In Memory of Nai Nai

My wife called me today with very sad news.  Her grandma, her dad’s mom, passed away today in Shanghai.  We are very saddened by the news.  Grandma, or “Nai Nai,” was 89 years old.  She lived a very long life, outliving many elderly Chinese.  She was born and lived most of her life in Hexian, a county in Anhui Province, China, about one hour west of Nanjing along the Yangzi River.  I can only imagine the changes she must have seen during her lifetime, from growing up as a peasant in rural China after World War I, through the Chinese Civil War, the Great Leap Forward and the Great Famine, the Cultural Revolution, and into the Deng Xiaoping era and China’s revival as a world power.  Her life makes me recall one of my favorite novels, “Wild Swans:  Three Daughters of China,” which chronicles three generations of women in one Chinese family during the 20th Century.

I met Nai Nai twice and have fond memories of her.  I wish I could remember her name.  Learning her name was a big challenge, because each time I asked, I met with strong opposition.  Unlike America, referring to your elders by name in China, even modified with a title, is considered inappropriate.  Hence, she was always known as “Nai Nai,” the Mandarin Chinese word for paternal grandmother (the maternal grandmother is called “wai po”).  I first met her was in 1994, when I visited Hexian with my wife’s family.  We went to my father-in-law’s hometown and visited the place where he spent his childhood.  Nai Nai was a smallish woman.  I remember her smile and the twinkle in her eye.  I did not know her well, but she always seemed like a sweet lady.  I’m sure it was a bit strange for her to meet a foreigner for the first time and at the same time welcome him as the newest member of the family.  The second time I saw her was in 2000, when we attended my sister-in-law’s wedding in Shanghai.  I remember that she seemed so happy to have family around her and have her children reunited.  She had taken care of my sister-in-law as a child, so Nai Nai was especially excited to attend her wedding.  My sister-in-law and she were very close.

Even though Nai Nai lived a full life, we are sad to hear of her passing.  She reminds me how precious life is and how important it is to be ready when the inevitable happens, both in life and in death.  One cannot know which day will be the last day of life, so live life to the fullest, as if each day were your last.  Never take for granted the lives of those you love, because you never know when they will be taken from you.  When my grandpa fell ill with cancer, we waited until it was convenient for us to visit him.  He passed away while we were en route to see him one last time.  I was devastated.  I regret that I let convenience get in the way of saying goodbye to my grandpa.  Two years later, when my aunt was diagnosed with incurable cancer, I dropped everything to see her a few months before she passed away.  A few years ago, I helped bring my mom and my grandma together again one last time.  I’ll never forget the touching moment when they reunited.  Three weeks later, my grandma passed away.  I did not see her again, but my final moments with her, watching her embrace my mother, is a memory etched in my mind.  I’m teary eyed even now thinking about it.

Checking in from China

I talked to my wife tonight on the phone. She has been in China with my son since early last week. They are doing very well. Life in Shanghai is not as comfortable or convenient as it is in Seoul, but she’s glad she went home to spend time with family. My wife and son are staying with my in-laws, who as you might recall returned to China last December before we left for Seoul. My sister-in-law’s family, who also live in Shanghai, met my son for the first time. My son has really taken a liking to his aunt (probably because she is a lot like his mom, her sister). They all live in pretty cramped quarters and have had a few minor family quarrels, but all in all, the visit has been a good one. My son really misses me. Whenever he sees a photo of me, he says excitedly, “Baba!” the Chinese word for “daddy.” I can’t wait to see them again. My temporary, pseudo-bachelor life has its good moments, but there’s nothing like being with the ones you love.

My son is apparently quite a celebrity in China. As a mixed-blooded child—half American, half-Chinese—he obviously looks different than Chinese children. My wife told me that strangers go out of the way to meet the little guy because he looks so different. She recently took him to a neighborhood photography studio for a photo session. The session so well that the studio acquired the rights to his photos and will display his album as a studio sample. He is a very photogenic kid. (I’m glad he inherited his mother’s good looks!) Although my son has been noticed here in Seoul, he has gotten far more attention in China than he has in Korea. This may be because Koreans have seen so many foreigners and mixed-blooded children that they are no longer a novelty. Chinese, on the other hand, have experienced much less exposure to foreigners and have met few mixed-blooded children. When I first visited China in 1994, I received many inquisitive looks from Chinese. I was a bit of a novelty, even when I was in Shanghai. However, in recent years the foreign mystique has diminished, and many Chinese now won’t give foreigners a second glance.

On the other hand, mixed-blooded children in China born to a foreign parent are still relatively rare. As a result, like my son, mixed-blooded children still elicit stares from Chinese. And Chinese typically hold them in high regard. Some Chinese believe that mixed-blooded children are physically more beautiful than either full-blooded Chinese or foreigner (e.g. Western) children. A recent poll indicated that 63% of Chinese would like to marry a foreigner. During my 1994 visit to China, my wife and I received critical stares from strangers who disapproved of our bi-racial relationship. Now, our mixed marriage is apparently hip. Attitudes in China have changed dramatically in the past decade. This may explain why Chinese are generally favorably disposed to mixed-blooded children. Rather than being a social burden, mixed-blooded children have become a status symbol of sorts.

Koreans, in contrast, typically do not hold mixed-blooded children in such high esteem. Koreans tend to prefer full-blooded Korean or non-Korean children. This is partly due to the fact that some mixed-blooded children in Korea are born out of wedlock to Korean mothers who are abandoned by foreign partners (particularly soldiers) who leave the country. Many of these children are born into unfortunate circumstances where the father reneges on his responsibility to take care of the child and disappears from their life. It is a very interesting contrast between two cultures that are similar in many ways but differ in some key social aspects. It is partly a product of cultural and historical influences.