Remembering Nai Nai

I recently lost my nai nai, my grandmother.

When people ask me about nai nai, I usually remember her with stories. Since my first memories with her, I can’t think of a single time where she didn’t share a little bit of her generosity by way of a hong bao. Every memory that I have of her involves her giving something to others, whether it was her advice, some of her food or those little red envelopes.

Perhaps her life was guided by a famous Chinese proverb which says:

If you want happiness for an hour take a nap.
If you want happiness for a day, go fishing.
If you want happiness for a year, inherit a fortune.
If you want happiness for a lifetime, help someone else.

Nai nai truly demonstrated a lifetime of happiness.

My grandmother was born into a life of privilege. Her family was wealthy and owned land. When she was married, she even had two handmaidens that served her. But during the communist revolution, the family lost everything and they were forced to work the fields. The revolution was eager to punish anyone who benefitted from the previous social structure. Out of fear her father took his own life and she ended up taking care of the entire family herself.

When my father was a young boy, he became extremely ill. While the rest of the village told nai nai to abandon him and let him go, she refused. She picked him up and carried him all the way to the next city and found a doctor who saved his life. This later inspired her to go back to school and became a pediatric nurse so she could continue helping other people. She was one of China’s first female medical practitioners.

When I take a step back to think about the 93 years she enjoyed on earth, I can’t begin to imagine the great changes she lived through like enduring the hardship of starvation and having to start over yet again when she resettled across the world in the United States. She demonstrated willpower and determination. Even in her last few weeks when she couldn’t speak anymore, she choose to leave this world on her own terms.

I moved away from San Diego almost twenty years ago and though I would visit home on a regular basis, my great regret is that I didn’t spend more time with nai nai. I wish I could still grasp my first languages to comprehend her stories without a translator.

Whenever I did visit, she was always excited to talk to me even though I couldn’t understand, all while pressing a hong bao into my hands. It was her way of expressing love and sharing a blessing.

I think her last gift is a gentle reminder that even a long life can still seem too short to the people around us. Life moves quickly so we should always find time for family and share love however we can, even only through small red envelope or time over a shared meal.

There’s an old saying that says “when you were born, you cried and the world rejoiced. Live your life so that when you die, the world cries and you rejoice.” 

I believe that my grandmother will continue to live on in our hearts, celebrating with us when we share a little generosity and kindness with the people we love. That is true happiness. 

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