dread her coming. But other than that I was kind of left alone. I said when they needed me to do things for them, I would roam the streets and it's amazing. Nothing happened to me because I would just go everywhere in the neighborhood and Hong Kong, you know, it's a very populated place. So I would just go and in my literal imagination, I was going to school at that time, I would tell people that my parents live in America and they're very wealthy and they're going to come for me and this stuff. And the bus driver was saying, Oh, so tell me what it's like in America and I will make up all these tall tales. I just wanted to be maybe self-important. So I live with them for about three years and I was hungry a lot of times and I slept on a hard plywood near the door and I could feel the rest come running up and down.

As a kid. It's kind of normal and you don't think, Oh wow, yuck. That was how I lived for a few years with them. Causes wasn't a happy childhood. But anyway, I live with these people. Then the mother-in-law lived with us, you know, and Chinese family, they all live together. She was a horrible person. So they will use me a six, seven year old kid and go and spy on the other person and then report back to them. So I was doing this for them. Then I didn't know you're not supposed to do that, but I did. So they were horrible people. The only person nice was the father, but he was never around. He had to work. Then shortly after that, I had a uncle who used to come. He came into the scene and he was taking me to immigrations and I didn't know why I had to go to immigration.

They would ask me questions. Apparently what happened was this, I didn't really know the full story, but my mom who had come to America, she was going crazy because she left me. She was having hallucinations. So somehow they had to yet me to America, but I didn't have my papers. So they decided was to come co a story that I was the orphan child. I hadn't lost my parents and I'm a junkie, you know those ships somehow it sink and I was the only survivor. I don't know how this story came about, but that was the story. So they would interview me and I would go there. They would ask about this. Every time they asked me about my mom, I would start crying. They couldn't go anywhere with me. I remember the ladies said to the other people or don't ask her anymore, and they just gave me some candy to entertain me.

So I didn't really have to answer too many questions. So I was going to America and the husband of this people I was living with, he was true to his word. He gave me back my J a necklace and he said, here it is, but the mug Kinlaw law was so Cru. She said, you know what? I hope your plane crashes when you go to America. When I came to America, I told my mom that, and she confronted her and but she denied it. So anyway, I was so happy. I had met this man who was going to accompany me. He was Mr. Wong. He was a middle aged man. He was dead to get married. So he married this beautiful woman. She was about 18 and they bought me my suitcase and I had two outfits, I think to my name and one pair of shoe P accompany me.

The bright had to stay behind them because of maybe paperwork. And we stopped in Honolulu and I remember it was beautiful there. And he called my mom and I talked to my mom for the first time ever since she left me. And I swear her voice sounded like an Angel's voice to me at that time. I was so happy. I was gonna see her. And then we landed in California and I still remember to this day the smell of the citrus in this motel we were staying. And that's a memory that's sort of ingrained in me. And we finally arrived in Boston, Logan International Airport. And my brother was there. My brother is 17 years older than me, so I remember he, my mom, my father was there and a young girl who was 15 named Betty to this stay with friends. She lives in Honolulu now and they were there to pick me up.

I knew they had a restaurant, we went to the restaurant. But it was nighttime and there was nothing. What I imagined was just like two tables and it was so dark. And I kept asking my mom where all the customers, she says, don't say that. Don't say that, cause that's bad luck. Can you say that in Chinese? You're asking where the customers, you're not supposed to say to them like that. So I just had no clue. And then the next day I remember she said, go and watch the moving pictures. I said, what do you mean? And then she turned on the TV for me and is moving pictures and it was like a miracle. Oh my God, I never seen this. So I was so happy to be in America, to be with my mom. And even though I looked back, that place was so dinky.

I know that it was a very small restaurant. We would make maybe $50 and the waitress was still 10 so it was very beginning. Then my parents bought this other restaurant around the corner on Brightman street. This was on main street. And then we moved there and then life became better materially. However, it was not a happy childhood because you know when you're a girl in that era, you know buddy really and my father treated me like nobody. That was the first time I ever met him. I never saw him. He was like a stranger to me and my parents did not have a good marriage. In fact, they hate each other and that hatred. He sort of hated me because he didn't get along well with my mom. There was always this terrible in harmony between them.

My only salvation was school. I loved school because to be home and that environment was not pleasant. Then my brother got married, he went to Hong Kong and got married to a young woman and you don't know Hong Kong people there. I like rats 25 square miles and you get all these millions of people so you become very aggressive. Your grabber and that was what my sister long was. She came from a large family, I think seven children and she was I think 19 and she was 10 years older than me. From the moment she came, she demanded the business. She wanted the restaurant because the restaurant was doing well now because we had moved and in those days, you know, Fall River was 90% Catholic. So we did really well on Fridays when they didn't eat meat, they had to come to the restaurant or eat the Champaign sandwiches. So she demanded that restaurant. And because my mom and my father never got along, it's like this, like Lincoln said, a house divided cannot stand.

So she demanded the restaurant and she got it. And my mom was very sad because I was the enemy, you know, I was going to get nothing and what can I do? I'm 10 years old, you're at their mercy and I see my father caved in. Well first of all he was a very weak man and my mom did not have a mind of her own either. And the reason why my father relinquishes so easily is because in the Chinese culture, your oldest son is supposed to take care of you. And that's what he thought. They would look after him. The only person who loved me was my mom. Everybody else wish I wasn't even there. And definitely my sister in law looked at me as just a threat to what she can get, and my brother had such a weak spine. He just listened to whatever she says.

Instead of being the protective brother, he should've been. He just treated me terrible. I was always under his thumb, whatever I did anything wrong. He would say, I'm going to tell your teacher I was teacher's pet. I did so well in school, but that was what he said. And I went to my mom and I said, mom, you know, this is my brother. He's always saying this to me. Why don't you say something to them? My mom said, he's only doing what's good for you, but I knew that was a pack of lies. Right then in there, I decided, I'm getting out of here the minute I can't, I'm getting out because my father thought nothing of me, even though I did so well in school. He said to me one time, you know, even if you do very well and you become famous or never think anything of you, you can't imagine a parent saying that to you.

But it happened. So when I became a college age, I got accepted into almost all the schools because I was such a great student. He was very angry. I want to go to UCLA. So that was it. That was good by a good riddens. And the minute I came to California, I felt very sad because my mom pleaded with me not to come. I was her only comfort. Her only friend in a marriage that was horrible in a family that did not love her. But I know to survive I had to do it. And she asked me, aren't you going to be lonely? And I said, yeah, I will be. But I knew this was the only way out. So I came out to California and she told me at that time, and she told me, okay, you go into California, I want you to go to all the Chinese functions and meet a Chinese boy.

Don't shame the family. That was a big thing. My God. If you marry outside of your family, you bring shame. And I knew that was such a stupid concept. Well, I'll tell you, well, my first dances, my second year, I meet my husband at a Chinese dance. I did what she told me to do, but I met the wrong person and then I tried to tell my mom and because I thought, you know, I should tell him that I'm kidding. Married to him. I didn't know how to say Sri Lanka at that time. It was salon. I didn't know the Chinese word for salon, so I sent India, so I say, I'm going to marry somebody from India. He said to me, why do you want to marry somebody from a third world country? So he disowned me completely, which was not nothing new for me, mom of, because a mom is a mom.

She was at the wedding. But I'll tell you, that's why I tell my kids, you guys are so lucky. I had so many obstacles. I had to first come here and then, Oh become my family. Then I had to somehow get married to Bala and both sides were not happy. His mom was very upset and he was the oldest, so he had to go back. Yet the system married yet everybody settle. And so by the time we met and we got married, was seven years had elapsed. I had to finish school. I met him when I was a sophomore. I had to finish school, he had to go back and then he came back. So it was not easy at all. Up to that point, my life was not easy. My only hope was a happy family to grow up in a normal family. I always thought it was weird because we lived upstairs in the restaurant and I said, why can't I be like, uh, I used to read this book.

You are Susan and term with the dog Flip and live in a nice white picket fence house and I'm living in top of the restaurant. And when I got to like 12 and 13 I had to help out with the restaurant and work in the restaurant. I got scars from peeling potatoes and all. I never really had it easy. And when I met people who were happy, it was so foreign to me because here I'm in this dysfunctional family and even what I was, my childhood was so crazy that my only dream was to have a good family and that's why Sashee asked me the other day, she says, “mom, did you have any other dreams other than a happy family and be married?” Yeah, I did. But in my opinion, having a happy family is everything. So I knew that as a child, my only hope was a happy family to grow up in a normal family.

So I knew that as a child, that was really the driving force for me and I think I've achieved it. I worked for Morgan Stanley as a stockbroker and it was fun, but I'm never going to send the one I'd find with any of these jobs. I was entrepreneur, I was at the swap meet and I'm grateful I had it because it gave sheet an opportunity to deal with the public. She was only seven and my son was 12 he was the little manager in one of the computers store and he eventually stopped working for Google because of his knowledge of computers and everything. So I took the job because I probably thought I would work on the weekends and spend the rest of the time with my kids who are young. But it's a very time consuming effort.

But I'm grateful I did it because my kids got the most out of it. I'm so proud of my kids. I don't think I had anything to do with this. Assess both of them. I'm very proud. My son, he's the sweetest boy. I can't imagine having two great kids like this, but it was like a gift from God. If God had given me a book of all the kids that were going to be born and asked me to choose a boy and a girl, I couldn't have done better. Really, I could have. I'm so grateful because for whatever reason, Bala and I think about this all the time, you know, we think of karma of your past life, what you have to do, what of whatever reason. I had to go through so much stuff in order to be where I am. So maybe it's okay because what I am today I became because of all my past, I so appreciate the moments I have. Nobody can appreciate my home more than me, my retirement more than me cause I know what it could be.

Passionistas: We’re Amy and Nancy Harrington and you’re listening to the Passionistas Project Podcast and our interview with Mae Chandran. To see photos of Mae’s beautiful gardens, delicious culinary treats and beloved family, follow her on Instagram at MaeC Chandran. Now here’s more of our interview with Mae.

Passionistas: It's one thing to say that you want to have a happy family. It's another thing altogether to actually create a happy family. How did you do it?

Mae: Well, you know, my dream was always a happy family. Really, truly, I knew that I was born to be a mother. I just knew that because I knew I could not make any difference. I am a very smart person. I was a good student and all, but it didn't matter. That's the outside world. I knew that I was born to be a mother and my nurturing on my kids. There was nothing greater than that. I know some people, some women are not. They don't feel like I do and it's okay. But I felt that way.

I felt my family was everything and I was going to create this family. I didn't know how my children would grow up. I had challenges like everybody else. I think I got lucky. Two great kids. And Bala was working so hard, we didn't have time. I was the one at home and when Sashee was born, I quit because I was so toward when Prakash I was at work, I was thinking about him and when I'm home I'm thinking about my work and I would talk to the babysitter, asked the babysitter was INI. Finally my supervisor, whom I didn't respect at all, came in and says, you know what, if you can't run your job and take care of your kid, you shouldn't be here. I know every day what your kid eats. So I said to him, I shot right back. What about you in your tennis partners every day?

I know who you're playing with. What about that? Well, of course, you know, he didn't forget that when time for review, well, I worked for Getty Oil Company. This was the old boys network. Women were frowned upon. Friday by noon everybody was drunk. All the guys, if you had a DUI that was more forgivable then a woman taking care of a baby, missing work. I remember talking to this manager. He was very ambitious. He knew where he want to go and he called me to his office one day. He told me a few things about me taking a break to go and eat cause I was pregnant. I was always hungry and then about my son being sick. I had to take some days off. He said, you know what? You can't do that. I see you have twins, don't you as a parent feel what I am going through.

You said no, he didn't understand at all. You had to be one of the guys. You had to be able to talk sports about flat tie. When it comes to sports, they would talk about football every Monday they would talk about everything else was some work they would go drinking. I was not part of that group, but today it's so different. It's so conducive to mothers. I saw a Google, they have a nursing session for the mothers. It was so different. And my daughter, you know, I'm so happy that she is just a superstar and she's going all the way and just really proud of her. So when she asked me the question, is that all you ever wanted mom? I said, yeah, I want to be a business tycoon. But that didn't happen. But I had you guys and y'all gonna be the business tycoons, so you have fulfilled my wish.

Family creation is God's grace. I think if you spend a lot of time on your kids and give them the right values, they're going to be okay. And that's what I try to do. I mean, I know some great parents whose kids went astray, so I don't know why. So I just feel maybe, you know, you can have luck too. Maybe I was lucky, but I'll take luck. I'll take like any day.

Passionistas: One of your other big contributions to society are those delicious scones and the incredible marmalade that we were lucky enough to taste earlier today.

Mae: Appreciate it.

Passionistas: Oh my God, we appreciate you treating us. So tell us about your passion for food and specifically about the marmalade and how that came about. 

Mae: I really don't even know how I became interested in my family to his bone. And 10 years ago I read about something about it and to me, I like to take on a challenge because marmalade is the granddaddy of all, like jams and preserves are not as complicated.

So I started experimenting. I'm a person, if I pick on a subject, I read everything about it. So I did my research, I did all the YouTube. So I did it. And then I did my own, I knew some of the basic steps and so I did it and it came up pretty good. So I saw this marmalade awards contest in Cumbria UK, England. So I was thinking, Ooh, maybe I should enter that. I swear in my mind, I know people are gonna think I'm crazy, but I swear I was English in a former life of recent incarnation. The reason why I say that is because I love all things English. I visited Wadsworth country, the poet, and I just felt immediately a connection. And I'm reading right now about country and manners, Jane Austen's time, and I'm just fascinated by it. So I'm fascinated by all things English.

So I saw this awards contest, but I felt I wasn't good enough. Then finally after two years gone, I say, you know, it's now or never, I'm going to enter this contest. So I entered and I couldn't believe I won the international silver the first time. I mean, yeah, they have a lot of categories, but they also have over 3000 entries from all over the world. So you're competing against the best of the best. I was very glad. And then the judges will give you a score card and tell you the color, the consistency and the tastes and so many factors they tell you. And that was very helpful to me. So I entered again this year and I again won the international silver. Now I said to myself, I can break this barrier. I got to go for the gold. Now there is a woman who teaches, who's an English woman who has won the double goal, which is the top prize.

However she got it. When there were only 50 entries. So I see. I don't know if she's the right person for me, so I'm trying to find a teacher who is a master that will give me edge to get the gold. So I was on Instagram and I found her. She's Japanese. She's one that double gold, not this year, three, four times consecutively. I said she's the one for me, but she's in Japan, so I'm going to write to her. She teaches, I want to study from her and see imbalances, but you don't understand Japanese. I said, that's okay. You know cooking is a universal language. I'm going to observe her and see what she does. I know she won on the rule book, you know the vegetable and the Seville orange. What are unusual combination. So I want to learn from a master because I want to break that barrier.

I want to aim for the gold now. So anyway, that's how marmalade came about. So now I have made hundreds, hundreds actually of marmalade and I have raised a lot of money and my temple. That's why the marmalade you ate today was actually a samples because all my ones I have made officially have sold out. In fact, one of my friends came and we had a shower for my daughter in law and they were some consolation prizes among them. I had given my marmalade and they were also Tea Drops, so she took a Tea Drop. She says, well, I know may has plenty of marmalade. She wanted a job from me. I said, I'm sorry Judy. I am out a marmalade because I sold out. Come on, why didn't you grab it when you had a chance? So now that's become very popular.

You see the American people don't have a taste for marmalade. They don't even like marmalade family. And I think it's because it's so poorly made. I mean you eat the marmalade compared to the British style so different. So I love marmalade so much that when someone gifted me a group of Seville oranges, this was eight years ago, I planted a few seeds because it's very difficult to buy Seville oranges, which is traditionally English and very expensive. So I planted this seed and I was doing a happy dance in April because I see buds and they've grown little tiny Seville, oranges. I'm going to get a harvests, the orange that I been wanting to do because it has that bitter taste that the traditional English marmalade has to be made from, but there's so many ways of making marmalade, so that's how I got started and to me make it marmalade is very interesting because it's not only a science, but it's an art.

We know when it gels, we know when it's sets. Okay, and it takes an expert to get it to that setting point. I know that technically I'm adequate, but what is it that is beyond that where I can catch in the gold? That is the 64,000 question and that's why I'm going to pursue my study with this lady in Japan. I'm going to Japan. I'm going to study it.

Passionistas: What's your secret for a rewarding life?

Mae: My personal opinion is spirituality without God. I call her Divine Mother because a mother forgives everything. Without he. I would want to live because let's face it, the world is not an easy place. We have challenges and things happen. We don't know why. I mean good people, things happen too. There's no answers. I mean even you alone, you know, we as human beings, we go through up and down.

So you have to have that anchor for you to keep going to, and that's what my thing is. I talked to Divine Mother all the time. Bala always says, well, what do you talk to her about? I said, I talked to her like, she's my friend. She's always with me. You know, if I see a Rose, I said, well, what do you think to my mother? Or whatever. I mean, it's very easy for me to talk to her. I developed this when I was in my spiritual search. I started talking to her. She never answers me, but she does answer me in ways that you see something and you say, Oh my God, you were thinking about me. You might call Divine Mother God, whatever. There is a higher power. So I know that to be true for sure. And without it, I would want to be in the world.

You know, in life you have to have justice, you have to have that and only God gives you justice. I see so many injustices in my life, even in everything. And if you say this, no justice, why do you want to live? But I know in the end there is justice. So that keeps me going. That's the only thing that keeps me going. Because people, even your children, even your husband, they're bound to sometimes disappoint you. Everything disappoints you. But God can never disappoint me. I think that's number one. Number two, you have to live a good life. You know, when I found out when I was a kid, Marilyn Monroe committed suicide and I always say, well, why couldn't she move somewhere and just live a normal life. But I know it's impossible now in order to live a good life, you must do good.

You must be able to sleep well. You cannot be unfair to people. Take advantage of people, cheat people, and then expect God to reveal himself to you. It doesn't work that way. So you have to have a clear conscience. I think the most important thing in life is to be able to live with yourself. I think to get along with yourself to be is the most difficult thing. Forget about your husband and you can always leave him, but how do you leave yourself? I know Marilyn Monroe could never leave herself.

And number three, you must take the precautions in life. Don't smoke, don't drink. I mean, you drink socially fine. I don't drink at all, but that's my personal preference. You must live a clean life. So you must think good. Do good. Live a simple, healthy life. Keep things simple. I have friends who are drama. Queens is unnecessary. Life is simple. We make it complicated. Let's stick to the facts. Just stick to the point. And life is easy.

Passionistas: Thanks for listening to the Passionistas Project Podcast and our interview with Mae Chandran. To see photos of Mae’s beautiful gardens, delicious culinary treats and beloved family, follow her on Instagram at maechandran.   

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