Part II: Family & Mantous
Our Matriarch, My Nai Nai
My Grandmother or Nai Nai is without dispute the most badass woman who’s ever walked the earth. A product of Communist China, Nai Nai was born into a family with so many kids that when her Mother died, her distant Father failed to remember her exact birthday, so we celebrate it on Mother’s Day. She remembers that as a kid, she would often forage for dinner ingredients. And we Millennials complains about not getting the Fitbit we wanted for our birthday.
Nai Nai was dealt a difficult hand, but nothing ever deterred her from moving on. She got married when she was just 17 at her brother’s insistence, and raised three kids while working a full-time job without much help from her husband. He was in the navy a large part of their marriage and the kids’ younger years, hundreds of metres underwater in a submarine. When my Grandfather was finally able to retire and enjoy old age with his grandkids, his life was cut short after suffering a heart attack in his early 60s. This man warrants a piece on his own, so I’ll leave things here for now.
Nai Nai’s the kind of woman who very matter-of-factly tells stories about how she tried to drink well water to commit suicide as a teen because she got into a row with her Father (about said marriage), lost the husband at midlife and swore to never take care of another man, and was the primary caregiver at one point or another for every single one of her grandchildren, myself included.
The story I found most difficult to hear was when she told us about a woman in her village who forced a miscarriage by throwing herself down from the dining room table because she simply couldn't afford to care for another child. Nai Nai then told me she contemplated the same thing when at some point for the same reason. While I was horrified by a number of things from that story, Nai Nai recounted this event like many others with casual nonchalance. I think she went to water some plants after.
In spite of all these obstacles, she never once stepped away from her role as the Matriarch, continues to support family members with the little pension money she has, and has lived in the U.S. and learned English - something she said never even thought a possibility in her life. She’s fiercely independent, self-assured, and never lets anyone take advantage of her or the people she loves. A woman in her 80s, she still cooks three meals a day for her entire family at her own unyieldingly stubborn insistence in spite of having suffered a serious health scare less than two years ago.
Typical of someone who grew up under the circumstances she did, Nai Nai is doesn’t like talking about or showing her feelings. To her, stoicism and the stay-calm-and-carry-on-attitude are the primary means of survival. All her life, she’s had to look after herself, as people closest to her have disappointed her or left her too soon. Sometimes, even as she’s now surrounded by her children and grandchildren, I can see her retreat to her younger self - defensive and insecure. She used to call herself a porcupine: always has her guard up, and not afraid to go up against anyone. I’ve always wondered if that’s why she likes making porcupine-shaped mantous (Chinese steamed buns) for Chinese New Year.
Right after my brother was born, my Mom called Nai Nai from the U.S. crying and falling apart from the crushing pressure of caring for a newborn and knowing she’d have to soon return to her full-time job. A few weeks later, Nai Nai arrived in Massachusetts with a small suitcase in hand, having left her entire life behind to hop on her first ever international flight, layover included. She didn’t know a word of English, but knew her daughter was in trouble, and would stop at nothing to be with her as soon as possible. That’s the kind of person she is: decisive and fearless.
After Nai Nai arrived in the U.S., she wasted no time improving our lives in immeasurably significant ways. My brother was taken care of, and I had someone to go home to after school for the first time, which was a huge weight lifted off my parents’ shoulders. She turned our first house into a home, planting a garden full of tomatoes, cucumbers, watermelons and sunflowers. She let me sleep in her bed any day of the week. She helped my brother and I feel closer to our cultural heritage, and allowed my parents to feel closer to home, which any immigrant family knows is invaluable. It didn’t take long for the whole family to realise that we never wanted to live away Nai Nai ever again.
As Nai Nai gets older, the topic of preserving her legacy is more and more important to me, even though it’s difficult to even think about on most days. Since she’s the only grandparent I’ve ever had a relationship with, I often worry about how I’m able to best continue the traditions she started, the lessons she taught, and the values she imbued. She shaped me into the person I am, and I owe her the best version of my future self - there's a lot at stake. Recent reflection and spending quality time with Nai Nai has shown me that it's actually quite simple.
I used to think that a legacy is something that’s left behind, but now know that it’s the people who are left behind. Every part of me, however overt or hidden, are a reflection of her. Where else did I get love for plants, animals, doodling, and *ahem* shopping? Or chubby cheeks and super thick hair?
Without realising, I’ve already turned into Nai Nai in so many ways. I want to spoil the people I care about, I can’t hear anyone or anything when I’m focused on something, I need routine, I have an overbearing obsession with what’s ‘fair’, and I hate to rely on other people. Most importantly, she taught me through her actions to protect yourself and the people you love, and never let anyone get in the way of that. My uncle once told me a story of when he was bullied by some boys in the neighbourhood when he was a kid, and when Nai Nai found out, she pinned one of the kids to the wall and told him that if he were to ever touch my uncle again, she would kick his fuckin ass in front of his parents. What a badass. These are the values she will leave behind for not only me, but the next generation too.
Nai Nai sometimes sees herself burden having to rely on us, when clearly the opposite is true. She still gets emotional when thinking about my Grandfather, wishing he lived long enough to support her when she needed it most. When her children struggle, whether emotionally or financially, she wish she could do more to help them. For these things, she blames herself, not realising that every opportunity we’ve had is because of her. She believes that leaving them financial security is what matters, when her legacy the people they’ve become. Being able to care for her is a great joy in our lives, and having her here to witness our milestones is what makes it all worth it.
She didn't have the chance to have a relationship with her own mother, which is something she occasionally talks about on her low days. But she's been a mother figure to six people from two generations, and while it can't make up for the past, I hope these relationships make up for the lost time, even just a little.
Recently, I’ve been picking up some skills from Nai Nai, like learning how to cook her specialty dishes, and planting the flowers she likes. Whenever I get to spend some quality time with Nai Nai, we watch soaps and look down at the world from the terrace, which is something we used to do when I was a little kid. The view’s changed, but the person standing next to me is the same. To have her as a constant presence in my life has taught me what family means, and while my dumplings may never be as good as Nai Nai’s, but I’ll make sure my porcupines mantous are.