Tropical Vacation 2013, AKA Chinese Grandma Debacle


You know how memory softens everything and everyone in it, and it’s easy to forget the negatives and just remember the positives? Well, Nainai has been in Hainan (China’s Hawaii) for a year now. She’d call occasionally to remind us that she exists, but otherwise we had kind of forgotten, except for once, out of the blue, when Teddy asked me if she had died. So she called at the beginning of December to let us know that she’d be returning to Tianjin at the end of Spring Festival (the weeks surrounding Chinese New Year), and wanting to know if we could come for a visit. I thought about it and reasoned that it was the only opportunity we’d have to visit a tropical island where the only expense was airfare, and after talking it over with Brian, bought tickets for the kids and I to go for 2 weeks, returning just before Christmas, with a 3 day visit from Brian in the middle. I did it hastily, as I do most things, not trusting the most likely scenario, that I could probably be there a few days and then purchase my return ticket, just in case the visit wasn’t going well. Lesson learned.

My friend Zhao insisted on going with me when she found out, not because she wanted to go to a tropical island for a vacation, but because she was very concerned that I was not capable of flying with three children on my own. I love her and I appreciate that she cares about me, but her reason for going was a bit irritating. In the end, I was so glad she was there, just to have one person who understands the way I take care of my children, even if she could only be there for the first five days.

Dear Zhao, posing with a fruit salad that Piper made out of mandarin oranges, bananas, raisins and spicy dried peas, while I was talking on the phone and not paying attention.

Dear Zhao, posing with a fruit salad that Piper made out of mandarin oranges, bananas, raisins and spicy dried peas, while I was talking on the phone and not paying attention.

The first time the kids saw Nainai, when she met us at the airport, they were happy to see her, and she was so pleased that they remembered her, and we went back to their apartment. The next morning was the only morning it didn’t rain while we were in Haikou (the city on the northern part of the island where Nainai lived), so we went to the beach. From the minute we set foot outside the house, I was reminded why I tried never to go anywhere with Nainai when we were neighbors. She operates in panic mode at all times where the kids are concerned, constantly yelling “Ting hua!” at them (“Listen to me!” or really just “Obey!”) and “Look out for the car!” and grabbing them, and freaking out if they run a bit, never giving them the benefit of the doubt for a moment, trusting that they might be smart enough to stop before running into a parking lot, or that they might be able to walk on a sidewalk without suddenly darting into the road. She just injects so much stress into otherwise low-stress situations. We somehow made it to the beach without any major accidents (imagine that!), and the kids immediately took off their shoes (against her advice), and ran and played in the sand, and she and Zhao settled down on a rock out of sight of the water line. That gave the kids plenty of time to strip down to their underwear and start playing in the water, which is just not something I could deny them, having come all this way with their hearts set on that very thing.

They played happily for a few minutes, until Nainai came over to see what we were up to. She came upon the scene as my back was turned, spreading out their clothes on the sand, when Piper ran to me crying, and she said Nainai had hit her bottom and told her to get out of the water, and I turned around to see her pulling the boys out, too. I ran back and told the kids it was okay, we could still play in the water, and told Nainai to let them, and she ran back over to them yelling at them to get out, swatting their bottoms and pulling them, and they all cried, and I said, “No, let them go in the water,” but she kept trying to pull them away, and finally I shouted back at her, “I’M LETTING THEM GO IN THE WATER! IT’S FINE! IT’S NOT A PROBLEM!” She slapped my arm, looked disgusted and said, “You should listen to me,” and walked away.

Of course, for me it was a huge deal that I just yelled back at her, but it was not a big deal to her, and she acted like it never happened. I’m sure she was just expressing her feelings and I was expressing mine and it was all cool, but it was very upsetting for me. And for the kids, I should add. It was just the beginning of a lot of yelling and some swatting, and the kids quickly grew to despise her. I didn’t feel that I could leave them alone with her at all, because even if I walked away for a moment, say, to use the bathroom, I’d immediately start to hear raised voices bombarding the kids, who were so overstimulated and confused because of the language barrier that it was just a disaster. I was amazed when she allowed me to take the children to Carrefour by myself on the third day, escorting me onto the bus, with strict instructions to the driver about where to drop us off on the way home, and strict instructions to me not to talk to any strangers at all (ironic because that’s how she met me), and not to go home with anyone, not even foreigners. We found a KFC near the Carrefour and the kids played at the play place until the latest possible return bus home. I usually hate KFC in China, but I’d have taken anything that had a place to play out of the rain, and away from the house.

The children cried every night, wanting to go home, saying that Nainai was angry and didn’t want them to play, and wishing they could go home with Daddy when he came for a visit. Then, right before Brian came, Nainai got very sick and went to the hospital, with some kind of stomach problem. Not so serious, but enough that she felt she couldn’t go out with us for a while, and that was a relief, but it made me feel terribly guilty about how I was feeling about her. Because I know that she loves me and this is her way of showing it. In China, your parents own you, even when you’re grown up, and they can tell you what to do, down to the tiniest detail (like “go put more clothes on,” “eat that,” “drink some water,” etc.) She feels that she has the rights of a parent, and talks often of how I am her Chinese daughter, and how she has 4 homes to call her own now (her 3 children and mine, yippee). And it means a lot to me, the idea of someone opening their family up to me like this, but in reality, I am not at all up for what that entails. I don’t want to be in a Chinese family because I don’t want to have the obligations of a Chinese child. I am not culturally prepared to accept advice and commands all the time, as if I was not an adult capable of managing my own life. It fills me with bitterness, but it’s another story all together when my children are treated so badly. It makes me so angry.

Anyway. The day before Brian came, the boys were wrestling in the living room, just having fun, not hurting each other or anything around them, but Nainai wanted them to stop because she thought they shouldn’t do that, and she swatted Teddy’s leg with a little stick she had in her hand, and he just fell apart. She said, “Why is he crying?” And I said, “Because we don’t hit them.” And she said she was sorry to him many times and didn’t hit him after that. It didn’t stop the constant barrage of reprimands, but that meant a lot to me that she responded that way, at least.


Brian came and Nainai was still laying low, and felt safe with me in the hands of my husband, so he and I took the kids and went to the beach on a cold, drizzly day, and had a lovely time. I was nervous about his leaving again, but the kids are shallow and were bribed with as many Octonauts as their hearts desired, and didn’t cry at all. The day he left, I felt just awful, imagining another seven days there, knowing that it was to rain every single day, with temperatures down in the low 50’s (I had only brought summer clothes—my concern here was not so much that the kids would be cold, but that Nainai wouldn’t let me alone about their condition, though she was the very one who told me to pack summer clothes), and alone with Yeye and Nainai. So I finally, finally, hit upon a plan that would allow me to leave early. (I had been tossing around a lot of different scenarios, kind of like a refugee planning an escape, but none of them seemed feasible without somehow displeasing Nainai, and if you know me, you might now how much I fear confrontation.) I decided to take the kids on the train to the southern tip of the island, Sanya, where it was to be 10 degrees warmer and no rain. Nainai had just learned they were heading back to Tianjin the following week, and had so much to do, in addition to not feeling well, so I figured I was pretty safe. I found an amazing hostel for $23 a night, and got up the courage to tell her before Brian left. She was full of doubt and asked if Brian was okay with it. I said yes, but she didn’t believe me, so she asked him herself. He said yes, and she said, “What will you do if she gets lost and doesn’t come back? If she doesn’t come back, I’ll get you a Chinese wife!”

That night, just minutes after the last child had fallen asleep, Nainai came trouping up the stairs with a friend and her son, who had come to play with the kids (our kids go to bed way earlier than their Chinese counterparts). But hey, just because kids are asleep doesn’t mean you should deprive yourself of the fun of looking at them! I cannot lie, I couldn’t bring myself to like that mom the next time I saw her. Who thinks that it’s okay and not super weird to walk into a room where a family is sleeping and flip on the lights and take a look?

The morning after he left, I packed up our stuff and got ready to leave with the kids. I got plenty of advice from her and Yeye:

“When you get off the train, go right to where you are staying, put your stuff there, feed your children.”
“Come home before it’s dark.”
“If someone asks you if you are alone, tell them your husband is there but he’s getting them food.”
“Don’t talk to strangers.”
“Don’t go home with anyone, not even foreigners.”
“Pack all your things well before you leave.”
“Send Nainai a text every day telling her you are well.”
“Watch your children carefully.”
“Look out for people who do drugs.”
“I don’t agree with your decision to go.”

Until the last minute, she seemed like she really felt she needed to go with us, but we made it out. The kids were so happy to go. Except that they hated standing in the rain, which explains their faces in the picture.

The refugees.

The refugees.

We arrived in Sanya to drizzle, which I had expected but I couldn’t wait until the next day, which was the first day with no rain there, too. It was much warmer, though, and we managed to make it to the hostel in one piece, though in stepping off the bus with a boy about to pee his pants and super heavy luggage, I put my foot right through a gap in the cement drainage ditch cover and scraped my leg up nicely. I was so glad Nainai was not there to see that. The hostel was fantastic. It was just what we needed. So comfortable and relaxing, and just a ten minute walk down a jungly, mountain path to the beach. We spent every single day at the beach, all day, and each day it got warmer and the sun came out longer. I dutifully texted Nainai every night to let her know I still had all the children, and decided to stay until Saturday afternoon, since our flight left Haikou on Sunday afternoon. I texted her to let her know and tried not to think about how she might feel about that. The kids and I felt a little teary saying goodbye to the wonderful hostel staff and the sunshine on Saturday afternoon, after a magical morning spent on the highest point around there, Luhuitou, feeding pigeons and soaking in the greenery. We waiting as late as was reasonable to take a train back to Haikou, and the trip home was a bit disastrous, because the kids all fell asleep in the car on the way to the train station, slept 20 minutes, and then had to be woken up when we arrived. Toby could not recover at all, and cried from the moment we set foot out of the taxi, until we reached the waiting area, right through the security check, when my water bottle popped open in my bag and things fell apart even more and he was incapable of picking up his things again and helping us get the heck out of there. It was not a shining Mommy moment. After that, I promised them that if they were good, we would go to McDonalds before we went back to Nainai’s house (some tears greeted the reminder that we were returning to her house and not going right home, but I tried to shift the focus to McDonald’s).


Our hostel.

Our hostel.


Finally, blue skies!

Finally, blue skies!

Free at last in Sanya.

Free at last in Sanya.

I texted Nainai and told her that we would arrive at her home at 7:30, planning to get a taxi from the train station, having it drop our things at her gate at 6:30, then take us to McDonald’s, and then return and actually go to her house at 7:30. The taxi system at the Haikou Railway Station is insane; every man for himself. After a wait for a while, it was clear we’d never get a legit taxi, so we accepted a black taxi offer, on the condition that he drop our things off and take us to McDonald’s. He was a nice enough guy who just tried to get a few passengers from the Railway Station on the weekends, and tolerated my having to open the door at an intersection to let Toby pee, because, yet again, he nearly peed his pants en route to our destination.

Well, we arrived at the gate at 6:30, and who should be waiting but Nainai (who’d apparently been waiting since 6). I was so surprised and dismayed, and she came out of the guard house, hitting my arm, crying, yelling, “Why did you stay away so long? I was so sad! I’m hitting you!” The kids got upset, she injected her usual element of panic and rush and I explained, somehow, that I had promised them McDonald’s, and I got my things out of the car and gave them to her. In the chaos (I don’t think well when I’m being yelled at), I left my coat in the trunk of the car, and that was the last I saw of my coat, which was a big bummer, considering that we were going home to much colder weather. We had McDonald’s, the kids went home and went to bed, but cried a bit about being there and not at home, and the next morning, we packed up and they were ready to go to the airport at 8am (our flight was at 2). While we passed the time, Nainai told me a friend was coming to see the kids, the same woman who’d brought her son to look at them while they were sleeping.

So, here’s the thing, our Chinese friend’s do so much for us (whether I want it or not – but even if I don’t, I recognize the position I’m in, that I owe them, and that there’s nothing I can do to repay them), and basically the only thing I can do for them is let them show us off to their friends, but I hate it! I don’t mind it if it’s just me, but I hate having the kids put on display for others to see. It’s one thing when we’re treated that way in public, but it feels so invasive at home, or being dragged to other people’s homes to do it. I just hate it. Well, over the course of an hour, at least 10 people came and looked at the kids, tried to get photos with them, and grabbed them to get better looks (which my kids don’t respond well to – I don’t understand why people don’t realize they might get better results with gentleness, and I KNOW people don’t realize that this may be the first time for them seeing my kids, but it’s probably the 20th time that day that someone’s expected my children to stop what they’re doing for photos – surprise surprise, we didn’t go to the beach to stand still while every person who passed took a photo with us!). It was supremely irritating. My happiness about going home hadn’t needed any reinforcement.

Nainai will be back in our neck of the woods January 26, and I remember now how much I had wanted to move away from Chengji, just so she wouldn’t be my neighbor anymore. I hate wanting to move from a place I had been happy in, just to get away from someone. Thankfully, she’s far enough away that it can’t be that often that she comes, but I know she expects we’ll visit, only I can’t imagine how I could coerce the kids into going willingly to her house. On New Year’s Day, I was telling the kids how to say “Happy New Year” in Chinese to people, and Piper said, suddenly, “Wait, it’s New Year?” And I said, “Yes,” and she said, “But that means Nainai’s coming back, I don’t want her to come back.” It was some comfort to her to hear that she’s not coming back til Chinese New Year, but it’s not much comfort to me.

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