Nai Nai Troubles

My feelings about Nai Nai have always been kind of mixed just because I’m not used to being reprimanded or told what to do, or “playfully” slapped because I didn’t lock my door, and definitely not used to being dropped in on. But she does take good care of us, bringing us water, being pretty understanding about a lot of things, and actually not being around too much lately (something I appreciate in most people). The last few times I’ve seen her, however, things have happened that have made me dread her visits, but confused at the same time because she is still so kind to us and does love us.

The kids took her down. Don't you just love to discover that your children have had their fingers on the camera lens right after you just tried to capture a moment that only lasted, well, a moment?

One day, she had some unexpected free time because she didn’t need to make lunch for her “xiao sunzi” (youngest grandson, who is in high school), so she went out with us on our errands when we went to get paid for my tutoring and buy hamster food. When we were just about done, we had to get on a bus to go meet a friend at Brian’s work, so we had to go on the pedestrian overpass across the busy Nanjing Road, on a couple of escalators. Piper, as usual (since when I am alone I only have two hands), ran on ahead and rode the escalator to the top and waited for me. Nai Nai kind of freaked out and started chasing her up the escalator and when she got to the top, started to slap Piper’s arm and tell her she was a bad child (Piper doesn’t speak Chinese so she doesn’t know that), and of course, Piper started to run from her because she didn’t know what was going on. So she ran, and Nai Nai ran after her, scolding her all the time, and I ran after them both trying to tell Nai Nai that Piper hadn’t done anything wrong, but of course, I don’t speak Chinese well enough to explain. It ended with Nai Nai saying she was a bad child who doesn’t listen (“bu hao haizi,” “bu ting hua”) and shaking her head at the whole thing.

Toby being carried by Nai Nai on the day we all went out together. It was pretty adorable.

It made me so angry that Piper was being treated that way for doing something that I always let her do, and being called bad for not understanding Nai Nai and running away from someone who is hitting and yelling at her. I realize I am probably over-dramatizing it, but if I am okay with something my child does, it is not okay for someone else to swoop in and scare her and make her feel terrible about it.

The next time we saw Nai Nai was extremely stressful. It was a morning that I tutor, when I leave at 9:15, and it was about 8:30 and I was working on some last minute things to bring to my student’s house. Nai Nai showed up with a pound of what I later realized was ground pork and told me to show her how to make the meatballs I’d made for her the week before, because her grandson had liked them and she didn’t know how to make them. I didn’t have any more parmesan cheese (kind of important), and the meat was all wrong, but she kept insisting, even though I just wanted to keep working on my lesson for the day. But Nai Nai will not be put aside. So I just put things together into something that ended up not even remotely resembling meatballs, but came out more like sausage (with ground pork, some cheddar cheese, oatmeal intead of bread crumbs, etc. – I just wanted to cry the whole time).

Then it was time for me to go, and I hadn’t finished getting ready, and all the kids were all set to go ride their scooters in the hall, which doesn’t usually happen until after I’m gone. So I walked out the door and Piper followed me, which I didn’t think would be a big problem, because I thought everyone else would be following, including Brian to watch the kids. I went to the elevators and Piper followed me, and no one else was coming out, and then my elevator was coming, and if you miss an elevator, it can be ten minutes before you get another shot, as it has to go down 20 stories, back up 32 and then down 12 again. I saw it was coming, and I yelled out the door for Brian to get Piper because I knew she’d fall apart when she watched me get on the elevator and leave her there, as I’ve never left her that way before, but the only one in the hall was Nai Nai who was just about to leave our house, and of course she came running, and my elevator door opened, and Piper’s face melted and she started sobbing when she realized I was leaving her, but I had to go. I found out later that Nai Nai had brought Piper back to the apartment crying, and Nai Nai was saying how bad she was because she wouldn’t listen.

The next time I saw Nai Nai after that, she brought treats as she usually does, but she had brought an extra one for Teddy, whom she has always said is her favorite, and then she told me that Teddy is first in her heart, then Toby, then Piper. She said Piper is a bad child who doesn’t listen, and she told me all about the elevator thing. I said, “But Piper doesn’t understand when you talk, and she was sad because I left,” and Nai Nai said, “But her brothers don’t cry when you leave. They are good children.” I wanted to be done with the conversation right then and there, but of course, as with everything we talk about in Chinese, it has to be reiterated 4 or 5 times so she can be sure I understand, and I felt so angry inside. Piper cried because she loves me and she’s sad when I leave and she doesn’t really have much experience with my leaving her. The boys love me, but they don’t really care when I go to work, and they weren’t standing at the elevator watching me leave them. I just feel so angry and defensive and I can’t really tell Nai Nai to stop talking about my daughter like that. I have a feeling it will be a regular theme of our conversations now, just as she always used to tell me that she liked Teddy best. Once she finds something I understand, she latches onto it for regular conversation fodder.

Which brings me to a last thing, which can fit in here as well as anywhere. It was a hard choice, but (inspired by a dear friend), I’ve decided not to make (or even encourage very much), the kids to hug or otherwise interact with people they don’t want to. It’s hard, because, well, let’s face it, my over-riding drive in life is people-pleasing–it’s compulsive. I am slowly but surely learning how to put my kids before that powerful urge, however. I don’t want to ever force them to be physically affectionate with someone they don’t like, because once in a while, there may be a good reason for them not wanting to touch someone, even if they don’t know it themselves, and here, they are surrounded by people who are constantly invading their space. We are working on not “squeaking” (a name we give this really rude half screechy noise they make at strangers, and at us, when they are angry), and just hiding faces or shaking heads no. And sometimes I still feel terrible when they reject people, but mostly I just feel angry with the people who seem to expect my kids to tolerate the thorough inspection of their clothes, the face touching, and the attempts of Chinese people to force them to kiss them or hug them or say something in Chinese.


This goes for people who are not quite strangers, too. There’s a woman who lives down the hall whose door is open all the time, and I feel like she just sits in her living room waiting for us to walk out the door, because the moment we do, she’s there, saying, “Hello! Hello!” She is kind and I’m sure she means well, but she always brings out food for the kids, and she wants kisses for it, and the boys mostly oblige, but the other day Piper came back into the house and said, “Mommy, she had a treat, but she wanted me to kiss her, and I didn’t want to so I can’t have a treat.” I was so proud of her for not doing something that she didn’t feel comfortable doing. I feel worse for her than for the boys, because I can see the effect of this on her the most. I am so glad she can’t speak Chinese and doesn’t know what Nai Nai thinks of her. So I am also now not even going out of my way to encourage her to hug Nai Nai (I used to, but since this whole business, I just feel wrong trying to get her to hug someone who doesn’t even like her that much, though Nai Nai does still say that she loves them all).

And of course, halfway through writing this, who should show up at the door but Nai Nai? Bearing a jug of water, and then giving me  a bracelet right off her wrist on the way out, no matter how much I tried to refuse, and telling me that she loved me and I am her daughter and she is my Chinese mother. Do you see why I have such conflicting emotions?



  1. This sounds a lot like some of my relationships with my family members. I know it’s tough. 😦

    1. April, I think that the Chinese have such a different life style than we do and strong beliefs on how they raise their children that are so much different than the Americans. I can see how hard it is for you and Piper, I don’t know how I would deal with it. It certainly sounds like a tug of war for you. How do you stand up for yourself and at the same time try not to hurt her feelings is such a conflict, but you will not be there forever, so I think I would keep defending Piper and yourself. Keep telling her that they are your children, not hers so you don’t approve of her yelling at Piper. I know, it’s probably easier for me to say this than it is for you to do it. Tell Piper that Nai Nai doesn’t know any better because she isn’t her child, but she is treating her like she is. Keep strong and good luck to you for the rest of your duration in China. I will keep my fingers crossed that things don’t get worse for you.

  2. We’re not living in China at the moment, but my Chinese relatives have warned me about letting the kids to run off by themselves, even a little way, because they are worried about children getting kidnappped! It is a real concern to people in China at the moment. I have my doubts about whether anyone would kidnap a foreigner, but I’m not going to risk it when we go back.

    Anyway, that was my first thought when reading the escalator story. She may have been worried about that.

    Apart from that, the rest is normal when living in China, as are your reactions!

  3. And 10 minutes after leaving that comment, I read an article in the UK’s Guardian newspaper about a kidnapping ring in China being broken up:

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: