Nai Nai – Our Chinese Grandmother

The very first morning in our apartment, we woke up about 3 o’clock in the morning, and sat and watched movies, waiting anxiously for a decent hour to go out and get something for breakfast. In the elevator, there were a lot of people looking at us and talking about us, and one of them tried to find out about us by asking. We did not know at this point how to say that the boys are twins, or anything else of much use, but we talked a little, and Brian told her we were going out for some food. So she took us as her responsibility and led us through the streets to a place that makes breakfast sandwiches, not unlike a cheese-less Egg McMuffin made with a flaky pastry.  She ran around the corner and brought back two cups of some strange hot, white liquid, which she said was for the kids, and then escorted us to the fruit store on the corner of the building next to ours. We picked out some pineapple slices for about $1, and some bananas. I wish I could remember the price, it was cheap. She then walked with us back to our apartment. Who knows what she was out to do in the first place? She left us rather quickly, which was a relief, because we were a little overwhelmed, and we ate the breakfast sandwiches and some of the fruit we had acquired. We did not drink the white stuff, which I think was rice milk, and seems to be very popular around here.

I had no idea when I took this picture how important she would be to us.

A couple of hours later, she showed up at the door again, this time with lunch, some rice and some kind of Chinese dish with carrots and broccoli and chicken and a nice sauce, nothing to extravagant for our foreign tastes. She said she could not bear the thought of our eating street food. We tried hard to communicate with her, but it was choppy, as she speaks no English, except “Welcome back to China,” which she surprised us with as she was leaving. And she told us that her grandson speaks English, and she was going to bring him to us. She brought us lunch the next day, and her grandson the day after that. His chosen English name is Aaron and he has taught himself to speak English by watching American movies. He really is amazing. He would be just fine in America, and the fact that he is pretty much self-taught just blows us away.


He sat and visited with us and told us all the things Nǎinai 奶奶 (now my Zhongguo Mama – 中国 妈妈 (Chinese mother)) had been trying to tell us for the last few days. She is not originally from Tianjin, and she was born in 1944. She has 3 children, and she lives in Tianjin because her youngest grandson is in high school and she is here to take care of him (grandparents do a good portion of the child-rearing here in China). Aaron told us to call him any time, and offered to take Brian out the next day to buy a cell phone, which was an absolute must before Brian headed out to training in Beijing for 6 days on Sunday. And Brian told Nainai to check on me while he was gone, which turned out to be a blessing and a curse.

Nai Nai came faithfully every day that week. She would come in the morning and bring me water and some ingredients for lunch, and sometimes teach me how to make something (all very good, but nothing the kids would eat, of course), and then she’d come back at bedtime to “help” me put the kids to bed. The boys never did very well with that, and I finally figured out how to explain to her that they aren’t used to falling asleep with someone staring at them. She let me know the boys are too big to wear diapers (which I know), and quickly chose Teddy as her favorite. His personality seems to go over really well in China. She and I would talk, with the help of Google translator and lots of patience on her part. She has a remarkable way of making me understand what she means and teaching me new words, which no other Chinese person that I’ve met so far has been able to accomplish. She said that Aaron told her to teach me Chinese after he met us (I’m sure she would have anyway).

Some Cooking Lessons

Over the course of our conversations (without a translator, I might add!), I have learned that she was born in 1944, she has three children, two girls and a boy, and each have one child, two boys and a girl between then.  Her grandson Aaron is 24, and (this was a very fun conversation amongst her, Brian and myself) she wants him to have an American wife. A white one, not a black one. I didn’t know what she was saying when she first said it, and when I asked Brian what she said, he laughed and said, “She IS my grandmother.” I thought he meant she only wanted her son to marry a Chinese girl, but no, she IS his grandmother, not even the Chinese side of that coin. Just Brian’s grandma with a Chinese face (never, EVER let Brian’s dear grandmother read that sentence, on pain of death). Nainai wants her grandson to have an American wife, because she wants to have adorable, smart grandchildren, and she wants them all to live in America. And she wants us to find him a wife. He really is amazing. Any takers? I have also learned that her eldest daughter’s husband, Aaron’s father, died ten years ago; she cried when she told me that, and it was heart breaking.

She can tell the boys apart easily now, and had her husband, grandpa to us, 爷爷 (Yéye) in Chinese, came up with Chinese names for all of us. Brian’s name is 龙海飌 Lóng Hǎi Fēng (dragon ocean breeze), a name he chose the last time he was in China. So the children all have his last name, and I have the same last name as all of nai-nai’s children (Chinese women don’t take their husband’s last name, but their children do, so I have ye-ye’s last name), and the same first name (the middle part of my name, as the last name comes first) as her daughters, Li, which means beautiful. Both of her daughters’ second parts of their first names also mean beautiful.  My name is 徐丽美 Xú Lì Měi (slow/gentle beautiful beautiful – and said with a different tone, mei can also mean mold, fungus, bacteria, so you be careful how you talk to me). All of the children have the same last name as Brian, and then Tian, which is the same Tian that is in Tianjin and means sky or heaven, and a unique last part. Piper is 龙天美 Lóng Tiān Měi (beautiful). Toby is 龙天行 Lóng Tiān Xíng (capable/competent/walking). Teddy is 龙天翔 Lóng Tiān Xiáng (soaring). (I cannot figure out what is wrong with the font on this paragraph, but I don’t want to try anymore.)

The names as Ye Ye wrote them. Piper is last, because she's a girl, I guess.

She has recently begun bringing her little speaker and her memory stick and playing some kind of dance music which I think is samba, but I am completely ignorant in these matters, so it could be anything. She is trying to teach me to samba, and is very nice and encouraging about my clumsiness (she tells me I am her daughter and she will always love me, even if I can’t dance), and Piper LOVES dancing with her. I love watching them dance together. It helps to make up for all the times that Piper is crabby with her.

Piper loves this.

Most of the time that she comes in the door now, the kids yell, “Nai Nai’s here!” and hug her and look into her bags to see what she’s brought for them. They will say (when told to), “Wǒ ài nǐ nǎinai.” 我爱你奶奶 (I love you, Grandma.) And I do think they are more fond of her than they are of anyone else here. They talk about her when she’s not here, and are more likely to be affectionate to her than they are to any other Chinese person (they are a little fed up with all the touching from the general public). They are even finally eating this shrimp egg thing she makes for them, scrambled eggs, soy sauce, onion, and impossibly tiny shrimps, that is actually sweet and not awful.

Oh if only everyone would look. Nai Nai, Piper, Teddy, Toby

Today we went to her house for the first time and had lunch with her and Ye Ye (I have only met him one other time, and very briefly, and Brian had not met him at all). He is retired, but was an engineer (工程师 gōngchéngshī) responsible for building tall buildings. Now he teaches calligraphy, from what I can tell. He is very kind, and a good cook, too. It was the nicest experience we’ve had so far–something I envisioned before coming to China (albeit with a little trepidation because I didn’t know what I’d have to eat). The boys loved a dish that was cooked slices of cucumber and some kind of processed meat (of course, they only ate the meat), and I LOVED a dish with eggs and tomatoes that was sweet. There were also thinly sliced potatoes with vinegar and onion, very popular here, and a dish that Brian loved that had carrots (he ate them!) in it, though he didn’t care for the fungus at the bottom of the dish, whatever it was. Nai nai very sweetly brought out bread for my picky children, and it really doesn’t seem like Chinese people are too offended when children don’t eat, though it still stresses me out, and they do think my children will like a lot more things than they actually do.

Our first Chinese feast.

They offered Brian some wine, and Brian declined, as he was about to leave for work, but they kept insisting, saying something about how it was something you do in China, so he was poured a cup, and he and ye ye toasted each time, Brian’s cup below yeye’s, because yeye is his elder, and his Chinese father.  We really love them, and are so lucky to have found them. I can’t believe that the best family we could possibly also speak the least English of anyone we’ve spent any time with so far, and yet we figure out how to communicate. Oh, and then nai nai poured me some wine, to toast with me, and Brian told me to prepare myself, and, well, I am just not a huge fan of that stuff anyway, but I don’t know if it’s ever been harder for me to keep a straight face about something I had just put in my mouth. It is amazing to me that people like that.

Ye Ye explaining toast etiquette.

I don’t think I have left out too much about Nai nai. I am sorry I am so terribly inconsistent with how I write their names, and it is just because Chinese words are not meant to written in letters, and are not capitalized or spaced, so I can’t decide, but I promise I’ll pick something and stick with it next time. Also, she supplies us with all of our drinking water because she has a special filter and she doesn’t want us to spend so much money on bottled water. Yes, I know, very well-written ending I have here. Oh, and Teddy is her favorite 🙂

Nai Nai, Ye Ye and Brian



  1. God surely knew what He was doing when He had Nai Nai on the elevator that morning. Though I know it has been difficult at times, it sounds like she is a wonderful grandmother/mother for your family.

    BTW, my sister is single, and not too much older than Aaron. 😉

    P.S. The food looks yummy! And looking at your pictures really makes me miss you guys. It’s fun to read along with your adventure, though.

  2. Love hearing how you all are doing! Kaila especially likes seeing pictures of Piper 🙂
    So glad you have a great family that has adopted you and cares so much for all of you.

  3. Crystal Roberts · · Reply

    April, It’s so fun to see and read about your amazing adventure! I can’t wait for all the stories you will have to bring back to Waconia. We miss you guys. I’ll have to fill Lynn in on all your stories…. Keep posting. My fav so far was the one on how your chinese gramma slapped you.. Priceless!!! 🙂

  4. Cute!!! that is so sweet that they welcomed you so much(: That makes me smile to see the pics of her & the kids(:

  5. Mary Bacon · · Reply

    April, you don’t know me but Marty’s wife Betsy is my cousin – our mothers are sisters. Even though I don’t know you, I find your story very interesting and it’s fun to see all the pictures of your family in China. Must be quite an adventure. I have been treated to real Chinese food and love it, not at all like what the restaurants serve here. A few years ago we were friends with a Chinese man that managed a Japanese restaurant. He took us to New York for real dim sum and then went shopping at a big supermarket and brought all kinds of Chinese foods. We went back to his restaurant and after hours, his chefs cooked up a Chinese dinner that was marvelous. He has since gone back to Calif. to take care of his sick mom and have lost contact with him. My husband & I enjoy trying foods from all cultures. Hope you keep up your Blog – Mary Bacon

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