Growing up, I had two grandmothers. My grandfather on my mother's side passed away when she was sixteen, and my grandfather on my father's side passed away when I was two. So my experience with grandparents is almost entirely only with my grandmothers. Nai Nai is my grandmother on my dad's side, and AMA is my grandma on my mom's side. Last weekend my two beautiful, strong beyond words, loving grandmothers made their final voyage and are now playing mahjong together and reunited with their husbands. I've been reflecting on their impact on my life for some time now, but even more so now as I fathom not being able to hug and kiss them again.
Gaining two new guardian angels on the same weekend, less than two days apart, has been double the pain, but also double the grace. I grew up close with my grandmothers, even though one of them always lived in another country, and as I get older I'm all the more grateful for the closeness of my family. As I reflect on my grandmothers’ impact on my life, I feel beyond blessed for all the gifts they bestowed upon our family and the lessons and values I will forever cherish and teach my son. So, I thought I’d share a few things I’ve learned from Nai Nai and AMA, because I have no doubt they will inspire you as much as they do me.
The Power of Love
Last March, Nai Nai was given 3 months to live. I had a feeling she’d make it to her birthday at the end of July and then go. The week before her birthday, I found out I was pregnant with her first great-grandchild and couldn’t wait to tell her. So when I saw her that weekend, I found a few minutes alone with her to tell her first. Nai Nai has dementia so I knew she’d be the best secret keeper. And if she was really going to leave us, I wanted her to know this because I knew it would make her happy, and I just knew that even if on the surface she forgot the news, deep down inside her heart she would remember this news. The following weekend, just before we celebrated her birthday, her test results came back showing unexpected improvement. She wasn’t healed, but it at least gave us a few more months if not longer. So, I kept praying she’d hang on to meet her first great-grandbaby. Come March 2020, and my prayers were answered—at first only over FaceTime because of COVID, but by the grace of God she was able to spend time with him and play with him the last few weeks of her life. I believe love kept her alive to meet our little bundle of pure joy, and he indeed brought her so much joy.
When AMA’s health looked to be getting more serious a month or two ago, my mom made an emergency trip back to Taiwan. We were nervous about whether AMA would hang on long enough so my mom could see her, because she had to quarantine for 14 days upon landing. Thankfully, my mom made it out of quarantine in time and was able to spend a couple weeks with her mother. I believe AMA waited for my mom and that’s the power of love.
Both of my grandmothers are fierce survivors. In 1991, AMA had her first heart attack and stroke. At the time, doctors thought she’d only live a few more years, but boy did she prove them wrong. She went on to suffer more than seven strokes and each time recovered with the most admirable and inspiring resilience, until the final one left half her body paralyzed. Even then, I only witnessed strength and resilience in her.
Something I’ve learned Chinese grandparents are good at is doing regular exercise. Up until Nai Nai was hit with what was probably Steven Johnson Syndrome, she would regularly go to the park to exercise with other elderly Asian women, and go for walks. When I went to Beijing last year, I noticed that they have a huge park full of exercise equipment and the park is filled with Beijing’s retired community. There were elderly people who should be Olympic gymnasts! And whenever AMA visited, we would regularly go for walks and after each of her strokes she did all her exercises to get stronger and help her recover. I think it’s their active lifestyle that keep them so strong.
Do Not Waste Food
Because they grew up during wartime, they understood starvation. Nai Nai used to tell us a story about a time they had gone days without food and suddenly they came across a chicken. Her brother had to break its neck with his bare hands so they could have food. They sometimes even had to drink dirty water and risk getting ill, because they had no water. So my grandmothers, especially Nai Nai since she lived near us and we were always with her, would never let us waste food. Not a single crumb was allowed to be left on the plate. She’d always tell us to clean our plate and she didn’t mean wash it.
The Value of Travel
It’s thanks to Nai Nai (and also my Auntie Lori) I developed a deep love and appreciation for travel at a young age. She took all of us grandchildren to so many places, often by herself. Once she even lugged four small grandchildren on a train ride from LA to SF to see her fifth grandchild (or rather her first as he’s the eldest). Twice when Nai Nai was going on a trip with other family members, I expressed excitement and without hesitation she said, okay you can come. So, she bought me my tickets. Big and small trips, Nai Nai took me on many. Once she took my brother and I to Hawaii, just ourselves. I don’t even know why. She loved Hawaii so maybe she just wanted an excuse to go. She also once took just myself to Vegas and we had a blast. Again, I have no idea why, but she did. I learned so much through our travels and I suppose it’s why I’ve never been afraid to travel on my own.
Grandma’s Love is Special and Protective
Nai Nai recently reminded me that the summer my brother and I spent in New Zealand visiting AMA and our cousins, I got homesick. It was the longest we had been away from home. And when she heard I was homesick, she rushed to New Zealand to see us, and eventually came home with us. This, I don’t remember, but it’s what I’m told. I thought she just came to hang out with us.
Mahjong is Good for the Brain
Nai Nai was a mahjong master. Everyone knows this. Up until even the last few years, despite her dementia, she played mahjong like a champ. Mahjong trains you to be sharp, and Nai Nai was always the sharpest. Once after she became ill, when she could still live on her own but was no longer allowed to drive, she called me and told me that she saw an ad for a pajama sale at Macy’s, and asked if I could pick her up and take her. Of course, I immediately dropped everything and picked her up. At Macy’s she would calculate the discounts so fast, if it were a race she would’ve lapped me multiple times. She was always great at math and taught all of us basic multiplication. All that is to say that, I think it was all the mahjong that kept her so sharp.
The Importance of Being Considerate
AMA was the sweetest soul. As a child, I recall once getting frustrated while in Taiwan and complained to my mom about always having to speak Chinese to my relatives whenever we visited Taiwan or whenever they visited us. Why couldn’t they speak MY language? Then when AMA and my cousins lived in New Zealand, I remember AMA studying out of a book, trying to learn English. The woman was 74 trying to learn a new language so she could communicate better with her grandkids. She already spoke three other languages! Even at ten, I was incredibly touched by this gesture. I suppose even more so than being considerate, this is another lesson of love. On that same trip to New Zealand, we were sharing her bed and I remember one morning waking up to AMA sitting at the top of the bed sleeping. I asked her why she was sleeping like that and not laying down in bed. She said that she went to the bathroom and when she came back I had taken over the entire bed. If it were me, I would’ve moved me over to make some room. But not AMA. AMA didn’t want to wake me, so she just squeezed herself into a small corner of the bed.
How You Treat Others Matters
The outpouring of love from all our extended family has shown me just how loved and respected these two women are. It’s shown me that I need to do better. I need to live up to the type of women they were, and I know I am always trying to be a better person each day; but I now have a clearer picture and understanding of what that actually means, and it all starts with how I treat others.
Don’t Hold Grudges
To this day, there are Americans who hate the Japanese because of WWII, like there are British and French people who hate the Germans for WWII. Both Nai Nai and Ama could’ve hated people, but they never did. They never held grudges. Nai Nai eventually left Taiwan and built a home for her whole family in the U.S. She met my grandfather because she was learning English hoping to work for the U.S. State Department. Based on the number of bombs the U.S. dropped on Taiwan, the horror she witnessed and struggles she and her family faced because of it, she could’ve hated the U.S. She could have also hated Japan, but she hated no one. She just enjoyed life, wherever she was, and especially if she was with her family. I never talked to AMA much about her experience during WWII but I feel she was the same way. It’s because of them, that I learned how foolish it is to hate and hold grudges. Imagine how much life they would’ve missed out on if they held on to grudges and hated anyone. Instead, they both lived an amazing life and raised tight knit families full of love.
Live Life to the Fullest
Nai Nai, especially, is the vision of a life well-lived. She traveled the world, sang lots of karaoke, played lots of mahjong, took care of her grandbabies, played with her great-grandson, and simply enjoyed life. She did everything, unless it involved heights because she was not a fan of heights. Same with AMA. AMA lived a full life—94 years, leaving a legacy full of love and vigor.
Family is Everything
I told my husband recently, that the best way to love me is to love my family. And I don’t mean he needs to love everything they say and do, but to show them the respect and appreciation they deserve is what matters most to me. As I take a step back and take an outside view of both sides of my family in this moment, I know that to be blessed with the kind of love we have and give each other in our family is the greatest gift of all. When you’re part of this family, you’re really part of this family, extended family and all. Someone is always there for you. How many people can say they’re close with their third cousins? Arguments and disagreements aside, we will all fight to the death for one another. My husband being an only child, and coming from a small family, and a different culture, is only beginning to understand this, and I think he’s starting to see that we’re not just a bunch of loud crazy Chinese people, but we’re loud, crazy, and overflowing with love.
Don’t Spread Your Germs
I think we can all appreciate this one as we try to survive this pandemic. I recently thought of all the little Asian women who wear masks out, and people would make fun of them, so anytime I saw an Asian lady with a mask on, I felt embarrassed even if I didn’t know them because it was like, “Why you Asian ladies gotta make us all look weird.” Since this pandemic I’ve vowed to never be embarrassed of another little old Asian lady in a mask, because they’ve been right all along. I don’t recall seeing Nai Nai wear masks when she was sick, but that’s because she usually just stayed away from us whenever she was ill. I used to think she was just a germaphobe, which she kind of was, and she’d stay away from us if we were sick, but I now see that she was also being respectful. Trying to prevent spreading your germs is simply a kind and respectful thing to do.
The Importance of Cleanliness
On a similar note, Nai Nai also taught me the importance of cleanliness, and again it took me this pandemic to realize that my family’s borderline OCD cleaning behaviors is to our benefit. 1) We already know how to survive a pandemic. My mom purchased a Costco sized bottle of hand sanitizer way before anyone in the States was concerned about COVID. 2) Regularly keeping things clean makes bigger clean up jobs easier. 3) Keeping your home and belongings clean, and taking care of them preserves their longevity. 4) You’re always ready for unexpected guests to drop by.
I remember Nai Nai even keeping separate house slippers for the kitchen and each bathroom, and she'd get mad at me if I wore my regular house slippers into the kitchen or bathroom. She felt like the kitchen and bathrooms were dirtier and you didn't want to bring those germs into the other parts of the house. It may seem OCD to some people, but I understood her logic.
AMA always lived with one of my uncles or aunt, so I don't remember how she minded the house. However, based on my mom's OCD cleaning behaviors, my guess is AMA had strict rules about cleanliness, too.
The level of cleanliness and order in my family is not unique to one or two people—it’s EVERYONE, so it’s obviously something taught and valued.
It's Never Too Late
My mom became Catholic when she married my dad. Her sister went to Catholic school, so I believe she became Catholic at a younger age. While my mom and her siblings weren’t raised Catholic, they did grow up Christian and going to church. AMA has been a woman of faith for a long time, but last year on her 94th birthday, she became Catholic. Myself being one of the few practicing Catholics in the family still, I was moved and inspired. She showed us that when something is important to you, it’s never too late.
What It Means to Respect Your Elders
The last lesson, and I mean literally the last because it’s something I only realized after both of their passings, is what it means to respect your elders. Many are familiar that this is an important Chinese value. And Nai Nai even scolded me several times when she was the victim of my teenage angst. Thankfully, AMA never witnessed my ugliness. Nevertheless, I never really thought about the significance of this value and what it really means. In my American head, I think yes, respect your elders, but you still have to stand your ground when appropriate. What I now realize as we mourn our loss and honor these women, is that respecting your elders is not just a sign of respect, but also love. We have certain traditions that some may view as antiquated, like bowing to our elders on certain occasions—and our family is super traditional in that we always do three bows at a time, never just one. To some people this may look like a gesture of subordination, but it’s really a sign of the utmost respect and love.
My grandmothers are incredible women who are the glue of each side of my family. Nai Nai was fierce. You did not want to mess with Margaret Chang. AMA was beyond resilient. I pray the strength of these women flows through me, and that I can live as they did—full of love, courage, and faith. It's still difficult for me to believe that I won't be able to hug and kiss them again, it just feels sort of surreal. However, they still feel very present in our lives, and I know that they will continue to be present in our lives. I am forever grateful that I got to know the love of two grandmothers, because that bond between grandma and grandchild is a special one.